The Southerly Flow

This was first published in the August/September 2002 issue of Appalachian Life magazine. It is a short article that describes the natural history of brook trout in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina and the opportunities to fly fish for them.

As the sun rises over the Great Smoky Mountains, twilight brightens with the morning in a mountain cove whose skyline is dominated by hemlock and poplars.Here clear waters sweep between boulders and plunge into pools. Tiny bubbles swirl in the current, dissolving oxygen in the powerful flow. Down on the streams’ rock strewn bottom, mature mayfly nymphs move.

The yearling mayflies will swim to the surface, shed their skin, and sprout wings, intent upon flying to the safety of the trees and mating. If they succeed, they will lay eggs in the stream tomorrow and die. They have to make it that far, though. As the nymphs swim from the hiding places in the rocks, struggling to reach the surface and flutter off the water, a dark figure emerges and slurps it down with a swirl. As quickly as it appeared the shadow retires beneath the currents.

Trout also live here and must eat to survive.The brook trout is camouflaged with light squiggle marks on its back. Bright red fins and an orange belly combine with yellow, blue, and red spots to create one of nature’s brightest displays.

A friend of mine once caught several nice brookies out of a high elevation stream in the mountains of western North Carolina. He walked into camp with fly rod in one hand and a brace of colorful brook trout in the other.

“Where’d you catch them beauties?” another fisherman asked. What the trout lacked in size they made up in looks. My friend told him the name of the rivulet near the top of the mountain.

“Who stocked them specs way up there?” Mountain folk of Tennessee and North Carolina often refer to these native trout as specs, short for speckled trout. My friend just smiled back and replied, “God’s the only one stocks ’em up there.”

Brook trout were once the only species of trout in the eastern United States. The now prevalent rainbow trout were introduced to Appalachian waters in the early 1900’s. Brown trout, sometimes measured in pounds rather than inches, were brought from Germany and Scotland a few years later, facts bound in the archives. But the origins of mountain brook trout reach much further into the past.

Brookies are descended from Arctic Char, fish now only found in the most northern reaches of Alaska and Canada. The last great ice age pushed these fish far south. Everything north of present day Louisville, Kentucky was frozen beneath the sheets of ice up to two miles thick and the char was sent scampering into southern rivers. The New River, which originates in North Carolina and flows northwest toward West Virginia, was dammed by the glaciers, forming a massive lake.

As the lake grew larger and deeper its waters flowed over the southern rim into other river systems. The char followed the southerly flow out of the lake into new waters. The lake drained when the glaciers receded and the brookies’ ancestors were stranded in a warming landscape. The only cold water where these fish could find refuge was in frigid mountain streams. Enormous stands of timber in the Southern Appalachians kept streams shady and cool for nearly 10,000 years.

Forever separated from the north these trout began to adapt to Southern Appalachian streams in a number of ways. Their average size became much smaller than their northern cousins. Few of our brookies ever grow to more than eight inches long. A brook trout that reaches the 12 inch mark is considered a trophy by small stream fishermen in Tennessee, the Carolinas, and northern Georgia. Appalachian mountaineers always knew that specs were more colorful than stocked brook trout which originated from northern blood lines. Modern DNA testing has shown that our native fish are a distinct sub-species.

The end of the 1800’s brought the first logging operations into the region. As the forest was cut, daylight warmed the streams. Mules were commonly used to drag heavy logs out of the forest, which cut gullies into the mountain-sides and caused mud to choke the creeks. Warm, silty streams could no longer support the bright fish which had made these streams their home. Only virgin forests support brookies.

Rainbow and brown trout were imported to replace dwindling fish populations, and these new trout took well to the streams. In fact, they took to our streams so well that they began to displace remnant brook trout populations. Only streams that had waterfalls blocked the invaders from dominating all Appalachian streams. Brook trout populations seemed to continue their decline well after logging operations ceased. The situation became dire enough that in 1975 the National Park Service closed the majority of brook trout waters to fishing in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was also illegal to keep brookies anywhere in the park.

Today the brook trout has entered a new era in the Great Smoky Mountains. A number of restoration projects have been successful and brookies have begun to move downstream in several creeks. Fisheries biologists at Great Smoky Mountains National Park have decided to lauch a three year experiment on eight selected streams. Anglers will be allowed to keep up to five brook trout at least seven inches long per day. These streams will be monitored by biologists and if brook trout populations show no ill effects after three years, other streams in the park will likely be opened as well. Biologists now believe that environmental factors have a far greater impact on brook trout populations than ethical fishermen. They hope this study will confirm this.

Even small streams may have over 1,000 brookies per mile, but only a fraction of these fish are big enough to keep. Biologists believe that any large trout harvested by a fisherman will be replaced by one of the scores of smaller trout. Specs have long been prized by Appalachian fly fishermen. Their sweet red flesh is a prize for the frying pan. However, most modern day fishermen return their catch to the stream, hoping the trout will grow larger and succumb to a fly once again. They are no less prized by this new breed of angler than those who fish to put meat on the table.

While brookies rarely achieve the size of many brown and rainbow trout, they tackle a fly with more gusto. Perhaps the best part about catching a native brook trout is admiring the dazzling patterns and colors on its flanks. Many fishermen take to the mountain streams only hoping to find peace and natural beauty. Nothing can fit the bill better than a high mountain stream brimming with brookies.