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Take a Closer Look

By Jud Kratzer, Fisheries Biologist
Photo of Brook Trout
Photo by Chris Ingram

Somewhere in Vermont, a lone angler stalks a small, cold stream that flows through a forested hillside. She keeps a low profile while creeping her way upstream, careful not to alert her quarry. Coming within casting range of a deep pool, she kneels on the leaf-strewn streambank and casts upstream. Mere seconds after the worm hits the water, she feels a sharp tap and sets the hook. A brief battle brings a small but scrappy wild brook trout to her hand. This scene could take place just about anywhere in Vermont, which boasts thousands of miles of streams that have adequate water temperatures and habitat to support self-sustaining populations of wild trout.

In another part of Vermont, a father and son are fishing a much larger stream that runs through their hometown. They rode their bikes to fish a location that has produced many fond memories over the years. While this river has the habitat to hold trout for part of the year, it becomes shallow and warm in the summer, too warm to hold trout year-round. The boy casts an inline spinner toward the opposite bank and begins a steady retrieve. Halfway back, the spinner is intercepted by a rainbow trout that was stocked at a nearby bridge a few weeks prior. Father and son are glad to have a place to catch trout so close to home and proud to help put some food on the family’s table.

Many anglers are familiar with the work the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department does to stock trout. They observe the hatchery trucks, busy in the spring delivering trout to rivers and lakes throughout the state, and they are able to visit the department’s five fish culture stations.

What anglers might not know is all the work the department does behind the scenes to manage the state’s wild trout fishing opportunities. The department currently employs ten fisheries biologists, who spend a large part of their time and energy on tasks that directly benefit wild trout populations. For example, department fisheries biologists work to protect wild trout habitat by engaging in environmental permit review processes, thereby protecting instream habitat and streamside forests from development activities. Fisheries biologists also actively restore wild trout habitat, both by improving conditions in streams and by restoring native vegetation on streambanks. They also work to improve the upstream movement of trout by removing barriers like dams and outdated culverts.

Why all this effort on habitat? Because it is habitat, not angler harvest, that is the primary factor limiting the state’s wild trout populations. Why all this effort on streambanks? Because fish grow on trees. Not literally, of course, but mature trees on streambanks provide shade that helps keep the water cool, filtration that helps keep the water clean, and leaves that feed aquatic insects, which are food for trout. Also, when trees fall into streams, they provide much-needed hiding places for trout. As the climate warms, protecting and restoring streamside forests is especially important to help keep streams cool.

It is also the fisheries biologists’ responsibility to make sure trout are only being stocked in places where wild trout populations are too small to provide quality angling opportunities and where stocking will not negatively affect wild populations.

Sadly, past land use practices and ongoing habitat degradation have eliminated natural reproduction of trout from some of Vermont’s rivers and lakes. In some cases, habitat can be restored to support wild trout, but in others, it is just not practical. This is why, somewhere in Vermont (Roxbury), the state’s oldest fish culture station was recently rebuilt into a modern, state of the art facility. While, in another part of Vermont, after decades of ongoing effort to restore natural reproduction of lake trout in Lake Champlain, fisheries biologists are finally starting to see some success!

Photos of father and son fishing for trout, trout habitat and Vermont Fish & Wildlife Officer releasing a trout
Photos by John Hall and Rich Kirn