Acrobatic rainbow trout remain immensely popular among W.Va. anglers
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Renowned angler and author Ernest Schwiebert called rainbow trout "the trout on the flying trapeze."
The description is well earned. Of all the major trout species, the rainbow is by far most likely to leap from the water when hooked. Small wonder, then, that anglers love rainbows. And because anglers love rainbows, fisheries officials have distributed the rosy-sided fish just about everywhere they could possibly live.
Thriving rainbow fisheries can be found in Argentina, Peru, the Czech Republic, New Zealand and even South Africa - none of which had them originally. Neither, for that matter, did West Virginia, and yet today rainbows account for 80 percent of the trout grown in the state's seven hatcheries.
Mike Shingleton, the Division of Natural Resources' head of coldwater fisheries, said rainbows have been found in Mountain State waters since the late 19th century.
"The first stockings of rainbows here date back to the 1890s. Those were the work of the old U.S. Fish Commission," he said.
The rainbow trout's native range stretched from the Pacific coast of northern California northward to Alaska and westward across the Bering Sea to Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula.
Fisheries scientists of the late 1800s discovered that rainbows were easier to grow in hatcheries than Eastern brook trout, which required much colder water; and European brown trout, which tended to have disease problems.
So when West Virginia conservation officials opened the state's first trout hatcheries during the 1930s, they focused on raising rainbows.
"Our brood stock came from the old federal Shasta and Erwin hatcheries," Shingleton said. "Today rainbows make up the bulk of the trout we raise."
In a typical year, DNR hatcheries produce about 1.4 million trout. Of those, roughly 1.1 million are rainbows.
"There are practical reasons we raise so many rainbows," Shingleton explained. "They grow faster for the same amount of food you would feed brook or brown trout. Their eggs also have a better hatching success rate than brookies or browns. Fishermen like them because they're not as easy to catch as brook trout, but they're more easily caught than browns."
Despite the extensive stockings, relatively few West Virginia waters harbor wild, reproducing rainbow-trout populations. Before alkaline drainage from abandoned coal mines created ideal conditions in several southern streams, the number of Mountain State waters where rainbows were able to reproduce could be counted on one hand. Now, according to Shingleton, more than 20 streams have spawning populations.
"It's been a recent phenomenon, within the last 10 to 15 years, but rainbows are now reproducing in several McDowell, Wyoming and Logan county streams," he said.
Fisheries scientists used to believe rainbows were close relatives of brown, cutthroat and other dark-spotted trout. DNA research showed, however, that both rainbows and cutthroats are much more closely akin to coho, Chinook and other Pacific salmon species.
The grouping makes sense behaviorally as well as genetically. Like salmon, young rainbows in streams that feed into lakes or oceans tend to run downstream, mature in open water, and then return to their home streams to spawn. Migrating rainbows are called steelhead.
West Virginia has no steelhead fisheries, but good steelhead fishing can be found nearby in the Lake Erie tributaries of western Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio, as well as the Lake Ontario tributaries of western New York.
Mountain State anglers' best bets for rainbows include streams that receive weekly stockings between March and the end of May - the Cranberry River, the Elk River above Webster Springs, the South Branch near Franklin, the North Fork of the South Branch, Shavers Fork and the Williams River.
West Virginia's stocked rainbows average almost 11 inches in length, and hatchery crews almost always toss in a few 3- to 8-pound "brood rainbows" for variety.
In 1963, DNR officials introduced what they called the "Centennial golden trout," and have stocked them ever since. Those "goldens" are actually rainbow trout that lack melanin, the pigment that gives the species its dark spots and overall greenish color.
For some reason, those butter-colored rainbows seem to be more difficult to catch than their natural-colored brethren. Savvy anglers treat goldens as "indicator fish" and cast all around them, knowing that well-camouflaged rainbows probably lurk not far away.
Their reward comes when one of those hidden treasures takes the bait and, feeling the hook, vaults skyward in an aerial display worthy of the nickname "trout on the flying trapeze."
Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or email@example.com.