Large-scale private timber harvest (click to enlarge)

Once private logging operations had depleted most of the marketable timber in the Southern Appalachians by the early 1900’s, hundreds of thousands of acres of lands that few wanted were eventually placed into public domain as a result of congressional passage of the Weeks Act of 1911.  Passage of this bill by Congress provided for the creation of public lands throughout the Southern Appalachians soon after.

Formally timbered lands begin to recover (click to enlarge)

As both public and private lands began to recover, more and more of the public began to utilize these natural resources for a variety of activities including camping, hiking, hunting, fishing, sightseeing, etc.  Although aquatic ecosystems would begin to recover as well, sedimentation and siltation would still be a problem while forest vegetation regenerated.  Due to the lack of forest canopy many larger streams would still be too warm for brook trout to survive.  As forests regenerated and recreational interests like fishing grew, pressure from sportsmen to provide opportunities for angling increased.  Most resource managers during that time believed that as Southern Appalachian Forests recovered so too would the Southern Appalachian brook trout.

Rainbow trout stocked from the 1880's to present (click to enlarge)

To try to meet the demands of sportsmen who were anxious to once again enjoy a trout fishery in the Southern Appalachians, rainbow trout – native to the Sierra Nevada mountains – were introduced into habitat that was formally occupied by Southern Appalachian brook trout. Again, the introduction of rainbow trout was never intended to be a permanent solution, it was only a temporary measure until watersheds recovered and Southern Appalachian brook trout would reclaim these environments. Unfortunately, by the mid-1900’s Southern Appalachian brook trout would not reclaim previous stream reaches of historical distribution as hoped. As the Southern Appalachian Mountains were recovering, naturally self-sustaining wild populations of rainbow trout were becoming established throughout much of the brook trout’s former range as well.

Northern strain brook trout (click to enlarge)

In stream reaches where migration barriers such as waterfalls and cascades existed prohibiting rainbow trout from migrating above them, efforts were made to re-establish brook trout upstream of these barriers.  Sources of Southern Appalachian brook trout would not have been easily accessible during the early to mid-1900’s and getting appreciable numbers of them from one stream to another to establish a new population would have been equally difficult.  Minor attempts had been made to propagate Southern Appalachian brook trout for stocking and restoration during this time but none were successful.  The Southern Appalachian brook trout proved to be extremely difficult to culture in hatcheries and further attempts were abandoned.  Instead, brook trout from the Northeast and Great Lakes regions which had successfully been adapted to hatchery culture protocols proved to be an accessible source of brook trout.  Brook trout from northern stocks were introduced in an effort to provide a recreational brook trout fishery and re-introduce brook trout back into streams above barriers whose Southern Appalachian populations had been extirpated by private logging practices.

Southern Appalachian Brook Trout Distribution in the Nolichucky River Basin by the 1950's (click to enlarge)

By the 1950’s Southern Appalachian Brook Trout in the Nolichucky River Basin would occupy only 33% of their former distribution in this watershed.  This drastic reduction in range would be the result of in-stream habitat loss, water quality degradation and the introduction of rainbow trout.  This substantial loss in Southern Appalachian Brook trout distribution would likely have occurred at similar levels from the same impacts throughout the historical range for the Southern Appalachian brook trout in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

Next time, Southern Appalachian Brook Trout experience further distribution losses from the 1950’s through the 1970’s.


1880 Brook Trout Distribution in the Nolichucky Watershed (click to enlarge)

In the 1880’s beginning at around 1600 feet in elevation Southern Appalachian brook trout would have occupied most of the upper elevation 2nd, and 3rd order tributaries. In primary river watersheds such as the Nolichucky River and other river basins within the Southern Appalachian brook trout range, this would not have been uncommon.  This contiguous connectivity of tributaries within a watershed would have provided brook trout with the genetic variability to maintain healthy populations. 

1880’s Private Lands (click to enlarge)
During this time, public land management agencies did not exist and almost all lands throughout the Southern Appalachian mountains were held in private ownership. Largescale private logging had not arrived in the Southern Appalachians yet but as marketable timber resources were being depleted throughout the North, private logging industries and speculators were recognizing the vast resources of old growth forests in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Logging and real estate businesses were quickly forming to take advantage of this available timber and the need to fuel industrial growth in America and Europe.

Large Skidded Log (click to enlarge)

The demand for timber from the Southern Appalachians was profound, and incredible numbers of logging companies were formed almost over night and businesses established themselves quickly in order to purchase hundreds of thousands of acres of land in order to secure access rights for harvesting the timber. Because the economy was generally depressed throughout the Southern Appalachian region the astonishingly low prices that private timber interests were offering for land and timber rights sales, was still more money than most families would realize from a life’s work at their current vocations.   

