By Chris Wood
“What is the name of that tree?” Brandon Keplinger, the district fisheries biologist for West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, asked the 20 or so fifth graders from Slanesville Elementary School in West Virginia.
The kids stood by the stream and looked up.
“It’s a sycamore,” Brandon said. “You know how in the summer, you just like to sit under a shade tree and stay cool? Brook trout are like that, too. They need shade to cover their stream and keep them cool.”
Dustin Wichterman, who directs habitat restoration along many of the streams in the Upper Potomac for Trout Unlimited chimed in, “Do you like to swim in a swimming hole in the summer?” Every kid nodded their head. “Brook trout do, too. That’s why brook trout need deep pools to keep them cool in the summer,” Dustin continued.
The brook trout is the state fish of West Virginia, but due to development pressures and competition from non-native trout over the past 100 years, they occupy less than 75 percent of their historic habitat. The Slanesville students participate in a Trout Unlimited program called Trout in the Classroom where they raise trout in a tank, learn about the lifecycle of trout, and why clean water matters.
Today, the kids were releasing native brook trout into Dillons Run, a tributary of the Cacapon River. The fish were the offspring of brook trout captured from a stream in Wardensville, W.V. Because it is so healthy, the creek produces over 200 fish per every 100 yards or so. The DNR captures a few adult males and females and raise their offspring in a West Virginia University hatchery that mimics a natural environment—the fish eat bugs, not trout chow, for example.
So much of conservation is about overseeing loss—loss of wetlands, open space, forests, native species … the heartbreaking list goes on. What is so heartening about this project is that its focus is on recovering hope.
“When I was a girl, there where brook trout everywhere,” said Patti Taylor, who has lived on Dillons Run for over 70 years. They have been absent from the stream for at least three decades.
Conservation is the single most optimistic and affirmative idea that America ever gave the rest of the world. That gets blurry when you consider that according to the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, brook trout have been extirpated from 25 percent of their historic range in West Virginia, and 85 percent of their habitat is highly fragmented and degraded.
Of course, Trout Unlimited is helping to recover native brookies; that’s our mission. It is super cool to see landowners on Dillons Run lining up to work with Dustin and his crew to improve their habitat, too. Most awesome, however, is seeing Brandon and his merry band of DNR brothers and sisters leading the charge on recovering West Virginia’s state fish.
Then you look at a group of kids from the local elementary school releasing native heritage strain brook trout into a creek that hasn’t seen brook trout in decades. “I’m coming back for you in a few years,” said a boy in an Incredible Hulk shirt. A girl with brown braids released her fish and said, “Goodbye, goodbye. Be safe!”
These kids are 11 and 12 years old. One can imagine them in a few years taking to their bikes, packing rods in backpacks, and fishing in Dillons Run for the progeny of these fish, or perhaps even catching one of these released fish which by then will be 14 to 16 inches long.
“Would you like to come back here after these fish grow, and try to catch them?” Taylor asks, leaning down and speaking to a group releasing fish in a pool in her front yard.
In unison, all of the kids shout a single word.
This was previously published in Trout, the publication of Trout Unlimited. It is the second in a two part series; the first was included in the July, 2018, edition of The Highlands Voice.