Creating trout cover on Batten Kill River

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(Host) The Northeast has plenty of good trout fishing rivers: The Kennebec in Maine, the Wood River in Rhode Island, the Housatonic in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

But one of the most famous is the Batten Kill, which runs through Vermont and New York.  

Fishermen have tried their luck there for more than a century. But today, anglers say the fishing isn’t what it used to be.

Government scientists say the problem isn’t pollution or water quality, but tidiness. There’s not enough natural debris in the Batten Kill to protect the fish. 

As part of a collaboration between Northeast public radio stations, VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Keese) In Manchester, a private fishing lesson is in progress. 

(Kutzer) "Going back, get that bottom hand on that rod… and just slide the top hand up a little bit more."

(Keese) Peter Kutzer is a casting instructor for Orvis. The world-renowned fishing outfitter has its headquarters and fly fishing school a little over a mile from the Batten Kill. 

Kutzer says the river is steeped in history.

(Kutzer) "It’s known as being a very challenging river but actually having some very nice-sized wild brown trout and wild brook trout. And it hasn’t been stocked in 30-some-odd years. 

(Keese) That means most of the fish in the river were born here, unlike the many trout streams where hatchery-raised fish are the norm. Kutzer says wild trout are harder to catch.

(Kutzer) "People work a long, long time to catch that nice fish but when they do, it’s usually the highlight of their career." 

(Keese)  But in recent decades fishermen say that while some big fish are still around, younger trout have become scarce. Scientists suspect it’s because the river doesn’t offer them much protection.

Cynthia Browning is part of a citizens group called the Batten Kill Watershed Alliance. At a work site on the river, Browning explains that trees were cut from the banks during highway projects, and debris was removed by landowners and kayakers. But it turns out trout – especially young ones — rely on rock formations and dead trees and branches to create eddies, pools, hiding spots and shade. 

(Browning) "Trout need protection from predators, they need protection from floods, from ice, from hot weather."

(Keese) Browning says trout populations were down by 70 percent from historic levels. Now state and federal agencies are working with the Watershed Alliance to try to fix the problem.  

(Browning)  "They studied 12 different variables, water temperature, chemistry, diseases, predation and the thing that they came up with, the missing habitat component, was cover and shelter."

(Keese) On the Batten Kill in western Vermont, about ten miles from the New York border, a yellow bucket loader picks up a 60-foot felled maple, roots and all. Water streams from the bucket as it pivots the tree into position.

Standing midstream in chest waders direction the operation is Scott Wixsom of the Green Mountain National Forest. 

(Wixsom) "And what we’re going to do is place the root wads in the bank running out into the river, making it appear like they’ve fallen naturally into the river."

(Keese) Wixsom has been trained in a technique pioneered in Western states like Colorado and Montana.  It uses natural river dynamics to correct man-made problems. 

(Keese) State biologists are counting the fish to see whether the strategy is succeeding here.

(Cox) "One twenty six, one twenty five, another brook  trout…." 

(Keese) Since researchers started counting two years ago they’ve seen an increase in the number of young fish. They’ll need a few more years of data though to determine if the project is a success. Meanwhile, the Watershed Alliance is planting trees along the river banks — that someday will become natural debris. 

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese. 

Note: Northeast environmental coverage is part of NPR’s Local News Initiative. The reporting is funded, in part, by a grant from United Technologies.

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