The PA State Fish – The Brook Trout

The Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) is the state fish of Pennsylvania. It was designated as such by the Legislature in 1970. The vote was 182-9. Similar legislation had been passed by the House four years prior but died in the Senate. The chief sponsor of the measure was Rep. William F. Renwick, (D-Elk County). While it sounds rather innocuous to designate a state fish it was actually a partisan debate that pitted warmwater advocates who wanted the Smallmouth Bass (Micropterus dolomieu) as the state fish against coldwater advocates who wanted the Brook Trout.

The Brook Trout is Pennsylvania’s only native salmonid that swims in its streams. It is a member of the family of fish that contains trout and salmon. But the Brook Trout is not a trout at all. It is a char, characterized by light spots on a dark background and is more closely related to Lake Trout (Salvelinus namaycush) and Artic Char (Salvelinus alpinus) than it is to the Brown Trout (Salmo trutta) or Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) that have been widely stocked and, in many cases naturalized in streams across Pennsylvania. The Brook Trout is a popular fish being the state fish of Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia as well as the Keystone State. In Dr. Robert Behnke’s authoritative book, Trout and Salmon of North America, he notes the distribution of the fish.

“[The range of the Brook Trout] covers much of northeastern North America. Northward, brook trout are native to the Atlantic drainages of Newfoundland, Labrador and Quebec, and to tributaries of James Bay and Ungava Bay….

Southward, brook trout are native to the Great Lakes basin and in headwater tributaries of the Mississippi River of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and northeastern Iowa. In the northeastern United States brook trout are native to all Atlantic coastal drainages southward to Virginia and in parts of the Ohio River System of the Mississippi basin. In the southern Appalachian Mountains brook trout are native to higher-elevation streams draining both to the Atlantic Ocean and to the Mississippi (headwaters of the Tennessee River drainage). The southernmost natural distribution of brook trout (and of any species of the genus Salevelinus) is the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River in northern Georgia.”

Behnke further points out one of the mysteries surrounding the Brook Trout. While it is native to the uppermost part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula it did not occur throughout the rest of lower Michigan. Whileit is found in Lake Superior it is not native to any of the other Great Lakes. Brook Trout found in the tributaries of Lake Superior are known as Coasters. They spawn in the flowing water and spend much of their lives swimming and feeding in the lake. Migratorial Brook Trout are also found on Long Island where they will spawn in freshwater and spend a considerable portion of their lives in saltwater. Those particular fish are known as Salters. Sea run Brook Trout in Canada’s Maritime provinces are legendary.

Original acrylic by Dave Weaver.

Brook Trout are amenable to aquaculture and as a result they have been bred in hatcheries across America and stocked indiscriminately. Where they have been stocked in the American West they are often considered an invasive species. This led to a comical incident a number of years ago at the Rivers Conservation & Fly Fishing Youth Camp. The aforementioned Dr. Behnke was the keynote speaker to the group of teenagers assembled for the camp. Bob lived in Colorado Springs and would come to the camp to talk about fish and in particularly trout. A number of the staff and instructors would sit in the back of the room to listen to Bob’s presentation. After all, when you have an opportunity to listen to the world’s foremost expert on trout, you do.  One particular afternoon I was sitting next to the presenter who was to speak that evening on TU’s Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture. During the Q & A session one of the students asked Bob if he ever ate the fish he caught. Bob replied that two or three times a year he would go to a lake near where he lived and catch “a mess of brook trout” which he would take home and have a fish fry. When he said that I thought I would have to do CPR on the instructor sitting next to me. Fortunately, he revived somewhat when Bob explained that the Brook Trout had no business in the lakes and streams of the west and they were out-competing and driving out native species such as Cutthroats and Rainbows. In the West they are considered an invasive species and a nuisance.

An angler looks for Brook Trout in Kettle Creek in the late 1940s

The Brook Trout has long been associated with Pennsylvania trout fishing. Going back through some early sporting literature one can find reference to anglers catching sacks and barrels of fish. This happened everywhere from the legendary limestone streams of southcentral Pennsylvania to the large freestone streams of northern Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania state fish is an aggressive fish and will readily rise to a dry fly.

Unfortunately for the fish, they live in some of the most fragile ecosystems – particularly the poorly buffered freestone streams – where timber, coal and petroleum are also found. The optimum temperature for members of the genus Salvelinus is 50o to 57o F, though as Behnke notes “Brook trout are the most tolerant of warm temperatures; in this regard they are more comparable to rainbow trout and brown trout than to other char.”

As the industrialization of Pennsylvania took place mountainsides were cleared of trees. The hemlocks (State tree of Pennsylvania) that provided shade to the streams where the fish lived were also prized for their bark for the tanning industry. As the hemlocks were cut the shade was lost and the streams began to warm. To add insult to injury, massive log drives down some relatively small streams destroyed habitat. Think of it this way: You are sitting in your living room quite comfortable in the summer when your electricity goes out. Now you are sweltering in the heat of summer. You get through the lethargy of summer and have just about begun to recover by the following spring when a bulldozer comes through the middle of your living room.  The choice is pretty simple; you have to leave or die.

