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Georgias Native Brook Trout, with Sarah Baker

Description: My guest this week, Sarah Baker [35:40] is a woman who has a job most of us would envy—she studies and manages the populations of wild, native brook trout in the mountains of northern Georgia. Learn more about these southernmost populations of brook trout, their life history, and where you can find them (no spot burning, just some general areas to investigate for yourself).
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Podcast Transcript:

Tom: Welcome to "The Orvis Fly Fishing Podcast." This is your host Tom Rosenbauer and I have a really interesting podcast for you this week. My guest is biologist Sarah Baker and Sarah has a fascinating job. Sarah works on the native indigenous wild brook trout populations of northern Georgia. And, you know, we don't normally think of native brook trout as being in Georgia, although they're actually quite common. That's the southern range of brook trout and there are some mountain streams where they occur and, you know, they're...not threatened, but, you know, they're rare and they are definitely fishable populations. And Sarah has a lot of really fascinating things to tell us about these native brook trout populations. So, I hope you enjoy it. I know I enjoyed talking to Sarah.
And I keep forgetting to mention products, I know you all like to know new products and things that I'm personally excited about. And one of the new products that I've been using a lot lately is the Orvis wide-mouth guide net. And I know most of us aren't guides but it's a long-handled net, it's a long-handled net with a big wide square, soft rubber bag. And I don't know about you, but I am arms aren't very long and I am tired of trying to stretch out and reach out and land fish and a long-handled net just make so much sense. They're a little bit more difficult to carry. Most people stick them in the back of their waders, although there is a slot in the new waterproof sling bag for this net, but it still makes it kind of wide when you're carrying it through the woods so sticking it in the back of your waders or just walking with it and leaving it on the bank is probably a good thing.
But it makes it so much easier to land fish, whether you're at a boat or whether you're just wading, it really makes a big difference. And the bag on this thing is nice and flat and long, so that you can photograph a fish in the net and not have to have the fish doubled over and you can keep it in the water and photograph it. And also it floats, so if you happen to let go of it, you'll be able to grab it hopefully. I put it on a lanyard if I were you but anyway, I think it's a great product. I've been using it a lot and I'd highly recommend it if you're tired of struggling with trying to net fish.
All right, let's start with the Fly Box and you can send your questions to the Fly Box at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. You can either just type your question in your email or you can attach a voice file if you want and maybe I'll read it on the air. So, let's start with an email from Rick. "I will be fishing in Alaska this summer and there's a recommendation for using a sinking fly line. I have researched sinking lines and listened to the many questions and answers about sinking lines on the podcast but I've never heard of using a sink-tip leader with a sinking line. Here's the wording of the recommendation, line sink-tip (20 to 25 feet long) with 300 to 350-grain head. For shallow water conditions, have a weight forward floating freshwater line as well to match rod weight. Leaders, five-foot to seven-foot sink-tip tapered leaders, 15 to 20 pound with extra spools of 10, 16, and 20-pound tippet. So, those are the recommendations. Have you ever heard of using sink-tip leaders with sinking fly line, or do you think they meant sink-tip leaders in place of sinking fly lines? I thought a short heavy fluorocarbon leader attached to a good sinking line was all I needed. Thanks for a great podcast, it keeps me entertained during many boring chores."
Yeah, Rick, that's definitely confusing and I think they mean that you want a 20 to 25-foot-long sink-tip with a 300 to 350-grain head for deeper water, particularly for stripping streamers if you're fishing for Pacific salmon and you're stripping streamers for them, or even some of the big rainbows with streamers in fast heavy water, you'd want to use that sink-tip. And then the sink-tip tapered leaders, what I think they meant is the polyleaders. Polyleaders have a slight taper to them and those are things you slip onto the end of your floating line if you don't have to get quite as deep, you know, a little bit shallower water, you can just slip those on the end of a floating line.
And no, you don't need a tapered leader. In fact, you don't want a tapered leader when you're fishing, either those polyleaders or a sinking tip line. As you correctly assumed, you need a short just level piece of tippet, you know, anywhere from 10 to 20 pounds depending on the size of the fly and the size of the fish. But you definitely don't want a tapered leader on your sinking lines because monofilament and fluorocarbon for that matter, the heavier diameter doesn't sink as well as a thinner diameter and a tapered leader is going to prevent you from getting your fly down as deep as you could. And you know what? Polyleaders and sink-tip lines don't cast very well, so tapered leader isn't gonna do you any good. They all clunk down in the water pretty good. So, you know, just stick with your...get a sink-tip, have some polyleaders, and then spool a fluorocarbon tippet for your leader.
Mike: Hi, Tom, Mike from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, I have a couple of questions for you regarding Orvis's Depth Charge fly lines. So, I see that they're expressed in grain weights versus normal line weight designation. And I've been looking at the 350 and the 450-grain weight lines with eyeballing towards either using the 350 shared between my 9 and 10-weight rod or the 450 used on my 11-weight rod. And so, I guess my first question would be is the grain weight similar to underlining or overlining rod? In other words, if I were to get the 450 line, instead of having one Depth Charge line that I could share among a couple of rods, would I be able to use the 450 on the 9 or 10-weight rods and it functions similar to overlining of rod as you would with a normal line, designated line?
And also, the purpose I have in mind for this is freshwater-wise, pike and muskie fishing. And I believe I've heard made reference to it being used for striped bass. It's a cold water line, but I believe I've heard a reference to that. And I was just curious if there are any other saltwater applications or saltwater species that that would be well-suited for as well. Anything you have for me on that, Tom, would be greatly appreciated. Thank you very much.
Tom: So, Mike, yeah, you know, in general, I like to go with as heavy a Depth Charge as I can get away with because if it sinks too fast, you can always just start retrieving a little bit quicker. And, you know, none of these lines are going to give you that beautiful tight loop long cast, you really have to lob these lines using a Belgian cast or an overhead cast and shooting line. And yeah, I would go with a 450 on a 9 or a 10-weight rod. You're going to have to slow down a little bit, open up your loop, but again, they don't cast as pretty as a floating line and you're going to be lobbing them most of the time. So, I think you can get away with a 450 on a 9 or a 10. It's going to slow the rod down quite a bit, but that's fine, just cast a big open loop and it's going to help a little bit with bigger flies.
