Department of Environmental Conservation

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Protecting Adirondack Fish

Windfall Heritage Strain Brook Trout

Fishing for brook trout on a remote pond is a unique and long treasured experience in the Adirondacks. The beautifully colored "Brookie" or "Speckled Trout" is the State Fish of New York and is highly prized by anglers.

Brook trout and round whitefish once were abundant in Adirondack lakes and ponds and an important component of the Adirondack aquatic ecosystem. Human introductions of non-native fish have, and continue to, substantially and permanently affect the ecosystems of lakes and ponds. Populations of brook trout, round whitefish and other native Adirondack fish species have severely declined due to introduced fish.

What You Can Do

Sign prohibiting the use or possession of bait fish

Do not move fish from one water body to another. All such stockings are illegal and can damage the aquatic ecosystem as well as fishing opportunities.

Do not use bait fish on Adirondack waters where it is prohibited. Check the Baitfish Regulations section of the Freshwater Fishing Regulations Guide to determine waters where the use of bait fish is prohibited. Most waters will have the sign shown here posted as well.

Do not release unused bait fish even where using them is allowed. Many fish species sold as bait are not native to the Adirondacks. Your bait bucket could be the source of new, non-natives to the water you are fishing.

History of the Adirondack Fishery

Round whitefish

Nitrate Deposition and Impact on Adirondack Streams (PDF)

After the last ice age, climatic conditions and waterfalls restricted fish movement upstream, therefore few fish species became established in Adirondack waters. Brook trout and round whitefish are two species that succeeded.

Over the next ten thousand years the brook trout and round whitefish became the dominant species in many Adirondack lakes and ponds. Not only were they an important component of the aquatic ecosystems of the Adirondacks but unique, native or "heritage" strains of brook trout evolved in various watersheds.

Beginning in the late 1800s, and continuing through the present, humans introduced non-native fish throughout the Adirondacks, and they now dominate the region's lakes and ponds. Introductions of non-native fish have been detrimental to both brook trout and round whitefish because of increased competition and predation.

Historic, unique, and natural fish communities are becoming rarer, having been replaced by fish that out-compete and/or consume brook trout, round whitefish and other native fish. Round whitefish are now listed as endangered in New York State, and some Adirondack heritage strains of brook trout have been lost or are now limited to just a few bodies of water.

Impacts of Non-native Fish

yellow perch
Yellow perch

Non-native fish have, and continue to, change the fishery and ecosystem of the Adirondacks. Non-native fish prey on the eggs and young of native fish. Non-native fish out compete brook trout and other native fish by consuming large quantities of zooplankton (very small aquatic animals) and other prey food that the native fish feed upon.

This results in a decrease in the amount, size, and type of zooplankton populations in the waters. Reduced amounts of zooplankton, which feed on algae, means less available food for native fish and more algae and algal blooms.

Non-native fish can also transfer harmful fish diseases. The viral fish disease called VHS (Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia) - not known to be in North America until 2005 - has now spread into Lake Ontario and the St Lawrence River, killing fish of many species. VHS, whirling disease and other fatal fish diseases could be spread into Adirondack waters through the illegal or accidental stocking of non-native fish.

golden shiner
Golden shiner

Non-native fish that are detrimental to native fish populations include: largemouth and smallmouth bass, yellow perch, northern pike, golden shiners, rock bass, black crappie, and others.

The lakes and ponds associated with the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest provide an example of the dramatic decline of brook trout in Adirondack waters. Historically, 94 percent of the acreage of waters in the area contained brook trout. Today, that has declined to only about 3 percent of the acreage - due primarily to non-native fishes. Most of the remaining brook trout waters are a result of management efforts, including pond reclamation, stocking and liming.

Map of waters in the Saranac Lake Wild Forest depicting the absence of brook trout from waters they previously inhabitated.

Efforts to Protect Native Adirondack Fish

Fish barrier dam

Active management efforts must be undertaken to ensure continued existence of Adirondack heritage strain brook trout, round whitefish and other native fish. The Department of Environmental Conservation's restoration program integrates a number of management activities to protect and restore the Adirondack ecosystem and its native fishery.

These efforts include:

  • Pond reclamations to eliminate non-native fish from a water and then restock it with heritage strain brook trout or round whitefish;
  • Managing brood stock waters for round whitefish and heritage strains of brook trout for stocking;
  • Pond liming to mitigate the effects of acid deposition;
  • Building and maintaining barrier dams to block the further spread of non-native fish; and
  • Restricting the use of live bait and other special angling regulations on certain Adirondack waters.

Reclaiming Ponds to Control Non-native Fish

Technicians applying rotenone to a water from a boat.

In a pond reclamation, a controlled amount of rotenone (a natural, organic treatment) is applied to water infested with non-native fish, and the pond is restocked with brook trout and/or round whitefish. The pond's ecosystem can recover from the effects of non-native fish and return to an historic, simple fish community.

Rotenone is a chemical that was originally derived from the root of the South American derris plant. The derris plant root has been used for hundreds of years by aboriginal people to capture fish for eating.

Rotenone has been studied thoroughly and found to be safe and effective. Rotenone degrades to carbon dioxide and water and has minimal impact on non-target species. It is neutralized by digestive enzymes in mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, which remain unaffected by contact with it or consumption of fish containing rotenone.

Reclamations can only be conducted on very limited number of ponds. The vast majority of Adirondack lakes and ponds cannot be reclaimed due to their physical characteristics - the size of the water body, the amount or type of wetlands along the shore, or the lack of a barrier to keep non-native fish from returning up the outlet.

Horn Lake heritage strain brook trout

53 ponds totaling 1,196 acres were reclaimed between 1989 and 2005. These numbers represent about 0.5 percent of the acreage lakes and ponds in the Adirondacks. This means most introductions of non-native fish are permanent!

The Department of Environmental Conservation's heritage strain brook trout restoration program is essential to:

  • Restore historic fish communities and aquatic ecosystems;
  • Maintain Adirondack heritage strain brook trout populations;
  • Restore round whitefish populations; and
  • Continue to provide angling opportunities for the historic and renowned Adirondack brook trout.

You can help protect the Adirondack heritage strain brook trout and other native fish by following the "What You Can Do" guidelines above.