Study links watershed management to Batten Kill trout decline

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(Host) Wildlife biologists think they know why fishing on the Batten Kill isn’t what it used to be.

The remedy they prescribe is generating enthusiasm among some, but not all of the legendary trout stream’s devotees.

From Arlington, VPR’s Susan Keese reports:

(Water Sound, birds, casting sound, continues under…)

(Keese) In chest waders and vest, Marty Oakland wades into the chilly Batten Kill. This is the time of year he lives for. He casts his line in the direction of a woody tangle near the far bank.

(Oakland) “That tree just snapped over when we had that bad wind storm three weeks ago. That’s the kind of protection, the kind of cover that trout need. A place where I can’t get my line in and yet they can still… be… there.”

(Keese) Oakland runs a bed and breakfast on the river in Arlington. He also teaches fly fishing for the Orvis Company in Manchester, a few miles downstream.

The retail outfitter built its business on the Batten Kill’s mystique as one of America’s finest wild trout streams.

But the river isn’t bringing in anglers the way it used to.

(Oakland) “Oomph……. I had a hit…”

(Keese) Even if Oakland had caught the fish he would have had to throw it back.

These days fishing on the Batten Kill is Catch-and-release only. The no-harvest regulation went into effect in the spring of 2000, when state biologists recorded a dramatic crash in the river’s brown trout population.

Fishermen like Oakland weren’t surprised. He says there are some really big trout in the river. He says they’re wiley and hard to catch, as openly wild trout are. And they’re definitely spawning.

That’s what makes the Batten Kill wild – the fact that the fish are born here instead of stocked.

But the fish that hatch in the river don’t seem to be surviving.

(Oakland) “There’s just a real major decline in the brown trout population in the last 9 to12 years and nobody knows for sure what happened to them.”

(Keese) Now, after a 5-year study, scientists think they do know. They believe it’s a lack of protective cover – hiding places like the little log jam where Oakland has just been fishing.

(Ken Cox) “It really comes down to the way that we as a society have managed or mismanaged the watershed and the lands adjacent to the river.”

(Keese) Ken Cox of the Vermont Department of fish and wildlife coordinated the study. He says in the past the river has been straightened for roads and other projects. Riverbank Trees have been removed. The few that do end up in the river wash away quickly because there are fewer bends to slow them down.

Cox says there’s also evidence that debris has been cleared to accommodate inner tubers and paddlers.

(Cox) “It may be great for boating but it comes at a cost to the natural environment of the river.”

(Keese) So starting this summer, the state wants to haul in obstacles – big rocks and trees, and anchor them to the banks. It’s part of a long-term plan that also includes lots of riparian tree-planting.

(Town clerk’s office sounds)

(Keese) Not everyone agrees with this approach. At the Arlington town offices, town clerk Birdie Wyman recalls the days before 1970, when the state stopped stocking the river to manage it as a wild fishery.

(Wyman) “To me that’s when this river was at its best, was when it was stocked. And for some reason now we’re trying to make it a wild trout stream. And maybe we’re not a wild trout stream.”

(Hesse) “It used to be the motels were full, the restaurants were full, the river was full of fishermen. And they were there because they were catching fish.”

(Keese) Alan Hesse, an Arlington real estate broker, would like the state to take a more aggressive approach. Especially towards the trout-eating merganser ducks whose numbers on the river have increased.

(Hesse) “What I’d like to see number one is you go back and take out your trouble spots by dredging some areas, creating pools. I’d like to see something done about the predators.”

(Sound of walking; sound of stream)

(Keese) Back on the Batten Kill, Cynthia Browning says the ducks are just taking advantage of the fact that the trout have no place to hide.

(Browning) “If there isn’t enough cover and shelter, if you stock, you’re just feeding the predators… and you’re actually damaging the wild fishery.”

(Keese) Browning is the executive director of the Batten Kill Watershed Alliance. That’s a coalition of citizens committed to restoring the river to its once-abundant glory. They’re working closely with the state

(Browning) “This whole stretch of the river here, this upstream section, is where we’re going to be putting in the large woody debris… The force of the water around the structures will sculpt out little pools and it will just really increase the ability of the river to sustain a trout population. At least that’s what the experts are telling us.”

(Keese) The project will be funded by a number of sources, including the Green Mountain National Forest and the Orvis Company.

Meanwhile, Browning has started a riparian nursery. She’s cutting up a fallen branch from a big black willow hanging over the bank.

(Browning) “Give em a little water… hose and bucket.”

(Keese) She’ll root the cuttings and distribute them for riverside land owners to plant. The trees will help keep the banks from eroding. With a little luck, eventually some of them will fall into the river, and keep the process going for a long, long time.

For Vermont Public radio, I’m Susan Keese.

(Host) There’s related news for anglers with an eye to the frying pan. State fish and wildlife officials say they’re considering stocking the Batten Kill with a small number of sterile rainbow trout starting in 2007.

Fisherman would be allowed to take home up to six of the easily identifiable rainbows per day, while the river’s wild trout population is recovering.

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