Regarding any other saltwater applications for the depth charge line, honestly, if I'm going to be fishing any kind of depth regardless of what kind of saltwater species I'm fishing for, I'm going to always have a Depth Charge with me because you never know when you might get in a situation where you're fishing a deep channel or you're fishing offshore and you think you need to get a little deeper. The Depth Charge line is my go-to line for a sinking line in saltwater in general. So, yeah, they're great for stripers but they'll work for any other species where you need to get your fly down in the water column and keep it in the water column as you're retrieving.
Here's an email from Adam from Northern Arizona. "I want to thank you and Tim Flagler for all the great instruction on fly tying. I like many, I'm sure, was kind of half into it just before the pandemic and then got really into it during the full pandemic shutdown. Since then, between the two of you, I squandered my children's college 521 savings account on feathers, fur, and hooks." I hope that's not true. "But I have caught a lot of great fish on Sparkle Dun, Double Trico, Blue Wing Parachutes, and tiny Elk Hair Caddis. Thanks for the instruction. You and Tim both deserve plaques of recognition in the American Museum of Fly Fishing for pissing off huge amounts of spouses in pursuit of the advancement of fly fishing and fly tying.
My first question is about tying small flies size 22 and smaller. I seem to be tying smaller and smaller these days, 18s are the biggest I tie right now. I have a Regal medallion vise with standard jaws but wonder what midge jaws will do that will make life better. Second question, someone told me not to use water-based head cement on flies 20 and smaller without giving me a really good reason. Any thoughts on that? Last question, I've been tying up crazy colored Woolly Buggers for my daughter's amusement ages one and a half to three to keep them excited about fly tying while my wife sharpens our kitchen knives aggressively. Off the top of your head, what's another pattern, preferably a large pattern that I can tie up for them and substitute bright colors and bling? Thanks again for all the help and instruction over the years."
All right, Adam, well, first of all, you know, you can get away with tying size 22 and smaller with standard jaws. What you're going to get with a midge jaw is a little bit more working room. But I find rather than having the jaws straight out from the shank of the vise, if you tilt it up so that the hook is going into the vise jaws at a little bit more of an angle, you'll get that working room you need for the small flies. Now, the midge jaws are going to make it a little easier to get your fingers in there. But, you know, that Regal vise will handle the smaller hooks and I'm not sure how much additional working room you're gonna get with a midge jaw. So, I think for right now, you're fine with the standard jaws and, you know, if you find you really need more working room, then you can try the midge jaws.
Regarding your second question, I don't know where someone came up with that idea. In fact, I especially used water-based head cement on flies size 20 and smaller because it's very thin. It doesn't get into the eyes of the flies and if it does, you can poke it out easily. And it really penetrates the thread. And, you know, using a heavier, thicker head cement like Sally Hansen's or a standard glossy head cement, it's pretty difficult on the smaller flies. So, I would do the opposite of what that person told you and I would use water-based head cement on flies 20 and smaller. In fact, with those little flies, with a good wood finish, you probably don't even need to add any head cement because the heads don't seem to take as much abuse on small dry flies. So, go ahead and use that water-based head cement.
Regarding your last question, I would know, if you want something with a lot of bling and something that looks pretty, I would say there are a couple of things you could do. One is you could tie some intruder patterns and you could tie those on shanks and then you wouldn't have to put a hook on there. You know, you can tie a loop in so that you can put in a hook later and then just leave those without hooks and your daughters can play with them and not get poked on a hook. The other pattern that might be fun to tie that's kind of wiggly and pretty would be zonkers in some really wild colors. You can get some wild colors of body materials and wild colors of rabbit fur dyed in various shades that would probably amuse your daughter. So, try some intruder types or try some zonkers, and good luck.
Here's an email from Steve from Clovis, California. "First, I'd like to offer my sincerest thanks for all you've done for the sport of fly fishing, your knowledge and experience are invaluable and it is a privilege to enjoy all of your free content on "The Orvis Fly Fishing Guide Podcast." Without ads, I must stress. None of us listeners can thank you enough. I've been fly fishing for about 10 years now and consider myself experienced enough to introduce and teach others the basics of the sport. I fish a lot of pocket water in the California Sierra Nevada streams. I've noticed a pattern of trout behavior that is beginning to influence the way I fish. But before I completely commit to my theory, I want to get your opinion on whether this makes sense and if it is all consistent with your experience.
My observation is that trout usually take my flies within the first three to five casts with the majority being within one or two. I feel that I have developed a good eye for which types of water hold feeding fish that is two to six feet deep, about one foot per second with good structure on the bottom and bubble on the surface. Assuming that I present the fly well with a good cast and a good drift along the seams, I feel that the majority of the takes happened within the first few drifts. When I cover the same line over and over again, it seems to yield diminishing returns. For larger pools, I tried to cover the head, both seams on either side of the middle current if possible, and the tail about five times each.
Makes sense to me that if the trout are feeding and like my fly's shape, color, and presentation, they will take it, and if they aren't feeding and what I'm offering repeating the offering over and over again isn't going to get them to change their mind. Also, if they don't take it because I have inadvertently spooked the fish with my loud stomping or a few sloppy casts or bad drags, it seems unlikely that they will decide to return to my fly. I suppose this question comes up when I get no takes on what appears to be a perfect feeding line with good drifts. I then need to decide if I'm going to change out to a different fly or move on to the next pocket or the next section of the pool.
