PETERSBURG - Fifty years ago, West Virginia fisheries officials sprang a surprise on the state's trout fishermen.
In addition to the usual rainbow, brown and brook trout, hatchery crews stocked a fish that anglers had never seen before - a pale yellow trout with a faint pink stripe down its side. To honor the 100th anniversary of West Virginia's statehood, Division of Natural Resources officials dubbed the alien-looking creature the "Centennial golden trout."
The brightly hued fish, as it turned out, had been developed completely within the state's trout-hatchery system, where observant hatchery employees discovered a one-in-a-zillion quirk of nature and transformed it into a trout-fishing sensation.
"Even 50 years later, people consider it a treat to catch a golden trout," said Homer Tinney, manager of the DNR's Petersburg Hatchery, where the unusual strain was discovered and developed. "And to think, it started right here."
The first goldens were stocked in 1963, but their story began early in 1955, when a yellow-mottled juvenile showed up among thousands of rainbows spawned in the fall of 1954.
Vince Evans, Petersburg's manager at the time, took interest in the odd little fish and nicknamed it "Little Camouflage."
Evans transferred to the nearby Spring Run Hatchery later that year. His successor at Petersburg, Chester Mace, moved Little Camouflage to a separate raceway and kept watch over her as she grew.
By the summer of 1956, she had grown to 14 inches. Her yellow mottling had changed into a broad golden band that encircled the middle of her body. Later that year, she produced her first eggs - 900 of them - which hatchery workers fertilized with milt from a regular rainbow male.
The eggs hatched, but none of the fry exhibited any yellow coloration.
Early in 1957, Little Camouflage's offspring and nearly 500,000 other juvenile rainbows were transferred to rearing ponds at Spring Run. Shortly after they arrived, one of the attendants noticed that a few of the fish had started to change color.
Within weeks, roughly 300 of the "rainbows" turned a uniform golden yellow, and as they grew their unusual coloration grew even brighter.
Edward Kinney, the DNR's Fish Division chief at the time, thought it might be a good idea to try to propagate the eye-catching new strain. Mace and Evans selected the best-colored fish for brood stock and spawned them during the fall of 1958.
The first goldens ran smaller than their rainbow counterparts, but careful breeding remedied that problem. By 1963, DNR officials deemed the strain ready to be stocked in state waters.
"They determined that they would stock one golden for every 10 rainbows, and we've maintained that ratio ever since," Tinney said. "We tend to stock them in lakes and larger streams because their color makes them more susceptible to predators."
Centennial goldens quickly drew the attention of scientists, who sought to determine what caused the strain's unusual coloration. Studies showed that despite its name, West Virginia's version of the golden trout is essentially unrelated to the "true" golden trout found in the high-altitude streams of California's Sierra Nevada Mountains.
West Virginia's version turned out to be, at its core, a rainbow trout - a rainbow trout of a different color, for sure, but genetically identical to the green-backed, black-spotted, red-striped rainbows found in most of the Mountain State's stocked-trout waters.
"Basically, the golden is a rainbow without any black pigment," Tinney said.
When visitors come to the Petersburg Hatchery, Tinney delights in telling them that the facility raises nothing but rainbow trout.
"They look at me like I'm crazy, and they ask what all those yellow fish are," he said, grinning. "But then when I show them a golden and they see its pink stripe, they recognize that it's a rainbow."
Partly to acknowledge the strain's true nature, and partly to avoid confusion with true golden trout, DNR officials now use the term "golden rainbow" in the agency's publications.
The town of Petersburg apparently hasn't received the memo. Signs emblazoned with the famous fish's likeness describe the Grant County seat as "The Home of the Golden Trout."
And indeed, the Petersburg Hatchery remains the sole source of every golden rainbow stocked by the DNR.
"All of them originate here," Tinney said. "We provide eggs to the Bowden Hatchery, but all of the eggs are stripped from the brood fish and fertilized here in Petersburg. We hatch about 80,000 eggs each year, and Bowden hatches between 20,000 and 30,000."
Although the DNR has a policy not to export golden rainbows outside the state's borders, fisheries agencies in several states now stock the strain, or variations on it.
"Back in the '60s, someone sent some of our fish to Pennsylvania," said Mike Shingleton, the DNR's assistant chief in charge of trout fisheries. "They did some selective breeding of their own and created what they call the 'palomino trout.' A lot of states now have golden rainbows or palominos in their hatcheries."
The fish's striking appearance has made it a coveted prize for many anglers - and an accursed pest to others.
"Two types of people fish for goldens," Tinney said. "Those that love 'em, or those that hate 'em. Some fishermen get frustrated by them, because they don't seem to bite as eagerly as regular rainbows. Other fishermen call them 'tracer trout,' and fish around them for the regular rainbows that are usually nearby."
That reluctance to bite, Tinney added, is part what makes goldens a highly valued catch.
"I've only ever met one person who said he caught a [six-fish] limit of goldens in a single day," he said. "What really amazes me is that some people say they've fished for years and have never caught a golden."
The Petersburg Hatchery's history with the golden rainbow has made it a bit of a destination spot for tourists. Tinney said visitors routinely show up to get a glimpse of the facility's famous fish.
"We even get visitors from other counties," he said. "About four years ago, the governor had a big tourism push, and they brought people from Australia, England, Germany and other countries to tour West Virginia. This is one of the stops they made. They were amazed at how goldens were so different from rainbows."
Anglers have celebrated the difference for 50 years, and Tinney said they'll continue to celebrate it for the foreseeable future.
"The [DNR] is committed to stocking goldens," he said. "People expect us to stock them, and we do. Sportsmen pay for [trout hatcheries and trout stockings], and we do our best to give them a good day of fishing."
Reach John McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1231.