Seasonal diet and habitat use of large, introduced rainbow trout in an Ozark highland stream.
Stocking of Rainbow Trout Oncorhynchus mykiss commonly provides seasonal or mitigation fisheries; however, these fish are usually small and ecosystem effects are spatially or temporally limited. Yet agencies receive requests to stock Rainbow Trout in relatively natural settings (i.e., not tailwater or mitigation fisheries), where introductions may have greater ecosystem consequences. The size of introduced fish is an important factor in determining biotic interactions with native species; therefore, our objectives were to assess the seasonal feeding ecology and microhabitat use of large (265-530 mm TL) nonnative Emmerson strain Rainbow Trout in a relatively unaltered, groundwater-influenced, warmwater stream of the Ozark Highlands. Rainbow Trout consumed a variety of prey; however, diets differed between cool (winter and spring) and warm (summer) seasons. Cool-season Rainbow Trout exhibited a mixed feeding strategy, with individual specialization on crayfishes and fishes and generalist feeding on Ephemeroptera and Diptera, but Gastropoda were the dominant prey. Feeding strategy in the warm season switched to individual specialization on numerous prey types. Overall, larger prey resources were important components of Rainbow Trout diets. Piscivory was relatively high in both seasons, and crayfishes were one of the most important prey types across seasons. Selection of coarse substrates and deeper-water microhabitats (>0.95 m) was similar between seasons. Rainbow Trout selected the lowest-velocity microhabitats available during the warm season and moderate velocities in the cool season. Rainbow Trout were five times more likely to be associated with cover in the warm season. Due to their higher temperature tolerance, Emmerson strain Rainbow Trout may persist in Ozark Highland streams, where they disrupt local food webs and occupy habitat otherwise selected by native fish, such as Neosho Smallmouth Bass Micropterus dolomieu velox. If native species conservation is a priority for agencies, then caution regarding Rainbow Trout stockings may be warranted.