Since I enjoy walking and exploring and just want to catch more fish, I usually opt to move quickly to various pockets rather than be exhaustive with one hole. Maybe this isn't going to be true on every type of water. But with the opportunistic trout I find in the high sierras, I think it has been an effective technique for me. I would love to get your reaction and any corrections to the way I'm thinking. Again, thank you for all your time and dedication to educating the fly-fishing community. I have three boys who I love to fish and I hope they will be listening to your podcast long after I am gone."
Well, thank you, Steve, very much. And Steve, I totally agree with your philosophy. You know, there's the old adage that you want to make your first cast your best cast. In other words, try not to spook the fish, try to get your fly into the right position on the first cast. And that makes all the sense in the world because you're right, if that fish sees your fly, it's either going to eat it or reject it. And, you know, they learn...they recognize fly patterns and the next time you cast to it, it's probably not going to change the fish's mind. The only time that that seems to matter is if you got a fish in a really narrow feeding lane. And this is a lot easier to do if you're sight fishing, if you can actually see the fish, and sometimes you'll find that you need a few drifts to get the fly right to the fish because it just doesn't want to move out of its area too far. So, accuracy is important.
But I find in fishing streams like that, I do exactly what you do. I make three to five casts in a particular area and if I'm sure I'm getting a good drift and I'm sure I'm getting my...if I'm nymph fishing, that I'm getting my nymphs deep enough, then I'll move on. The fish may not be there. It may look good, but there might not be fish there. Or, as you correctly assume, you might have spooked them and then you might as well move on. The only time you really want to agonize over a spot is if it's a really tricky drift with a nymph and you don't feel like you're maybe getting down to the fish and you might need to adjust your weight or put on a little bit heavier fly. But if you think you're getting a good drift, if you think you're getting down to the fish's level and you're not catching any after three to five cast, I'd move on. I wouldn't belabor it and I would much rather change fish than change the flies or change positions than change the flies. So, I think your philosophy is exactly right and it's exactly what I do when I fish that kind of water.
Dakota: Hey, Tom, this is Dakota from Colorado. I picked up fly fishing within the last year and this is my first winter season. I thought I might try my hand at some cold-weather fishing in a local river and found myself having a lot of trouble keeping my flies tied. I can tell that my knots were the issue based on what you had said in other episodes about a pig's tail being a sign of a failed knot. But I haven't changed anything about the knots that I use. I use a standard five or six-twist clinch knot and my fishing in warmer temperatures never yielded this many failed knots. Is it the colder water temperature? Is it that my fly keeps catching on ice as I tried to retrieve a roll cast? Or is there a knot that you would recommend for colder temperatures or potentially icy conditions? Thank you very much for everything that you do. I've learned a lot from you in this podcast and hope to get an answer soon. Bye.
Tom: So, Dakota, I've never had any particular problem with clinch knots in cold water. I suspected it might be just the way you're tying the knot. You know, when your hands are cold, you're usually not as careful with tying your knots. Make sure that you wet the knot...even in cold weather, make sure you wet the knot. You know, your tip material is going to be a little bit stiffer in cold water, so you need to take maybe a little bit more care in tying that clinch knot. But, you know, there are apparently some tip materials that aren't as good in cold water. Although I haven't experienced this myself, I've heard people complain about certain tippet materials, so you might want to change to a different tippet material and try that. But I think that there's no reason that a clinch knot shouldn't work in cold water. You know, if you continue to have problems, maybe try a non-slip mono loop instead of a clinch knot, a little tiny loop in front of your fly, and see how that works. But I think it's probably just that you're not paying quite enough attention to your knots. And of course, also make sure that you always test your knots before you put the fly in the water.
Here's an email from Kyle from Texas. "First, I want to thank you for the podcast and all you and everyone else at Orvis do for the world of fly fishing. I'm a relatively new fly fisher and find the Orvis Learning Center as well as the podcast to be great resources. I know you always emphasize the importance of going to your local fly shop and talking to the folks there. I'm wondering if you have any suggestions for questions to ask the folks working at the shop other than the typical, "What fly should I use and where should I use it?" I know that these people are on the water every day and can be great resources for local knowledge. But I'm struggling to make the jump from newbie to veteran even when it comes to the types of questions I asked them."
Well, that's an interesting question, Kyle. And yet, the typical question is, you know, "What fly is working?" And actually, that is often one of the least important parts of the puzzle. And you didn't say whether you're fishing for trout or bass or redfish or whatever, you didn't...or sea trout, you didn't say what you're fishing for. But one of the most important things, I think, is the presentation of the fly. So, you know, when you...of course, you're going to ask them, "What fly is working?" But then to get beyond that, say, "Okay, what kind of retrieve do you find is best? A slow retrieve, an erratic retrieve, a steady retrieve? And does the retrieve that I should use depend on water type?"
Or if it's, you know, dry fly or nymph fishing, say, "Okay, what kind of water are you fishing those flies in? And, you know, are you fishing faster water, slower water?" And then one of the more important things, especially with trout fishing, is what leader are you using and what tippet? You know, that can make a big difference. The difference between a seven-and-a-half foot and a 12-foot leader can be all the difference in the world and sometimes a tippet that's too heavy might not be as effective. Not so important in saltwater but important in trout fishing. So, I would ask them more how they're fishing that particular fly and what water type they're fishing it in. And, you know, of course with bass and saltwater fishing, it's more a question of finding the fish than it is exactly what fly pattern you're using. So, a little bit more depth on how they're presenting the fly is probably a good question to ask. So, I hope that helps.
Here's an email from Kyle from Oregon. "Hey, Tom, how are you today? I have a question about how to learn spey casting on single-handed rods. There seems there isn't much information out there about it. I have two nine-foot 5-weight rods that I usually take with me. One is a more moderate action, I like using it for dry flies and light presentation, and one fast action for my streamers. I have a variety of lines from Scientific Anglers, a basic trout line for dry fly work, the Infinity taper as a half-size heavy all-around taper, and then my MPX is my more punchy, aggressive taper. My question is, would any of these lines help with practicing Spey cast? Even though they're not Spey lines, I'm looking to learn casting strokes before I put my money down on a new Switch or Spey rod, as well as interested to know if you have any tips or tricks for learning these types of casts with the setup I currently have. Thank you for your time and always enjoy the podcast."
