Brook trout fishing in the Adirondacks

As the 2013 trout and salmon fishing season gets underway, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation 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 their remarkable power and fighting ability. To many an avid fisherperson, these highly regarded trout epitomize what is the heart and soul of the sport fishing experience.

Beginners and experienced anglers alike consider fishing for brook trout to be an integral part of the Adirondack experience, as well. The clear, cold headwaters of many Adirondack rivers and streams and the crisp, clean, oxygen rich water of many 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 individual specimens of these lively, aggressive game fish found anywhere in the Northeast.

Brookies, as they are often called, were once common throughout New York State; so common, in fact, that early surveys ignored bodies of water where they lived, designating instead 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 concerned 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 similar, hatchery-raised species. Scientists at Cornell University have been working with DEC biologists, for many years now, to identify and preserve all of New York’s remaining 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 in our region 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 hatchery raised 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 last September. As a result, DEC anticipates stocking only 224 Adirondack lakes and ponds this year; 102 less than originally planned. A DEC statement issued last September 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 caught in New York is 5 pounds, 14 ounces. That record belongs to William Altman, an angler from Warren County, who caught his record breaking 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 of brook trout in some of the more acidic waters of the Adirondacks.

Mr. 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 pound, 8 ounce brookie, also 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 all play a part in the maximum attainable size a brook trout can achieve, because of their slow growth rate and short lifespan; usually two to five years, it is considered atypical for a brook trout to grow to weigh 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.

Just for the record, although none are found in New York State, there are coastal river populations of brook trout that inhabit salt water. New Englanders and Canadians living in the Maritime Provinces often refer them to as salters, coasters, or sea trout. Early European settlers reportedly caught these species in Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. There is debate about whether or not populations ever lived in Lake Ontario.