Saturday, August 23, 2003

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — Brook trout numbers are at historic lows in many Maryland streams after last year’s drought and this year’s floods, state fishery managers say.

The biologists say they expect a rapid rebound but that they are also pondering the Department of Natural Resources’ management of the small, speckled fish — Maryland’s only native trout and whose presence often indicates water purity.

In addition to counting brook trout, the agency is surveying anglers who pursue them, generally seeking something wild.

“It’s extremely important to them, and they fish to catch a native fish in its natural habitat,” John Mullican, a regional fisheries biologist in Frederick County, said.

That’s one reason the DNR wants to preserve and protect the pristine streams where brookies live.

“We’re trying to come up with a status report card,” said Charlie Gougeon, fisheries biologist in the agency’s Patuxent field office in Baltimore County.

The process starts with a tally, which has found a paucity of brook trout in central Maryland counties. The sampled streams generally hold one-third to one-half of the 30 to 50 trout per acre that biologists consider average, Mr. Mullican said.

He and Mr. Gougeon blamed the decline partly on last year’s drought, which raised water temperatures and reduced autumn spawning habitat as creek levels fell. Brook trout prefer water temperatures of 68 degrees or less, and they are most prevalent near the headwaters of clear, mountain streams.

Fry that hatched in the spring hadn’t reached even an inch in length when heavy rainfall in April and May overwhelmed some narrow streams. One storm dropped as much as 4 inches of rain in northern Frederick County on May 16.

“A lot of the fish were destroyed,” Mr. Mullican said.

Those that survived are healthy, though, owing to adequate rainfall this summer, the biologists said. Their good condition augurs well for the population’s recovery.

“We have, in fact, gone back and found that the fish that are remaining are extremely fat and in outstanding shape,” Mr. Gougeon said.

Fat is a relative term. Brook trout in Maryland are not large, rarely reaching a foot in length, even in far western Garrett County, home to about half of the state’s approximately 100 brookie streams.

They are easily caught, but few pursue them, preferring instead the bigger rainbow trout the DNR stocks for put-and-take fishing, or brown trout — a larger, nonnative species that has adapted to Maryland waters.

Keith H. Albright, an angler and former fishing guide from Sykesville who has studied brook trout, said they reward those who take time to find them.

“You’re not going to be impressed with their size, but they’re a very pretty fish, and some of the habitats you’ll find them in are in some of the most pristine areas you’ll want to go,” he said. “And since very few people pursue brook trout, you don’t have to be fighting the crowds that go after the hatchery fish.”

In Allegany County, the DNR and local residents are working to restore brook trout habitat in the Georges Creek watershed, which has been poisoned by acid drainage from old coal mines. One effective technique involves steadily dispensing powdered limestone, an antacid, into the streams.

“Brook trout are expanding their range in that watershed, so that’s good to hear,” Alan Klotz, the western region fisheries biologist, said.

Across the state, the DNR is seeking data from brook trout anglers on their fishing and spending habits to help guide management of the species. A survey form is available on the agency’s Web site,

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