Since 1976, brook trout have been off-limits to fishermen in the park. While rainbow and brown trout were fair game, fishermen had to throw back any brook trout they caught. Sections of streams with high population of brook trout — about 150 miles of streams — were off-limits to fishing completely.
The regulations were intended to protect the native brook trout populations, which had been declining. Native brook trout populations had taken a major hit from destructive clear-cut logging practices in the early 20th century that filled streams with erosion. Meanwhile, streams were stocked with non-native rainbow and brown trout, which seemed to be edging out the native brook trout.
Biologists in the early 1970s feared that brook trout could be wiped out by rainbow and brown trout by the year 2000 if the trend continued. As a result, the Park banned brook trout fishing and initiated brook trout restoration projects in select streams. Park rangers have restored 17 miles of stream in the Park to pure brook trout population using a combination of electroshock and chemicals to rid certain stretches of rainbow and brook trout. Stretches that were selected lie above waterfalls or other barriers that would prevent rainbow and brown trout from moving upstream and re-populating the area in the future.
Trout studies in the 30 years since the ban indicate that brook trout can possibly hold their own against rainbow and brown trout after all. Park biologists observed that natural occurrences such as floods and droughts were the major force behind changes in fish populations in both open and closed streams. They suspected that allowing angling for brook trout would have no measurable impact on either their numbers or their average size.
In 2002, park biologists tested that hypothesis by opening eight streams — four in Tennessee and four in North Carolina — to brook trout fishing for three years. For each stream that was opened, there was a control stream nearby that remained off-limits to brook trout fishing.
The study found there were no significant differences in brook trout populations in streams where fishing was allowed versus those where it wasn’t.
In interviews conducted during the experiment, more than 84 percent of fishermen said they were moderately to extremely pleased with the brook trout fishing opportunity. When asked what inspired them to come fishing, the largest single answer — given by 25 percent of fishermen — was the opportunity to catch a brook trout.
Anglers caught an average of 5 to11 fish per trip, but less than 33 percent of anglers kept the legal brook trout they caught.
“Given that we could find no ecological benefit to prohibiting anglers from taking brook trout and the opportunity to offer anglers a very enjoyable experience, we have decided to open nearly all our streams to fishing,” Park Supervisory Fisheries Biologist Steve Moore said in a press release.
“On April 15, all but a handful of the over 700 miles of Park streams will be opened to fishing as part of an experimental regulation to allow additional time to monitor impacts of fishing activity,” Moore said.
A few short stream segments will still be closed for active brook trout restoration projects. This spring, for example, parts of Sims Creek, Bear Creek, and Indian Flats Prong streams, which have been recently restored, will remain closed while brook trout populations continue to rebuild. Once these streams reach carrying capacity, they will be reopened to fishing as well, Moore said.
Park biologist will monitor brook trout populations during the experimental fishing period to determine whether it is impacting fish populations. In the future, the Park will release an environmental assessment for public review.