The past two years haven’t been the greatest for West Virginians who like to fish for brown trout.
Not that long ago, dozens of streams — from the state’s mountain counties to its southern coalfields — received stockings of catchable-sized or fingerling browns. Now, because of three endangered species, browns can no longer be stocked in some of those waters.
The endangered species in question are the candy darter, the Guyandotte crayfish and the Big Sandy crayfish.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has the final word when it comes to endangered species, has declared 541 miles of Mountain State streams to be “critical habitat” for those species.
Biologists consider the brown trout, which becomes a bit of a meat-eater once it reaches 8 inches in length, to be a potential threat to the darter and the two crayfish. Division of Natural Resources officials apparently agree, because they stopped stocking browns in those critical-habitat waters.
The biggest hit to brown-trout aficionados has come wherever candy darters still exist, mainly in the upper Gauley and upper Greenbrier river watersheds. Without regular stockings of adult or sub-adult fish, browns in Cranberry, Williams, Cherry and upper Gauley rivers will diminish in number. So will browns in the East and West forks of the Greenbrier, and in the main Greenbrier upstream from Cass.
Some of those streams, or their tributaries, might support natural reproduction of browns, and DNR officials reportedly are willing to allow any stream-spawned fish to remain. That’s not a best-case scenario, but at least it’s something.
In fact, it will probably be a saving grace for tributaries of the upper Guyandotte and Tug Fork rivers, where the two endangered crayfish species are found. Several streams in those watersheds support healthy populations of wild, reproducing browns.
In only a couple of Guyandotte tributaries — Pinnacle Creek and Clear Fork, both home to Guyandotte crayfish — have stockings of brown trout been suspended. As far as I can determine, none of the reproducing brown-trout tributaries of the Tug River are considered critical habitat for the Big Sandy crayfish.
Confession time: Brown trout are, hands down, my favorite fish to catch. The first trout I ever caught on a fly, 43 years ago, was a foot-long brown. To date, I’ve probably caught more browns than brook, rainbow and cutthroat trout combined.
You’ll probably think I’m weird, but the main reason I like to fish for browns is that they’re so hard to catch.
A biologist once told me that browns are the fastest learners in the fish world; he said an average brown needs only two repetitions in order to learn a behavior. In other words, you might fool a brown twice easily enough, but you’d better bring your “A” game if you hope to do it a third time.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I was a bit disappointed when the DNR suspended brown-trout stockings in the aforementioned watersheds.
I’m all right with it, though.
Endangered species should be given every opportunity not only to survive, but to thrive. West Virginia still has dozens of streams where brown trout can be caught. Having to drive a few more miles to fish for them is a price I’m happy to pay.