Saving the Brook Trout

Genetically Unique to Ohio, this Species Was Once Thought to Be Extinct

Paul Pira looks down at the moving water with the same sense of admiration that most people experience while watching their child take his or her first steps. This stream is not his child, but he takes pride in the fact that he has helped this small watershed take its first steps in the conservation process by restoring a threatened species native to only Northeast Ohio.

The Geauga County stream rolls down the hillside, winding its way along the fall line. It dodges pine trees and flows under a massive rock formation where black bears are sometimes spotted. A smile begins to show and a spring appears in Pira’s step as we hike along the pristine banks of a stream that preserved history in secret for decades. He stops and, with a hurried gesture, motions for me to come. I follow, curious to see what we came to find. There, suspended in the cold, clear current, is a native Ohio brook trout, a fish that was thought to be lost forever.

The first time I saw a brook trout, I knew I was looking at something extraordinary. It’s a creature most people in Ohio never get a chance to see. Years ago, my father, brother, and I were fishing in our favorite trout stream in Pennsylvania. My brother fooled the fish into taking his fly in a pool below the stone remains of a railroad bridge. After a quick fight, the brook trout was in his wooden net. The fish thrashed about at first and then calmly relaxed into a cold, sleek canvas full of bright colors and unique camouflage. We admired nature’s artwork and then released the fish unharmed. With the vibrant image so vividly etched in my mind, I had wondered why brook trout could not be found in Ohio.

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Pira, a biologist for the Geauga Park District, explains that the answer is complicated, but centers on this stream and a species that once thrived in Ohio waters. The brook trout is genetically distinct from any other species of trout on the planet. “The history of the native Ohio brook trout is as colorful as the fish itself,” Pira said. “They are a wonderfully beautiful fish with a tragic past and hopefully a bright future.”

The stream is narrow, and in most places you can cross it by stepping on a few moss-covered rocks. Pira stops hiking, snaps a twig off a tree and declares that yellow birch buds smell and taste like spearmint. He puts the twig in his mouth and explains that this stream once held the only remaining native Ohio brook trout.

Ohio naturalists indicated that as early as 1838, native Ohio brook trout were near extinction and could be found in only two northeastern Ohio streams located in the Chagrin River watershed. In the 1950s, Milton Trautman, famed naturalist, scientist, and author of the book The Fishes of Ohio, assumed the brook trout indigenous to our region to be extirpated from our inland waters and streams due to deforestation, agricultural runoff, pollution, and development.

Pira explains that his long-time mentor and John Carroll University professor Dr. Andrew White rediscovered the native Ohio brook trout in the early 1970s while conducting routine stream surveys. Dr. White found an isolated population of brook trout in a Geauga County stream, but initially thought they were stocked fish and not a unique strain of brook trout native to Ohio. “After careful study and genetic testing were conducted, it was concluded that the trout found in this undisclosed stream was in fact a native Ohio trout species that has lived in Ohio since the time of the glaciers 10,000 years ago,” Pira said.

From the time of this discovery until the mid-1990s, this population of native Ohio brook trout was not made public and was monitored closely by several agencies. “The Ohio Division of Wildlife and everyone involved really kept this discreet to ensure the safety of the habitat and to protect these last remaining wild trout,” Pira said. “We knew we had do everything we could to save these trout, and so we started planning the reintroduction of these native Ohio brook trout into our local streams.”

In 1996, the Ohio Brook Trout Advisory Committee was formed, and for the next four years, the committee surveyed more than 200 Northeast Ohio streams for the reintroduction. Through that process, only 15 streams were identified as having the qualities and the habitat to support the rare trout species.

Precarious Habitat

These spring-fed streams had to have clear water with a summer temperature ranging from 60° to 65° in a forested setting intact with a mature canopy. They had to be surrounded by a stable bank with established vegetation and have a stream bed consisting of Sharon conglomerate. This type of sandstone acts like a sponge and holds snowmelt and rainwater, which enables the streams to be crystal cold. As this rock breaks down, the small quartz pebbles and gravel are released from the rock, providing the perfect habitat for brook trout to nest and lay eggs.

