High waters delay state stocking efforts

I was driving one of my sons to one of his many activities on Monday evening. The thunder I’d heard in the afternoon was no long rumbling, and the rain had subsided from pounding to merely steady. As we crossed the one-lane bridge on Route 116, I glanced down at the New Haven River. It was swollen and murky — too high to invite fishing — but not quite at flood stage. I was surprised. Despite the tapering off of the rain, I’d been expecting the water to be even higher.
And, indeed, just an hour and a half later, as I drove with my son back over the same bridge, even though the rain had stopped the river had risen up over its banks and its current could be seen rushing across a nearby cornfield. The heavy precipitation that had fallen further upstream in Lincoln had finally made its way down the mountain. “Swollen and murky” had turned to flood.
Flooding has been in the news a lot this spring. Lake Champlain reached a new record high, as its entire watershed has been affected both by melt-off of near-record amounts of snow and by a record-setting rainy spring. The state will be dealing with the aftermath for some time, I fear.
Among the many aspects of life in Vermont affected by this year’s widespread flooding will be annual trout-stocking efforts. Eric Palmer, director of fisheries with Vermont Fish and Wildlife, summarized some of the impacts. The stocking of streams and rivers, which usually starts in late April after the spring runoff and is typically complete by mid-June, has already been delayed by the lingering winter, and is now well behind schedule thanks to the floods.
“Streams and rivers are too high out of their banks,” Palmer said.
That window of opportunity is affected by two factors. If officials stock too early, fish are more likely to get washed downriver. High water from runoff or floods also puts additional stress on fish.
“Trout are adapted to flood events,” Palmer points out, “so fish already out there should survive quite well.”
It doesn’t always go as well with newly stocked fish, however. The extra turbidity can cause stress. It can come from abrasion, or from silt impacting natural food supplies. Wild healthy fish will usually do just fine under these conditions, but weak or newly stocked fish are more susceptible to diseases and will see an increase in mortality rates.
On the other hand, if they stock too late after water levels go down, the water can get too warm and this creates a different type of stress for newly stocked cold-water species like trout. With this year’s delays significantly pushing back the stocking dates on most rivers and streams, Palmer is hoping we will not have a sudden hot spell before they are able to get the fish in.
And the issue is not simply getting this year’s fish out into the fisheries. There is another challenge.
“We have several years’ worth of fish at the hatchery,” Palmer explained. “Because we’ve not been able to get them stocked, the larger fish [for this year’s stocking] are still taking up space in raceways. Smaller fish are outgrowing their living space because we can’t get them moved.”
Even a couple weeks makes a significant difference, as they want to get those fish up to size for next year. It hasn’t yet reached a critical state, but if flows don’t come down soon the impact of this year’s floods and delays could carry over to next year.
The news is not all bad. Palmer noted that some fish are actually helped by flood conditions. Muskie and northern pike will head out of lakes into flooded wetlands to spawn. On the eastern side of the state, young Atlantic salmon may have an easier time getting downriver to the ocean.
The stocking of lakes and ponds has also been only minimally affected. Lakes are usually stocked almost as soon as the ice goes out, and sometimes even sooner, Palmer said. Lake Champlain stocking, in particular, has been right on schedule. The trophy stocking program — which includes both Otter Creek and Goshen Dam — though pushed back a week or two, has been progressing and will continue for the next few weeks.
Much of the stocking of our local rivers has also taken place despite the conditions. New Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Patrick Berry, who has many ties to Addison County and was an active member of the New Haven River Anglers Association, was himself helping with the stocking of the Middlebury River just last weekend. Close to 1,000 rainbows and browns were put in the lower Middlebury, while the lower New Haven received 1,500 rainbows.
Palmer’s last word was thus one of encouragement. Though lots of anglers are discouraged by the high water conditions, it’s one of the best times of year for fishing, and there are still plenty of opportunities to get a line in the water and catch fish.

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