Tale of two trout
Nature's Notebook:Tim Abbott
“The presence of brook trout is as reliable an indicator of the passage of the glaciers as score lines on exposed rock,” writes George Black in “The Trout Pool Paradox.” The fish is also an excellent indicator of water quality. According to a recent Trout Unlimited study, our corner of Northwest Connecticut has the best remaining brook trout watersheds in the entire Highlands Region between Massachusetts and Maryland.
It wasn’t always this way, nor is this as good as it gets. Wild reproducing brook trout are today largely confined to cool ravines and headwaters streams where the water temperature and invertebrate life meet their special requirements. The brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) is actually a species of arctic char that once swam in our glacial lakes, remaining in our colder streams when the ice receded.
My friend Mark Brown, an avid angler, tells me that we really have no native brookies left in Connecticut, as the indigenous strain has been thoroughly diluted by stocked fish. Not only that, but the widespread clearing of the landscape in the 19th century, accompanied by heavy fishing and the introduction of non-native trout species, further impacted genetic diversity of brook trout thought most of its range. On opening day in 1877, one fisherman in Salisbury reportedly caught 150 brook trout in Moore Brook: none of them larger than half a pound.
By the early 20th century, a conservation movement spearheaded by dedicated sportsmen was hard at work in an effort to restore some of America’s vanishing wildlife — including the now ubiquitous white tailed deer — and to introduce other game species that they hoped would naturalize. Theodore Roosevelt is the one who is best remembered, but another national conservation leader was Connecticut’s Sen. Frederick C. Walcott, who along with Starling W. Childs established the Great Mountain Forest in Norfolk and Falls Village.
Sen. Walcott was a close friend and ally of Herbert Hoover, who deserves to be remembered as one of our great fishing presidents as well as the fellow who saw the bottom drop out of the market on his watch. In May 1940, the two men went angling at George Quinion’s fishing camp on Schenob Brook, just across the state line in Massachusetts, where they released several trout to help establish the fishery. Quinion noted approvingly that President Hoover was careful to handle the fish with wet hands to preserve their protective coating, and used a barbless hook for his flies.
Brookies are one of five kinds of trout that are stocked today in the waters of the Nutmeg State. Brown trout (Salmo trutta) are so well established in Connecticut that there are a number of streams with naturally reproducing wild populations. They were first introduced to America from Germany and Scotland and have better tolerance for warmer water than brook trout. In addition to insects they will eat other small fish, frogs and even mice.
“They are very carnivorous,” said Brown, who despite sharing his name with the trout is not a big fan. “They even cannibalize their young. Crude fish.”
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Not every angler feels the way my friend does, so Connecticut has Trout Management Areas to meet a range of interests, and brown trout are a popular favorite. Some of these trout can grow to trophy size. The state record lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) — a 29-pound 13-ounce behemoth — was caught from Lakeville’s Lake Wononscopomuc; and the biggest brown (16-pound 14-ounce) was landed at Washining Lake in the Taconic section of Salisbury. It is no stretch to say that the fishing opportunities these lakes afforded were a primary reason for the growth of these communities as vacation destinations in the age before air conditioning, and they continue to draw people here today.
The wild brook trout are much smaller than their captive-bred and lake-dwelling cousins, but those who seek them out in the shade of the hemlocks, where the water plunges from rock cleft to pool, experience a delicious solitude. There in the high-sided shadows, the forest has a primeval quality, and indeed there are still a few old-growth remnants tucked away in the darkest corners that have never felt an ax.
Just as these places provided refuge for brook trout following the last ice age, they are essential for the survival of this species during the current warming period. One of the most poetically appropriate names for this fish is “hemlock trout.” With the introduced Hemlock woolly adelgid poised to decimate our hemlock ravines, though, one has to wonder whether the forest that will replace these trees will have the characteristics that maintain brook trout habitat.
Perhaps the browns will completely replace the brookies.
Or perhaps the next generation of conservationists will be forced to consider, as did Roosevelt, Walcott and Hoover for fish and game before them, whether there is a non-native species that could be introduced to fill the hemlock void.
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The big bight: Last night on the way home from a board meeting, I noted that the light rain and temperatures were just within the range required to kick of the first wave of migrating amphibians.
By the time I pulled into North Canaan I started to see wood frogs by the roadway, so I rousted my children from bed, stuffed pajamas into boots and jackets and rounded up three functional flashlights.
We headed over to a bend in Route 41 near Dutcher’s Bridge, where judging by the carnage I have observed there in past years there is a major migration corridor. There were a few frogs there, nothing spectacular, but once over in Salisbury I saw numerous frogs and heard the first chorus of spring peepers coming from a nearby oxbow of the Housatonic.
I checked one of my favorite spots for salamanders on Taconic Road but saw only a frog or two. However, the big salamander crossings in Sheffield on Route 41 showed evidence that the yellow spotted salamanders were beginning to move.
We escorted a handful across the highway between Sage’s Ravine and Berkshire School Road, but it was on this latter route, running east/west across Sheffield’s extensive seepage wetlands, that we observed them moving in significant numbers. We found many more living than dead, perhaps 40 in all, which is not as many as we find in really big nights.
The temperature was 42, and perhaps more began to move later in the night for I found the thermometer was nearly 50 when I awoke this morning.
Tim Abbott is program director of Housatonic Valley Association’s Litchfield Hills Greenprint. His blog is at greensleeves.typepad.com.
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