Steam Engine and Cars (click to enlarge)

When private timber companies brought railroad lines to the Southern Appalachians they were then able to access and extract much greater quantities of timber from the Southern Appalachians than previously realized and with much greater efficiency. Railroads were often constructed to the very upper reaches of watersheds and in many cases within the stream channel itself or the stream channel was even redirected.  Even today, it is not uncommon to hike into the upper reaches of many watersheds and still find abandoned railroad ties from the eventual dismantling of these railways.  


Timber Barge With Boom (click to enlarge)

Timber that was inaccessible by railroad, mule trains, or other means was often accessed by using barges with large timber booms constructed on the decks. In some locations, huge splash dams were constructed, water backed up behind them, logs floated into the dam pool, and then the splash dam was blown up sending the huge plume of water along with the logs downstream as far as possible. 

Timber Harvest From pre-1900's (click to enlarge)

The environmental impacts to terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems from unregulated wholesale private logging throughout the Southern Appalachians during this time was devastating and the Southern Appalachian Brook trout would have suffered greatly from sedimentation and siltation, habitat loss, increases in stream temperatures from deforestation, and as a result, would experience significant loss of population distribution throughout its entire Southern Appalachian range.

Next time, the 1940’s through the 1970’s – The lands no one wanted and a time of recovery in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. 

Likely Historical Watershed Distribution of Southern Appalachian Brook Trout (click on image to enlarge)

The historical watershed distribution of Southern Appalachian brook trout likely included the upper reaches of the Tennessee River Basin including the Hiwassee, Little Tennessee, French Broad, and Holston River watersheds; The New River Basin; The Pee Dee River Basin; The Santee River Basin which included the Catawba, Broad, and Saluda River watersheds; The Savannah River Basin, The Chattahoochee River Basin, and The Coosa River Basin. Throughout these watersheds brook trout in the Southern Appalachians would have flourished and over the course of thousands of years, distinguished themselves genetically from their northern counterparts. 

Yellowstone Cutthroat

The genetic distinction between Northern and Southern brook trout is similar to what is being observed today between other species such as the Yellowstone Cutthroat and the Snake River Cutthroat – both geologically isolated by separate watersheds where for thousands of years

Snake River Cutthroat

 populations adapted, evolved and established separate unique genetic traits.  Morphologically, the differences between these two subspecies can readily be observed and are obvious – both fish developing the necessary required traits and genetics to survive within its own respective ecosystem.

New York Brook Trout

With brook trout however it’s not so simple.  Recent genetic research has certainly demonstrated that Salvelinus fontinalis in the Southern Appalachians is at a minimum a unique strain of brook trout but the visual differences are not so easily detected.  Where Northern and Southern brook trout often occur in the Southern Appalachians, and sometimes only miles apart, even professional aquatic biologists who have seen

Southern Appalachian Brook Trout

thousands of individuals have difficulty visually separating the two. Ultimately the Southern Appalachian brook trout’s genetic distinction value-add may come in the form of it’s importance during restoration of its sub-species by utilizing its adaptation to its unique Southern Appalachian environment and exploiting this possible competitive advantage to recover a little of this valuable fishes former range. 
Next time we’ll take a look at the decline in Southern Appalachian brook trout populations from the 1880’s to the 1940’s.

Brook Trout Distribution 18,000 Years Ago (click on image to enlarge)

It is hypothesized that around 18,000 years ago brook trout would have occupied the reach from what is Connecticut today to the southeastern most portion of Georgia and those watersheds that drain into the Atlantic Ocean in between. This would have provided two refuges for brook trout to re-colonize the distribution as we know it today – inland streams cool enough to support brook trout populations and Atlantic coastal reaches along the length of this distribution. In theory,  this distribution and relationship with the Atlantic Ocean may have contributed to how anadromous brook trout might have evolved. 

Current Brook Trout Distribution in North America Today (click on image to enlarge)

Over the next 18,000 years as air temperatures warmed, and ice coverage receded northward and lower elevation streams warmed, brook trout would have retreated up into the higher elevation tributaries along the Appalachian Mountain range and dispersed northward along the Atlantic coast and inland into Canada, the North East and Great Lakes Regions. These populations would adapt and occupy unique biological niches that would contribute to their diversity we observe today within the species.

