Photo above by Sean Landsman/Engbretson Underwater Photography
Any angler who has pursued brook trout in Vermont’s sparkling, icy streams knows good brook trout habitat. Many of us learned what to look for as children, stalking local streams for our speckled state fish. Indeed, recognizing good brook trout habitat is nothing new. In a 1921 issue of Field and Stream, C.S. Shafer wrote “[The brook trout is] a creature of cold brooks and little singing tributary streams. He loves the gentle ripples, deep, dark haunts beneath the roots of overhanging trees, the catacombs of drift piles, the erosion chambers of the banks and the shade of overhanging bushes.”
Why is it that brook trout are attracted to deep water and overhead cover? For the most part, the answer is that this is where they feel safe. As many anglers can attest, brook trout are delicious when baked, fried, or grilled, and many feathered and furred predators might add that they are good raw, wet, and wriggling. Deep water and overhead cover, whether in the form of surface turbulence, overhanging banks, or large pieces of woody material, provide these fish with relatively safe places to watch for passing meals while reducing the chance of becoming a meal themselves.
Vermont has been blessed with hundreds of miles of cold, clean streams that support self-sustaining populations of wild brook trout. Many of these streams offer deep water and overhead cover, while others have room for improvement. Past land and water use practices have severely degraded brook trout habitat in some streams; for example, brook trout habitat was intentionally destroyed for log-driving purposes. The loggers and river workers had nothing against brook trout, but the large boulders and downed trees that provided good habitat were not conducive to floating rafts of logs from the highlands of Vermont to the sawmills downstream, so they removed many of these obstructions and dynamited boulders that were too big to move. The log-driving days have long since passed, but some streams have been slow to heal. Big boulders do not grow back and the streamside forests are still recovering from repeated rounds of clearcutting, a practice that outlived the log drives. We now know we should not be harvesting trees from stream banks, partly because we want these trees to grow large and fall into the water, where they can provide habitat for brook trout and other aquatic species.
Several streams in northeastern Vermont were especially affected by past logging practices and now have long reaches that are unnaturally wide, shallow, and lacking in cover. The good news is that these streams don’t have to remain like this forever. With a unified goal of reversing some of this legacy damage, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and Trout Unlimited began a partnership in 2009, and have since been joined by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Weyerhaeuser Company, the Vermont Land Trust (VLT), and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB). The US Fish and Wildlife Service has provided assistance as a willing and helpful landowner and with funds from the Federal Aid in Sportfish Restoration Act. Weyerhaeuser is a private timber company that owns a large portion of forested lands in northeastern Vermont, and VLT and VHCB co-manage the conservation easements on these lands. Weyerhaeuser manages these lands under the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, a third-party certification system that addresses stream and wetland habitats, fish and wildlife conservation, research, and modern forestry practices so that these Vermont forests can be enjoyed by future generations. The early years of this partnership were spent identifying and prioritizing opportunities to improve brook trout habitat, and since 2012, the partners have been actively implementing habitat improvement.
Progress has been good – to date, the partners have improved brook trout habitat in over 13 stream miles by using chainsaws to strategically fell trees into the streams. The intention is to nearly always ensure the trees remain in place, even during floods. If the trees are short relative to the width of the stream (i.e. less than 1.5x stream width), the partners use a machine called a grip hoist to lock felled trees into secure positions. While it would be much faster to perform this work with an excavator or other heavy equipment, the use of muscle power and small machines minimizes the impact to the streambed and banks.
The brook trout are responding. Six years of electrofishing data revealed that brook trout biomass (total weight of the population) has increased an average of 150 percent at treated sites, and the number of brook trout over six inches in length has nearly quadrupled. Brook trout abundance has also increased slightly at untreated sites, which suggests that the woody cover is not just concentrating fish but may be contributing to increased numbers and size of brook trout beyond the areas where habitat has been improved.
From the beginning, the partners wanted to benefit brook trout and improve fishing opportunities, which is one reason why the work has occurred on public lands or private lands with public access (e.g. Weyerhaeuser). These streams flow through one of the most beautifully rugged and remote portions of Vermont, through lands that are iconic of the state’s historic and ongoing timber industry. There are relatively few permanent residents in this part of the state, although there are many private camps scattered along the miles of logging roads that also provide access to excellent brook trout fishing opportunities. While some of the brook trout habitat improvement occurred within sight of the roads, the wood-addition crews worked over a mile from the nearest road in some cases. This means adventuresome anglers will be rewarded with great fishing and breathtaking scenery while seeing very few boot prints. Access can be problematic during the spring mud season, when gates are locked to prevent damage to thawing roads, but these gates are usually open by Memorial Day.
The best tip for fishing these streams is to get away from the roads. Most people are not coming up to the camps to watch television – they are coming to fish and the places that are easiest to access get the most attention. There are always some brook trout near the roads, but these fish can be wary, having attended the fishing school of hard knocks.
Whether fishing near the road or deep in the woods, look for brook trout in places that maximize their access to food while minimizing their energy expenditures and risk of becoming food themselves. Stream-dwelling brook trout feed by waiting for insects to drift into their territory, so the most attractive lies provide safe, slow water with easy access to fast current. A deep plunge pool with a turbulent surface, which can screen brook trout from predators, is a classic location. Plunge pools can be created by waterfalls, large boulders, or downed trees. Undercut banks, boulders, and logs can also provide overhead protection and are likely to harbor brook trout. In small streams, good overhead cover near fast water will often hold brook trout, even in water less than a foot deep. These fish are territorial, which means that the biggest ones occupy the best habitats, but there can be many brook trout in one ideal pool, especially if there is large wood present to visually shield the fish from their neighbors.
As mentioned, brook trout prefer locations where they can be safe from predators (including you), so it should be no surprise that fishing the best habitats can be challenging. Working around recently fallen trees, with their many hook-hungry branches, can be especially difficult. However, where there is a will, there is a way … sometimes. It is usually possible to drop a live worm near the wood, and I have had some success roll-casting small bead-head nymphs near such cover. (The bead head is important to get the fly down quickly before it is swept into the wood or past the brook trout’s lair.) In the angler’s favor, brook trout are used to darting out and grabbing food that is racing past, so if you can get the bait or fly into the fish’s field of view with some semblance of a natural drift, an actively feeding fish will likely attack your offering. Fly-fishing enthusiasts will find the East, North, and Black branches of the Nulhegan River more accommodating to a back-cast. Bring a short rod, if you have one.
The efforts to add wood to streams were done with the express purpose of increasing brook trout abundance and improving brook trout fishing, so get out and enjoy it! But, while you’re out there exploring these waters, don’t limit your search to the areas where wood has been added. Some of the best fishing holes in these streams were created by waterfalls, large boulders, beavers, or trees that fell of their own accord. Finally, before you ask your local fisheries biologist to start adding wood to your favorite stream, consider that this type of habitat improvement work is not appropriate everywhere. Before adding a stick to any of these streams, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and Trout Unlimited spent years determining whether woody habitat was limiting brook trout abundance in these streams. They also worked very hard to ensure that felled trees stayed in place, and if they did move, they would not be likely to damage downstream property. A willing landowner, like Weyerhaeuser, is also a must for this type of project. Ultimately, what we anglers should want are mature streamside forests that naturally add wood on their own.
Jud Kratzer is a fisheries biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and a well-rounded angler who enjoys fishing for a variety of species in a variety of locations.