In the decades since fishery biologist Steve Moore began working in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, countless hours have been devoted to the restoration of the southern Appalachian brook trout.
"This type of brook trout is the only species of trout that is native to the park. There are other types of brook trout in the country, but this species of brook trout is distinct and only found in our area," said Moore. "It is the mission of the park to preserve and restore this habitat to the way it was before man arrived and that includes restoring brook trout."
This month Moore and volunteers from groups such as Trout Unlimited are taking the pulse of the recently stocked native brook trout with an electric fishing trip through the streams near Tremont. The biologists are using electo-fishing backpacks to shock and stun the fish in order to measure and weigh the population.
"We stocked adult brook trout in these streams last fall and this should give us a good picture of how they are doing," said Moore.
Moore's brand of electric angling is the only type of fishing allowed in the streams near Tremont on Lynn Camp Prong. The stream is 8.5 miles of an effort to restore 40 miles of habitat devoted exclusively to brook trout. Fishing is likely to remain prohibited at Lynn Camp for several years until the fish can repopulate.
"All told, we have already restored 27 miles of streams for brook trout. Once we restore the 40 miles, that is as much as we are going to do. There are around 800 miles of streams in the park and we have set aside these 40 for the brook trout," said Moore.
The brook trout was nearly wiped out in the last century by two main contributing factors. First, the logging industry ravaged the landscape and the brook trout's habitat. Second, the loggers introduced the non-native species of rainbow trout into the streams of East Tennessee to offset the lost brook trout.
"The rainbow trout has some advantages over the native brook trout. Between the rainbow trout and the logging industry, they wiped out about 75 percent of the brook trout population," said Moore.
As part of the effort to save the brook trout, biologists first had to get rid of the non-native rainbow trout in the streams identified for restoration.
On Friday a group of volunteers waded through the streams and found several small brook trout only a few centimeters in length.
"What that tells us is that the [brook trout] that we put in here last year, the adults that we stocked last October are spawning," said Moore.
Yet, as the group made its way up the stream shocking brook trout, they soon discovered something that shocked them: several large rainbow trout.
"We have found some rainbows and some big ones," said Bubba Allen, volunteer from Trout Unlimited. "It is pretty clear that people have been bringing rainbows back up here so they can fish this stream illegally."
The size of the fish combined with other identifying characteristics clearly indicates that the adult rainbows were recently stocked in the streams by man.
"There were some rainbows around 14 inches in length," said Allen. "Someone had to have brought them up here."
"We made a really unfortunate discovery with these rainbow trout," said Moore. "It really is a shame. Why does somebody want to destroy nearly $300,000 worth of work we have done to save the brook trout? This is something a lot of people and volunteers have devoted their time and money to in order to protect a piece of our heritage. Now the actions of a very small faction can potentially sabotage this project."
Moore speculated that someone may resent the location of the brook trout restoration streams.
"No matter where we decide to restore brook trout, it is going to end up being someone's favorite spot to fish for rainbow trout. We chose this location for a few reasons. It has a lot of good natural buffers to protect the brook trout from acid rain. More importantly, these streams are easy to access for the public. It means people of all ages and physical abilities will be able to enjoy the beautiful native brook trout that is a part of our heritage. A grandparent and grandchildren can enjoy this."
Moore said sabotaging the brook trout streams by reintroducing rainbow trout is especially senseless due to the countless opportunities to fish for rainbow trout elsewhere.
"This is only 40 miles out of around 800 miles of streams. There are still going to be rainbow trout everywhere else. Fish for rainbow trout somewhere else. I pity the person, if we can find out who has done this. It is going to be a sad day because there is a hearty fine that goes along with this," said Moore.
Park spokesman Bob Miller said the park is determining which fines will apply to those caught stocking rainbow trout in streams designated for brook trout. One of the possibilities mentioned by Miller is a $5,000 fine for introducing an exotic or non-native species in a park habitat.