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Long Term Trout Monitoring

Long-term Monitoring of Wild Trout Populations in North Carolina

Currently, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) manages wild, self-sustaining trout populations in approximately 1,000 miles of streams via its Public Mountain Trout Waters program. Brook trout Salvelinus fontinalis, rainbow trout Oncorhynchus mykiss, and brown trout Salmo trutta populations comprise these fisheries. In addition to the ecological importance of these resources, North Carolina’s trout streams are popular destinations for anglers and contribute substantially to local economies.

From 1989 to 1996, the NCWRC conducted extended monitoring on several wild trout populations. This effort marked NCWRC’s first attempt to capture multiple years of data from individual trout streams. These data provided insight into annual variation and temporal trends of trout populations. However, long-term monitoring has not continued on these or other trout resources, and these data represent the bulk of information known about wild trout population dynamics in waters managed by the NCWRC.

In an effort to complement the information previously collected by NCWRC, staff recently established long-term monitoring sites on six trout streams in western NC. The streams selected for monitoring are dispersed geographically across the mountain region. All are located on protected lands, to increase the understanding of natural processes and diminish the threat of impacts from man-made disturbances. In northwest NC, the two streams selected were Garden Creek in Wilkes County, and Boone Fork in Watauga County. 


Survey site on Boone Fork, Watauga County

Fish surveys on these six streams first occurred in 2012, and will continue annually for the next four years. All streams will then be put on a sampling rotation, ensuring each is surveyed every few years in the future. On each stream, two 200-m sampling sites were marked and trout were collected from each site using backpack electrofishing gear. All captured trout were weighed and length measured, and non-trout species were identified and counted. All fish were returned to the stream following the survey. Estimates of trout density, biomass, and condition will be calculated each year from the data collected, and compared over time. This information will provide insight into natural fluctuations of wild trout populations, as well as a better understanding of the impacts of natural events such as floods and droughts. 


Brown trout and brook trout captured from Boone Fork, Watauga County

In addition to monitoring trout, NCWRC staff are installing long-term water quality monitoring devices into each stream, which will collect temperature, pH, conductivity, dissolved oxygen, and discharge levels throughout the year. Having frequent water quality data will further help understand the impact of climatic events on our trout populations, including potential impacts from global climate change.

Due to the frequency that these streams will be surveyed, coupled with the intensive nature of the work, NCWRC staff are more than happy to have volunteer help from anyone interested in assisting. For anyone that enjoys time spent on a trout stream, these outings can be a lot of fun and very rewarding. Feel free to email or give me a call if you are interested in learning more about the long-term trout monitoring project, and/or assisting with these and other surveys.

Thanks and best of luck fishing,


Kevin Hining
District 7 Fisheries Biologist I
NC Wildlife Resources Commission
AFS Certified Fisheries Professional
Fleetwood, NC 28626

New and Improved Fishing Opportunities Within the Elk Creek Drainage

New and improved fishing opportunities within the Elk Creek drainage, Watauga and Wilkes County – How TU can help!

Over the past few years several unique fishing opportunities have occurred within Elk Creek.  In 2008, the Laurelmor Development known now as Reynolds Blue Ridge established a fishing agreement with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) that allowed anglers to fish Laurel Creek and Dugger Creek for wild trout.  Anglers can currently check in at the guard house off of Elk Creek Road and receive a set of instructions for getting to both streams within the development.  Currently, the guardhouse is open Monday through Friday from 8 AM to 5 PM. 

Possibly as a result of Reynolds Blue Ridge allowing anglers to fish, additional landowners and developments within the area begin to contact NCWRC concerning other angling opportunities.  In 2009, Leatherwood Mountains contacted NCWRC and offered the opportunity for managing approximately one mile of Elk Creek for public fishing.  As a result, NCWRC has established a Delayed Harvest reach on the property, which will receive its first stockings of trout in October 2011.  NCWRC has since been talking with Reynolds Blue Ridge and a private landowner with a combined total of 2 miles of Elk Creek along Elk Creek Road near the Watauga and Wilkes County line.  NCWRC plans to submit a regulation this year that would allow this two mile section to also be managed as Delayed Harvest. 

