What’s the State of Our State Fish?

Brook trout have been squeezed out of much of their natural habitat. Here’s how the finicky little fish is hanging on in New Jersey’s most pristine waters.

New Jersey's state fish, the brook trout. Photo by Morgan Sacken

From the long ridge that is Kittatinny Mountain, you can peer west across the Delaware River, over a rolling forest of Eastern hemlock, white oak and red maple. To the east, the view stretches over a large swath of broken forest and Wallkill River Valley farmland. Both directions bear the marks of civilization. A canoe drifts down the Delaware, smoke plumes from a distant farmer’s tractor, and a perpetual chain of cars and trucks speed along Jersey’s highways. 

But on Kittatinny Mountain, civilization is condensed to a web of hiking trails, some following cold headwater streams. In these streams lives a multihued fish, the brook trout, designated in 1992 as our state fish. Sadly, in the wake of development in all corners of the state, the brook trout’s habitat is disappearing fast. 

On a cool, damp morning in early spring, I set off on a mile hike up Kittatinny Mountain, heading for the mountain streams where brook trout still thrive. As I reached one such stream, the symphony of Appalachian songbirds and the crunch of dried leaves under my boots succumbed to the sound of rushing water. On a bend 30 yards upstream, a small brook trout jumped at a fly drifting in the current. I looked up just in time to catch the ripples. 

Brook trout, or brookies, have lived in New Jersey since the end of the Ice Age. At the time, an ice sheet, 2,000 feet thick in some areas, covered the state’s northern tier. It retreated roughly 12,000 years ago, leaving behind a system of lakes, streams, rivers, mountains and valleys. Brookies were right at home in the pristine waters that the glacier left in its wake.

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Jersey brook trout grow to a noble 12 inches in these mountain streams. Brookies have rusted flanks decorated with concentric spots of sparkling yellow, blue and orange. Their fins are smooth scarlet and edged pearly white. Their coloring seems to be the product of a preschooler with an extraordinary imagination.

Subtleties in colors and patterns make each fish as unique as a human fingerprint. They spend most of their days holding steadfast in the current, facing upstream behind a boulder or downed log. The stream carries yummy crustaceans, insect larvae and small fish to them. A hungry trout will lunge into the current, swallow its prey whole, and return to its hideout in one effortless arc.

Although they dominate small-stream ecosystems, brook trout populations have been stripped from most of their native range. According to Trout Unlimited, a Virginia-based non-profit working to maintain brook trout populations, brookies inhabited nearly every cold-water stream in the Eastern United States before colonization. Now, less than 9 percent of the brook trout’s native range remains intact. The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife reports that brook trout persist in less than half of their native Garden State watersheds.

Cole Baldino, New Jersey restoration manager for Trout Unlimited, lives on the front lines of brook trout conservation. He joined TU at age 8. Now, nearly 20 years later, he dedicates his working hours to keeping brook trout in Jersey waters.

The brook trout, says Baldino, is a harbinger of good news. “When you have brook trout in a stream, that means you’ve got the highest quality of water, and everyone relies on clean water. The Delaware River supports New York City and Philadelphia and 15 million people for clean drinking water every day. So, it shouldn’t just be the angler or conservationist caring about brook trout, it should be everyone who drinks clean water.”

Brook trout need cold streams. The ideal year-round temperature range falls between 55 and 65 degrees; water temperatures above 70 degrees can be fatal. Brook trout also require water devoid of pollutants. In New Jersey, that’s especially rare. Factories, farmlands and residential fertilizers produce chemical runoff that leeches into the groundwater. Along with environmental factors like acid rain and climate change, pollutants can push a river’s water quality below the suitable range.

To the dismay of biologists, conservationists and anglers alike, brook trout are downright finicky. Waterways stripped of streamside vegetation lack the shade they desire to keep cool in the hot months. Dams and culverts prevent in-stream migration of trout in search of cooler waters. And in streams without gravelly bottoms, brook trout cannot spawn.

The author scrambles along a Kittatinny Mountain trail toward the kind of chilly, pristine stream where brook trout still thrive. Photo by Morgan Sacken

Kittatinny Mountain rises from the Delaware in a vertical cliff of shale and rock outcroppings. Rainwater stains the rock face. All water dripping from Kittatinny’s western slope drains into the Delaware River; all water on the eastern slope settles in the Wallpack Valley. 

My hike takes me to Dunnfield Creek. The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife designates Dunnfield Creek as a wild trout stream. On Kittatinny Mountain, it’s one of numerous streams that harbor reproducing brook trout populations. In fact, Kittatinny Mountain is considered the last great bastion of brook trout habitat in the Garden State. “When you find those pockets of pristine wilderness that have been protected,” Baldino says, “you find those brook trout.”

Like other brook trout strongholds in the Northeast, including New York’s Adirondacks and New Hampshire’s White Mountains, Kittatinny’s landscape is harsh. Much of the ridge is publicly owned and protected as part of High Point State Park, the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Worthington State Forest or Stokes State Forest. That makes it an oasis for more imperiled wildlife than just brook trout. A vigilant hiker can cross paths with any number of New Jersey’s most reclusive species, including bobcat, ruffed grouse, timber rattlesnakes, and the weasel-like, tree-dwelling fisher cat.

Gazing in the local waters, a hiker may be lucky enough to spot the vermiculated patterns of a brook trout’s back. Streams on Kittatinny Mountain have rocky bottoms with very little silt. At various points, they feature deep pools, fast-flowing riffles over shallow rock, or long, flat runs. Water runs clear and cold all year round, and the stream banks abound with plant growth. It’s the stuff brook trout love.

