Honnedaga Lake & "Heritage" Strain Brook Trout

Brief history   |   Recent sampling   
|   TU Article on Honnedaga brook trout


Honnedaga Lake brook trout
Endemic to the eastern United States, brook trout Salvelinus fontinalis were historically so common in the Adirondack region of New York State that early fish surveys noted the absence of brook trout from lakes and ponds, rather than their presence. Humans -- by constructing dams, over-fishing, introducing non-native fishes, logging, and acidifying waters -- have caused such a disruption in brook trout habitat and community structure that this native trout has disappeared from a wide variety of lakes, rivers and streams. Over the past 20 years, however, improved management practices have restored many previously degraded brook trout lake fisheries to a healthier condition.

Honnedaga Lake


From a conservation perspective, the nine remaining "heritage" strains of brook trout in New York are particularly noteworthy. Heritage populations are wild strains of brook trout that maintain the original genetic characteristics of a specific lake population. Heritage strains have survived despite widespread introductions of hatchery-reared brook trout varieties, and exist only within waters where genes from outside the original population have never been introduced into the subject lake. Keller (1979) identified ten heritage varieties of wild New York brook trout: Basalm Lake, Dix Pond, Honnedaga Lake, Horn Lake, Little Tupper Lake, Nate Pond, Stink Lake, Tamarack Pond, Tunis Lake, and Windfall Pond. Unfortunately, the Tamarack Pond variety was lost in the early 1990s, and the Honnedaga Lake population declined dramatically during the 1970s. In recent years, however, the Honnedaga Lake population has shown signs of recovery. Cornell's Adirondack Fishery Research Program is currently evaluating and attempting to enhance the recovery of the Honnedaga Lake brook trout population.

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Recovery of an Acid-Stressed Brook Trout Population in Honnedaga Lake: Preliminary Assessment of Water Quality, Population Size, and Population Genetics
(Clifford Kraft and Daniel Josephson)

Honnedaga Lake is a large (770 acre), deep (max depth 184 feet), and highly transparent (secchi depth 75 feet) body of water. The unique color of the water (light blue), high zinc levels, and low pH are also defining features of this lake, located in the southwestern Adirondack Mountain region.

Brief History of the brook trout fishery in Honnedaga Lake 1900-1970: At the turn of the 20th century, Honnedaga Lake supported a recreational fishery for a self-sustaining population of brook trout. Early records are sketchy; however, it appears that the brook trout population was supported by natural reproduction through the 1930s. In 1939, a hatchery-based stocking program was initiated using fry and fingerlings that originated from adult Honnedaga Lake brook trout, and remained active until 1968. Substantial trapnet catches of brook trout (range 24-80 fish/trapnet night) were observed from 1958 through 1966, at which time modest angling catches were also reported.



Although little water chemistry data was collected prior to 1970, available date indicate that Honnedaga Lake exhibited low pH (range 4.3 to 6.0), alkalinity (0 to 6.5 mg/l), and ANC (Acid Neutralizing Capacity; 0 to 130 µeq/l) by the late 1950s. The presence of brook trout through the 1960s suggests that water chemistry conditions remained suitable for brook trout survival until a marked decline was observed during the late 1960s. Between 1900 and 1960, introduced populations of white suckers, round whitefish, and lake trout also disappeared from the lake, suggesting that deteriorating water quality conditions occurred prior to the 1960s. This decline was likely due to inputs of airborne pollutants now known as acid rain.

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1970-1993: By 1970, the water chemistry of Honnedaga Lake had deteriorated to the point where fish survival was not possible. The observed pH (range 4.80 to 5.00), alkalinity (-6 to -8 mg/l), and ANC (-120 to -160 µeq/l) values indicate that chronic acidification was evident. During this period, few brook trout were observed in Honnedaga Lake. The last angling catches of brook trout were reported in 1971 and 1972, and trapnet catches declined from 7 fish per trapnet night in 1971 to only 0.7 fish per trapnet night in 1979. The brook trout stocking program was terminated in 1968 due to low survival of stocked fish, and direct observations of brook trout in the main lake were rare during the next two decades. During this period, brook trout only continued to be observed in low numbers in three small tributaries fed by groundwater sources.


1994-2000: Little attention was paid to the Honnedaga Lake fishery during the late 1980s and early 1990's, and data collection was sparse. Chronic acid conditions in the lake water left few options for restoring the brook trout population. By the mid 1990s, however, lake property owners reported several observations of brook trout in the lake, and a few dead fish washed up on the shoreline. In fall 2000, large schools of brook trout were noted by one angler. In response, a trapnet was set in November 2000 near a tributary of the lake, resulting in a catch of 70 fish (23.3 fish/trapnet night) ranging from 8-18 inches in length. The trapnet catch indicated that at least 3 or more year-classes of brook trout were present in the lake.

Water chemistry data collected from 1994 to 2000 indicates that conditions may have improved for brook trout survival in the lake. Modest improvements in pH (range 5.00 to 6.03) and ANC (-2.32 to +7.25 µeq/l) have apparently been sufficient for brook trout to recolonize and survive in the lake. We suspect that the recently observed lake population of brook trout resulted from recolonization of the lake from small tributary populations that survived in isolation for nearly three decades.

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The year 2000 was a turning point for the brook trout fishery and water quality of Honnedaga Lake. An upward trend in pH, the presence of adult fish in the lake, and the first reported angler catch of brook trout in nearly three decades provided evidence that improvements had occurred in Honnedaga Lake. In 2001, an assessment program was established to assist in evaluating the recovery of the brook trout fishery. Seasonal water quality and brook trout abundance in the lake and its tributaries are now measured from May through November. The following results provide information about the status of the Honnedaga Lake brook trout population and the lake's environment.

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Tending a trapnet in Honnedaga Lake


I. Water Quality Surveys

Water quality surveys have been conducted at two deep sites in the lake and ten tributaries during 2001 and 2002.

Tributary water quality
Water quality was variable across tributaries, indicating that some were influenced by groundwater inputs while others were primarily influenced by surface run-off. Groundwater-influenced tributaries were less acidic than those tributaries influenced by surface run-off. The pH range across tributaries was 4.5-6.6.

Lake Water Quality
Water chemistry was fairly uniform from the surface to the bottom of the lake. The lake was characterized by low pH and low ANC throughout the May and August period. Although improvements in water quality were evident, Honnedaga Lake continues to be extremely susceptible to acidification from airborne pollutants. As the pH of the water has increased, heavy metals (such as aluminum and zinc) have likely become less soluble and hence less concentrated in the water column. At present, fish are likely surviving in the lake due to reduced levels of toxic metals in the water column resulting from an increase in pH above 5.0 (range 5.0 - 5.6).

II. Brook Trout Population Surveys

Slightly less than 250 brook trout have been captured during late October and November trap net surveys during 2001 and 2002. Captured brook trout ranged in length from 4 to 20 inches, yet 74% of the fish caught were smaller than 12 inches. A wide range of size classes (and likely age classes) are present in Honnedaga Lake, indicating that brook trout have likely been successfully surviving and spawning in the lake and its tributaries for several years.

Future Evaluation
A recovery of the Honnedaga Lake brook trout population is underway. Establishment of a long-term water quality and fish population monitoring program will ensure that effective actions can be implemented to aid the restoration of the population.

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