Kyle, particularly with longer casts, what you're going to want is a line with a long belly and a little bit heavier line. So, you know, the half-size heavier line is definitely going to be better, but you don't want one with a short aggressive front taper and then a long-running line behind that because with a Spey cast, you're gonna have a lot more line on the water and you're going to need to create that D-loop, which means you need a longer front taper. So, I would go one or two sizes, heavier or a half size heavier if that's all you have. And make sure that the line you're using has a longer belly and a double taper line is actually a really good line to use.
The other thing to think about is Scientific Anglers makes what they call a Spey Lite Integrated Scandi line. And this would be perfect for a single-handed rod and it's another $100 line you got to buy but it's better than spending many hundreds of dollars right away on a new Spey rod. So, I would try that Spey Lite Integrated Scandi on your 5-weight and see how that works for you. Barring that, just make sure that you're not using a line with a heavy front taper and a shorter running line. You want a long, long belly on whatever line you use.
Here's an email from Michael. "I apologize if you've already answered this question recently, but I could not seem to find any reference on the podcast so far. After watching Tim Flagler tie some trout-sized Spey streamers, I got to wondering if you really need Spey equipment to fish these flies. While I understand that Spey casting is great for distance casting and swinging flies on larger rivers and brushy banks, it seems to me that Spey flies would have some advantages over the regular trout and bass streamers in certain situations. For one, the trailer hook has a much shorter shank than typical 3x to 6x long hooks, making it more difficult for the fish to get enough leverage to throw the hook. In addition, Spey streamers seemed particularly well suited for swinging as opposed to patterns like the Wooly Bugger for stripping presentations. Can smaller Spey flies be readily cast on standard fly equipment for trout and bass on wider rivers or am I just better off sticking to the standard patterns? Either way, I think I might tie up some small Spay patterns because they look so interesting to tie."
Michael, that's a really good question, and you know what? You can swing with standard streamers. Wooly Buggers work really well on the swing or any other streamer that you like to fish can work well in the swing, but you can also strip Spey flies. I use them interchangeably. Honestly, you know, I use the Montana Intruder for trout Spey for swing, but I'll also just throw that fly on, you know, a standard nine-foot 5-weight rod and strip it like a streamer. So, no reason, absolutely no reason that you can't use those Spey flies on a single-handed rod and either swinging, you know, either swinging because you can swing a fly quite effectively with a single-handed rod as long as you don't need a long cast, and you can even strip those flies just like you would have any other streamers. So, consider them interchangeable and experiment with it and see how it works.
Here's an email from Caden from the Driftless region of Wisconsin. "In January, I'm going to Turks and Caicos for my first bonefishing trip and I have some questions for you about gear. I have an 8-weight freshwater rod that I use for larger fish in lakes here in Wisconsin. I was wondering about the consequences of using a freshwater rod and line would be if I use them in saltwater. I've done some digging and can't find a concrete answer. And if I can't use freshwater line in saltwater, do you have any suggestions for a reasonably priced line? I'll only be going for a couple of days, so I don't need anything very fancy and don't want to break the bank. As always, thank you for all you and Orvis do for fly fishing and conservation, and I hope to hear from you in the next podcast."
Well, Caden, there's a reason that you can't find any information on it because there's no such thing as a freshwater rod or a saltwater or a freshwater line or a saltwater line. Generally, saltwater rods are a little bit heavier and generally, they have an extension butt because you might be fighting the fish for a long time. But all fly rods work well in fresh and saltwater. They're totally impervious to anything that saltwater can throw at them, just wash them off with fresh water at the end of the day. So, you can certainly use your 8-weight freshwater rod for bonefish. And fly lines of the same, fly lines are totally impervious to saltwater. The one caveat is that in really hot weather, your standard what we call cold water lines or your standard trout or bass lines can get a little sticky, and that's why you'll see what are called tropic lines.
They aren't specifically for saltwater, they're just for times when you're stripping the line on a very hot boat deck or just in really, really high air temperatures, the freshwater lines can get a little sticky, but your freshwater line is still going to work fine. So, the only thing that you really need to consider changing is your reel. You're gonna want a strong smooth drag on your reel and, you know, if your reel is a "freshwater reel" but it has a good strong smooth drag on it, then that'll work fine as well. Some very inexpensive fly reels sometimes don't have the corrosion resistance that better reels do but if you got a reasonable quality fly reel, again, you can use that in saltwater. Just make sure that you rinse it very thoroughly in freshwater at the end of the day. So, go ahead and take your freshwater tackle to the Turks and Caicos, it's going to work just fine for you.
Roger: Hello, Tom. This is Roger Bird down here in Houston, Texas, and I have a couple of questions for the podcast. First question is, how long have you been doing these? The second question, well, I'm sitting here at my vise and I'm tying up some size 22 zebra midges. And I got to thinking, when it's really cold outside, it must really be tough to tie these on your tippet and I was wondering if you had any good advice for that? Once again, and I'm sure you hear it quite often, thank you and Orvis for all you do, and have a wonderful day.
Tom: So, Roger, I think I've been doing the podcast for about 12 years. I can't even remember exactly how long I've been doing it. Anyway, long time and they're still fun. I still enjoy doing them every week, so I'm not sure exactly how long I've been doing it and I forgot to look it up before I answered this question. Regarding your tip for tying a size 22 zebra image in cold weather, yeah, a good handwarmer, either the chemical packs that just stick in your pockets or, you know, I use an electric handwarmer, a rechargeable electric handwarmer. Don't ask me what brand because I just buy whatever I find online, they seem to all work pretty well. It's hard to hard to tie in a size 22 zebra midge with gloves. You know, some people will use thin nitrile gloves to keep their hands dry. But I find that, you know, tying on a small fly, I still need to take my gloves off. So, keep your hands in your pockets, keep them warm.
