Press-Republican

April 7, 2013

Brook-trout fishing an Adirondack tradition

Richard Gast, Cornell Ag Connection
Press-Republican

— As the 2013 trout and salmon fishing season gets underway, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has already begun stocking more than 300 lakes and ponds and around 3,000 miles of streams across the state with nearly 2.5 million catchable-size brook, brown and rainbow trout.

Ask any northeastern angler about fishing in the Adirondacks and you are certain to hear about brook trout, with their distinctive markings and remarkable fighting ability. To many an avid fisherperson, they epitomize the heart of the sport-fishing experience.

The clear, cold headwaters of Adirondack rivers and streams and the crisp, clean, oxygen-rich water of our lakes and ponds are home to the largest populations of brook trout in the state. They are also home to some of the largest specimens found in the Northeast.

“Brookies” were once common throughout New York, so common that early surveys ignored bodies of water where they lived, designating only lakes and streams where they did not exist. Over time, however, water-quality degradation, siltation, pollution, habitat destruction and the introduction of competing fish species have all contributed to their demise. But thanks to the management, restoration and maintenance efforts of individuals, scientists, sportspersons and environmentalists, brook-trout fisheries, many of which were previously degraded to a point where restoration was considered unattainable, have been restored.

Nonetheless, many heritage species have been lost to these conditions or to interbreeding with hatchery-raised species. Scientists at Cornell have been working with DEC biologists for years to identify and preserve all of New York’s strains of heritage brook trout. Only a few remain. One of these, the Windfall Brook Trout, developed as a result of rare environmental conditions that occurred approximately 12,000 years ago as the last of the glaciers receded. The species is exclusive to our area.

DEC generally releases more than 150,000 brook trout into small- to moderate-sized streams, lakes and ponds every spring. However, due to an outbreak of a fish bacterial disease called furunculosis at the Rome State Fish Hatchery, 131,000 brown and brook trout had to be destroyed. As a result, DEC anticipates stocking only 224 Adirondack lakes and ponds this year, 102 less than planned. A DEC statement notes that “many of the ponds not stocked will still have holdover fish from previous years’ stockings” and will “continue to provide excellent angling.”

The brook trout, Salvelinus fontinalis, was adopted as the official state fish of New York in 1975. It is officially recognized as the state fish of Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, as well. It is the official freshwater fish of New Hampshire and the official cold-water fish of Vermont. Salvelinus translates as “little salmon.” Fontinalis means “living in springs.”

The current state record for a brook trout is 5 lb., 14 oz. That belongs to William Altman, an angler from Warren County, who caught his fish using a Lake Clear Wabbler in an unnamed lake in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness in Hamilton County on May 5, 2012. Hamilton County waters have been regaining their reputation as a great brook trout fishery and, by many accounts, DEC’s efforts at stocking have been so successful that the population has become self-sustaining again.

Altman’s record-breaking fish is considered a Temiscamie hybrid, a cross between a domestic brook trout and a wild Temiscamie (Canadian-strain) brook trout. Hybrid Temiscamie fingerlings are stocked because they have a better survival rate than other strains in some of the more acidic waters of the Adirondacks.

Altman’s catch marked the seventh time in eight years that the state record has been broken. The previous record was held by Dan Germain from Oneida County, who caught his 5-lb., 8-oz. brookie with a Lake Clear Wabbler on South Lake in the Black River Wild Forest of Herkimer County on June 15, 2011.

Although environmental conditions, genetic composition and fishing pressure play a part in the maximum size a brook trout can achieve, because of their slow growth rate and short life span, usually two to five years, it is considered atypical for one to grow to more than five pounds. In fact, three pounders are uncommon. Those living in Adirondack rivers and streams generally range from about six to ten inches long; ten to twelve inches in lakes and ponds.

Richard L. Gast, Extension program educator II, Horticulture, Natural Resources, Energy; agriculture programs assistant, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone, 12953. Phone 483-7403, fax 483-6214, email rlg24@cornell.edu.