Young Anglers Team with Scientists

By Patrick Cooney

Flame azalea blooms blanketed the opposite river bank in vibrant orange while long morning shadows still harbored temperatures that required a warm beverage to chase away the chills of the Appalachian Mountains. A gaggle of kids, warm with excitement, flanked the close shoreline like a battalion ready to face its adversary. The bell chimed, children cheered, and the ‘Trout-tacular’ commenced.

In a flash the 9-foot 5-weight fly rod danced in a deep arc that needs only be described by two words: Fish on! The youngster positioned himself on a recently deposited gravel bar and demonstrated he was a worthy adversary in the battle of reeling in a trout. The trout danced on the end of the line and yanked its head violently from side to side like a dog attempting to yank the head off of a stuffed toy. The fish put up a stellar fight, but the young angler’s efforts proved victorious. It was the first trout of hundreds the kids caught that fine June day, all representing the revitalization of something that was lost generations ago.

Going back to the late 1800s, the virgin timber along the spine of the Appalachian Mountain Range was a treasure trove for entrepreneurial mountaineers. Short term financial gains were made by clear-cutting the timber, but youngsters of today still feel the repercussions of resource depletions made by those whose gravestones now wear smooth with time.

Historic clear cutting dramatically changed the Appalachian ecosystem. (Source)

For more than 100 years, trout populations have been suppressed by historic logging practices that left bare soils to erode and smother stream habitat while robbing streams of cooling shade. Many streams that once held vibrantly colored trout are now unable to sustain wild fish populations, leading to barren streams and lost angling opportunities.

In an effort to revive trout angling in the Southern Appalachians, nearly a million trout are raised in hatcheries each year in North Carolina to stock streams and rivers. Many of these trout are destined for waters regulated as ‘Delayed Harvest’, where all fishing is catch-and-release from October to June. This regulation provides longer angling seasons than traditional put-and-take stockings, but also provides a situation where movement, survival, habitat selection, and food acquisition of trout all play a crucial role in the long term success of the stocking program.

A samples of signs informing anglers of special conditions and uses. (Source)

To best understand trout behavior in Delayed Harvest waters, I surgically implanted 3,000 microchips and 120 radio tags inside the abdomen of hatchery raised trout and released them into the wild. Antennas were constructed across the river bottom to record the movement of tagged fish as they swam beyond regulated waters, while floating antennas were paddled down the rivers with a raft to reveal habitats where tagged trout congregated. Understanding the behavior of these fish has enhanced angling opportunities. This research will help promote stocking in areas that demonstrate long term trout survival combined with a high abundance of optimal habitat, therefore ensuring the long term viability of mountain trout angling.

A kindergartener helps the author release tagged trout. (Credit: Jared Flowers)

Back at the Trout-tacular, hundreds of young anglers were elated to be scientists for a day and play an active role in research. They used scientific equipment to scan their hooked fish for implanted microchips. Those fish with tags were weighed and measured, and children were taught to calculate how much their fish had grown and how far their fish had moved from its original stocking location. Not only did this encourage an active role of young anglers in science, but the information they collected proved instrumental in the success of the project. With a new cohort of young scientist anglers taking to the streams, I have no doubt that the revival of trout angling in the Southern Appalachian Mountains will continue to thrive.

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Read a previous post about western invaders

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