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Sports Column: Wish list for 2013:Large wild brookies

I began 2013 with a mental fishing “wish list.” There are a few perennial entries: an all-expenses-paid trip for Atlantic salmon in Labrador or Newfoundland; more time to fish in my favorite Vermont rivers (plus a trip or two with family and friends to Maine and New York); and an increase in the quality trout waters in the state.
Actually, the first of these is more of a wild pipe dream than a wish. Since I haven’t entered any contests for an Atlantic salmon fishing trip, I probably won’t win one. (I have entered a contest to fish Alaska, but I’ve been doing that every year along with several hundred thousand other people.)
Regarding the second of these, I’ll probably end up with some fishing time in Maine and New York, and there is a good chance I’ll fish more in Vermont in 2013 than in 2012 — though come the end of the year it always could have been more.
The third of these is the most tricky. It’s something I’ve been hoping for some two decades: some blue-ribbon or trophy-quality wild trout fishing in Vermont. For many years, I thought my hopes were in vain. But over the past few years there have been many promising developments, and this past week I heard of yet another. But before I go there, let me provide a preface.
Most trout fishing in Vermont is heavily hatchery supported. This is often known as “put and take” fishing. There are numerous cold water fisheries in the state capable of holding trout, and the state does a good job filling these waters with hatchery fish to provide an abundance of fishing opportunities for anglers. I will admit these fish can be fun to catch from time to time.
But stocked trout are nothing like wild trout. For one thing, hatchery fish are not as beautiful. They are pale, pasty, often scarred and marred by human handling, and uniform in size. They are also dumb; they are used to being fed by humans, and so I sometimes joke that when I walk up to a stocked trout stream, the trout swim over waiting to be fed. That is an exaggeration. But only a slight one. They do not provide much sporting challenge. They also don’t fight well, and they aren’t very big.
The biggest problem is that they don’t last long in the river. Creel limits in Vermont allow anglers to keep 12 fish a day in many places. That makes it easy for a few anglers to clear out most of the dumb stocked fish in a short amount of time. Between the ridiculously high creel limits and their own poor survival instincts, not many stocked fish winter over to become bigger, wilder fish the following year.
I have also heard repeatedly of a nationwide decline in participation in traditional outdoor sports. Fewer people get out each year in boats or waders to cast flies and lures. I could write at length about what is lost in terms of contact with the natural world, and knowledge of the ecological cycles of life and of how food gets onto our plate. But for now I will simply note that this also means fewer dollars invested by anglers in conservation and in local economies.
And this is what brings me back to increased variety in fishing experiences and especially opportunities for quality waters. Some people fear that if we increase fishing regulations to protect waters — in particular, if we shrink creel limits — it will result in fewer people fishing (and spending money). But there is reason to believe the opposite is true. Not many people really want to travel, stay in hotels, go to restaurants, and shop in local stores, in order to catch six or seven 10-inch stocked trout. Yet when I have opportunities to fish in top-quality waters around the country, I find anglers who travel from all over to cast in these waters (and who then support the local economies). What do these high-quality waters have in common? Yes, they have food and habitat to support healthy trout populations. But they also have far more restrictive limits on numbers and size of fish that can be harvested. These limits are what protect a self-sustaining reproducing wild trout population.
And so I was excited to read in a recent e-mail that the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department is looking to set aside Jobs Pond in Westmore and Martins Pond in Peacham with special regulations to protect them as wild brook trout waters. These ponds are among a small number in the state that have significant numbers of wild brook trout, with many growing over 15 inches in length. The proposed regulations would protect and enhance these waters by reducing the creel limit to two trout per day, while prohibiting the keeping of any trout between 12 and 15 inches.
Now these two ponds are too far away for me to actually fish regularly, and the public meeting on the proposed change on Tuesday, March 12, at the Caledonia Forest and Stream Club in St. Johnsbury is too far way for me to attend. Still, the fact that the state is moving in the right direction is encouraging. I hope the project is both successful and popular, and that it is expanded.
I still support the stocking of hatchery fish, and I think it provides enjoyable fishing experiences for many Vermonters. In fact, I would think that if we set aside a few more rivers for more restrictive management as quality trout waters, it would actually enhance the fishing of the remaining hatchery-supported streams if it meant that more of the stocked fish could be put in those put-and-take streams — perhaps with more stockings spread out over the summer. But right now the opportunities for wild trout are still too few in the state, with far too much management on the put-and-take side.
Now if I can get whoever at VF&W came up with the great plan of enhancing this wild trout fishery and Jobs and Martins Ponds to also send me on a trip after Atlantic Salmon in Labrador, I will be all set.

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