The Brook Trout Visitations

Last Wednesday after work I stopped at a little stream a few miles from home. I hadn’tOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA fished the stream in six months, and I had to find out if the brookies were okay. I stopped in with a fly rod and reel, as if checking in with an elderly parent, making sure the parent was alright and not lying on the floor. No doubt the brook trout were okay and had survived an average winter with no major casualties. But wait a minute. Were the trout okay?

To know for sure, I had to check in at Brook Trout Manor, the modest foothill home of native trout. I had to knock on the trout’s door and see who was in. I had to catch a trout, look it over then release it. That would be the medicine needed to begin a new angling season on a bright, sane note.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy casting to the first plunge-pool of a waterfall was not productive. Heading upstream into the woods, I glanced at the sky. Rain clouds were forming heavily. We needed rain. The streams were low and clear. The local towns had burn bans in effect. I didn’t know it yet, but we were in for heavy rainfall that would raise the streams to flood level in just a day or two.

I caught a year-old brookie in a small pool off the main current and then approached the second plunge-pool, my favorite holding spot on the creek. With a second or third cast of the weighted nymph, I had a fat brook trout on the line. I held the fish out in front of me for a moment, then released it.  Things were looking better, and the rain began to fall.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFive days later I checked on another headwater stream, a project water for our TU chapter, and one of my favorites. Parking where the trout stream passes underneath the county road, I saw a couple of problems right away.

Unfenced cattle waded in the stream across the road. And down the bank from where I stood was a beaver dam, a new one. Beavers had moved onto this stream a little more than a year ago and, as far as native trout are concerned, there went the neighborhood; there went the spawning ground.

Dam#1 was well-established by the spring of 2012. It remains a massive affair, built OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAacross a stream that averages only six to ten feet wide. A few years ago I had organized a TU willow planting project for the stream banks. Many willow trees and other species were planted here, and now much of them are under water.

I found five or six new dams on this half mile stretch of aging farmland. The full reservoir behind the bow-shaped dam is spilling out of one side and pouring through the meadow. The new stream is picking up fresh soil and dumping it into the original creek after it rejoins. The gravel beds, the spawning ground, for trout are being smothered with deepening silt.

I used to like the beaver– when their numbers were controlled by trappers and other environmental factors. I encouraged their presence and wished them well. Now they’re everywhere in this neck of the watershed. Their predators are gone. They’ve proliferated like deer in Steuben County, New York, or like people in the USA and in most countries of the world. I like most of them individually, but together they drive me crazy. If it’s not hydro-fracking or climate change or a host of other issues putting the screws on native trout, there’s beaver in the mix.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOf all the posts I’ve published so far on Rivertop Rambles, the most visited, and possibly the most controversial, is a post called Brook Trout and Beaver Dams. Not everyone has agreed with my assessment of dams and their impact on brook trout streams (which is fine by me), and I remain interested in what readers have to say about the issue.

The problems you can read about include erosion, siltation of spawning beds, and warming temperatures linked to the impoundment of flows. And angling can suffer, too, especially in the eastern U.S.

The negative aspects of multiple dams are most serious on streams already compromised by human activities. On eastern streams, too many beaver can be the tipping point for native trout.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI headed upstream, looking for better news. There the land is wilder and less conducive to the beaver industry. Trout Unlimited and  New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation have built some in-stream structures there for trout. The habitat was given a helping hand to recover from losses through the previous century. Our work sites are a source of pride.

I caught and released a young-of-the-year brookie at the first structure. Then, at site #2, I brought in a beautiful, brightly colored male that slipped back into the stream before I could get his picture.

See ya! said the old guy, lord of his manor, as he splashed and shot away. “I’ll see you, too!” I thought, as if just visited by an emissary from another world. “I’ll see you if I’m lucky. Please drop by again!”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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17 Responses to The Brook Trout Visitations

  1. The duck hunter in me likes beavers. The small stream fisherman not so much, On our lakes a beaver lodge is a fish magnet,,It’s a complex issue..
    You’re definitely right about a lack of trappers. Those who dislike trapping (and there seem to be many) have no idea how much the landscape benefits from them or what great stewards of the land the average trapper is.
    It’s another case of people falling for the emotional solution instead of actual resource management. Sad that people would like to remove us from the equation and further distance us from nature.

