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Baiting a Brookie: The Wildflowers of Western North Carolina’s Mountain Streams

Ancient history – The brook trout is a genetic descendant of the Arctic char that once swam in the Gulf of Mexico.

The brook trout is Savelinus fontinalis. Say the name softly. Feel their poetry. These are the spring trout (fontinalis), the wildflowers of our high Blue Ridge streams. Although they are indeed spring creatures and members of the salmonid family, brook trout are not trout. They belong to the genus Char—Savelinus. Other trout found in the mountains of western North Carolina belong to two other families: Salmo trutta, brown trout native to Eurasia, and Oncorhynchus mykiss, rainbow trout native to the western United States. United.

Arctic char tend to have very dark backs and sides dotted with reds, yellows, and blues. When they spawn in the fall, their bellies turn as orange as maple leaves in the fall. Trout are lighter in color, with more silvery rainbows and tawny browns like burnished gold. The coloration of all three is more vivid on wild fish raised in their streams than on those raised in hatcheries and released for us to catch.

(Left) keep track – Trout biologists use electroshock, which does not harm fish, to determine brook trout populations; (Right) travel in – To reach the high streams of the Blue Ridge, Arctic char were driven by global warming during the ice ages.


I have to admit, I didn’t always pay much attention to brookies – the big browns lunching on the hoppers in the watercress beds of Spring Creek held my passion. But when I drew the short straw and became president of the Virginia Council of Trout Unlimited around 2006, TU national was leading “Back the Brookie” – a campaign to restore brook trout in southern Appalachia.

It turns out that there are two strains of brook trout, northern and southern, originating in Appalachia. The dividing line between the natural range of the two strains is roughly the New River in Virginia, according to pioneering research by Eric Hallerman, a professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech.

Ever since I first picked up a rod and cast Mepps, Rooster Tails and Panther Martins for trout, I’ve known browns and rainbows have been stocked in southern Appalachia for over a thousand years. a century. But how did the brookies get here? No one seemed to be able to tell me.

However, recent genetic research by Hallerman; Jake Rash, cold-water fisheries coordinator for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission; Matt Kulp, supervising fisheries biologist for Great Smoky Mountains National Park; and a number of other ichthyologists prove that brook trout are descended from arctic char.

According to the trio, during the geological epoch known as the Pleistocene, from 2.5 million years ago to about 12,000 years ago, ice sheets flowed and ebbed across North America. at least eight times. At the height of each advance, the Gulf of Mexico was as cold as today’s Arctic Ocean and supported populations of Arctic char.

As each pulse of global warming between periods of glacial advance warmed the Gulf, Arctic char were forced to migrate farther and farther up the coastal rivers in search of cooler waters. To reach the mouths of our mountain streams, char have traveled up the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, and French Broad and Little Tennessee and into their tributaries that rise on the slopes of the Smokies. Think about this trip – about 2,000 miles. Brookies have resided in the Blue Ridge for approximately 1.6 million years. Along with perhaps the salamanders, they are perhaps the oldest vertebrate animal species in the mountains.

Having made this trip, the brook trout has proven to be surprisingly resilient. Sea brookies spend most of the year in the ocean, but swim up freshwater streams to spawn like Atlantic salmon. Upper Midwestern coasters thrive in the Great Lakes after spawning in tributaries.

(Left) Hung – Simons Welter, guide for Brookings Anglers in Cashiers, will tell you that WNC’s tallest mountains are veined with tiny unnamed streams favored by native brook trout; (Right) John Ross – The author chooses a fly that is sure to catch brook trout.


Brookies are found in the coldest, purest mountain streams, usually above 3,000 feet in elevation. Unlike the more popular trout streams that most of us are familiar with, brookies inhabit narrow runs, not much wider than 50 feet. They favor whirlpools behind rocks, deep pools at the base of tall, tiny waterfalls, and streams where a stream undermines the shore.

