To many West Virginians, the words “trout fishing” conjure mental images of stocking trucks, and anglers huddled around pools filled with fresh-from-the-hatchery fish.
Stockings, however, are only part of the Division of Natural Resources’ trout-management effort. The other part involves wild trout — stream-spawned fish or fish stocked when they were very young. West Virginia has more than 1,000 miles of wild-trout water, and DNR officials are looking at ways to improve fishing in every mile.
“We’re in the process of working up a trout-management plan,” said Dave Thorne, the agency’s trout biologist. “It will involve both stocked and wild trout, and it will be a long-term strategic plan coupled with some short-term goals.”
Thorne doesn’t expect a lot to change on the stocked-trout side of things, but he said wild-trout management could change considerably, especially where native brook trout are concerned.
“We’re going to take a hard look at brook-trout management to see what we can do,” he added. “We want to increase people’s ability to catch larger-sized native brook trout. We want to see if we can create a larger average-sized fish through regulations.”
Agency officials took the first step toward that goal on Jan. 1, when catch-and-release regulations went into effect on Mill Creek and all its tributaries within the borders of Randolph County’s Kumbrabow State Forest.
“We’re calling that a ‘fisheries management area,’” Thorne said. “We’ll soon have a cooperative agreement with [West Virginia University] to do some research there. That research should eventually tell us whether regulations have any impact on the size structure of the brook-trout population.”
If Mill Creek’s catch-and-release regulations result in larger trout, Thorne said DNR officials might consider placing similar regulations on similar streams.
“We have an obligation to conserve species of great need, and in West Virginia, brook trout are one of those species,” he explained.
Because they require colder, clearer waters than other trout species, brookies are more vulnerable to changing environmental factors.
“Brook trout populations can change dramatically from year to year,” Thorne said. “If you get a flood or a drought at just the wrong time, or have logging or road construction near a stream, you can really play havoc on populations.”
DNR officials don’t have much control over environmental hazards, but they do have control over stockings of non-native trout species. Native brook-trout advocates have argued that the agency should stop stocking juvenile brown trout in streams where native brookies are present. Some have even argued that the DNR should take steps to kill off browns or rainbows that have become established in brook-trout waters.
According to Thorne, a recent research paper on the impact of brown trout on brook-trout populations “showed only weak evidence that brown trout suppress brook-trout numbers.” That does not mean, he added, that juvenile brown-trout stockings should continue in all the waters currently being stocked.
“In some streams, we do plan to get away from doing [brown-trout] fingerling stockings on top of native brook trout,” Thorne said. “But we’re not likely to do anything to eliminate non-native fish where they overlap with natives. Other states have done it. Sometimes it’s been successful, but sometimes not.”
Not every wild-trout stream has temperatures and conditions suitable for brook trout. Many headwater tributaries of Southern West Virginia’s Tug, Guyandotte and Coal rivers, for example, are too warm for brookies but are plenty cold enough for browns and rainbows.
“Some of them are fantastic fisheries,” Thorne said. “We’re looking for ways to facilitate those fisheries and expand trout-fishing recreation in those places with an eye toward economic development.”
He doesn’t expect it to be easy.
“When people think about wild-trout waters, they usually think about streams in the [Monongahela] National Forest,” he said. “They don’t think about the coal-mining areas in the southern part of the state.”
As anglers become more aware of the southern fisheries, which are not on the state’s stocking list, Thorne expects fishing pressure to increase.
“We want to make sure those populations aren’t harmed,” he said. “Pressure will increase on some of those streams as they gain notoriety. That, in turn, will create user conflicts and landowner conflicts. If and when that happens, we’ll do our best to offer support and guidance. In some cases, we might be able to accomplish that with special regulations — if that’s what folks want.”
Imposing special regulations in places like Kumbrabow or the Monongahela is relatively simple because the land is government-owned. In Southern West Virginia, where most of it is in private hands, establishing special-regulation fisheries would be complicated.
McDowell County’s Elkhorn Creek, for example, has developed a strong following among anglers who travel there to pursue its wild rainbow and brown trout. Thorne said some of those anglers have started to clamor for the DNR to impose catch-and-release regulations.
“But that’s not practical,” he added. “There are so many landowners up and down the creek, and we would have to secure long-term easements from all of them. We don’t have the resources to negotiate on that scale.”
Thorne and his DNR colleagues face the unenviable task of trying to promote those southern wild-trout fisheries without ruining them. He said the state’s trout management plan, once completed, should address that issue.
“We’re in the process of working on goal statements [for the plan] right now,” he explained. “We want to identify a group of stakeholders, anglers and others, who will help us to develop the goals and strategies we incorporate into the plan. We don’t want to pick people who thing exactly like us, either. We want people whose ideas run the gamut.
“We want to have the stakeholder group in place by summer, and I’d like to have a draft plan written by sometime next winter, about a year from now.”