PETERSBURG - Fifty years ago, West Virginia fisheries officials sprang a surprise on the state's trout fishermen.
In addition to the usual rainbow, brown and brook trout, hatchery crews stocked a fish that anglers had never seen before - a pale yellow trout with a faint pink stripe down its side. To honor the 100th anniversary of West Virginia's statehood, Division of Natural Resources officials dubbed the alien-looking creature the "Centennial golden trout."
The brightly hued fish, as it turned out, had been developed completely within the state's trout-hatchery system, where observant hatchery employees discovered a one-in-a-zillion quirk of nature and transformed it into a trout-fishing sensation.
"Even 50 years later, people consider it a treat to catch a golden trout," said Homer Tinney, manager of the DNR's Petersburg Hatchery, where the unusual strain was discovered and developed. "And to think, it started right here."
The first goldens were stocked in 1963, but their story began early in 1955, when a yellow-mottled juvenile showed up among thousands of rainbows spawned in the fall of 1954.
Vince Evans, Petersburg's manager at the time, took interest in the odd little fish and nicknamed it "Little Camouflage."
Evans transferred to the nearby Spring Run Hatchery later that year. His successor at Petersburg, Chester Mace, moved Little Camouflage to a separate raceway and kept watch over her as she grew.
By the summer of 1956, she had grown to 14 inches. Her yellow mottling had changed into a broad golden band that encircled the middle of her body. Later that year, she produced her first eggs - 900 of them - which hatchery workers fertilized with milt from a regular rainbow male.
The eggs hatched, but none of the fry exhibited any yellow coloration.
Early in 1957, Little Camouflage's offspring and nearly 500,000 other juvenile rainbows were transferred to rearing ponds at Spring Run. Shortly after they arrived, one of the attendants noticed that a few of the fish had started to change color.
Within weeks, roughly 300 of the "rainbows" turned a uniform golden yellow, and as they grew their unusual coloration grew even brighter.
Edward Kinney, the DNR's Fish Division chief at the time, thought it might be a good idea to try to propagate the eye-catching new strain. Mace and Evans selected the best-colored fish for brood stock and spawned them during the fall of 1958.
The first goldens ran smaller than their rainbow counterparts, but careful breeding remedied that problem. By 1963, DNR officials deemed the strain ready to be stocked in state waters.
"They determined that they would stock one golden for every 10 rainbows, and we've maintained that ratio ever since," Tinney said. "We tend to stock them in lakes and larger streams because their color makes them more susceptible to predators."
Centennial goldens quickly drew the attention of scientists, who sought to determine what caused the strain's unusual coloration. Studies showed that despite its name, West Virginia's version of the golden trout is essentially unrelated to the "true" golden trout found in the high-altitude streams of California's Sierra Nevada Mountains.
West Virginia's version turned out to be, at its core, a rainbow trout - a rainbow trout of a different color, for sure, but genetically identical to the green-backed, black-spotted, red-striped rainbows found in most of the Mountain State's stocked-trout waters.
"Basically, the golden is a rainbow without any black pigment," Tinney said.