A Brook Trout Rescue

After a Disruptive Logging Event, Brook Trout Find a New Home on PLC Property


Written by Kenneth A. Bridle, Ph.D., PLC Stewardship Director

The story begins last November when the Surry County Forester noticed a large logging and land clearing event at the top of the Blue Ridge. Quick exploration of the site found over 400 acres of very steep land had been clear cut and the remaining forest floor stumps and soils bulldozed to make the land suitable for cattle pasture. The clearing, which goes right to the edge of a trout stream, left no buffer trees on the site, and made no attempt to control erosion or to stop sediment from washing into the creek. Native Brook Trout, which absolutely require clear and cold streams, can be wiped out by logging events like this which lead to increased sedimentation and more exposed streams with higher temperatures.

Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC) fishery biologists and PLC staff electro-shock for fish.

The situation was reported to the appropriate regulatory agency, NC Division of Environmental Quality, who notified the NC Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC) and other agencies who assessed the impact to the native fish habitat and developed direction for the landowner to limit more damage to the stream. 

The original plan was to monitor the trout population, wait for regulators to address the problem section, and hope that the creek could heal itself and trout could reclaim their impacted habitat. But this past spring a WRC fishery biologist noticed that even the stream above the impacted stream was turbid with sediment. A similar clearing of another 150 acres at the head of the valley, now impacted the waters upstream of the original disturbance. It seemed we would need a plan B.

Back in 2008, PLC and the WRC fishery biologists identified a creek on Fishers Peak as good habitat for brook trout. We knew that the water in that creek would be cold, and it was at a good elevation in an entirely forested watershed. 

After another survey of the Fishers Peak stream, PLC and WRC traveled the mere 6 miles to the impacted Ramey Creek and found that there was significantly more mud and sand. The fish population had already dropped by two thirds from the last survey only ten days prior. So the rescue mission was on. We would collect as many fish as we could find and move them immediately back to the reach we had surveyed that morning.

Initially 62 trout were collected, and after the second rodeo 35 more trout were relocated: 97 total. 

“We knew that the water in that creek would be cold, and it was at a good elevation in an entirely forested watershed.”

The Brookies were released in their new home on PLC’s Fishers Peak where a logging event will never disturb them again. Plus, a 20-foot waterfall stands between them and Brown or Rainbow Trout that could have threatened their new habitat. From past reintroductions, we know that Brook Trout populations need 2-4 years to become established and reach carrying capacity. We will continue to monitor this special group and give them the utmost protection.

An image of the logging event along Ramey Creek
WRC Biologists release trout in their new home on PLC's Fishers Peak.

This is why we do what we do. Their new protected home means these Brook Trout can live without threat of development in perpetuity, giving this species a foothold for survival. And even though much of their previous home, Ramey Creek, was along protected land, it only takes one disturbance to change everything. That is the nature of an ecosystem. Poor decisions could result in the destruction of a species that has lived there for perhaps millions of years. We are grateful to the people who took action to make sure that was not the end of the story for this group of ancient and rare fish.

Special Update | March 2022

In Fall of 2021, a Wildlife Resources Commission biologist checked in on the Brook Trout in the new habitat on Fishers peak. We are thrilled to share that in spite of their harrowing journey, the brookies showed signs of adapting well and the males were showing off vibrant colors. They were seen preparing nesting beds and eggs should be hatching this spring.

The Significance of Brookies

Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), also known as Brookies, Specks, or Speckled Trout, are the only trout native to the Eastern United States. In North Carolina they are found in clear, cold headwaters and higher-elevation streams. In PLC’s reach, Surry County is the only area with a known Brook Trout population.

Brookies are just about as pretty as the remote places where they are found. They have brilliant colors and patterns: Olive green on top, speckled yellow, red, blue sides, and orange lower fins with white tips. Although they’re part of the Salmon family, they usually only grow between 6 to 8 inches due to their shorter life cycles of 2-4 years.

Brookies struggle to compete with non-native rainbow and brown trout. They also face habitat loss through logging operations that lead to sediment pollution and increased water temperatures from the loss of a shady canopy. Although there are many restoration projects underway, development continues to threaten their survival.

Special thanks to WRC biologists

We have to commend the WRC fishery biologists who came from Mt Airy, Boone, Morganton, and Cashiers to spend several long days in this effort surveying potential rescue reaches, sampling above and below the problem area and eventually moving these rare fish. Thank you for your dedication and excellence:

Thomas Johnson, Fisheries Biologist

Matt Bodenhamer, Assistant Fish Hatchery Manager

Kenneth Lingerfelt, Fisheries Technician

Ray Starmack, Fisheries Technician

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