Why a Maryland landscape architect restores brook trout habitat in his free time.
By Jared Brey
The underbelly of an eastern brook trout, especially when it is spawning, is orange and pink like a sunrise, and its back is dappled brown and green like a forest floor. The spots along its lateral line are small and circular like pink and yellow confetti, and the vermiculations on its back are yellowish and serpentine, like a Polynesian tattoo. It is a small fish, typically no longer than about 10 and a half inches—the height of this page—fully grown. It breeds in streams as far west as Minnesota and as far south as the extent of the Appalachian Mountains, in Georgia. First described in 1814, the species is thought to have come into its own during the Pliocene Epoch, between two million and five million years ago. Unlike the brown trout, which is commonly stocked for sportfishing, the brook trout is a member of the char genus. Both are members of the Salmonidae family, which also includes salmon.
The brook trout insists on cold water, and prefers to spend time in waterways with an even distribution of riffles and pools. When it is feeding, on plankton at first and later on insects as it matures, the fish wants to spend as little energy as possible to acquire food. It will hide in shadow in deep pools, and wait for bugs to come surfing down the thin seam of fast water that flows downstream from shallow rapids. If it senses an opportunity, it will strike. Sometimes it will catch a mayfly nymph, and sometimes it will catch an artificial fly tied to a fishing line owned by Scott Scarfone, ASLA.
When I first spoke with Scarfone over the phone at the beginning of May, I had the sensation that I had walked in on him in the middle of a solemn prayer.
“If you look at the pictures of brook trout, if you hold a brook trout in your hand, it is a jewel,” Scarfone said. “It’s an absolutely beautiful fish. It’s a piece of artwork. Every time I get one in my hands, it’s a miracle. I’m just amazed by the beauty of this fish. It’s just so beautiful.”
After we hung up, Scarfone sent me a set of coordinates, and three weeks later I drove down to Baltimore County, in Maryland, to meet him. Scarfone is a landscape architect and a practice builder at Kimley-Horn, which absorbed his previous practice, Oasis Design Group, in 2017. Most of his professional work is focused on urban design and botanic gardens, and most of his free time is spent hunting and fishing. For the past four years, Scarfone has been coordinating a wide-ranging effort to restore and improve brook trout habitat in the Upper Gunpowder Falls Watershed, a 38-square-mile area of Baltimore and Carroll Counties that drains to the Gunpowder River and eventually to the Chesapeake Bay. The partnership, called the Upper Gunpowder Falls Watershed Brook Trout Conservation Partnership, includes the Maryland Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Prettyboy Watershed Alliance, the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Brook trout are an indicator species, which means that the relative health of their populations is a stand-in for the health of the wider ecosystem. If brook trout are thriving, chances are good that the water they live in is cold and clean, and that the stream is in good shape and surrounded by trees. So the goals of the effort are layered, tying in everything from stormwater management to environmental conservation. For Scarfone, above all, it’s about protecting the best spots to fish.
We met near a tributary called Walker Run. I agreed not to reveal the precise location—a common understanding among brook trout fisherfolk, he assured me. Scarfone had maps of the watershed spread out on the tailgate of his pickup truck, and after getting our bearings, we hiked over a ridge until we found a stream, and stopped about 30 paces ahead of the water to avoid disturbing any trout.
“The reason why I like fishing for these fish is, you’re in a pristine environment, but you have to be very stealthy about how you fish,” Scarfone said. “So it’s zen. It’s total frickin’ zen. You have to be kind of in the moment. You have to be concentrating. You have to focus.… When you’re focused on a fish that is so smart and so sensitive, you are totally in that fish’s head. And it’s just therapeutic. It’s very cleansing.”
Scarfone grew up outside Pittsburgh and went to West Virginia University, and he speaks with a hard-to-place country twang. On the day I joined him, he wore an orange Redwood National Forest T-shirt tucked into his pants, and we stood for a full 10 minutes before the stream while he showed me his fly case and pointed to the spots in the pool where trout were likely to be hiding. Before he cast a single line, three women came down the trail on horseback and blew up the spot. So we hiked upstream.
The Upper Gunpowder Falls Watershed is mostly forested toward the eastern half, around Walker Run, and mostly agricultural farther upstream to the west. Most of the headwaters are on privately owned farmland. Although the brook trout population in the watershed is the second-biggest in the state, degraded streams represent a threat to the trout’s vitality. Every year for the past four years, Scarfone and other partners have deployed water temperature loggers at key points in the watershed to monitor the temperature. When it goes above 68 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s bad for the fish.