The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife estimates that 121 streams harbor reproducing populations of brook trout; it’s a fraction of what the brookies used to inhabit—and in most of these streams, trout are confined to a small section.

When biologists discover reproducing wild trout in a stream, it gets a C1 classification. C1 waters are pristine and are therefore given extreme protections, including a 300-foot development buffer. “Once they receive the classification,” says Baldino, “they usually don’t lose it, and that’s there forever.” In essence, conserving brook trout conserves clean water.

These days, stocking of trout is prohibited on C1 streams. From the late 19th century until 2014, the state stocked brook trout in rivers, along with brown and rainbow trout. Brown trout are native to Europe and rainbows to the Pacific Coast, but anglers prize both for their fight on the end of a fishing line. In 2013, a nasty outbreak of furunculosis, a deadly bacterial disease that affects salmonoid species like trout, plagued Pequest Trout Hatchery—the state’s sole source of trout for stocking. The furunculosis scourge killed 220,000 trout. After the following year of stocking, Pequest stopped raising susceptible species like brown and brook trout. Now, the hatchery solely rears and stocks rainbow trout.

Stocking took an unfortunate toll on native brook trout. A 2008 study conducted by the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife’s principal fisheries biologist, Pat Hamilton, demonstrated that hatchery-reared brook trout had bred with wild trout in some streams. The wild trout living in those streams today bear the genetic markers of hatchery fish.

“When they were stocking all three species, you’d have this intermingling and crossbreeding of genetics that weren’t true to New Jersey,” Baldino says. “That’s originally how we lost a lot of those [wild trout] genetics.” And trout with outside genetics “might not be well adapted for New Jersey waters,” he adds.

Stocking in some small streams also led to the cohabitation of wild brook trout and hatchery-reared brown trout. Brown trout, notorious for their aggressiveness and resilience to high water temperatures, compete with brook trout for food and habitat. The brown trout’s temperament usually beats out that of the finicky brook trout. The competition has led to the destruction of brook trout populations in many New Jersey streams.

Clockwise from above: The author flips his fly rod over the current; the fly, made of feathers and thread, is carefully tied to the hook; a net is used to scoop the brookie from the stream. Ethical catch-and-release practices minimize fish mortality. Photo by Morgan Sacken

The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife designates 36 streams as wild trout streams, waterways that were handpicked by biologists for having strong enough populations of wild trout to support moderate angling pressure. Such designation grants added protections. These include a ban on types of lures that can do harm to fish. Anglers fishing on these streams must use barbless hooks to limit trout mortality. The state also requires all brook trout caught in a designated conservation zone to be released immediately and unharmed. The zone encompasses most of the brook trout’s remaining range in New Jersey.

Beyond these protections, ethical fishing practices can minimize fish mortality. This includes keeping a fish wet, keeping the specimen from contact with dry surfaces and reducing the overall handling time. These practices were popularized by the catch-and-release advocacy group Keepemwet and are supported by angler conservation groups like Trout Unlimited. However, none of this guarantees the survival of an individual trout. The fish face constant threat from natural predators, including otters, mink, great blue herons and kingfishers.

After I rigged up my fly rod, the feeding trout hit topwater again. I crouched low along the stream bank and shuffled into position, remaining as stealthy as possible. Now within casting distance, I flipped the rod back, sailing the small fly over my right shoulder. Then, I flipped the rod forward, floating the fly out over the current. It landed upstream of where the trout had been sucking in the bugs. The current pulled my fly toward the trout. Out from behind a boulder, the small brookie leapt from the water, snatching the fly as it rose into the air. When it landed, the hooked fish jetted on a mad dash upstream.

Fly fishing has been the preferred method of trout angling for centuries. Flies are constructed from feathers and thread to imitate aquatic insects like mayflies. When the fly lands on the water, it creates little disturbance. That’s why it’s so effective.

After a brief fight, I dipped my net in the water and scooped up the brookie. It measured eight inches in length, a typical specimen for Jersey. Its shiny flank glimmered in the sun, and its dappled tail fin slapped against my palm. 

Elsewhere, anglers pursue much bigger fish, like rainbow trout, which can measure up to 2 feet in length. Yet there’s something alluring about a fish as tenacious and emblematic as Jersey brook trout. The specimen I netted squirmed in my hand as I lowered it back into the water. It plunged in deep and sought refuge behind some aquatic vegetation. In this small fish, the full spirit of New Jersey wilderness was holding steadfast in the current.

In September 1988, Maryellen Henion Soriano of Hopatcong Middle School challenged her fourth-grade students to choose the New Jersey state fish and sell their idea to the state Legislature. In the end, they all agreed. The fish most deserving was the brook trout.

After years of reaching out to the state Legislature, Soriano’s students got their wish. In 1991, governor James Florio came to Hopatcong Middle School to sign legislation making the brook trout the official state fish. Soriano and many of her former students were present.

Nearly 30 years have passed, and the future of the brook trout in the Garden State remains uncertain. Urban sprawl, dam construction and polluted waterways remain threats to the brook trout’s native waterways. But Baldino is optimistic. With the aid of C1 stream classifications, enforced wild trout stream regulations and public awareness, he thinks brook trout can hold their own.

“The future is better than it was,” says Baldino. “I think you need to hit rock bottom to come back up, and we’ve done that. New Jersey is a small state, but it’s powerful in its regulations. We’ve just got to fight. We can’t take our foot off the pedal.” 

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