And the only other thing I can think of is for tying those...when you tie those size 22 zebra midges, try tying them on an Orvis Big Eye dry fly hook. You know, the dry fly hook will work fine on the zebra midge and they do have a little bit larger eye, a little bit oversized eye, which is going to help you thread that in when your hands are cold. So, those are my tips, just keep your hands warm, try a Big Eye hook, and go out and have some fun. All right, that's the Fly Box for this week. Let's go talk to Sarah Baker about those elusive northern Georgia brook trout. So, my guest today is Sarah Baker and Sarah is a biologist with the Georgia DNR or Department of Natural Resources. And Sarah, you work on a very interesting project. Do you work on the native brook trout population in Georgia, right?
Sarah: I do. Yes, Tom.
Tom: You know, I've caught brook trout from Maine to North Carolina, every state down the Appalachians, but I have never caught a wild brook trout in Georgia. So, it's something I want to do someday.
Sarah: Oh, my goodness. I hope you do it soon.
Tom: Yeah. Why? Are they disappearing? Are the fish disappearing there?
Sarah: Oh, well, I was just saying I hope that this happened soon for you, especially during our October season. But we have our...that's really what our project is looking at is whether or not the fish are declining in Georgia. Those populations are certainly very, very sensitive.
Tom: Yeah, of course, brook trout are very sensitive to warm water temperatures and with the climate warming, that's always...
Sarah: They are, indeed. And surprisingly, of all of the Salmonid species there, they're a little bit more tolerant than the other species and able to handle more of a range of thermal temperature changes. But certainly, increasing water temperatures are a concern.
Tom: You said brook trout are more able to handle a wide range of temperature changes?
Sarah: They are, they are.
Tom: No kidding.
Sarah: Yeah, yeah. Their lethal limit is still recorded as 22 degrees Fahrenheit...or, sorry, 22 degrees Celsius. But they have that wider range and are able to tolerate more of a range than, for example, like a rainbow or a brown trout.
Tom: So, they're able to handle water on the colder end of things much better than rainbows or browns, right?
Sarah: Yes, indeed.
Tom: And what's 22 centigrade? I'm sorry, my biology days are long gone.
Sarah: Yeah, that's about 74-75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Tom: Seventy-four or 75. And I would imagine that if it's like 72 degrees, someone fishing for a brook trout, it would probably be lethal for the brook trout to be handled and released, right?
Sarah: That's right.
Tom: What do you think is the upper limit in Fahrenheit for angling for brook trout? I always tell people 65. You know, we say 68 for browns and rainbows, I always tell people 65. Does that sound right to you?
Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I tend to err on the side of 65 just because...I mean, a lot of the anglers, especially fly anglers are very conscientious about temperatures. But, you know, we also understand that they're not going to be feeding when they're super stressed by water temperatures as well. So, even for an angler, you know, you know that that's probably not the best time to be out there. But yeah, I recommend 65 and it certainly warms up in the South during those summertimes.
Tom: Yeah. Now, I assume these are high-altitude streams, right? What's the, like, the lower altitude limit where you find wild brook trout in Georgia?
Sarah: Yeah, we had a few brook trout around 1800 elevation, but generally speaking, they're going to be above 22.
Tom: Above 2200? Wow. Yeah, that's up there. So, tell me about the streams. We won't ask you to hotspot anyplace because these are sensitive fisheries, although I believe they're all on public land, right?
Sarah: Yes, yes, and most of our brook trout water is on public land.
Tom: So, tell me about what do they look like. How big are they? You know, what's the landscape like around these streams?
Sarah: Yeah, they are beautiful, absolutely staggering. There are covered in Rhododendron. So, it's very, very dense and a lot of the times, difficult to maneuver through, especially with a delicate fly rod. A friend of mine calls it some of the worst fly fishing in Georgia, they're very small. Probably, generally speaking, five meters across in our smaller, so they can be really, really, really small. I mean, I've found brook trout in a creek that is only three feet wide on the floor. So, they're certainly in the upper fringes, deep-shaded ravines. It's very difficult to traverse. Oftentimes, it's those step pools, step pools, lots of large boulders. It's pretty wonderful to fish.
Tom: So, you really have to want to catch your wild brook trout, right? It's not like stepping out of your car and then walking into the stream and catching one.
Sarah: That's right. We do have a few streams that are like that, that you can step out of your car. So, for those people who are having a difficult time traversing and navigating some difficult terrain, that's still a possibility. But I would say that, generally speaking, they are ones...for trout fishing, it's going to be a difficult task. It's going to be one of your challenging places in Georgia.
Tom: No, do you have any kind of barriers on the lower reaches of these streams that try to keep the browns and the rainbows from coming in and out-competing the brook trout?
Sarah: Yeah, that's a great question. So, a lot of what our brook trout populations experience...if you find a brook trout, I guess I'll say that, then most likely downstream of where you located that trout, there was some sort of barrier, whether that's a natural barrier like a waterfall, or whether it's like a man-made structure like a culvert that's really off the ground. And that's typically what has created these populations that continue to exist because most of the places and streams in Georgia have been previously historically stocked with rainbows and brown trout, and they're unfortunately very good at out-competing brook trout up until a certain elevation level.
But even then, over time, we will see those take over our brook trout streams. You know, barriers are tricky. We even have had some managers in the past build man-made barrier structures to try to keep the brook trout up in the headwaters and keep the rainbows and browns downstream. But it's tricky because those barriers also cause genetic drift and create those isolated populations. And those create the risk for genetic diversity loss and inbreeding depression, reduced fitness, so then it's more likely that those will become locally extirpated. So, it's really tricky as far as knowing how to work with the barriers.
Tom: Yeah, I never thought of that. So, some of these brook trout creeks interconnect so that the fish will drop down and then move up into another stream so that you have the genetic diversity?
Sarah: That's right. That's right.
Tom: Interesting.
Sarah: And that's what we like to see. That's historically what happens.