Anglers most often think that brookies are only found in high mountain streams. Before modern agriculture on an industrial scale, they also populated spring streams in limestone valleys. Not anymore. Spring floods buried their spawning grounds in silt from freshly plowed and disced fields. The last Spring Creek brookie I know of was caught at Mossy Creek near Harrisonburg, Virginia in 1968.

I was told when I first started brook trout fishing in Virginia that during droughts the brookies would burrow into creek beds waiting for the flow to return. That’s not entirely true, but they will accumulate in the deepest pools underlying bedrock, and as they eat what little they can, their metabolism probably slows down, allowing them to resist to long periods of drought.

During floods, they and other fish move into the calm waters along the edge or hide behind rocks waiting for the stream to return to normal. Even so, many will be kicked out of the creek and it may take several seasons for them to return.

Southern strain brookies were first identified in the mid-1960s. Since then, a team led by Steve Moore (now retired), Kulp, and Jim Hebera of the Tennessee Department of Environmental Resources has restored the southern Appalachian brook trout in suitable habitats in eastern Tennessee and the mountains of western North Carolina.

The team has been ably assisted by a number of conservation groups, particularly the Pisgah and Land of Sky chapters of Trout Unlimited in North Carolina and the Little River chapter in eastern Tennessee. Combined, the efforts of state and federal biologists and UT volunteers have restored more than 100 miles of habitat for southern Appalachian brook trout.

The brook trout is an indicator species, particularly threatened by the increase in the acidity of waterways manifested by the decrease in pH. Acid rain, primarily from steam power plant emissions, had largely decimated brook trout populations from Maine to Georgia by the 1980s. Reductions in steam power plant emissions since the 1990s, consistent with amendments to the Clean Air Act, enabled the restoration of brookies in Appalachia.

Mind-blowing scales – The brook trout is the wild flower of our mountain streams. Notice their unique flecks of blues, yellows and oranges.


No matter where you live in western North Carolina, excellent native speckled trout fishing is just a few hours away. Fish the upper reaches of the French Broad River, especially Courthouse Creek above Rosman. Yellowstone Prong of the Pigeon’s East Fork below Graveyard Fields Falls along Blue Ridge Parkway is also excellent. Don’t overlook the headwaters of Cataloochee Creek.

These are small waters and fly fishing for brookies is easy. Long casts are not necessary. Ask yourself this: if I were a trout, where would I wait for the current to bring me food? Flip your fly into the current so a whirlpool swirls it around in calm water behind a rock where a trout is likely to hide.

Which fly to use? Stop by a fly fishing shop – there are several, too many to name here, and all know the local waters – and ask. Or go online and request the “Hatch Chart” for the creek you’d like to fish. Careful anglers do not fish brook trout in the fall when they are spawning.

A farewell thought to ponder. Given that each pulse of global warming pushes brook trout further and further on their way from the Gulf of Mexico to our highest mountain streams, as the climate continues to warm, how far can they go in upstream ?

cast offWhat you need to know to fish for brook trout

  • Find the right spot: Fishing spots are limited and often found on private property. Be sure to check the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission’s online trout location map first and watch for no trespassing signs.
  • Check the regulations: There are six different classes of public waters for mountain trout and each has restrictions on what type of bait you can use, when you can fish, and how many fish you are allowed. to catch. On public mountain trout waters, look for a colored sign to determine what water class you are in.
  • Get Permits: For short-term visitors or anglers, the NCWRC offers low-cost ten-day permits. More avid anglers can purchase annual permits or lifetime licenses. Brook Trout is located on the west side of the state, so no matter how long your excursion is, be sure to purchase an inland fishing license.
  • Grab your gear: In public mountain trout waters, you can only use a hook and line, so a rod is your best bet for catching brook trout. Depending on the municipality and classification of your fishing water body, bring natural bait, an artificial lure or an artificial fly. And pay particular attention to the type of hook allowed, some public waters only allowing the use of hooks with a point.

To obtain permits, view trout locations, and learn more about fishing in North Carolina, visit