As Alaska has its salmon and Florida its bonefish and tarpon, Pennsylvania has its brook trout. Proclaimed the most beautiful of freshwater fish, the brook trout is Pennsylvania's official state fish. Only the region west of the Allegheny River watershed lacked brook trout when George Washington journeyed around what is now Western Pennsylvania.
Excluding lake trout in Lake Erie, brook trout are the only trout native to Pennsylvania. Today, most brook trout caught by anglers -- as well as non-native brown and rainbow trout -- are hatchery raised and stocked. But wild brook trout still exist in Pennsylvania, which represents an important keystone in this trout's larger range, anchoring isolated populations in the southern Appalachians to the species' vast territory across New England and Canada.
Still, trout-savvy anglers know that Pennsylvania's brook trout, which cannot thrive without clean, cold water, are a shadow of those that once graced state streams, both in extent and in the size of individual fish. Logging, agriculture, urbanization and mining so degraded streams that the species made a last stand in remote headwaters where food is scarce and predation from mink and fish-eating birds is fierce. Wild brook trout seldom exceed 10 inches.
Brook trout take on new importance within modern attitudes toward conservation, which emphasize native species. Once, fisheries managers and anglers believed that whatever trout were easiest to raise in hatcheries were the best to repopulate streams, even if only long enough to be caught and creeled. Today, there is growing interest in native trout that can reproduce and thrive within a region's waterways.
"It is important to think of brook trout as an indicator that tells us we have high quality water, the absence of pollution," said retired Penn State professor of fisheries science Robert Carline. "Where brook trout can live, lesser known native organisms can live there too. Where they are found, these fish prove a quality landscape."
The first step in brook trout conservation is to find where they still swim. A 2006 report titled "Eastern Brook Trout: Status and Threats," from the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture (EBTJV), a collaboration of 17 Eastern states and partners to restore native brook trout, stated that, "a significant portion of [Pennsylvania] lacks any data on the presence of brook trout."
But the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has made progress surveying for brook trout over the past five years.
"We're working with universities and cooperators to look at previously unassessed waters to see if they support wild brook trout," said Fish and Boat Commission coldwater unit leader, Tom Greene. "This effort is prompted by concerns about development of the Marcellus gas resource in some remote regions where brook trout might be present, and there remain other stresses like spreading urbanization and road construction. Our teams are covering 500-600 waters per year. In over half we are finding some wild trout, and the majority are brook trout."
"Their vigorous approach to stream assessment is the shining star in the commission's cap. They are really pushing it," said Ken Undercoffer, a board member of the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited. A three-time former council president, Undercoffer of Clearfield is Pennsylvania's representative to EBTJV.
Most remaining brook trout haunts are clustered in the northcentral high plateaus, often on state forests or game lands. Some watersheds in southwestern Pennsylvania continue to support the species, especially on Laurel and Chestnut ridges.
Greene's teams are keeping track of new brook trout waters they find.
"Our reproducing trout waters list is updated every time there is commission action; generally that's quarterly," he said.
But the presence of some brook trout does not mean the population is at its highest potential. According to the EBTJV report, populations are classified "Reduced" in 18 percent of sub-watersheds known to harbor the fish. And that's the good news. Populations in 78 percent of sub-watersheds are "Greatly Reduced."
The Fish and Boat Commission manages fishing for wild brook trout under the same general regulations that govern angling for stocked hatchery fish. Undercoffer believes brook trout could do better if angling for those wild fish was regulated differently.
"Just look at Maryland," he said. "They have far fewer brook trout waters but they identify those streams and set up regulations to protect their populations -- smaller creel limits, and no minimum size -- which tends to protect the bigger, reproductively successful fish."
Pennsylvania anglers have been fishing over hatchery fish for so long, said Undercoffer, "they think that's all there is. Most anglers have no conception there's a wild fishery out there. We need to educate people about what we once had and what we could have again in some special places."
Undercoffer compliments Fish and Boat's existing Brook Trout Enhancement program, which prohibits brook trout harvest on a few designated streams. But he'd like to see the stricter philosophy widely applied.
Greene, though, believes his agency's less restraining approach is more appropriate for changing trends.
"For a lot of younger fishermen, these wild brook trout are off their radar," Greene said. "We know from surveys that there's no longer the emphasis on harvesting wild trout that there was in the 1960s. Do we want to make things more restrictive and discourage people even more from fishing? These remote waters, to an extent, are regulating themselves. If we see that we need special regulation where anglers are hitting a certain stream too hard, we can put that in place."