Many anglers have never even heard of the Aurora trout, and even less have had the pleasure of catching one of these mystical creatures. Native to only two small remote northern lakes in the Temagami District of Ontario, Canada, its no wonder why these fish are shrouded in secrecy. These trout are only known to occur natively in Whitepine and Whirligig Lakes. Fishing in Whitepine and Whirligig Lake is closed year round, as the lakes remain a sanctuary for what little native Aurora Trout remain.
The Salvelinus Fontinalis Timagamiensis, a.k.a. Aurora trout, is actually a subspecies of the more commonly known, Salvelinus fontinalis, or Brook Trout. Differing in appearance quite a bit from its close relative, the Aurora Trout normally does not display any spots or halos. Instead, the body has a smooth colour gradient, changing from a magenta like pink, to dark orange on the belly, especially prevalent in mature adults.
Similar to the Brook Trout, the Aurora Trout generally inhabit waters 20 degrees Celsius or below. In rising temperature conditions, they will relocate to areas of groundwater up-welling. These natural groundwater springs also provide spawning areas on which to build redds. Spawning occurs in late October to early November, and the maximum known lifespan is 9 years. Though the Aurora Trout displays many similarities to its close relative, the Brook Trout, there are some behavioral differences. For example, Aurora Trout are not known to inhabit any rivers or streams, like Brook Trout, but instead prefer lake environments. They also have a much thicker skin than Brook Trout impregnated with far more mucus glands.
Discovery and Classification
Aurora trout were first discovered in Ontario by a visiting American by the name of William H. Rinkenbach in the early 1920's. Thrilled by his discovery, he brought one specimen back home and sent it into the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to be analyzed by researchers. Flash forward almost a year, after the collection of additional research and museum specimens, researchers finally came to the conclusion that William had discovered a new species, of which he named, the Aurora Trout. Its very likely that an early settler or aboriginal Canadian had caught these fish before Mr. Rinkenbach, but he is credited with providing the first specimen for research purposes.
Over the years, the new species status of the Aurora trout was challenged many times. Many arguments pointed out that the new species shared far too many characteristic of the Brook Trout to be classified as a new species. The status of the Aurora trout remained open to debate and speculation for decades until the early 1980's. In 1981, a doctorate thesis student at Guelph University concluded that DNA cannot distinguish between an Aurora and a Brook Trout and therefore, it would be inappropriate to classify the Aurora Trout as a true subspecies of the Brook Trout. The completion of further studies in the late 2000's also solidified these claims, though today. The Aurora Trout is technically a race of brook trout, though most resources still classify it as a Brook Trout subspecies.
Environmental Challenges and Restoration
Some years after Mr. Rinkenbach's astounding discovery, Inco LTD. opened what was at the time, the largest smeltery in Canada. Its purpose was to process ore from Newfoundland into raw materials. This process releases large amounts of pollution in the form of Nitrous and Sulfurous particles. Its location - just over 100 km (70 mi) south-west of Whitepine lake. The air pollutants released by this smeltery, along with additional air pollution coming in from the United States, led to higher occurrences of acid rain, thus contributing to the rise in pH levels of Whitepine and Whirligig Lake.
Trout, like most other fish, are susceptible to changes in acidity. A minimum pH level of 5 is required for reproduction. In the 1980's, the pH levels of Whitepine and Whirligig lakes were found to be well below 5. In other words, they were too acidic to maintain the required water conditions necessary for Brook and Aurora Trout reproduction. Starting in 1989, lake-wide liming began in both lakes on various occasions in an attempt to restore them to a more basic environment. Though there were improvements in water quality, Whirligig and Whitepine lakes are still threatened by acidification.
"Since 1983 the Aurora Trout Management Committee, composed of OMNR biologists, technicians and hatchery staff, has overseen the management of Aurora Trout. The current management objectives are: (1) to maintain the Aurora Trout gene pool and restore self-sustaining populations to their native habitat; and (2) to introduce Aurora Trout into a limited number of non-native lakes to maintain a brood stock, establish one reproducing satellite population and provide limited angling opportunities. In 1987 the Aurora Trout was assigned an "endangered" designation by COSEWIC. The Conservation Data Center rating is G5T, ON-S1 and Ontario recognizes the form as endangered, but it is not regulated under the Endangered Species Act."
Since 1990, successful reproduction has occurred annually in both Whitepine and Whirligig Lakes. Natural reproduction has not been documented in Alexander Lake, the egg source for hatchery brood stock, or in any of the lakes with recreational fishing opportunities. The threat for extinction is an ongoing concern for Aurora Trout as both Whitepine and Whirligig Lake are highly susceptible to acidification.
Aurora Trout Today
The open fishing season for Aurora Trout is August 1 to October 15. Due to endangered species status, Aurora Trout fishing opportunities are strictly regulated.The lakes with open season operate under a set of special regulations. The 9 lakes with Aurora Trout fishing opportunities operate on a rotating schedule; only a few of the 9 lakes are open any given year. Lakes with an open recreational fishing season for Aurora trout are: Pallet, Wynn, Reed, Semple Lake (No. 54), Big Club, Carol, Nayowin, Borealis, and Liberty Lake. After a lake is open for a season, its closed for 3 years to allow recovery and restocking. This is necessary due to the lack of natural reproduction occurrences in these lakes. Anglers must posses a sport fishing license; a conservation license does not allow anglers to target Aurora Trout. Unlike most other species, Aurora Trout are regulated under catch and posses limits. The daily catch and posses limit is one. This means that after you have caught an Aurora Trout, you must stop fishing for the day, regardless of weather you release the fish or keep it. The use of live bait is prohibited on most of the open Aurora Trout lakes.
If you are planning an outing in search of these illusive trout, the best times of day are at dawn and just after dark. Unlike their close relatives, Aurora Trout will mainly be found in the deepest sections of the water column. Though its possible to take them on a dry fly, heavy nymphs, chironomids and streamers will work best. Spinners and spoons can also work exceptionally well. The trout in the photo above was taken on a 5/8 oz Little Cleo spoon in crimson/gold colour.
Due to the rotating schedule these lakes operate on, you may need to call the OMNR in advance to confirm which lakes are open and which are closed for restocking. Most of these lakes are very remote with emergency services and amenities hours away. Always take necessary precautions before planning any back country fishing trip.
I hope this article was able to unveil some of the mystery behind the Aurora Trout. In the interest of readability, this is intended to be a brief overview only. Please view the sources below for much more comprehensive information about this mystical species!
If you chose to plan a fishing trip targeting the Aurora Trout, please be respectful and remember that these fish are an endangered species.
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Ed Snucins. 2011. COSEWIC Assessment and Update Status Report.
Keller, W., J. Heneberry, S. MacPhee, E. Snucins, and J. Gunn. 2008. Aurora trout lakes ecosystem data report:1976-2006. Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Cooperative Freshwater Ecology Unit Report, 127pp.
Aurora Trout Rendition by Cory Trépanier. All rights reserved © 2008
Nick Karas. 2005. Aurora: The Tale of the Comeback Trout. Volume 31, Number 3. The American Fly Fisher. Journal of the American Museum of Fly Fishing.