Tom: Okay. Speaking of genetics, you know, I fish for brook trout here in Vermont and I fish them in Maine, in Pennsylvania and Virginia and North Carolina. And when I'm up in one of these headwater streams...well, particularly, I'm thinking of Vermont, and I catch a brook trout, I often wonder, is this truly a native fish that has never been diluted with hatchery genes? Or, you know, were they at one point stocked or mixed with hatchery brook trout? Do you know what the case is in Georgia?
Sarah: Oh, man, that's a great question. We are currently looking at that, definitely. We previously sent some genetic samples, so that's just a thin clip of the brook trout, to a geneticist, David Kaback and Barbara Verbinski, to look at that. And so, they've actually been able to provide some insights, although it's very limited, just because we've only had been able to have funding for a few streams to do that with. And some of our streams are 100%, we do not see any hatchery introgression with those fish. And so, those are like the true southern strain. It's just so exciting to get to see that there are these distinctions local adaptations that occur and that we have them here and they're still going, and then other populations have introgressed with hatchery trout and show that in their genetics.
Tom: So, they can actually tell with DNA if there's been hatchery influence back over time?
Sarah: Yeah.
Tom: Wow.
Sarah: That's fantastic.
Tom: That's pretty amazing. That's pretty amazing. So, genetically, how do these brook trout compare to, say, Virginia or Maryland or West Virginia or Pennsylvania wild brook trout? Is there a real genetic distinction?
Sarah: They're finding that there are, there are those genetic distinctions between the two, which is really interesting, but it makes sense if you look at like the geologic time, you know, what all separated those in ice ages and whatnot. So, it makes sense that they would be genetically distinct. But, you know, it's tricky because most of the...and the way we're able to tell that is because most of these trout that are spread around the country that are brook trout that are hatchery fish have the strain of the Northern fish. And so, that's what allows us to really see that genetic distinction between Northern and Southern...
Tom: Okay, so by Northern fish, you mean like New England brook trout?
Sarah: Like up in Maine.
Tom: Yankee brook trout.
Sarah: Mm-hmm.
Tom: So, that's how they can tell. Okay. So, what would be a maximum size...because people are going to want to know, what would be a maximum size of a brook trout, you know, wild brook trout in a Georgia stream? And then how big are they before they're sexually mature in those streams?
Sarah: Sure. So, the sexual maturity in a birth chart actually occurs at Age 1. And Age 1 fish are generally 120 millimeters, so that's just...
Tom: Oh, come on, millimeters?
Sarah: That's very, very small.
Tom: What's that in inches? I don't have my calculator here.
Sarah: I am sorry.
Tom: It's about that long, right? A hundred and twenty millimeters, okay. Well, people can do that for themselves. I don't want to go run for my calculator. Anyways, tiny, small.
Sarah: Yeah, just about three inches, so really small sexual maturity. So, really that first year, they're able to reproduce in the smallest streams in Georgia. Now, that's not the case throughout the country. In a more the northern states, they take two years. So, it connects and relates to the size of the stream. Somehow, when the stream is smaller, the fish have more ability to reproduce. But then we really don't see fish older than what we call Age 5 or Age 4. Age 5 is like a very, very old fish, so very short-lived.
Tom: Whereas a brown trout might be seven or eight years old, right? At the end of its life.
Sarah: Yeah. I mean, a five-year-old fish is going to be a whopper and it's going to be very unusual to see. That's going to, you would be incredibly lucky to catch an eight-inch fish in Georgia.
Tom: All right. So, in inches, Sarah, how long would an Age 5 brook trout be?
Sarah: Yeah, about eight inches.
Tom: Eight inches? Okay, so that's a trophy.
Sarah: That's a trophy. Now, if you have electricity like I do, you might be able to see a 10-incher.
Tom: You use a really good fishing method, right?
Sarah: Although, I have met some fly anglers that I do believe are better than an electric fisherman.
Tom: Better than electric? Wow, that's pretty good if you're better than electrofishing. That should be a nickname for someone, "Better than electrofishing." So, these are tiny fish. I imagine they're just absolutely spectacularly colored, particularly this time of year when they're in spawning season.
Sarah: They are, they are, yes. If you do get the opportunity to fish it in October, early November, they are spectacular. Or you could be kind of a little more nerdy about it and get yourself a wetsuit and go snorkel for them and then it's even more beautiful underwater.
Tom: Yeah, true. Now, so you let...there's no closed season, you let people fish them during spawning season?
Sarah: We do. Yeah, there is not a closed season on brook trout during the spawn and I think that some people are certainly concerned with that and very cautious and I think that that's...what I advise anglers what is best is to just really keep a lookout for those reds and they'll be really obvious and tend to just really stay out of those areas.
Tom: That's interesting because I have the exact that exact question last week on my podcast...on this podcast, a guy asked me, he said, "You know, I saw some brook trout spawning on reds," and he wanted to know if he should just leave the stream entirely. And I told him no, I said, "Not really, as long as you don't fish over red, you know, you're pestering the fish in one way or the other." So, we just don't like to...
Sarah: Yeah. Well, I concur, Tom.
Tom: Good, I'm glad to hear a biologist concur with my amateur suggestion. So, what's the season in these fish? Do people fish for them all winter long there?
Sarah: You know, most people do not fish in the wintertime. In winter, brook trout fishing certainly slows down and surprisingly, our North Georgia streams get very, very cold and we do get snow in those little areas occasionally. And I have fished in January-February and I really think it's a marvelous time to fish because no one else is on the stream, so I recognize...
Tom: Now, is this electrofishing, or is this civilian fishing you're doing?
Sarah: Civilian fishing, yes, for my personal enjoyment. So, personally, I do really enjoy fishing, but it is slow. I mean, you might only get a couple of hits in a four-hour stretch versus if you fish on the primetime, May and June, you're gonna get just one after the other after the other after the other and it's just so much fun.
Tom: So, May and June is the prime time?
Sarah: Yeah, yes, absolutely.
