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It's usually the "firsts" we remember most clearly.

Our first car.

Our first kiss.

And, of course, our first fish.

It's as clear in my mind today as it was decades ago — my first brook trout.

It was a late spring trip to Colorado and I was still at the single-digit grade level in school. All it took was one cast into a tiny stream (more like a drainage ditch) on a sprawling mountain ranch for me to be hooked.

That a fish with such ferocity could live in such a tiny amount of water was simply amazing. It still is. I suppose that's what has me worried.

Now that I have put some years under my belt and acquired at least a sprinkling of wisdom, I have come to realize all that it takes to maintain a healthy brook trout population. Nothing short of pristine waterways and the best possible land management will get the job done.

After inhabiting the East Coast's streams and lakes since the end of the Ice Age, brook trout are finding it harder than ever to survive. To put it nicely, the nation's streams are no longer the untouched, wild waterways they used to be.

Of course, Pennsylvania's creeks and lakes are no exception. The Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, a research and restoration organization comprised of various state wildlife agencies and conservation groups, took upon the task of measuring and monitoring the health of the brook trout from Maine to Georgia.

What it reports is far from impressive. Its most recent research is downright depressing.

While Pennsylvania's statistics are not as extreme as the figures from some states such as Georgia and Maryland where native brook trout populations have been decimated, the Keystone State has little to be proud of.

Less than 1 percent of our waterways are holding trout within 90 to 100 percent of their historic levels, while 39 percent of the state's streams are holding less than half the brook trout they once did. Even worse, 34 percent of streams no longer hold any native trout at all.

As any diehard trout fisherman will attest, the southern half of the state is nearly devoid of any native brook trout fishing. Almost every trout we catch has been put in a stream artificially. Few fish survive for more than a few months.

What's the cause of the destroyed fishery? For the most part, it's poor land management. According to the research group, 49 percent of the state's streams are affected by the misuse of the land surrounding native trout streams.

Each time a tree is cut down, a road is built or excessive nutrients enter a waterway, its trout-holding ability is reduced. Brook trout require absolutely pristine water conditions.

Any increase in temperature or reduction in oxygen, even the smallest amounts, will have adverse effects on such a sensitive species. Just removing a few trees from alongside a backyard stream can raise water temperatures enough to flush out brook trout.

While the data is scary, if not depressing, it's vital information. By understanding what damage has been done, and what impact we have on this struggling species, we can work toward a remedy.

The more we get involved, the quicker we will restore this state's world-class brook trout fishery. It will take a lot of work, but believe me, these fish are worth it.

— Andy Snyder writes about the outdoors for The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sports@yorkdispatch.com.

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