Trout 2012, one month in

We are now one month into the 2012 open season for trout. I confess a little trepidation as the season began, wondering what would be the impact of Tropical Storm Irene on our local waters. And what would be the impact of our dry winter?
The second of these questions is working itself out nicely. The season started with the lowest, warmest water, and some of the best mayfly hatches I’ve ever seen in the first three weeks of the season.
Not surprisingly, therefore, fishing was very good in April, especially on Otter Creek. Best I’ve ever seen it for the first couple weeks of the season. But it was also scary, because with water in April already as low as it usually gets in late August, what would it be like in late August? A summer-long drought could hurt the fishing as much as Irene.
Two weeks of abundant May showers eased my fears tremendously. And ruined some plans. These days I almost never drive more than 20 minutes just to go fishing. Given that there are three major rivers and a few small tributaries I can fish within that distance of my house, I am dissuaded from longer trips by: 1. the environmental cost of driving a car with no passengers for the sake of personal recreation; 2. the cost of gasoline for such a trip; and 3. the time spent driving both ways when there is always work to be done at home.
I usually reserve longer fishing trips for occasions when I can fish with others, or for times when some other business takes me elsewhere and I can fish as a side benefit.
Over the past two weeks, I have had three such trips. In each case, I knew in advance that I had to drive somewhere in Vermont outside my normal fishing range, but somewhere where I wanted to fish. So in each case I made plans to add fishing to my trip to make the best use of a drive I had to take anyway.
Unfortunately, in each case I had no flexibility to change the date. And yes, in each case steady rains moved in the night before and the rivers I intended to fish were high, murky, and nearly unfishable. It didn’t stop me from fishing. But it did seem to prevent me from catching any fish.
Those three occasions aside, however, fishing has been quite good — with some qualification. While I have spent many hours fishing the Middlebury River, and I have several favorite spots on Otter Creek and Lewis Creek, the New Haven River is still unquestionably my favorite local fishing river. I’ll be even more specific: the lower New Haven from below the village of Bristol through its confluence with Otter Creek.
Thanks to Irene, some of my favorite stretches of that river look very different today than they did 10 months ago. Tragically, a few of my honey holes have simply disappeared altogether. Spots where I caught some nice fish last year have filled in with gravel and don’t look like they would hold anything today, except maybe a few minnows. As a result, a few stretches that have always been productive in the past have been barren this year.
But for every two favorite holes that were destroyed, it feels like two or even three new ones have been created. Logjams and the currents swirling around them are the principal creators of these new spots, but sometimes it is also just a shifting of rocks, bank and gravel. One long stretch of river that had never before been good looks fantastic now. I’m looking forward to fishing it often this summer.
Even more stunning to me — since I expected Irene to have scoured the river bottom and washed away a good part of this year’s various hatches of mayflies, stoneflies and caddis flies — was the quality of some of the hatches I have seen on the New Haven in early May.
I sat at the tail of one riffle and watched mayfly after mayfly drift past me. There was one on the water surface about every three feet. Rivers, and their native inhabitants, really are remarkably well adapted to surviving flood events, at least as species if not always as individuals.
My experience so far on the Middlebury River, however, has been very different. My favorite stretch of the Middlebury has been completely sterile so far this year. Not only have I not seen trout, I have also not seen aquatic insects. No visible hatches despite fishing it during the same times of day and same sorts of conditions.
What is the difference? Certainly the Middlebury has a different character than its sister river up the road. It flows through a deeper and narrower gorge from Ripton to East Middlebury than the path followed by the New Haven between Lincoln and Bristol. This likely resulted in it being more deeply affected by Irene.
But the real difference, I think, was not the impact of Irene itself but the devastating impact of the post-flood work on the river to channelize and dredge it. As I noted above, a river will recover quickly from a natural flood. It can take decades to recover from human engineering.
Of course this is only my own experience, and is anecdotal. But I have found it supported by several sources. There is a short but interesting and informative piece on “Flood Impacts to Wild Trout Populations in Vermont” prepared by Vermont fisheries biologist Rich Kirn available at the Fish and Wildlife website:www.vtfishandwildlife.com. (Scroll the “Items of Special Interest” on the right column.)
The New Haven is heavily supported by stocking, of course, and is not a wild trout fishery, so the article does not apply directly, but certainly some of the principles would apply both to holdover trout and to the other aquatic life in the food chain necessary to trout survival.
And if you have a little bit more time, Lawrence Pyne’s “Outdoor Journal” on Vermont Public Television did a great special on “Irene’s Impact on Trout.” Pyne’s special guests included state Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Patrick Berry and Director of Fisheries Eric Palmer, along with biologist Kirn. I highly recommend this special. Though it aired a few days ago, it can be now be seen online at http://video.vpt.org/video/2230720205.
I don’t know what the long-term prospects are for the Middlebury River, but I suspect that quite a bit more of my fishing time this season will be on the New Haven and Otter. If they continue to fish like they have been, that’s not a terrible thing.

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