Wildlife Resources hastily rescued a species of rare fish. Now we know whether the beloved brookies survived

Wildlife Resources hastily rescued a species of rare fish. Now we know whether the beloved brookies survived

- in Environment, Top Story
An adult brookie is being weighed and measured so biologists can track the health of the species. This brookie is unharmed, only temporarily dazed and calmed by a mild electroshock and a few drops of clove oil. The fish was soon returned to the stream. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)
O n a crisp summer morning in the mountains, TJ Johnson, a conservation biologist with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, hoists a metal box the size of a mini-fridge onto his back. Clad in rubber waders and rubber gloves, he dips two electrodes the shape of snowshoes into the stream. The box beeps, a red light flashes, and Johnson jolts the water with 400 volts of electricity.

Nearby, Matt Bodenhamer, the wildlife commission’s assistant fish hatcheries manager, also in waders and gloves, wields a net.

“Got one!” Bodenhamer says

Scoop, plop, into the bucket.

“There’s another one,” Johnson exclaims.

Scoop. Plop. Bucket.

Brookies – a nickname for the Southern Appalachian Brook Trout – are gold, gray and green, stippled with red dots, and offset by orange fins and a white belly. Because their scales are small, their skin feels smooth and soft.

A fragile and precarious species, they live only in the headwaters of mountain streams, where no other fish can thrive. Every stream is home to its own genetically distinct line of brookie.

A year ago, NC Wildlife Resources biologists conducted an emergency rescue of brookies from a segment of Ramey Creek, down the mountain and about six miles away. There, Bottomley Properties, a company based in Alleghany County, had been timbering forest on 360 acres to expand its cattle grazing operations.

Shade trees that had cooled Ramey Creek and stabilized the stream banks had been cut to the stumps. Rock, mud and dirt freed by a hard rain, had poured into the creek, damaging three-quarters of an acre of wetlands and more than three linear miles of waterways, imperiling the brookies’ survival. Public records show staff at the state Division of Water Resources called the violations “some of the most extensive sedimentation damage ever seen.”

Over two weeks in June 2021, Wildlife Resources biologists retrieved 97 brookies from Ramey Creek. They relocated the fish to an unnamed tributary of Fishers Creek, on property in Surry County owned by the Piedmont Land Conservancy.

Today the biologists would learn if the brookies survived.

Matt Bodenhamer, left, and TJ Johnson of the NC Wildlife Resources Commission prepare to electroshock part of a stream to find brookies, designated a “species of special concern.” (Photo: Lisa Sorg)
T he journey to the unnamed tributary begins with a four-mile climb and descent in a UTV – utility task vehicle – over rocks with a diameter of bowling balls. Over crevasses and washed-out roads. Over steep climbs on which the UTV’s tires gnaw at the dirt for traction.

It can be disorienting for humans; for fish sloshing in tanks, even numbed out by clove oil, the trek would be harrowing.

The final stretch – a descent of 700 feet in elevation over a just quarter mile – is made on foot. The biologists are laden with gear as if they were pack mules. Other than an occasional path trodden by deer, there are no trails up here. Just thickets of rhododendron, hurdles of fallen logs, and groves of Lady Ferns lapping at their legs.

The white noise of waterfalls crescendos. And then there it is: The stream, pristine and clear and cold. Brookie paradise. Caddisflies and other aquatic insects live between the pebbles and stones that line the streambed – a buffet for the brookies. Trees shade the water, keeping the fish cool.

Over the next 15 minutes Bodenhamer and Johnson lightly shock the stream in 10-meter increments, hoping to roust the brookies from their hiding places. Each fish is then placed in a communal bucket partially filled with stream water, and they laze at the bottom, as if lightly napping.

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The smallest brookies found today would have been laid as an egg last October or November and hatched in January. When they emerge from their egg, they are just 15 millimeters long – a little over a half-inch – Johnson says, “and the yolk is still attached to their stomach.”

Today, as the fish are collected, the two wildlife biologists count, weigh and measure them. The data will help them learn about the brookies’ health and food supply. Johnson calls out the lengths in millimeters – 61, 82, 67, 78 – equivalent to 2 to 3 inches. And the weights in grams – 2.3, 5.4, 2.7, 4.6 – about the same as five to 10 raisins.

A young brookie as it prepares to be weighed and measured. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

A couple of the brookies are obviously adults, probably close to the end of their natural lifespan of three years.

“Here comes a big one,” Bodenhamer says.

225 millimeters  – 8.8 inches — and 109 grams – 3.8 ounces — hefty by brookies’ standards.

The smallest brookie measured 52 millimeters, about 2 inches. “But it was a strong little 52,” Bodenhamer says.

The final count for the 15-minute canvas: 31 brookies.

“That’s pretty good,” Johnson said. “But we have to see if these fish get bigger and bigger and then spawn, to see a whole generation come and go.”

For now, though, it appears the rescue succeeded. The brookies made it.

“It was a small gamble, you never know for sure if it’s the right home,” Johnson says. “They have preferences beyond our understanding.”

What’s next: The NC Department of Environmental Quality fined Bottomley Properties $268,000 for violations of the Clean Water Act related to the degradation of the creeks, wetlands and streams.

Bottomley is contesting the penalty; an Administrative Law Judge is scheduled to hear the case on Oct. 24, in High Point. (An original version of this story listed the date as Sept. 26, but has been rescheduled, according to DEQ.)

Read the original Policy Watch story about the violations here.