“Water temperature is the key,” Mark Staley, a manager in the Freshwater Fisheries Program at Maryland DNR, told me. “Because they’re cold-blooded creatures, as the temperature rises, their metabolism speeds up. So their body is humming along, burning energy because they’re in a warmer environment, and then they can’t eat enough to feed their energy needs, so they’re losing weight even if they’re feeding, because they’re just burning through their calories.”
Until now, the Upper Gunpowder Falls Watershed Brook Trout Conservation Partnership has mostly done research through temperature monitoring and fish surveys. In 2017, Jennifer Graves, a graduate student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, completed a prioritization study to identify the key points for restoration work in the watershed. This year, Katie Bartling, a trout fisher and an environmental scientist at AECOM, is performing an assessment of culverts in the watershed to find areas where fish passage might be blocked, as a capstone for her master’s in landscape architecture at Temple University. And the work of stream restoration is finally getting under way.
“Think about it,” Scarfone said. “If you have a stream that’s running through a field for even 400 yards in the middle of the summer, it is not uncommon that the water coming into that sunny area may be 67 degrees, but by the time it leaves it could be 72. And so if we have a series of headwaters that are exposed to the sun and that are thermally increasing in temperature, that’s going to be a stressor for the brook trout.”
In the partnership’s ideal world, all of the farmland streams in the western part of the watershed would be planted with thick riparian buffers to shade and stabilize the streams. Woody debris would be submerged throughout the waterway for trout habitat, and cattle crossings and livestock fencing would keep cows from walking through the water. But because most of the land is privately held, the work is slow going.
“The success or failure of the fish is at the whim of how private landowners manage their land, so we’re trying to educate these people on how to be good stewards of their land, and we’re using this sexy fish as a way to get their attention,” Scarfone said.
Luckily, there’s a good amount of grant money floating around for various work related to tree plantings and clean waterways. In May, River Valley Ranch, a summer camp in Carroll County that happens to be one of the biggest properties in the Upper Gunpowder Falls Watershed, began work on 8,000 linear feet of riparian buffers on the section of Muddy Creek that runs through its land. The design work was completed by Biohabitats, the Baltimore-based planning and design firm. And funding came from the Maryland State Highway Administration as part of its stormwater management work.
Jon Bisset, the executive director of River Valley Ranch, told me that the group had been trying to get grants for several years to stabilize some of its streams, because parts of them were eroding and threatening one of the camp’s buildings and a covered bridge. GreenVest, a Maryland-based environmental development and consulting firm, helped River Valley Ranch get a grant from the highway administration. And groups like the Prettyboy Watershed Alliance and the brook trout partnership helped push the work along.
Restoring trout habitat was not the primary purpose for pursuing the grant, Bisset told me. “But it’s certainly a secondary one,” he said.
For the brook trout partnership, building relationships with wary landowners is critical. Projects like the one at River Valley Ranch can help show landowners that the work could improve their property and that grants are available to pay for it. And the layered co-benefits of trout-habitat restoration work in the partnership’s favor too, Scarfone told me.
“If you’re not buying the fish, we’re going to sell you clean water,” he said. “If you’re not buying clean water, we’re gonna sell you on restoring habitat and improving the natural environment. If you’re not gonna buy that, we’re gonna try and sell you something else.”
Scarfone is mildly obsessive about brook trout, and he shares information with impressive economy. Often, mid-soliloquy, he would interrupt himself with, “Why?” or “What do I mean by that?” and then go on to explain what he meant, so that by the time he had stopped talking, I had no good reason to ask a follow-up question.
“Landscape architects can use their skills to coordinate a massive conservation effort,” he said. “Because why? Because one, they understand the land. Number two, we’re good at managing across disciplines. We’re almost always on a team that has a variety of professionals. And it’s all about stewardship of the land.… It’s planning, at an immense scale. An entire watershed. We’re looking at land cover. We’re looking at tree cover. We’re understanding the land and understanding how land use impacts what’s going on all the way down to an individual property owner.”
Hiking up the stream, he assured me that there were half a dozen brook trout lying in wait at every pool we came across, and that the only question was whether he could get one on the hook. He worked the holes methodically, casting a line at the bottom of the seam where fish were likely to find bugs, and then casting farther up the seam, foot by foot, until he had covered the entire pool. Then we hiked to the next pool. One more pool, he said, over and over again, and then one more. When at last he pulled one out of the water, I could tell he was relieved. He held it in his wet hands and admired it. It looked pretty to me. I could only imagine how pretty they look to each other.
Jared Brey is a freelance reporter in Philadelphia. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.