The Ohio Division of Wildlife raised and then released native Ohio brook trout fry in all of the 15 streams identified as suitable habitat. As of today, only four of the initial candidate streams have experienced self-sustaining natural reproduction.

Curtis Wagner, Ohio Division of Wildlife Fisheries Management Supervisor, has worked with Pira and the Geauga Park District on the reintroduction project for more than a decade. He explains the importance of the project, as well as the challenges.

“These genetically isolated fish have been here for a long time and are not connected to the eastern brook trout that can be found in neighboring states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New York,” Wagner said. “These brook trout are a native relic, and this population was brought here by the glacial recession, which created our rivers and local watersheds. It is our responsibility to preserve this fish for the fish’s sake.”

The difficult aspect of the reintroduction process is maintaining the brook trout’s habitat. The streams and surrounding habitat are so delicate, a seemingly insignificant environmental disruption can have an extremely damaging effect on the trout population. Wagner experienced first-hand what can happen to these small streams after years of restoration efforts are washed away in an instant.

“There is one stream that was completely scoured because at the top of the watershed, road crews made minor improvements to a roadway drainage in effort to keep water off the road to make it more safe, but by just widening the ditch a few feet, it created more volume of runoff than the stream could handle,” Wagner said. “It washed away all of the gravel for spawning, destroyed bank habitat, and transformed the stream completely. We can’t manufacture or produce these pristine streams and habitat that these native Ohio brook trout need to survive, but we can continue to preserve them.”

Both Pira and Wagner are focused on the next phase of the reintroduction, which is monitoring the population and improving stream habitat. “It is in everyone’s interest that we preserve this natural resource,” Wagner said. “The perception is that the inherent value of our wildlife is on the rise, and people who love nature appreciate that this species has survived. These native brook trout in their natural habitat represent as much wild Ohio as there is to observe.”

“For me, this is a chance to leave something for the next generation,” Pira said. “I have four kids, and I want them, and hopefully my grandchildren, to be able to see and observe our native brook trout in an Ohio stream. These brook trout represent Ohio in its most wild state, and it is a small victory to return these fish to our state’s wild eastern streams.”

Stocking Up

The native Ohio brook trout is listed as a threatened species in Ohio, and nearly all of the stream habitat used for the reintroduction is located on private park property. Therefore, fishing for these trout is not allowed. Agencies, such as the Ohio Division of Wildlife and our regional park districts, are passionate about saving natural resources like the native Ohio brook trout, but also acknowledge that managing resources responsibly for recreation is another aspect of their job.

Mike Durkalec, Cleveland Metroparks aquatic biologist, manages the park district’s fisheries, which include 30 continuous miles of the Rocky River and all of the park district’s lakes and ponds across Cuyahoga County. Durkalec explains that Cleveland Metroparks’ “put and take” trout stockings are positioned to spread out fishing areas geographically throughout the Cleveland area.

Cleveland Metroparks stocks more than 12,000 pounds of rainbow trout in the Rocky River and park waters each year to make it a more diverse fishery. Rainbow trout are a non-native species to Ohio, but these stocked trout are considered a sustainable resource because they are locally raised on a trout farm near Sandusky.

“This allows the public to fish the river for trout in the fall and spring and to provide for excellent winter fishing through the ice on our lakes and ponds,” Durkalec said. “The stockings really spread out the seasonal activities in regards to fishing and our trout-stocking program, and also takes the pressure off of the native fish populations from people who want to eat the fish that they catch.”

Cleveland Metroparks promotes fishing events, including a children’s fishing derby at Wallace Lake in Berea each spring. Within the main quarry is rainbow trout. “Trout fishing is great because it provides equal opportunity for everyone,” he said. “You don’t need a boat or specialized equipment. Our goal is to make trout fishing easily accessible for everyone who visits our parks and wants to fish and bring a trout or two home for the table.”

Be sure to fish responsibility. Check the Cleveland Metroparks’ website for details about where fishing is permitted, as well as special events that are great for beginners and families. Visit ClevelandMetroparks.com for more information.