By Mark Taylor
Fickle anglers are known to say, “Fishing sure isn’t what it used to be,” as soon as they notice their catch rates starting to suffer on their favorite river. These observations from veteran anglers often turn out to be confirmed by professional fish surveys, as was the case on the iconic Battenkill in Vermont and New York.
In the 1990s, fishermen noticed a sharp decline in the number of brown trout in the system, and electrofishing surveys confirmed those observations. However, subsequent fish surveys in areas with restored habitat showed that trout populations had rebounded.
Trout Unlimited is expanding those restoration efforts, implementing long-term solutions with an eye toward helping the Battenkill return to its former glory. In late 2019, TU announced it was launching a Home Rivers Initiative on the river, formalizing an ambitious restoration strategy.
TU’s Home Rivers Initiative program provides for an organized approach to watershed-wide restoration. It has been used successfully in a number of areas, including the upper Delaware River, the Potomac River headwaters, Michigan’s Rogue River system, and the upper James River in Virginia.
TU had been laying the foundation for a Battenkill HRI for some time, with TU staff and volunteer leaders working together to plan the effort and, importantly, to secure funding to get the initiative off the ground.
Orvis’s Tom Rosenbauer has seen the river’s evolution over the 45 years years he’s been fishing there.
Early on, Rosenbauer said, it wouldn’t be unusual to catch 15 trout during a good Hendrickson hatch.
“They weren’t that big,” Rosenbauer said. “A 14-incher would have been a good one.”
Then Rosenbauer started seeing fewer dimples on the water.
“You might have to walk a half-mile of river just to find a feeding fish,” he said. “But it would be big — 18-inches-plus.”
Biologist surveys confirmed the presence of a few high-quality fish, and many young-of-the-year trout. Middle-sized fish, the kind that keep bends in anglers’ rods, were largely absent. The gap was attributed to heavy predation by mergansers. Because of a general dearth of woody cover in which trout could hide, those mid-sized fish were easy pickings for the fish-eating fowl.
John Braico, a retired pediatrician who lives in Glens Falls, New York, saw the decline, too. A longtime TU volunteer leader, Braico has been a driving force behind the Battenkill Home Rivers Initiative. He’s the kind of person whose quest for knowledge goes beyond the “what” and to the “why.” In recent years, Braico has become increasingly interested in how healthy streams function, and he has even pursued extensive formal training on stream restoration.
“I get as excited seeing a healthy, well-functioning stream as I do when I see a great hatch,” Braico said.
Projects to install woody habitat were undertaken in both New York and Vermont, and the results were nearly immediate. At the Twin Rivers restoration site in Vermont, the total trout biomass and number of trout over 6 inches per stream mile more than doubled after the project started in 2006.
While installing large wood structures is an important tool for kickstarting in-stream habitat improvement, it’s only part of a long-term restoration strategy.
“There is a need for large woody debris to naturally fall into the Battenkill to provide that woody habitat for trout,” said Courtney Buckley, fisheries biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.
So riparian plantings must be part of the restoration approach.
For TU to effectively plan and carry out restoration work throughout the Battenkill, they and their partners had to have a better idea of the starting point. In the summer of 2019, Braico teamed up with a new TU technician, Jacob Fetterman, to assess the Battenkill system.
Their plan was to float the river from Arlington, Vermont, to Greenwich, New York, recording a number of parameters — including river width and depth, bank erosion, riffle length, and pool-to-pool spacing. Other critical data collected were large woody debris indexes and percentage of canopy cover.
When the upper reaches of the river proved impassable in their canoe, Braico and Fetterman ended up walking eight of 20 reaches, using an inflatable kayak to float the remainder, stopping frequently to collect data. The pair also surveyed Camden Creek, an important Battenkill tributary in New York.
The assessment has already helped with prioritization of restoration sites moving forward.
“It helped us figure out what’s good, what’s bad, and where we need to work,” Braico said.
Heading up that work is Fetterman, who was promoted from his technician position and will head up the Battenkill HRI. Fetterman, who has a master’s degree in fisheries from LSU, is working with landowners in the watershed and pursuing funding to implement restoration projects. He points out that anglers aren’t the only beneficiaries.
“It’s going to benefit the entire community, whether you’re an insect, fish, fisherman, general recreator, or business owner,” he said.
Braico said he is thrilled that the initiative has gained traction, and he is eager to see work begin. Rosenbauer is, too. He’s seen first-hand how the fishing has improved in sections where restoration has taken place. He envisions a future where that trend applies to the entire river.
“The river is better now, but it still doesn’t have a high density of fish,” he said. “But you have potential for a great trout stream in a beautiful location with high water quality and a strong, diverse trout population.”
This dream is being executed, as we speak. In 2020, 735 trees and shrubs were planted along the banks of the Battenkill, White Creek, and Camden Creek. Despite the worldwide pandemic, three in-stream restoration projects were completed on tributaries supporting native brook trout and wild brown trout. In total, 0.35 miles of stream were restored and 1.8 miles were reconnected.
If you’d like to support restoration work, through the Home Rivers Initiative, you may donate here.