Southern Appalachian Brook Trout Distribution (click on image to enlarge)

 The biological diversity within both the flora and fauna communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains is both well-known and well documented. Evolving over thousands of years in the Southern Appalachian Mountains from geologic isolation, brook trout during this time were genetically separating themselves from their northern populations. In recent years genetic research on brook trout populations from the Southern Appalachian Mountains and the Mid Atlantic regions, demonstrates that this genetic separation from Northern brook trout populations begins at the New River in Virginia and continues southward through the Southern Appalachians of Western North Carolina, Northwest South Carolina, North Georgia, and Eastern Tennessee.

Next we’ll review from a watershed perspective, the distribution of Southern Appalachian brook trout throughout Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

Current Brook Trout Distribution in North America (click on image to enlarge)

Eastern brook trout distribution in North America today generally occupies eastern Canada along with parts of the Great Lakes, North East, Mid-Atlantic, and Southeastern United States.  Although brook trout have been introduced into streams in the western United States, for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll concentrate on the Eastern brook trout’s distribution east of the Mississippi River. 
By clicking on the above map, it is apparent that the lower “finger” portion of southern brook trout distribution roughly coincides with the Southern Appalachian Mountain range south of Pennsylvania.  This geographic peninsula has isolated brook trout populations in the Southern Appalachians for almost 18,000 thousand years.  But how did this happen?

Ice Coverage of North America 18,000 Years Ago (click on image to enlarge)

 Almost 18,000 years ago as ice coverage during the last ice age extended southward from what we know today as Canada to southern Ohio, this area would have been incapable of supporting brook trout.  The only regions during that time that could have provided suitable habitat for supporting brook trout populations were the Mid taiga-like areas and open boreal woodlands of what we know today as the southeastern United States.  This proposes two important questions:  Considering the large distribution that eastern brook trout occupy today across North America and how uninhabitable this region would have been for this species during the last ice age almost 18,000 years ago, where did brook trout exist during that time? and how did they increase their distribution inland throughout the range as we know it today?  

In Part II we’ll discuss brook trout source populations and how the Southern Appalachian Book Trout became genetically distinct from Northern Brook Trout.

A Southern Appalachian Brook Trout (click on image to enlarge)

Salvelinus fontinalis – a member of the Salmonidae family order of Salmoniformes and commonly referred to as a trout, is actually a char and along with other species such as Dolly Varden, Lake trout, Arctic char, etc. belong to the genus Salvelinus.
The brook trout’s appearance is described as having a slightly forked to nearly straight-edged tail fin. Light green or cream wavy worm like markings along the back called vermiculations and broken into spots along its side. These consist of cream-colored spots and blue haloed pink or red spots. Red to orange lower fin edges are typically edged with black lines behind white edges. Breeding males in the Fall are a brilliant red to orange along the lower and underneath of the body.  
The brook trout is native to cool, well oxygenated small streams, rivers, both large and small natural lakes, and spring creeks.  Some populations are anadromous which means they live in the ocean part of the time and annually swim up rivers and streams to spawn.  These are commonly referred to as Salter brook trout. Potamodromous populations such as Coaster brook trout live in large fresh water lakes and spawn in rivers and streams.
Deep bodied with a large head and mouth with adequate teeth including a patch along the vomerine bone, the brook trout has evolved into the ideal opportunistic forager and is the apex predator where it occurs. Crayfish, salamanders, small rodents, fish, small snakes, both large and small aquatic insects, all factor in as important components of the brook trout’s diet.
Depending on where it occurs, a brook trout can range in size from an average 6 inches in the Southern Appalachians to a 16lb 29 inch brook trout caught in Barbe Lake, Canada in 2006.

Tim Matheson's brook trout (click on image to enlarge)

Next time we’ll discuss the current distribution of brook trout in North America.  


Tellico SA Brook Trout Hatchery (click on image to enlarge)

Welcome to Brook Trout Happenings,  a blog designed to be a current source of information for activities surrounding a unique partnership between the U.S. Forest Service, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, conservation organizations, and many other important federal, state, and private partners involved in an initiative to propagate wild Southern Appalachian brook trout fingerlings for book trout restoration projects in streams throughout the Southern Appalachians.

What is the hatchery’s purpose? why is one needed? and what does it hope to contribute to Southern Appalachian brook trout restoration?  Beginning with the next post, and summarized from a presentation developed by Jim Herrig, Forest Aquatic Biologist with the Cherokee National Forest, we’ll describe how the Southern Appalachian Brook Trout Hatchery works, it’s mission and objectives and what the partnership hopes to accomplish.