photo credit: Archie Turner
“It is fitting that spawning brook trout and the deciduous mountain forest mutually celebrate autumn with glorious displays of yellow, orange, and red hues. Upon seeing a male brookie in full nuptial regalia, surely anglers have marveled at the beauty and perfection of this small predator.” —excerpt from Freshwater Fishes of Virginia R.E. Jenkins and N.M. Burkhead
Yesterday I had the great fortune to lead a class of James Madison University Lifelong Learning Institute students on a hike into the George Washington National Forest along a native brook trout stream. The Lifelong Learning Institute is a member-driven program that promotes lifelong learning by providing affordable, not-for-credit, intellectual, cultural, and social experiences to enrich the lives of adults in the central Shenandoah Valley. There are a number of class offerings every year on a wide variety of subjects geared towards expanding one’s understanding of the world. It’s a great concept. Young or old we are always students eager to learn and better understand the world we live in. The class I hiked with yesterday is called Something Fishy: Fish Culture in the Central Shenandoah Valley designed to teach participants more about fish habitat and streams in the Shenandoah Valley. From headwater mountains streams like the one we visited down to the valley floor spring creeks.
It was a gorgeous fall day; mild temperatures, clear skies, and the trees putting on their best show for us. My goal for the day was to impart on the class some understanding about the threats brook trout and headwater streams face in Virginia and their importance for water quality downstream. And with a little luck give the class an up close look (courteous of my Iwana Tenkara rod) at a male brook trout dressed in his autumn best. As we hiked along the creek we talked about acid rain and how this stream is periodically treated with limestone sand to maintain a suitable pH for fish survival. We talked about brook trout population dynamics and movement, climate change, hemlock woolly adelgid, and headwater stream foodwebs. For me it was a fish biologist’s dream to see so much interest in brook trout and mountain streams! As we hiked I keep an eye out for rising trout or the flash of bright orange and brilliant white in the gin clear water.
Spotting a good pool I tied on a small humpy and began casting. After a hit and miss by a small fish and a few refusals I hooked into a nice male at the head of the pool. His colors were vibrant and awesome! His belly felt thin possibly having already spawned. After a quick scurry up the bank to show the class I released him back to the stream and his underwater home. He made a beeline for the cover of a submerged log. The same one I enticed him from moments earlier. For some this was their first look at a live wild brook trout and this little guy did not disappoint. The oohhs and aahhs coming from the group confirmed my hope and reminded me of my reaction when I first laid eyes on a brook trout in fall. In fact that is still my reaction today. Awestruck by this diminutive fish’s larger than life visual display and unrelenting will to live in the face of so many obstacles. My hope is that the image of that trout —the intense orange belly, the milky white contrasted with jet black streaked on the fins, and the mesmerizing vermillion spots with blue halos will forever be etched in their minds and intricately tied to the stream, the forest, the mountain, and how the management of this landscape directly impacts brook trout.
For me it was a rewarding experience being able to share with them the beauty of a male brook trout in the fall. And isn’t that really what it is all about? Developing and fostering a deep appreciation and respect for this remarkable fish and the landscape it calls home. Young or old, it’s never too late to hike a stream, cast a fly, or take a class to expand one’s knowledge of the world. Without experiencing it how can we expect anyone to understand the importance of brook trout and take action on their behalf? So if you fish and have the opportunity to take an outdoor novice on a hike this weekend do it. And don’t forget to take your rod.