ROAN MOUNTAIN, Tenn. (AP) — Just outside the town of Roan Mountain in upper East Tennessee is the Hampton Creek Cove State Natural Area, where horses and cattle graze on hillsides that rise to meet the Appalachian Trail.
Through the middle of this 693-acre reserve flows the Left Prong of Hampton Creek, with headwaters that can be traced to the mountains that border the upper reaches of the property. The combination of pastureland and forest makes the area a prime bird-watching destination.
The Left Prong of Hampton Creek also is considered one of the finest native brook trout streams in the state.
Late last month, the Tennessee Aquarium released 225 Southern Appalachian brook trout — the only trout species native to Tennessee — into Hampton Creek as part of a long-term effort to restore these slender, colorful fish to their native waters.
The project began last October when biologists with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute removed 50 adult brook trout from Hampton Creek and transported them to the aquarium's hatchery in Chattanooga. Eggs and milt were collected from the brood fish, and by late November, baby trout were hatching.
The project marks the first time Southern Appalachian brook trout have been reared in a closed hatchery system that uses dechlorinated city water. Before this effort, brook trout had been reared only at the Tellico Fish Hatchery in the Cherokee National Forest using water from a nearby mountain stream.
Packed in aerated plastic bags, the juvenile brook trout arrived at Hampton Creek after a four-hour drive. The first release site was located just above an artificially enhanced waterfall built to keep rainbow trout from swimming upstream into brook trout territory. Using a small net, biologists scooped several trout from a bucket and watched as the 4-inch fish scattered in the swift current.
"It's nice watching them swim off in water this clear," said Kathlina Alford, biologist with the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute.
At one time, brook trout occupied all of Tennessee's trout waters. Poor logging practices in the late 1800s destroyed much of their habitat, and the fish also have suffered from the introduction of rainbow trout, a nonnative species that out-competes brookies. Biologists believe that across the Southeast, native brook trout now occupy only 3 percent of their original range.
In Tennessee, about 70 percent of the streams that hold Southern Appalachian brook trout are located in the Cherokee National Forest.
Jason Henegar, statewide rivers and streams coordinator for TWRA, said brook trout are vulnerable to the kind of flash flooding that occurred in the East Tennessee mountains last spring because the high water hits at a time when the fish are only a few weeks old.
"Brook trout habitat is stable in most areas," Henegar said. "The big factor now is climate. We really don't have normal weather patterns anymore. It's one extreme or another."
Working their way upstream, the biologists seeded the creek with the hatchery-reared brook trout. As juveniles, the trout had yet to develop the iridescent red bellies and bright golden spots that will characterize them as adults. Like the leaves, the fish would turn color in the fall.
Anglers don't fish for native brook trout because of their size (a 9-inch brookie qualifies as trophy) but because of the waters they inhabit. The farther up the biologists waded with their fish buckets, the narrower and rockier Hampton Creek became.
Partnering with the Tennessee Aquarium on brook trout restoration are the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Trout Unlimited, TWRA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The brood fish were collected from Hampton Creek because the stream has such a healthy brook trout population. The hatchery offspring released last week were tagged so that researchers can monitor their movements and survival.
The brook trout reared at the Tennessee Aquarium hatchery will help repopulate streams where the native Southern Appalachian strain once thrived. Because the hatchery operates on a closed circulation system rather than a system that uses flow-through water, managers won't have to worry about the spread of disease and escaped fish to nearby wild populations.
"We've been able to replicate nature in a closed hatchery system, and that's pretty exciting," said Anna George, director of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute.