After a couple of lean years, West Virginia’s attempt to grow native brook trout in a hatchery is finally bearing fruit.
Roughly 1,200 juvenile brook trout are growing inside the Reymann Farms aquaculture facility near Wardensville, and will be stocked in four Eastern Panhandle streams later this spring.
The idea, said Division of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Brandon Keplinger, is to take brookies from area streams, spawn them in the field or in a hatchery, and grow the resulting offspring to a size that would give them a good chance of survival once released.
“We’re trying to create brook-trout populations that look like the populations some of our streams once had,” Keplinger continued. “We’re not out to stock fish that will be caught immediately; we’re trying to establish populations of spawning, self-sustaining native brook trout.”
DNR workers and volunteers have been working on the project since the fall of 2017, but until now the results were nothing to write home about. The first year’s effort, in which only a few mature trout were spawned, produced just 47 fingerlings. Last year’s effort produced 350 fingerlings, but only 58 could be stocked.
“Those fish were growing fine, but we had a catastrophic failure at the hatchery that killed most of them,” Keplinger explained.
This year’s production has the potential to more than make up for the past two years’ shortfalls. Keplinger said it will allow approximately 280 fish to be stocked in each of the four streams designated to receive them. The streams used to harbor native brookies, but lost their populations due to overfishing, environmental degradation and other factors.
Though he declined to name the targeted streams, Keplinger said they are located in Hampshire, Berkeley and Jefferson counties. Three of the streams receive cold-water discharges from limestone springs, so water temperature and quality shouldn’t be a problem. The fourth, located at a higher elevation and therefore colder, has been made more fertile by tons of limestone sand dumped in its headwaters.
The current crop of brook trout is being reared in a hatchery, but Keplinger said the fish should not be considered “hatchery trout” in the usual sense of the term.
“The brookies we raise in our other trout hatcheries are ‘cultured fish,’” he explained. “Those were bred specifically to grow quickly to a quality size and have nice coloration.
“The brook trout we’ll be releasing this spring haven’t been cultured in any way. They’re the offspring of wild trout we captured last fall. They’ve been reared to fingerling size in a hatchery, but they’re still native brook trout in every sense of the word.”
Because they haven’t had the wildness bred out of them, the natives should retain the instinct to leave the cold spring flows they occupy in summer and move to prime spawning habitat in fall when water temperatures drop to more tolerable levels throughout the streams.
“These fingerlings are the offspring from trout that live in streams very similar to the streams we’ll be stocking them,” Keplinger said. “That’s one of the reasons we think the stockings will be successful.”
If surveys performed last year are any indication, the native-propagation program is already producing desired results despite the relatively low numbers of fingerlings stocked in 2018 and 2019.
“We went back in late July or early August, and we ended up finding three-quarters of the fish we stocked last spring, and we found adults of spawning size,” Keplinger said. “If conditions allow, this year we’ll be looking for young-of-the-year fish that would have been spawned last fall.”
Keplinger and his co-workers clip the tip off a fin on each of the fish they release so the fish can be identified during the surveys.
“Through genetic analysis, we’ll be able to determine whether or not they’re heritage-strain fish,” he added. “The fish we’re stocking will help make the existing population more genetically diverse.
“It could only take two or three fish with the right [variant genes] to enhance a stream’s genetic diversity. A little diversity can really make a difference.”
Keplinger said the fish currently in the hatchery should be 2 to 3 inches in length by the time they’re released — not yet big enough to be of interest to anglers, but big enough to evade some of the predators they’re likely to encounter.
Because they’re being released at such an advanced size — roughly three times as large as they would be if they’d been hatched in the wild — Keplinger believes this year’s crop of brookies will probably be ready to spawn by the fall of 2021.