How logging, fish stocking, acid rain, and other man-made calamities nearly wiped out an Adirondack icon: the wild brookie.
By George Earl
In early May, vernal patches of birch stood out among the darker evergreens lining the remote kettle-hole pond. As we put our canoe into the icy water, a welcome breeze dispersed the cloud of black flies that had tormented us during a long carry. I slowly paddled along the steepest bank while Sam and Dave took turns casting a floating line toward shore.
The tranquility of this northern scene was soon interrupted by the staccato zing of Sam’s reel as a fish inhaled his fly and ran for deep water. Sam quickly set the hook, and I could see by the bend in the rod that it was a heavy fish. After a long struggle, he played a brook trout into the boat.
The vigor of the brookie was almost as startling as its dazzling array of speckles: blue halos with red centers, suspended in the bright orange and silver along its sides. This was more than just a pretty fish: it was a heritage-strain brook trout—a descendant of the original fish that colonized the Adirondacks after the last ice age.
The pond we visited (which we’ll leave unnamed to protect its fishery) lies in one of the wildest regions of the Park, the 107,230-acre Five Ponds Wilderness. It’s five miles from the nearest dirt road and thirty miles from the nearest town. To get there, we had to bushwhack the final mile, with the aid of a map and compass and plenty of bug dope. But as avid anglers, we found the reward well worth the hardship, for we learned firsthand what it must have been like to fish an Adirondack pond in its pristine state.
Fishermen didn’t always have to travel so far to catch native trout like this. Before the region’s rise in logging, industry, and tourism in the mid-1800s, wild brookies were so ubiquitous that they became an Adirondack icon. The historical record suggests they existed in nearly every Adirondack pond and stream. Many of these waters harbored unique varieties of trout. There probably were dozens of distinct strains of brookies. Today, only seven strains remain, and they inhabit fewer than forty lakes in the Park.
“The loss of brook trout is staggering when compared to their historical lake and pond distribution,” said Nat Gillespie, a fisheries scientist for Trout Unlimited. “Wild, self-reproducing brook trout have been extirpated or have severely declined from 95 percent of the lake and pond habitat in the Adirondacks.”
Although the Park boasts vast water resources—about 225,000 acres of lakes and ponds and six thousand miles of rivers and streams—the region originally had only three sport fish in any abundance: the brook trout, lake trout, and round whitefish, all coldwater specialists. But the brook trout was by far the most widespread. The brookie, salvelinus fontinalis, is not a true trout (which include non-natives such as salmon, rainbow trout, and brown trout). Rather, both it and lake trout are char, the species in the salmonidae family with the highest cold-water tolerance. These char are happiest in temperatures between thirty-five and fifty-five degrees.
The brook trout’s preference for cold and its prowess in fast water allowed it to pioneer the region’s swollen lakes and rivers soon after the ice age, perhaps even as glaciers were still retreating. As water levels dropped, waterfalls and steep chasms emerged and many transient lakes and rivers simply disappeared. Consequently, these distinctive speckled char were able to establish themselves in waters sealed off from other fish, making the Adirondacks a biological island inhabited by remnant boreal species. For early visitors, it was a fisherman’s paradise.
In the 1850s, the artist William J. Stillman wrote of one of his many sojourns on Upper Saranac Lake: “I passed the whole day in the open … and my rod and fly-book provided in a large degree the food of the household, for trout swarmed there. I caught, in an hour, as large a string as I could carry a mile.”
Stillman’s fishing expeditions were interrupted by the Civil War, and when he returned a generation later he complained that the woods were scarred by logging and fire and that “wretched dolts” had ruined the brook-trout fishing by introducing non-native fish. Things have got much worse since.
What we now call the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest (encompassing seventy-nine thousand acres) once abounded in brook trout. Scientists estimate that at the time of Stillman’s early visits, the water bodies with brookies accounted for 94 percent of the region’s water acreage. Today that’s down to 3 percent.
The destruction of brook-trout habitat began in earnest in the mid-nineteenth century as demand for Adirondack timber increased. The clearing of riparian forests stripped rivers of their shade and of stormwater buffers, leading to rising water temperatures and silting. Log drives clogged rivers with timber, while tanneries and paper mills created pollution.
