O n a cool summer morning in the mountains, TJ Johnson, a conservation biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, hoists a metal box the size of a mini-fridge onto his back. Wearing rubber waders and rubber gloves, he dips two paddle-shaped electrodes into the stream. The box beeps, a red light flashes, and Johnson shakes the water with 400 volts of electricity.
Nearby, Matt Bodenhamer, deputy director of fish hatcheries for the wildlife commission, also in waders and gloves, holds up a net.
“I have one!” Bodenhamer says
Scoop, plop, into the bucket.
“There’s another one,” Johnson exclaims.
Scoop. Plop. Bucket.
Brookies — nickname for the southern Appalachian brook trout — are gold, gray and green, dotted with red dots and offset by orange fins and a white belly. Because their scales are small, their skin is smooth and soft.
A fragile and precarious species, they only live upstream of mountain streams, where no other fish can thrive. Each brook is home to its own genetically distinct line of brookie.
A year ago, NC Wildlife Resources biologists conducted an emergency stream rescue of a segment of Ramey Creek, down the mountain and about six miles away. There, Bottomley Properties, an Alleghany County-based company, had logged 360 acres of forest to expand its cattle grazing operations.
Shade trees that had cooled Ramey Creek and stabilized the creek banks had been cut down to the stumps. Rock, mud and dirt released by heavy rain poured into the creek, damaging three-quarters of an acre of wetlands and more than three linear miles of waterways, jeopardizing the survival of the brookies. Public records show that staff from the state’s 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 recovered 97 brookies from Ramey Creek. They moved the fish to an unnamed tributary of Fishers Creek on property in Surry County owned by the Piedmont Land Conservancy.
Today, biologists would learn if the brookies had survived.
J he journey to the unnamed tributary begins with a four-mile climb and descent in a UTV — utility work vehicle — over rocks the diameter of bowling balls. Over crevasses and washed out roads. On steep climbs where the UTV tires eat away at the dirt for traction.
It can be disorienting for humans; for fish wading through the pools, even numbed by clove oil, the hike would be grueling.
The final stretch—a 700-foot downhill descent over just a quarter mile—is done on foot. The biologists are loaded with gear as if they were pack mules. Other than an occasional deer-trampled path, there are no trails here. Just groves of rhododendrons, hedges of fallen logs and groves of Lady Ferns lapping on their legs.
The white noise of cascading crescendos. And then there it is: The stream, immaculate, clear and cold. Brookie’s paradise. Caddisflies and other aquatic insects live among the pebbles and stones that line the creek bed – a buffet for brookies. The trees shade the water, keeping the fish cool.
Over the next 15 minutes, Bodenhamer and Johnson lightly shock the stream in 10-yard increments, hoping to coax the brookies out of hiding. Each fish is then placed in a communal bucket partially filled with water from the stream, and they lay on the bottom, as if taking a light nap.
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The smallest brookies found today would have been laid last October or November and hatched in January. When they emerge from their egg, they are only 15 millimeters long – just over half an inch – says Johnson, “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 more about the health and food supply of brookies. Johnson calls lengths in millimeters – 61, 82, 67, 78 – equivalent to 2 to 3 inches. And the gram weights – 2.3, 5.4, 2.7, 4.6 – are about the same as five to 10 raisins.
A few of the brookies are obviously adults, probably near the end of their natural three-year lifespan.
“Here’s a big one,” says Bodenhamer.
225 millimeters – 8.8 inches – and 109 grams – 3.8 ounces – heavy by Brookies standards.
The smallest brookie measured 52 millimeters, or about 2 inches. “But it was a strong little 52,” says Bodenhamer.
The final tally for the 15-minute canvas: 31 brookies.
“It’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, however, it appears the rescue has been successful. The brookies did.
“It was a small gamble, you never know for sure if it’s the right house,” Johnson says. “They have preferences beyond our comprehension.”
And after: The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality fined Bottomley Properties $268,000 for violating water quality law related to the degradation of streams, wetlands and streams of water.
Bottomley contests the penalty; an administrative law judge is due to hear the case Oct. 24 in High Point. (An original version of this story listed the date as September 26, but was postponed, according to DEQ.)
Read Policy Watch’s original story on the breaches here.
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