Fish

Brook trout in the Catskills: a history

By TONY BONAVIST
Posted 4/1/20

A very long time ago, in fact many thousands of years before the introduction of brown and rainbow trout to the fabled rivers of the Catskill Mountains, brook trout were the only native species of …

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Fish

Brook trout in the Catskills: a history

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A very long time ago, in fact many thousands of years before the introduction of brown and rainbow trout to the fabled rivers of the Catskill Mountains, brook trout were the only native species of salmonid fishes. Eastern brook trout began to inhabit the region after the last ice age, some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. The literature has it that brook trout migrated as the melting ice retreated and left behind rivers, lakes and ponds. Paleoichthyologists believe the species’ origin is tied to the Oligocene Epoch some 100 million years ago. So yeah, our brookies have been around awhile.

Brook trout range from northeastern Canada, the Maritimes, west to Minnesota and south to the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia. Of all the salmonid fishes, except for grayling and cutthroat trout, brook trout are the most vulnerable to environmental change and exploitation. The species requires clean, cold and well-oxygenated water in order to survive and thrive. As a result, brook trout have been extirpated from much of their former range in the Catskills due to indiscriminate logging, loss of habitat, pollution and over-harvest by fishermen.

Brook trout are not true trout, but charr, in that they are classified in the genus Salvelinus not Salmo. The genus Salvelinus, includes lake trout, artic charr, sunapee trout, dolly varden and bull trout. The genus Salmo includes brown trout, landlocked salmon and sea-run Atlantic salmon. Rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, golden trout and all species of Pacific salmon are classified in the genus Oncorhynchus. Artic grayling are the only species classed in the genus Thymallus. The brook trout’s scientific name is Salvelinus fontinalis, which translated means “little salmon of the spring.” All the charr, trout, salmon and grayling are members of the family Salmoindae.

Historically, brook trout inhabited almost all the major river systems located in the Catskill Mountains, including the Beaverkill, Willowemoc, Neversink,  Schoharie, Roundout and Esopus, along with tributaries of both branches of the Delaware. They were also native to several ponds and lakes. Because they require cool, clean and well-oxygenated water, brook trout were confined mostly to headwaters where shade, cover and elevation kept water temperatures cool enough to promote survival even during the warmest of summers. There are as many as 11 strains of brook trout in New York State. Two strains native to the Catskills originated in Tunis Lake and Balsam Lake; both lakes are the result of the receding glaciers. Tunis Lake is just off Route 28 between Margaretville and Andes. Balsam Lake is located in the Balsam Lake Wild Forest; both lakes are in private ownership.

Unless one is inclined to do a bit of research, few people would be aware that New York State once held the world record for brook trout, although the background is a little sketchy. Legend has it that on a spring afternoon in 1827, Daniel Webster hooked and landed a 14.5-pound brook trout from the Carman’s river on Long Island. The huge trout (charr) was first sighted in 1823 by Websters friends. Webster was a senator from Massachusetts who maintained law offices in Boston and New York City. According to the legend, Webster was called from a church service he was attending, by his guide, and told the huge trout had been spotted. Webster made several casts and finally the huge trout was hooked. After a long battle, the fish was netted and carried to Carman’s store where it was weighed. Next, an outline of the huge trout was made on the wall. The following day, a carving was made from the drawing. Eventually that carving served as the weathervane for the South Haven Presbyterian Church. There are other accounts of the large trout’s capture that differ significantly from the Webster story. There is no argument, however, that a very large brook trout was caught in that area of Long Island during the time period, because the carving of that great trout is displayed in the vestibule of that same church to this day. A lot more background about this fish and who caught it can be found in Nick Karas’s great book “Brook trout.”

In addition to Webster’s great trout, there were several other New York State records for brook trout, including two from the Catskill region. In 1908, an eight-pound brookie was taken from Punchbowl Pond in Sullivan County. Later in 1941, a six-pound, 12-ounce specimen was caught in Sand Pond, also in Sullivan County. That was the first record listed by the Conservation Department (DEC). In 1991, the DEC retried all existing brook trout records because they could not be verified. The current record is a six-pound brook trout taken from Silver Lake in the Adirondack’s. The DEC named brook trout as the State fish in 1975.

Fishing for brook trout began in earnest in the early 1800s. The word went out that Catskill streams held an abundance of these beautiful little charr. It was about that time that travel to the Catskills became a little easier, with sloops and river steamers carrying fishermen from New York City to Kingston. From Kingston, anglers continued on by carriage and wagon to points north and west, with most trips of the day ending up around Phoenicia.

By 1830, the Milo Barber Boarding House was established along the Stony Clove Creek. It was the first fishing resort in America and provided the first guide service. That is when the onslaught began. Our native trout displayed none of the wariness of its Salmo cousins and were easily caught by fishermen. Although brook trout in Catskill streams were on the small side, bag limits were liberal, and tens-of-thousands of the speckled beauties were harvested by anglers.

At about the same time, the tanning industry came to the Catskills, where mountainside hemlocks were stripped of their bark. The bark was used to make tannic acid, and factories were set up in several locations around the mountains. Couple the over-harvest of brookies with the rape of hemlock forests and you have the perfect formula for the demise of Catskill brook trout populations! Fortunately, by the late 1800s, the appetite for tannic acid declined and the hemlock forests began to regenerate. As a result, brook trout began to repopulate their home waters.

Today, while brook trout may never completely inhabit all their former range, the Catskill Mountains supports a number of wild brook trout fisheries. That includes mostly headwater streams in well forested mountains, but there are also small lakes and ponds. Our stream brookies tend to be on the smaller side due to the environments they live in, but the lake and pond fish is another story. I know of some of these fisheries but will leave it at that. Check out the NYS Fish Atlas for brook trout. It will show the areas of the state where brook trout live, including the Catskills.

So, despite destruction of their habitat and over-fishing, our speckled little charr survive and actually thrive in the Catskills. Efforts like the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, a brook trout restoration program, have certainly helped. If you are interested in fishing for these little jewels, descendants of the Oligocene and last ice age, you’ll like the quiet and solitude afforded by the places they’re found. Go find them; they’re out there.

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