Tom: Do you see hatches on these streams? Do you see fish rising?
Sarah: Oh, yeah, absolutely. That's part of the really cool thing about...I mean, you just feel like you're in this...I mean, Georgia is rainforest technically. I mean, we get that much rain in a year, I think it's like...yeah, it's like 60 to 75 inches a year.
Tom: Thank you for using inches.
Sarah: It's just a wonderful experience of just feeling like you're in this little cocoon, and you have these hatches all over, and you see them in the beautiful sunlight, and it's really spectacular. That being said, I still don't try to match the hatch when it comes to brook trout...
Tom: I don't either. I don't either. Parachute Adams will work. And so, tell me some of the things that you have discovered in your research about these fish that maybe would surprise you or would surprise people.
Sarah: Okay, yeah. Well, I think that a lot of the time, people think of rainbow trout and brown trout in Georgia and brook trout all being these wild trout. So, if they're small, then they're reproducing naturally and that means they're all native. Well, that's not the case and I'm sure most of your listeners do know that brook trout are the only native species to Georgia or the native Salmonid species of Georgia. And I say Salmonid, brook trout are technically not a trout, they're a char. But still, nonetheless, those brook trout are just really a true what we call heritage species, really, just spectacular.
And the thing that makes me most excited about being able to work with this species is that it's an indicator species. They are really...if something is wrong in the watershed and we see this decline in a population, that really helps us to say, "Okay, something is going on in the stream and it's going to affect the downstream species." So, it's like the first line of defense of like, "Okay, something's going wrong here," and helps us to, I think, bring attention and prioritize where we need work to be done for the benefit of the rest of the watershed, you know? So, the North Georgia streams that we get to work in are truly the headwaters of like the Chattahoochee River and that know, leads all the way down. So, that's the part that excites me the most. And Georgia, it's actually ranked third in the most fish species in the U.S., just behind Tennessee and Alabama.
Tom: Really? Wow.
Sarah: It's neck and neck. Yeah, they're just really, really close with this number of fish species. So, it's really neat to get to see one species benefit so many others, you know? So, that's really exciting.
Tom: And what is your research involved? Are you looking at population dynamics? Are you looking at the structure of population and the density of the fish? Or are you looking for new creeks that you didn''re trying to explore new creeks to find places where you didn't think they live before? What kind of stuff are you doing?
Sarah: Yeah, all of the above, all of the above. And just most recently, we have started a project and it was really a fun project that connected us with an angler, so it's kind of like a citizen science project. And Palmer Hansen is the angler and he connected with the DNR and just said, you know, "Hey, I've been working on this project that I've been doing for the last couple of years," he just personally interested in trying to find every stream in Georgia that has a brook trout, which is just a huge feat and I was just really excited about this person's dedication. So, yeah, he just had this interest in this challenge for himself and he fished hundreds of streams, and he found brook trout in about half of those and then, he shared that information with us.
And I had just recently taken a position, and so it was just kind of new to learning all these streams and we have records from the 60s of a stream having brook trout in them, or not having brook trout in them. And those streams know, I mean, it was the 60s, like electrofishing was just kind of starting out, like fish biology, fish biologists, like the Department of Natural Resources, like, it was just kind of all new as far as wildlife conservation went. So, these records may or may not be true, really. So, I have all these records that say, "Okay, this stream does not have brook trout." And I'm thinking, "Man, that stream should have brook trout in them, like, I'm really surprised that they didn't find any." And so, then Palmer would go and fish that stream and then he'd find a brook trout.
And so, it was kind of a great way to like...because as you can imagine, we're always busy doing lots of other things but Palmer just loved fishing and looking for these things. And so, we're able to exchange just like...we're able to use his information to then troubleshoot as far as our end went and our records. But a lot of the time when a stream said that we did have brook trout, and then he would not find one and that was kind of the way I use that data is that I said, "Okay, well, Palmer doesn't have a record of a brook trout and Palmer's a really great fisherman. So, let's go ahead and check it out with our electrofishers." Then, we would go out and then we wouldn't find any brook trout.
And then as a last mechanism of defense, so to speak, we've just recently implemented the eDNA part of this project. And so, eDNA is relatively new, it's been around for a few years, and it really helps us to determine what species are living where because we know that when a fish moves through a stream, it's constantly shedding bits of itself, in cells, mucus, and feces into the water. And so, we can collect that DNA just by collecting a water sample, and then that DNA in that water, we can extract and sequence that. And we have connected and partnered with University of Georgia. There's a professor there, Dr. Brian Shamblin who's doing all of that for us. And so, it's been really exciting just to kind of work with know, I have multiple aspects of partners to try to achieve this goal of really knowing what fish populations are still existing in Georgia.
So, that's a really neat part, and then an ultimate goal for this is to conduct translocation events so that we can do some reintroductions. And, you know, North Carolina has done these projects, Virginia has done these projects, Tennessee. So, we have states that are already doing them and we're just using DNA to help us to make an argument for, "Okay, this dish is definitely not here." Because the tricky thing is we don't want to...we want to be very careful about where we're introducing fish to. We don't want to reintroduce the fish and spend a lot of time and money trying to fulfill the goal of strengthening the brook trout population again. Or if we have the stream that maybe never had brook trout or perhaps the stream has experienced a really significant sediment load that isn't going to help that fish. I mean, we might stock them but they may not reproduce, and so that's not what we want to spend our time doing. So, anyway, all of that really just is a big project we've got going on and we're just really excited about it. So, I can't wait to see the results of it.
Tom: So, you may reintroduce some brook trout into streams that historically had them and don't anymore but could still support them?
Sarah: Mm-hmm.
Tom: That's really neat. Have you ever...are there any streams that you've totally protected? In other words, don't allow angling at all, or are these all still just open to fishing?
Sarah: Yeah, currently all of them are open to fishing year-round and we do not have any...but we have a few streams that have a length limit on them. Yeah, so they can only catch...they currently catch and keep a trout that's over a certain length because brook trout really don't get that big that it acts as like a catch-and-release.
