Somehow, someway, the brook trout in the South Fork of the Little Conemaugh River just keep hanging on.
That’s not necessarily what you would expect.
The section of the river south of Lloydell Reservoir, in southeastern Cambria County, is heavily impacted by acid mine drainage, a condition that “knocks it for a loop,” according to Gary Smith, a fisheries technician with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s southwest region office in Somerset.
North of the reservoir, the river is less acidic, but not by a lot. It’s not very fertile either. The South Fork checks in at about one-tenth of the norm for healthy waters in terms of alkalinity, said Smith.
All in all, it’s not prototypical wild trout water.
A survey done on the South Fork in July, though, revealed that the river continues to provide a home for wild brookies.
“There’s not much potential to grow fish there,” Smith said. “It’s a little bit surprising to see a Class A population in the stream.”
Wild trout waters are ranked according to the total biomass, or weight, of fish in a measured section of stream. Class A waters are those that rank highest in terms of pounds of fish.
The crew surveying the South Fork conducted a population survey in a stretch of water just more than 210 yards long. Using electroshocking equipment, they made three passes through the section, putting captured fish in bags that kept them alive but didn’t allow them to be counted twice.
Ten legal-sized trout — those seven inches or longer — turned up. Nine of those fell between seven and nine inches long, while the biggest was 12 inches.
“With wild brook trout, if you get one over 10 inches, that’s pretty good,” Smith said.
The biomass of trout found in last month’s survey was down slightly compared to surveys done in 2000 and 1998. Smith said that’s probably drought related.
He’s hoping the South Fork’s brook trout stay healthy when the weather gets wetter.
“Snow melt and rain tend to be acidic, especially in this part of the state,” Smith said. “Alkalinity is what buffers acid, and if you have low alkalinity like you have on the South Fork, you have a low buffering capacity.
“It’s been a pretty consistent stream, though.”