Individual landowners have also requested that NCWRC extend the Hatchery Supported reach of Elk Creek.  As a result, NCWRC plans to submit a regulation this year that will extend the Hatchery Supported section by almost two miles.

Finally, Powder Horn Mountain and Brightwood Developments, both of which own property along Laurel Creek, have agreed to allow anglers to fish for wild trout within Laurel Creek.  As a result, NCWRC will submit a regulation this year that will connect the already accessible portion of Laurel Creek within Reynolds Blue Ridge property to where the stream crosses Elk Creek Road (practically the entire main stem and South Fork of Laurel Creek).  This will open up approximately 10 continuous miles of wild trout fishing.  Anglers will be able to access Laurel Creek through Reynolds Blue Ridge, as previously mentioned, or by parking at a soon to be constructed parking area at the lower Powder Horn entrance, where Laurel Creek intersects Elk Creek Road.

If all goes as planned, by October 2012 there should be miles of diverse trout fishing opportunities within the Elk Creek drainage.  This will include over 10 miles of Catch and Release artificial lure only wild trout water, 3 miles of Delayed Harvest water, and over 8 miles of Hatchery Supported water (see attached map).  However, all of these fishing opportunities are dependent on maintaining good relationships between landowners and anglers.  To help facilitate and preserve good working relationships, the NCWRC plans on assisting with the maintenance of parking areas along these streams, and in providing signage to inform anglers of these newly acquired fishing opportunities. 

I would also like to request that TU consider “adopting” the Elk Creek drainage by possibly holding one or two annual stream clean-ups along Elk Creek and at/near the parking areas established for fishing on Laurel Creek.  By doing so, TU will be able to assist the NCWRC in maintaining good relationships with landowners and the local community.  This has been the case on several streams, such as the Mitchell River, Helton Creek, etc, and maintaining fishing opportunities on these and other streams would likely not have been possible without the help that TU has provided. 

I recently spoke with Stone Mt. Chapter members and hope to speak with the new Boone Fork Chapter members as well about the Elk Creek drainage.  It is my hope that this will be a great opportunity for TU chapters to join forces and assist NCWRC with maintaining public access to these newly acquired opportunities on Elk Creek.  Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions and I look forward to speaking with you in the near future about these opportunities. 

Stone Mountain Chapter Trout Unlimited image

Thanks a bunch and best of luck fishing!


NCWRC Fisheries Biologist I
Fleetwood, NC
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Smallmouth Bass in Western NC Rivers and Streams

In recent years, many of the questions I’ve received about stream and river fishing have shifted from trout to smallmouth bass.  That’s not to say trout aren’t still an extremely important part of the western North Carolina fishing experience, but there does seem to be a push towards fishing for smallmouth bass.  This is probably due in part to the numerous rivers and streams in western NC that contain smallmouth bass, as well as their great fighting ability. 

While we’ve spent years sampling the reservoirs and trout streams in western North Carolina, very little is known about our smallmouth bass populations.  In part to an increased interest by anglers coupled with limited fish data, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission biologists started a three year project intended to obtain some baseline information on smallmouth bass from western North Carolina rivers and streams.  We completed the final year of data collection in 2009, and plan to submit a final report by 2011. 

Our primary goals were to (1) collect life history information for smallmouth bass so that we could determine management possibilities, (2) better educate NC anglers on where good smallmouth fishing opportunities exist, and (3) improve angler access to smallmouth populations.  In order to obtain this information we have collected length, weight, and age information for smallmouth bass from throughout western NC, and surveyed public access opportunities to these rivers and streams. 

From 2007-2009 over 3000 smallmouth bass were collected from approximately 40 different populations.  All fish were measured for length and weight, and aged.  We have not completed analyzing the data from 2009, but our findings from 2007-2008 suggest a few things:

1)  Although the vast majority of smallmouth collected were less than 11 inches (84%), fish in excess of 14 inches were collected from most of the streams (70%), and fish greater than 17 inches were collected from 12% of the streams surveyed. 