    • Steve, You’re right, it’s a complex issue, and for me, it comes down to a question of balance. A stream with a small beaver population held in check is a natural scene, thus beautiful. Where the young are forced to range for new territory constantly because of high numbers and lack of natural controls, problems arise. On larger bodies of warm water I don’t really see the issue, maybe because there’s more water there and less food potential. Interesting.

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  2. Ken G says:

    There’s one small creek near me that would make an excellent smallie stream if it weren’t for the nine beaver dams in less than a mile of creek. From the aerial photos it’s amazing. The beaver have clear cut a massive area around the creek and with all the dams, it’s all slowing turning into an impenetrable swamp.

    I guess they’re now called wetlands…

    • Ken, I hadn’t thought about the impact of dams on smallmouth streams, maybe because most of the headwater streams around here are still too cold to produce much of the species, but from your observations I’d say there may also be a significant impact on certain smallmouth waters. Thanks!

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  3. trutta99 says:

    I get Steve’s comment. I hardly know what a beaver looks like….. we don’t get them here at all: But clearly they are exactly like elephants. Yea. Elephants!

    well….maybe not exactly.
    We don’t get elephants on our Trout waters.
    Elephants don’t build dams.
    But aside from that they must be identical, because people don’t like our hunters shooting elephants, and as a result there is such a gross overpopulation of the things in some areas that nothing else can survive.
    🙂

    One comment in the post that holds more true than any environmentalist seems to be able to handle, is that there are just too many of us damned humans on this planet. (damning pun intended!)

    Thanks for a thoughtful post.

    • Trutta, Now there’s a helluva juxtaposition– elephants and trout water. Sounds surreal, but everything’s connected if you dig down deeply enough to see… I’d say overpopulation is the crux of the biscuit, whether we’re speaking of problems due to human beings, Japanese knotweed, beaver, or elephants. When we whack the top parts of nature’s food chains, everything below them goes awry. The picture gets less diverse and pretty. Thank you for weighing in!

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  4. We’ve lost that critical balance that was maintained while humans were still a part of the food chain. We were healthier (spiritually, at least) when we had to go out into the wild to find dinner and also avoid becoming dinner.

    Excellent post, Walt.

    • Jim, I think that’s an important point to recognize. The critical balance of man in nature is lost and irretrievable. Technology has put us into a “comfort zone” where balance is no longer necessary, or so most of us think. And yet many of us would like to see a greater, more secure balance among the other species sharing our planet. Thank you!

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  5. Great discussion. In the end, it is, as Walt said, all about balance.

    There are places where beavers belong and there are places where they don’t. The same can be said of ever living creature on the face of this planet. Invasive species are visiting new territories at an unprecedented pace because so are we and we’re moving them with us.

    This accelerated expansion is changing everything. The lake in my town now has crappie. And while that’s not a bad thing, they were never there before and they will certainly have an effect. People will move them to other lakes too. No matter how much you repeat the message, some ignore it.

    How do you stop this? It’s not an easy task, that’s for sure.

    • Steve, Reading this comment I’m nodding in agreement, seeing the flash of so many examples of “accelerated expansion,” for example the tragedy of lake trout “placement” into Yellowstone Lake and the resulting explosion of fish affecting the native cutthroats and what that means for the western species… Sigh… but thanks so much for contributing to the ongoing discussion.

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      • Thanks for starting it. It really is interesting to note that, no matter where you are from, the environmental issues are essentially the same.

      • Steve, Yup, whether it’s too many beaver in one watershed, too many elephants at an African waterhole, or too many cowbirds or starlings on a bluebird trail, it behooves us all to wake up, try to limit our own numbers, lend a hand to a recovery process, and to cease the mindless tampering with nature. P.S. And have some fun while we’re outdoors!

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  6. It is strange… Humans are top tier predators, yet we have destroyed (managed) other top tier predators in order to protect our food. Now we have an overabundance of food we no longer use (deer and such) and cows that trample our rivers and streams. With so many mistakes in our past and present, I will “Take only pictures and leave only footprints” and let the Earth sort out the situation when we stop tampering with it. Lovely fish by the way! 🙂

    • Thank you Mr. fishnerd. It’s a strange situation indeed, thanks in part to the machinations of the human brain that figures how to “get ahead.” We’ve inherited a world of compromised beauty that stands to be far more greatly compromised if we don’t stop meddling and allow the Earth to sort things out. The cycles of energy dwarf us in every way and yet we think we can tamp them down. That’s why we like to step lightly, catch those beauties for a moment and pass them on.

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  7. Glad to have you aboard.

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