After the timber was removed sediment by the thousands of tons was washed into the streams. Food in the form of insects that the Brook Trout depended on was smothered. Then fires burned unchecked across the mountains. Huge volumes of ash on steep-sided mountains washed into the streams not only adding to the sediment load but also altering the water chemistry, increasing pH and phosphorus levels. Trout populations in many watersheds were fragmented, leaving the fish in only the places where habitat remained marginal. It is unknown but it is widely believed that many populations were extirpated.

But small populations of Brook Trout survived, and as soon as conditions in the stream allowed, they returned. Perhaps not in the numbers they previously existed but they did return.

So where does the Brook Trout stand – or rather swim – today? According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) the are about 86,473 miles of streams. Of that total number of streams 64% are capable of having habitat that will contain trout in that they are classified as Cold Water Fishes, High Quality Coldwater Fishes, Exceptional Value, and High Quality Trout Stocking.

According to Bob Schott, a longtime biologist with DEP who is now retired,

“Streams can be designated as HQ based on chemistry or biology.  If biology it can either be based on macroinvertebrate scores or Class A designation.  HQ streams do not have to hold a Class A trout fishery.  EV streams have to meet the criteria for HQ plus meet one of the other requirements listed in Chapter 93.4b.

Also, back in the early 70s many streams were designated HQ because the were in “Conservation” areas.  I believe it had to do with watersheds that were public water supplies.

Class A streams should be upgraded to HQ-CWF once the PFBC submits them to DEP.  There is a backlog and I have been pushing for a number of years to get the process moving.”

As Schott points out, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PF&BC) has its own system of designating streams and it sometimes doesn’t agree with DEP. The PF&BC have put together a GIS layer indicating that 15,860 miles of waters of the commonwealth are capable of supporting natural trout reproduction. That’s about 25% of the water DEP says should support trout. Scientists and policy makers don’t always agree.

Acrylic by Dr. Tom Sholseth

To make matters even a bit more confusing to layman, the PF&BC designates streams based on fish biomass. Class A Wild Trout Waters are the highest biomass class given to streams in Pennsylvania by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. They are considered to contain the highest-quality naturally reproducing trout populations in Pennsylvania. Class A Wild Trout Waters receive certain legal protections. For instance, they are typically classified by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection as High-Quality Coldwater Fisheries. Most Class A Wild Trout Waters are subject to standard statewide angling regulations by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

The official definition of Class A Wild Trout Waters is “streams that support a population of naturally produced trout of sufficient size and abundance to support a long-term and rewarding sport fishery“. These streams are considered to be the best angling streams in Pennsylvania.

There are different total biomass criteria for different species and combinations of species, but for brook trout alone, the minimum is 30 kilograms per hectare (27 lb/acre), and for brown trout alone, the minimum is 40 kilograms per hectare (36 lb/acre).

Before we go any further I want to clarify a point. Scientists use the metric system. A Hectare is a metric unit of measurement abbreviated Ha. A hectare is 10,000 square meters and is based on the basic unit “Are” which is 100 square meters. It is pronounced Heck – tare not “Hectoacre” or “Hecktacre.” An acre is an English unit of measurement and an acre is about 0.405 hectare and one hectare contains about 2.47 acres. If you can count to ten the metric system is easy; certainly more so than perches, rods, chains and feet.

The PF&BC has designated to this point 2,423.23 miles of streams as Class A trout water. The largest share 48% (1174 miles) is Class A Brook Trout. An additional 13.2% (369 miles) is designated as either Mixed Brook/Brown Trout, or Mixed Brook/Rainbow Trout.

Pen and Ink by Mark Sussino for Cumberland Valley Trout Unlimited 1995

In addition the PF&BC has designated an additional 415.2 miles as Wilderness Trout Streams. According to the PF&BC, “Wilderness trout stream management is based upon the provision of a wild trout fishing experience in a remote, natural and unspoiled environment where man’s disruptive activities are minimized. Established in 1969, this option was designed to protect and promote native (brook trout) fisheries, the ecological requirements necessary for natural reproduction of trout and wilderness aesthetics. The superior quality of these watersheds is considered an important part of the overall angling experience on wilderness trout streams. Therefore, all stream sections included in this program qualify for the Exceptional Value (EV) special protected water use classification, which represents the highest protection status provided by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).”

Using the Pennsylvania’s interactive mapping system, software such as MapWindows, or you can purchase Mike Gogal’s Stream Map app for your phone to find the best trout fishing experience to suit your needs.

The brook trout is coming back. Thanks to efforts like Trout Unlimited’s Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, local TU chapters doing habitat restoration and watershed groups working to remediate Acid Mine Drainage, seepage from oil and gas wells, and other destructive forces Brook Trout are returning to streams where they have been absent for more than a century. It is important for anglers, foresters and others to keep an eye on our coldwater resources, report any problems you find and keep fire out of the woods.

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