Tom: What's the length limit?
Sarah: I think that only exists on one watershed.
Tom: What's the length limit, Sarah? What's the length limit on that water? What is the length limit? Is it like six inches or...?
Sarah: I can't remember what it is. I think it's 10. I think it's greater than 10, then you can keep it. I don't think that there's anything we can do for 10.
Tom: That's pretty much catch-and-release in brook trout water.
Sarah: And there are some, like, artificial lure-only streams but generally, it only occurs on one watershed. So, for the most part, they're open and it's been interesting. You know, there's a lot of people that...there's a lot of different studies that have looked at lure type and angling pressure. So, it gets tricky from a regulation standpoint, for sure.
Tom: Yeah, yeah, and I think the jury's still out there. I mean, you can read a study that shows that bait fishing mortality isn't any greater than fly mortality, and then you can read a study that shows that bait fishing is much more higher mortality than fly fishing or lure fishing. So, I don't think there's any real positive decision on that.
Sarah: You're right.
Tom: I'm sure there's so many variables that it's really difficult to really prove that one way or the other.
Sarah: Yeah.
Tom: Well, these sound like some fascinating streams. And although we don't want a hotspot any place, can you give someone a general area? And then if they're going to go blue lining, you know, what general areas should they go to, and then what should they look for?
Sarah: Sure. Well, they should look for a stream that's roughly 2,200 feet in elevation, so be sure to grab a map and look at the elevation. My technician and I have a joke that people don't read maps, like old-fashioned maps anymore. So, we definitely recommend that.
Tom: They're hard to find.
Sarah: Get a good map.
Tom: They're hard to find.
Sarah: They are, that's true. Okay, I'll give you that, they are. And then, yeah, you can bring a thermometer, I highly recommend anglers bring thermometers with them because they are going to be in those cooler temperatures. So, if you're in a stream that's, you know, 72 degrees, you're not going to catch a brook trout. So, keep moving upstream. And like I said, most of the brook trout populations are within public lands, so the Chattahoochee National Forest is where they will be and you can find them wherever there's a whole bunch of thick Rhododendron, which you're probably going to lose your patients at some point during your day, but that's all part of it.
Tom: Yeah, yeah. Bow and arrow cast, right?
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah, we've got some really great watersheds, the Cooper Creek watershed and Fellow Creek watershed and the WMAZ, the Wildlife Management areas have really strong populations of brook trout as well.
Tom: So, you know, how large of an area is this that contains these brook trout? Is it just a small corner of the state?
Sarah: I mean, it's really only about 1,600 square miles.
Tom: Okay.
Sarah: Yeah, so it's fairly small. It's just the upper fringe of Georgia and it's really only...I mean, it's probably's definitely less than 200 miles of total trout streams in Georgia.
Tom: Two hundred miles of wild brook trout streams. That's still a lot of miles, still a lot of miles. And aren't there a few wild brook trout streams in a corner of South Carolina too?
Sarah: There are. Yes, there are and they have some really great projects going on right now too to try to just encourage those stronghold populations.
Tom: Do you work with the South Carolina DNR on those?
Sarah: We do. So, the Chattooga River actually creates the Georgia border with South Carolina. And if you do ever fish Georgia or fish Chattooga, I love it so much. And that Chattooga River drainage really brings us together because that is where those brook trout populations are...the headwaters of those areas come together. So, South Carolina and Georgia work really well together, and North Carolina because we're all kind of three right there. So, it's a really special unique agency collaboration between the three of us.
Tom: Well, that is a really cool story and you've got me, the next time I'm in Georgia, I'm going to try to catch a brook trout in Georgia and maybe in South Carolina too just to do it, just to...
Sarah: Well, let me know when you do.
Tom: Okay. Can we bring the electro-fishing gear?
Sarah: Yes.
Tom: No. Well, I'll come in May and June and bring some dry flies. How's that?
Sarah: Okay, perfect. That sounds perfect.
Tom: All right. Well, thank you, Sarah. It sounds like you just have a fascinating job and I can tell by the tone of your voice that you're very passionate about this and must be pretty cool to study wild brook trout for a living.
Sarah: I feel very, very special that I get to do this.
Tom: That's pretty neat. And you also fly fish for them as well when you're not working, huh?
Sarah: I do. Yes, I do fly fish, I think it's a wonderful science, art, and sport.
Tom: Yeah, yeah. Pretty special.
Sarah: And I actually learned largely by reading your books.
Tom: Oh, no.
Sarah: I told my dad today about this and he's like, "Wait, the books? The guy that I gave you the books?" And I'm like, "Yes."
Tom: Well, it's been an honor talking to you and I want to thank you for sharing your knowledge and your enthusiasm, and I'm sure there's lots of people that are gonna want to try to catch a wild Georgia brook trout as well.
Sarah: I hope so, yes. Bring your Parachute Adams and bring your kit.
Tom: Yep, and good hiking boots, right?
Sarah: Yes, and good hiking boots. A wading staff probably helps too.
Tom: Really? Are they big enough that you need a wading staff?
Sarah: Well, you really use your wading staff more as like a way to balance on the rocky terrain.
Tom: Okay. It sounds like good exercise, too. Sounds great.
Sarah: Well, thanks so much for having me, Tom. I greatly appreciate it, it's been a privilege to talk with you.
Tom: Sarah, thank you. We've been talking to Sarah Baker of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources about wild brook trout in Georgia. Sarah, I hope to fish with you someday.
Sarah: I hope so too, Tom.
Tom: All right, thanks very much.
Sarah: Thank you, talk soon.
Tom: Okay, bye-bye.
Sarah: Bye.
Tom: Thanks for listening to "The Orvis Fly Fishing Podcast" with Tom Rosenbauer. You can be a part of the show. Have a question or comment? Send it to us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. in the body of an email or as a voice attachment. You can find more free fishing tips at