2)  There appears to be a huge variation in the growth rates of smallmouth bass from the streams sampled.  This wasn’t to surprising since we collected fish from a wide range of streams, varying from 600 feet to only 30 feet in width.  Furthermore, the elevation of the streams sampled ranged from 600 feet to 2600 feet above sea level. 

The size and elevation of a stream often plays a role in the potential growth rates of smallmouth bass.  Unlike trout, smallmouth bass are a coolwater species, so high elevation streams and rivers will likely have shorter growing seasons and slower growth rates than similar sized waters at lower elevations.  A good comparison might be the Yadkin River and the South Fork New River.  Many anglers would assume the South Fork New River would be the better of the two for catching smallmouth bass, but actually your chances of catching an 18 inch smallmouth bass are much better on the Yadkin River.  It is lower elevation, and therefore has a longer growing season for smallmouth bass.  Another important aspect controlling the size of fish is the nutrient levels.  We often associate clear, clean water with big fish, but this is often not the case.  A stream must also have nutrients to support fish growth.  Streams in the southern Appalachians are natural low in nutrients.  As a result, streams with nutrient inputs from agricultural runoff, wastewater treatment plants, etc. are often better at growing big fish than similar pristine streams.  Obviously it’s a balancing act, and streams receiving excessive nutrients can be counterproductive for fish growth and survival.

3)  On average, it takes a smallmouth bass 5 to 6 years to reach 12 inches in size in NC streams.  In some streams fish reached 12 inches in only 3 years, but in others it might take 7 or more.  This information is important when modeling the impact of possible regulation changes to these fisheries.  As a general rule, faster growing populations offer the best opportunity for improving fish sizes through restrictive creel and size limits.  Putting restrictive regulations on slow growing populations often results in limited improvement or may even reduce growth rates/fish sizes.  Stunted bluegill in a farm pond offers a good example of this.  Anglers sometimes assume the best way to improve the size of fish is to release them and give them more time to grow.  This can be counterproductive in cases where food availability is low.  In those cases, a reduction in the number of fish might be the best way to improve overall sizes, unless of course you can improve nutrient levels.  There is much data analysis needed before we can suggest any regulation changes, but the majority of streams surveyed appear to be moderate to slow growing. 

4)  In northwest NC we have a wide variety of smallmouth streams – from small streams where you might catch as many wild brown trout as smallmouth, to streams 2 to 3 football fields in width and more rocks and ledges than you could fish in a lifetime. 

Here’s a quick synopsis (without providing to much detail in case one of these is your favorite ).  The Yadkin has the potential for big smallmouth anywhere below W. Kerr Scott Reservoir that has habitat (think rocks!), but I personally prefer the stretch between the Mitchell River and the HWY 67 bridge in Donnaha.  I know that’s a long stretch, about 40 miles, but I guess my point is there’s plenty of room to spread out.  In addition to the Yadkin, the area around Wilkes and Surry County contain numerous fun smallmouth destinations.  Practically all of the sizeable tributaries of the Yadkin hold smallmouth.  The Elk, Reddies, Roaring, Mulberry, Mitchell, and Fisher all offer some great fishing opportunities.  They all have numbers, but a few have some nice surprises for the angler willing to give it a trip or two.  Maybe just as important, these rivers along with the New (Ashe and Alleghany County), Watauga (Watauga County) and Dan River (Stokes County) have some gorgeous areas.  The numerous tall, hemlock bluffs on the Dan River are worth a float trip even if the fish aren’t biting!

5)  We have encountered some exceptional landowners during this study, and have recently worked out agreements for smallmouth bass fishing and small boat access at a few new spots in northwest NC.  These access sites were basically obtained from generous landowners that wished to provide anglers an opportunity to get in the river and fish.  We are working with various state agencies and local governments to obtain additional access sites, and hopefully the list will continue to grow. 

Feel free to give me a call for additional information or more specifics - Thanks,

Kevin Hining
Fisheries Biologist - NC Wildlife Resources Commission
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