Native brook trout in Virginia? Most fishermen will tell you they are tiny parodies of their sturdy counterparts in Pennsylvania and North Carolina; dwarfs that have been driven into the cramped headwaters of infertile mountain streams in flight from man.
Wild trout are not starving to death in Virginia and eight or nine inches is not the maximum size of fish in these waters. Virginia's native brook trout waters are not nearly as scarce or infertile as many believe. Moreover, there are thriving populations of wild, naturally reproducing rainbows and browns in the state.
Virginia's cold-water streams are being studied by the State Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries.
The study is in its second year and two years from completion, but already it has turned up quite a few revelations.
Before research began, estimates put Virginia's total mileage of trout water, including both stocked and native streams, at 650. With the study far from complete, biologist Larry Mohn estimates the final tally will come closer to 2,000 miles, including 1,500 miles of wild-trout water. Those figures would put Virginia alongside North Carolina as one of the finest trout states in the Southeast.
One unexpected finding of the study is that not all wild trout in Virginia are brookies. Though brook trout is the only native to the Appalachian watershed, in some Virginia waters stocked populations of rainbows and browns have survived and adapted to stream life, establishing naturally reproducing populations.
The study focused initially on nine counties in northwest Virginia --Clarke, Frederick, Greene, Highland, Madison, Page, Rappahannock, Shenandoah and Warren. Within that area said Mohn, "Six streams have been classified as wild-trout water. Of these, five contain predominantly wild rainbow populations and two contain some wild brown trout.
"Since last summer, we have done some sampling in Augusta, Rockingham, Rockbridge and Carroll Counties. During this sampling another 15 to 20 wild-trout streams were found. Two of these streams contain predominantly wild rainbows and two contain small populations of wild brown trout."
Even more striking is the discovery that native brook trout, which predominate in 80 per cent of wild-trout streams studied to date, are not always scrawny.
In every wild stream studied, adult brook trout of eight to 10 inches are common, Mohn said. Over half of the brook trout streams produce the delicately painted bronze-flanked fish in 10-the waters grow lunkers of 13 to 18 inches.
To the trout fisherman, such heartening insights alone are worth the cost of the study. Other results are expected when the final pieces of data trickle in and the project is completed.
Crews of college students are conducting the research under Mohn. One two-man team studies the size, health and variety of the fish population and makes observations on the physical and chemical characteristics of the stream.
That data is analyzed and the stream is put into one of eight rankings -- four for wild trout water and four for stockable streams.
The findings will provide a scientific basis for modifying fishing regulations and trout management policies. When wild-trout waters are at stake, a full creel cannot be the ultimate management goal; the welfare of the native fish must come first.
Mohn foresees significant changes in Virginia's trout policies. Planting full-grown hatchery trout in good wild trout streams would be eliminated. Stocking would likewise be discontinued in streams unable to maintain populations over the summer.
Fingerling trout, which have a chance to grow and learn the ways of survival in a natural stream while young and adaptable, would be stocked in many cases instead of pale "creel-size" trout that often are unable to cope with a wild environment.
Size limits may be imposed. Reduced creel limits on wild-trout waters may go into effect, as well as restrictions on use of live bait. In short, the accent may rise on releasing some of the catch unharmed to fight again.
As Lee Wulff said long ago, "A wild trout is too valuable a resource to be used only once."