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After being raised from an egg in a Hardy County fish hatchery, one of 351 juvenile brook trout is ready to be released into an Eastern Panhandle stream. DNR officials hope the native-strain brookies will reproduce and create self-sustaining trout populations in streams where trout had been absent for years.

So far, reestablishing native brook trout in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle has been a series of ups and downs.

This year is sort of in between; 251 native-strain brookies have been reared in a Hardy County hatchery for stocking in panhandle streams.

That’s a dip from last year, when nearly 1,600 young brookies were stocked. It’s a significant increase, however, from the effort’s first two years, when only 50 fish survived long enough to be stocked as juveniles.

“We would have had more this year, but we had a bacterial infection at the hatchery and only 251 fish survived,” said Brandon Keplinger, the Division of Natural Resources biologist in charge of the program.

The effort began in the fall of 2017, when Keplinger and his colleagues decided to try to reestablish native trout into troutless streams that were cold and had adequate water quality. The Eastern Panhandle has many such streams, most of them fed by cold, limestone-rich springs.

Instead of capturing brookies from other waters and transplanting them into the target streams, which would have depleted the populations in the donor streams, DNR workers took eggs from female trout in the donor streams, fertilized the eggs with milt from male natives, and put the eggs in West Virginia University’s Reymann Farm aquaculture facility to incubate, hatch and grow.

“That first year was a ‘proof-of-concept’ year, and we only had about 50 fish that we were able to stock,” Keplinger said. “The second year, we would have gotten about 350 fish, but there was a problem with the pipes in the hatchery and we only got about 50.”

The initiative hit its stride in the spring of 2020, when 1,600 juvenile brookies hatched from eggs taken the preceding fall.

Keplinger said two factors set back this year’s production. About 1,200 eggs turned out to be non-viable and never hatched. The bacterial infection killed off part of the surviving hatchlings, leaving 351 fish for this spring’s stockings.

Five streams have received brookies since the spring of 2018. Keplinger said that in two — Dillons Run and Edwards Run, both in Hampshire County — native-strain fish stocked during that first year have reproduced.

He declined to identify the other three streams, mainly because he didn’t want them to attract much fishing pressure before natives stocked there had a chance to reproduce.

“In some streams, the fish haven’t gotten old enough to spawn yet,” he said. “Those fish should have [egg-bearing females] this fall if we’ve gotten survival.”

Keplinger said he believes reestablishing native fisheries could help to increase satisfaction among Eastern Panhandle anglers.

“We stock trout in the panhandle, and we get complaints that we don’t stock enough,” he continued. “The problem is, a lot of the streams don’t ‘look like’ trout water, or they’re too warm to hold trout.

“The truth is, we have some beautiful streams we can repatriate [with native-strain fish] and have trout available to anglers year-round. There may ultimately be a smaller number of streams that have stocked-trout opportunities, but maybe we can build back in these native-trout opportunities.”

Currently, Keplinger and his co-workers are learning which factors combine to create ideal habitat for native-strain fish, and how better to spawn native fish and rear their offspring to adolescence.

“Twenty years down the road, we’re hoping to see watersheds rehabilitated so they have the capacity to receive brook trout,” Keplinger said. “The farther east we go, the waters get warmer, and they get more silted because of development.

“We don’t want that to hold us back, because if we’re successful at reestablishing trout fisheries, [non-governmental organizations] can get involved and help rehabilitate those streams. If that happens, we can continue to expand our brook-trout range farther eastward.”

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