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WV Focus on Restoring Brook Trout Habitat

leah kirk

By Chris Lawrence, Metro News Morning News

ELKINS, W.Va. — The makeup of West Virginia’s flora and fauna is a patchwork of unmatched beauty, but among all of the natural wonders West Virginians hold in high esteem, few can match the beauty of a native West Virginia brook trout.

Pursuing those trophies is one of the pastimes of many West Virginia anglers and looking for them can be a bit of a challenge.   However, there are probably more streams which hold the native brook than you might imagine.

The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources continues to look for ways to restore and enhance native brook trout habitat. Since the turn of the 20th century the high mountain streams where they once thrived have taken hard hits and the brook trout has taken a similar hit.  But today, those which have survived are starting to turn around.   Their numbers are fragile in some ways, but DNR cold water biologist Dave Thorne warns not to underestimate the brookie.

“In some ways, they’re pretty tough,” Thorne explained. “If they were going to go away, they’ve had plenty of opportunities with all of the impacts we’ve put on them over the last 100 or so years, but they’ve rebounded well.”

Thorn said with a refocus on management of brook trout fisheries, the species is doing the best it has since the early 20th century.  One place the state has especially concentrated on is Upper Shavers Fork in the highest reaches of the West Virginia mountains.

“There’s a lot of evidence of the historic fishery there.  There were some big brook trout and a lot of them. Pictures from the Cheat Mountain Club show evidence of that,” Thorne said. “We thought if we put enough effort and thought into it we could try to reclaim some of that fishery.”

The stocking above Beaver Creek was stopped as part of the effort.  A habitat enhancement project from several years ago is starting to show a payoff as the native brook trout is returning to the feeder streams to spawn and becoming more abundant in the main stem of the river.

“Main stem Shavers Fork has a lot more potential to grow bigger fish,” he said. “It’s a bigger system and there’s more food, so if we can get them to return there we think we can grow bigger fish.”

Speaking on Northside Automotive West Virginia Outdoors, Thorne indicated occasionally the brook trout will grow into the 11 to 13 inch range in some of the highest mountain streams.  Those areas are remote, but still accessible for those willing to walk.

The habitat work included installing stream structure which funneled water from the current toward the middle of the stream using logs or rock piles.  Other work included restoring culverts which had washed out and prevented any upstream migration for spawning in the tributaries.  The work is aimed at lowering the average water temperature after the river widened over the course of several decades and radiant heat from the sun made parts of the waterway unsuitable for the temperature dependent fish.

“There are no special regulations on Upper Shavers although some people have tried to convince us there should be.  I don’t’ think we need them,” said Thorne. “They’re tough to catch and they still haven’t rebounded in numbers we’d like to see.  We hope people will exercise voluntary catch and release when they’re up there.”

Most of those who pursue the native brook trout tend to pursue them with a fly rod. Thorn agrees it’s his favorite way, particularly as the annual hatches come out on the water, changing the dynamic week to week in the spring and summer.

“Probably the most looked forward to hatch on Shavers is green drake,” he said. “It has a lot of backwater habitat and pools with sediment and silt where the green drakes like to burrow and grow big. When they hatch out up there it can be pretty spectacular.”

Biologists hope the fishing will become equally spectacular year round as more attention is focused on restoring the former native brook trout streams in West Virginia.