Greenville’s Gordon Anderson has hooked countless trophy fish since purchasing his first rod and tackle box in 1971. But none of them, no matter how large or exotic, compare to the beauty of the Southern Appalachian brook trout.
“They are some of the most colorful fish you can catch,” said Anderson, conservation chairman of Greenville’s Mountain Bridge Trout Unlimited, an anglers group dedicated to conserving freshwater fish and their habitat. “They also live in beautiful places. The scenery and seclusion are part of the experience for me.”
South Carolina’s only native trout, which can be found in the Upstate’s remote mountain streams, have earned a special place in the hearts and hooks of fisherman across the eastern United States for their colorful appearance.
But the Southern Appalachian trout, which are genetically distinct from their northern brook trout relatives, has seen its numbers dwindle to dangerously low levels. That’s why Anderson and other members at the Mountain Bridge Chapter of Trout Unlimited are working alongside the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Forest Service to restore the fish to their original range.
“The Southern Appalachian brook trout has an incredible history. It’s been around for thousands of years,” said Anderson. “It’s our job as fishermen who enjoy the sport to ensure that this species survives. It’s part of our heritage.”
Saving the brook trout
The brook trout, which first arrived in the southern Appalachians about 1.8 million years ago, has historically thrived in rivers and streams stretching from Maine to Georgia. But it has been under pressure since the influx of European settlers in the 1800s.
SCDNR fisheries biologist Dan Rankin, who is based in Clemson, says forest management practices in the early 1900s, when timber companies did not abide by Best Management Practices that are now in place to protect water and soil, contributed to the absence of brook trout in the region.
Such disturbances have fragmented habitat, increased sedimentation, and created warm stream temperatures.
The Southern Appalachian brook trout thrive in waters with low temperatures and high oxygen content. Most of South Carolina’s trout reside in high elevation headwater streams in Oconee, Pickens, and Greenville counties.
Rainbow and brown trout have also hurt Southern Appalachian brook trout. The former species of fish, which are not native to the Southeast, were stocked in South Carolina’s mountain streams in the early 1900s to provide more fish for anglers. Now they outcompete the state’s native brook trout for food, according to Rankin.
Also, acid rain has decimated South Carolina’s native brook trout. Pollutants, including sulfates and ammonia, work their way into soils near streams and wash into waterways when it rains, stressing fish and leaving some unable to reproduce.
The Southern Appalachian brook trout have been eliminated from 55 percent of their historic habitat in South Carolina and Georgia, and populations are greatly reduced in another 25 percent of habitat that formerly supported brook trout, according to an assessment by Trout Unlimited.
One stream at a time
Fortunately, the Southern Appalachian trout’s decline hasn’t gone unnoticed.
SCDNR is working with federal agencies and private conservation groups, including Trout Unlimited, to restore the fish through the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, which was intended to assess brook trout populations, identify healthy breeding populations, and develop strategies for the protection of remaining viable populations.
“The population hit such a low level in the 1990s that we thought we were going to slowly lose what remaining brook trout we had left. We were down to 10 or so viable populations,” Rankin said. “But there was a big push for us to restore the state’s streams so they would support the fish. So we did.”
In South Carolina, biologists have restored more than 10 streams, totaling 26 stream miles, for Southern Appalachian brook trout since 2005. The state now has about 59 miles of stream where brook trout are the only trout present.
Strategies to improve brook trout streams include removing rainbow and brown trout from designated sections of streams, building bottomless arches to replace culverts, and using limestone sand to neutralize the effects of acid rain.
“Some streams are much more secure. But there’s still a lot of opportunity and a long way to go. We’d really like to restore some more streams that lead into more fishable populations,” Rankin said.
But as SCDNR continues to grapple with budget struggles, collaboration with private groups and individuals plays an ever more important role in their ability to accomplish conservation missions.
For instance, Greenville’s Mountain Bridge Chapter of Trout Unlimited and Clemson’s Chattooga River Chapter of Trout Unlimited have worked alongside Rankin since 2009 to restore the Southern Appalachian brook trout in four mountain streams in the Jocassee Gorges. That includes Howard Creek in Oconee County.
A team effort
In 2015, the Mountain Bridge Chapter and SCDNR cut down trees and placed them in Howard Creek, creating more than two miles of habitat for Southern Appalachian brook trout to hide, rest, and search for food.
The Chattooga River Chapter then donated $10,000 to SCDNR for genetic screening to ensure that wild brook trout used in restoration efforts are from pure native sources and maintain sufficient genetic diversity.
A northern strain of brook trout was released in South Carolina to supplement local stocks, causing alterations to native brook trout population genetics. Only four populations of genetically unaltered Southern Appalachian brook trout persist in South Carolina, according to Rankin.
Trout Unlimited members and SCDNR have also replaced Howard Creek’s rainbow trout population with 200 Southern Appalachian brook trout. Now they plan to monitor the fish in the coming months to see if they spawn and hatch a thriving population.
“I have faith we’ll see a healthy population at Howard Creek,” said Rankin. “It offers a unique opportunity to expand the brook trout population many miles downstream, and obtain more connectivity, more like what we had in a lot of these streams in the late 1800s. It could expand their range by another 18 miles.”
Future efforts to restore the state’s native brook trout reach outside the Jocassee Gorge.
The Mountain Bridge Chapter of Trout Unlimited, for example, is teaming up with the Forest Service and SCDNR to inventory about 40 potential culvert replacement sites throughout the Andrew Pickens Ranger District of Sumter National Forest.
The group plans to replace the culverts with bottomless arches, said U.S. Forest Service fisheries biologist Keith Whalen. Culverts create a barrier that prevents trout from passing through, sometimes isolating fish populations. Bottomless arches serve the same purpose as a culvert, but they don’t impede fish.
“A lot of the roads were constructed before we knew about the impacts of culverts. But we’re hoping to restore the blocked passages and expand the brook trout’s range to areas that are more suitable spawning sites,” Whalen said.
The Forest Service has already identified four culverts to be replaced.
Trout Unlimited members also plan to identify, remove, and eventually replant native plant species at four different native brook trout streams throughout Sumter National Forest. That should reduce nutrient runoff, erosion, and sunlight hitting the stream, according to Whalen.
“I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished together, but there’s work to be done. South Carolina has many more stream miles available for Southern Appalachian brook trout populations. It’s just a matter of restoring them,” Anderson said.