The rise in commercial forestry coincided with another growing industry: tourism. Railroads had opened the Park to hordes of sportsmen. “The streams and lakes were overwhelmed with sport and commercial fishermen,” biologist Carl George writes in The Fishes of New York. “The result was the decline of fish populations in turn engendering a nearly maniacal hatchery and stocking program.”
The state was a pioneer in fish farming. Seth Green opened the country’s first fish hatchery in Caledonia, south of Rochester, and is considered the father of aquaculture. As an employee of the state’s Fisheries Commission, he also was the first to introduce bass to the Adirondacks. By the turn of the twentieth century, the state was stocking millions of bass, perch, and walleye in the Park every year. The spread of these aggressive warm-water fish was responsible for destroying the majority of the Park’s native brook-trout fisheries.
The state’s early hatchery program also hurt native trout through the development of the “domestic strain” brook trout. Generations of captive breeding all but stripped these fish of their brilliant coloration and vigor—the essence of what makes brook trout so alluring. For much of the twentieth-century, these domestic trout were stocked far and wide without regard to wild populations. Hybridization between domestic and wild fish altered or extinguished the bloodline of an untold number of ancient strains. The heritage trout that survive have never been exposed to hatchery trout.
DEC’s Bureau of Fisheries continues to stock millions of non-native fish in the Park every year. Trout Unlimited’s Gillespie thinks the agency should reexamine this policy and base its stocking program on science, not on traditional practices. “The protection and enhancement of native fisheries needs to be given stronger consideration,” he said.
Richard Preall, a DEC aquatic biologist, said the department continues to stock non-native fish—including hatchery-bred brookies—but only in waters that no longer support heritage brook trout. “Because native trout have come back in many streams, due to reforestation, stocking has been reevaluated and discontinued in many streams,” he said in an email. “The department continues to evaluate [its stocking program] as wild trout numbers come back.”
Why stock non-native fish at all? Preall argues that stocking is vital to anglers.
“The majority of fishermen believe this is what DEC should be doing,” he said. “They want to be able to take their kids, go to Salmon River in Malone, and have a fairly easy time catching some nice trout. If we stop doing that, we rapidly put ourselves out of business.”
Nick Karas, the author of Brook Trout, said DEC is trying to serve two masters: anglers who want to catch lots of fish, preferably big ones, and those who prefer to catch wild fish. He said DEC could reclaim some ponds and streams for heritage brookies by simply ceasing to stock them with hatchery-bred trout, which don’t reproduce well in the wild. “There won’t be any fish for the anglers to catch, and they’re going to bitch, but eventually they can be restocked with heritage strains. It might take ten years,” said Karas, who is a fish biologist.
Unfortunately, unauthorized introductions of non-native fish continue to plague brook-trout fisheries. “Invasive fish are being put into the very best brook-trout waters by what I call ‘amateur biologists’ who don’t understand the implications of what they’re doing,” Preall said.
One of the many recent examples he cited occurred at Little Tupper Lake. In 1997, the Whitney family sold the lake and surrounding land to the state. At 2,300 acres, Little Tupper was the largest lake in the eastern United States with its original strain of trout. The family had protected this unique population for a century. When the state acquired the lake, it forbade the use of bait fish and allowed only catch-and-release fishing. The regulations didn’t work: bass were soon discovered in the lake. Preall believes that a fisherman illegally introduced the bass out of contempt for the state’s restrictive policies. Today, the aggressive warm-water fish are crowding out the heritage trout. The good news is that the Little Tupper strain is alive and well elsewhere.
Acid deposition, which peaked in the 1970s, proved to be the last straw for some heritage trout. As recently as this past decade, the Adirondacks probably lost a unique strain in Stink Lake, an acidified lake deep in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness. DEC caught no trout—or any fish—in recent years despite numerous trap-netting efforts.
Pond fished out
A heritage strain in Tamarack Pond in the Five Ponds Wilderness was lost in the 1990s, partly due to overzealous fishermen. Acidity levels had risen so high that the trout could no longer spawn, but the more acid-tolerant adults survived and grew larger. Word got out that the pond harbored huge brookies.
