Finding gold in West Virginia

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Prospectors are not the only optimists who tease gold from mountain streams.

West Virginia trout fishermen have been plucking gold from rivers and runs since 1963. In Pennsylvania streams, those bright gold trout stocked as a novelty by the Fish and Boat Commission trace their artificial creation to a West Virginia hatchery experiment.

In West Virginia's centennial year, 1963, Mountain Staters were seeking creative ways to commemorate their state's birth midway through the Civil War, when 55 of Virginia's western counties parted ways with the Confederacy and rejoined the Union as a separate state.

Vince Evans was eight years ahead of the celebration. Evans managed the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources' Petersburg trout hatchery in Grant County, and in 1955 he noticed something significant. Among thousands of rainbow trout fingerlings, Evans detected one lone trout sporting a streak of mottled gold.

Evans soon transferred to another hatchery nearby. His successor, Chester Mace, kept a close eye on the oddly gilded fish. Mace and Evans worked together for the next eight years, selectively spawning the gold-mottled trout's offspring until they'd forged a strain of all-golden trout, ready for release. In the spring of 1963, anglers got their first eye-popping introduction to the fish popularized as the West Virginia Centennial Golden Trout.

Trout fishing there has never been the same.

"The goldens are not as much of a novelty as they were when the DNR first put them out, but people still enjoy catching them," said Homer Tinney, the Petersburg hatchery's present-day manager. "I was a boy then but I remember when they first stocked them. A lot of them were tagged so the state could do a census on them, and people could get a reward if they caught a tagged one. [Officials] hoped the tags would increase the popularity, but I don't know if that was necessary. Those fish catch your attention."

According to Tinney, the difference between a golden trout and a rainbow is no more than skin deep.

"They are just like a rainbow -- they are a rainbow, with the same spawning cycle, same growth rates and susceptible to the same diseases," Tinney said. "The only difference is in the skin pigment."

Understandably, anglers see it differently.

"Some people love 'em and some people hate 'em," Tinney observed. "The reason some hate 'em is that they can't catch 'em."

The golden-toned trout have a reputation for being harder to catch than normally colored rainbows. But that may be simply a matter of perception, according to John Toth, who has handled thousands of the novelty fish. Toth works as a fish culturist at the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's Reynoldsdale hatchery in Bedford County, where roughly 5 percent of all rainbows raised for stocking are of a golden strain. Pennsylvania adopted the West Virginia golden trout and began stocking its own genetic variations in 1967. The PFBC calls the adaptation stocked in Pennsylvania waters "golden rainbows."

"They are easy to see in the stream, and so people tend to put a lot of effort into catching them," Toth said. "If they don't bite, people assume they are hard to catch, but it's just that they aren't seeing the other 'regular' trout nearby, that aren't biting either. The same popular rainbow baits -- like salmon eggs, cheese and corn -- work best."

Pennsylvania's initial golden trout variation, the "palomino," was initially unpopular with anglers. Genetically crossed with normal-colored rainbows, the palominos were "washed out" and muted in coloration, sometimes appearing blotchy, pale-green in the water.

Pennsylvania hatcheries have since strengthened the color by breeding back in the original pure-gold trait.

"The 'greenies,' as we used to call them, are gone and you won't see them again," Toth said. "Now, we handpick the males and females for bold, gold color."

Statewide, the Fish and Boat Commission keeps about 9,000 golden rainbow trout in hatcheries longer than other trout, up to three years, to stock as trophy-size fish.

"We have goldens here now that we won't stock until 2013. They'll be big brood fish by then," Toth said.

The golden trout drew national attention to the abundant trout fishing opportunities in West Virginia. But the fish is merely tolerated, or sometimes dismissed, by some anglers there and elsewhere who prefer trout of more natural hues.

"[The] golden trout have a place, but that place is in the celebrated atmosphere of traditional opening day," said Mark Kovacs of Uniontown, who fishes trout streams across southwestern Pennsylvania and throughout the Allegheny National Forest. "Fish and Boat always stocks a few trophy [golden rainbow] trout into the streams for the opener. [They] are the first thing to catch your attention when you approach the stream that morning. You can even tell where they are by the crowds that surround them well before 8 a.m.

"I would say that their best role is in getting the kids excited. We always have several kids at our camp up north and it is always the [goldens] that get the most admiration from the kids. After the first day, I never give them much thought," Kovacs said.

Tinney and others most familiar with the golden strains don't believe there is much chance they'll reproduce and spread in the wild.

"We do have some natural reproduction of rainbows on [West Virginia's] better streams like the Cranberry River and Seneca Creek," Tinney said. "But there's no naturally reproduced goldens out there that I know of. They can hide, though, better than you would think. If they have the cover, they can hide as well as the rest of the trout. Some tagged ones have been caught three years later."

Despite being widely known as "golden trout," the gold-colored trout stocked in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and other states should not be confused with the true golden trout (Onchorhynchus aguabonita), native only to high elevation lakes and streams in the Kern River basin in northern California.

"People still look forward to seeing the goldens out there every spring," Tinney said. "Children especially enjoy them. We always make sure we put plenty of goldens into the hatchery truck for any kids' events we're stocking. Catching one is something that sticks with them for a long time."


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