Before DEC could reduce the acidity (by adding powdered limestone), the lake was fished out. “It had just been pounded by fisherman,” Preall said. “We removed about forty boats that had been stashed around the lake.”
Nevertheless, things are starting to look up for native trout. Forests have regrown along rivers (log drives ended over fifty years ago), and the federal Clean Air Act has led to substantial reductions in acid-rain pollution. No longer do fishermen pride themselves on catching the long strings of fish that Stillman and his contemporaries boasted about. Today, such a catch would be frowned upon as unethical as well as illegal. And DEC has begun to shift its focus away from stocking hatchery-bred trout to protecting naturally reproducing populations. These favorable developments have spurred a nascent recovery of heritage brook trout.
The re-establishment of a heritage strain begins with the selection of a suitable pond—one of a manageable size (usually smaller than forty acres) and the right water chemistry. Of the three thousand or so ponds in the Park, Preall believes only a few hundred are good candidates for heritage trout.
Once a pond is chosen, a biocide called rotenone is put into the water to kill the existing, mostly undesirable fish, a practice condemned by some environmentalists. If necessary, a fish dam is constructed on the outlet to prevent competing fish from getting into the pond.
Once a pond is ready, state biologists release heritage-trout fingerlings. Leo Demong, a retired DEC biologist, explained the stocking procedure: Mature fish are captured in wild, often remote lakes during the fall spawning season. The eggs and milt, or semen, are stripped away before the trout are put back in the water. The eggs are fertilized in the field and then transported to the hatchery. When the baby trout reach fingerling size, after about a year, they’re released into their ancestral waters or into reclaimed ponds. This practice preserves the wild character of the trout rather than selecting for traits that favor hatchery conditions.
A success story
The pond we fished last spring is one of the success stories. Just a few years ago, it was proclaimed a “dead lake.” Like other water bodies in the western Adirondacks, the pond was hit hard by acid-rain pollution from coal-burning power plants in the Midwest. By the mid-1980s, its pH had dropped to 4.92—too acidic for fish to survive.
In 1999, a state helicopter dropped roughly eighteen tons of powdered limestone onto the ice. When the ice melted the following spring, the dissolving lime neutralized the water’s pH, and a batch of Little Tupper fingerlings was released. The annual stocking and liming continues today in the hope that eventually natural spawning will sustain the population.
All told, thirty-nine lakes have been reclaimed and stocked with heritage trout, at least ten of which now have self-sustaining populations. At least five of the reclamations, however, were unsuccessful. In two cases, rotenone failed to kill all the invasive fish, which later made a comeback. Anglers illegally introduced bait fish in two other ponds. And a fish-barrier dam failed in another.
Three of the other heritage strains—in Honnedaga Lake, Nate Pond, and another Windfall Pond—are endangered or on the verge of extinction. The fourth strain survives only in tiny Dix Pond. To protect the trout, DEC’s Preall discourages the public from fishing these waters.
Why isn’t DEC protecting these four strains as well? “The populations are so small that for us to take eggs and fingerlings would just about wipe out the remaining population,” Preall said. “You leave them alone and hope they survive.”
There’s also the question of money. “It takes a huge amount of labor and infrastructure to support even three strains,” Demong said. “This was really all that the hatchery system could accommodate.”
In the 1990s, the state reclaimed as many as five Adirondack ponds a year for heritage trout, but last year it did just one and probably won’t do any this year. Preall worries that the state’s fiscal problems will hamper the department’s capacity to reclaim lakes in the future. “We don’t have the staff anymore,” Preall said. “Where we used to have six biologists [in the Ray Brook office], now we only have one—I’m it.”
Nevertheless, both Demong and Preall see a growing interest in the preservation of heritage fisheries. They pointed to the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, a coalition of private and public groups that hopes to restore brook-trout habitat throughout the species’ range—from remnant populations in the Smoky Mountains of Georgia to the lakes and rivers of northern Maine. They hope the venture will increase awareness of native fisheries and fund habitat restoration.
Demong, who retired from DEC a few months ago, now looks forward to spending more time fishing for heritage brook trout. “I can’t fish every lake one season,” he said, “but I’m going to fish as many as I can this spring.”
I quickly offered to carry his canoe.