Written by: Doug Lyons
Last September, I did a write up of the population survey efforts conducted on the Vermont portion of the Battenkill. What was most interesting to me at the time was how the river was responding to an ongoing drought situation, as well as having been through a severe winter where river icing was a significant problem. At the time of the 2015 survey, water levels were dramatically low at 89 cubic feet per second (record lows are about 65 cfs) and had been low for several weeks. Even the casual observer could not help but notice the presence of mergansers, herons, kingfishers, and the occasional osprey along the river. All these avian predators are common on the ‘Kill, but clearly they had free range to do their best to ignore the river’s catch-and-release restrictions. Add to that the mink that patrol the banks and the rumors of river otter inhabiting sections of stream, and it’s easy to get a picture of a trout population under siege.
Upon completion of the survey, I reported back that the river was faring well given the challenges. Follow-up review of the data indicated an estimate of approximately 720 catchable trout per mile. The number was not as impressive on those on the big Western rivers or our Eastern tailwaters, but on a smallish, hard-pressed freestone stream under stressful conditions … not too bad.
Fast forward to 2016, and the conditions are far different. The Northeast experienced a very mild winter and very low water conditions at the beginning of the season. At the end of June, it looked like we would be faced with perhaps a worse situation than last year (which is true enough in much of New England even as I write this), but then July came and with it a very heavy series of storms that had the river flowing well above normal for days. As the summer pressed on, the Battenkill Valley seemed to draw in moisture from just about every system that made its way east. Going much against the grain of other watersheds in the Northeast, the ’Kill has often been above normal this summer to the extent that mergansers are far less visible and herons are not hunting the mainstem pools and riffles with the regularity that they did last year. Our ospreys have begun their fall pattern of coursing up and down the valley in search of trout (one rather thoughtlessly winged its way into “my” water during a recent ant fall and, like me, got skunked). The bottom line is that conditions are much more favorable for trout.
With all that said, Vermont did two shockings this year. There was one in July, under relatively high flows (450 cfs), and the annual population survey on August 30th under normal late-summer flows (270 cfs). Each shocking had a different purpose. In July, baseline data was gathered at the “Cemetery Run” site prior to an extensive habitat restoration effort that commenced after Labor Day. On the same day, the team did a “hunt and peck” shocking of two other sites that were restored in the last two-to-five years, simply to get a quick look at very general occupancy rates at the newly constructed homes.
The Cemetery Run site was instructive. Only a small handful of fish were collected, and those that were captured were oriented around the few areas of woody debris in the river. Three of the fish were substantial in size, and one had just one eye. While much of the Battenkill is fishing well with strong populations of trout, the Cemetery Run survey showed that opportunities exist for improvement.
After this survey was completed, the team headed downriver to a site that was given a make-over two years ago. In the riffle section, woody debris was added to a strategic bank or two, and in the long flat, two long rock-and-wood “convoy” structures (whole trees weighed down with substantial boulders spaced to provide overhead cover) were placed strategically in conjunction with the main flow of the river.
While the flows were challenging, we immediately began turning over fish in the riffle. These were yearling and juvenile fish. Since this was not a population survey, we were in and out relatively quickly— satisfied that the fish were using this particular cover. Up in the flat, we hit a couple of naturally occurring pieces of habitat, and sure enough the big browns started to come. Over the balance of the afternoon in this location and another, we turned over an impressive number of bulky brown trout ranging from 18 to 24 inches. We missed several more. Smaller fish were a little harder to come by, but based on experience this had much to do with the flow rates. (We were chest deep in water, which was turbid.) One of the ironies of electroshocking is that the big fish seem to be easier to catch.
The presence of these large fish goes a long way toward justifying a catch-and-release policy that keeps the important breeding fish in the river. Ken Cox, the district biologist, noted that before C&R, he collected exactly one fish over 18 inches. And historical records dating back to the 1970s show that angler catches typically (though certainly not exclusively) topped out at 14 inches.
Moving ahead to August, approximately 20 people were drawn together to survey the “Twin Rivers” site, as has been done every year since 2004. (2011 was an exception, as damage from Tropical Storm Irene made a survey impossible.) As is standard practice, a minimum of two passes are conducted through a riffle and a pool, each approximately 300 feet in length. The riffle is where we started, and right away it was clear that this would be a solid effort. Just where a big fish has come up every year, a beautiful 18-incher was netted, as was a 16-inch fish (which turned out to be an interloping stocked trout from downstream in New York). Through two passes, a total of 26 catchable trout were collected, and more importantly, a good number of young-of-the-year trout were also collected. An average year offers 25 catchable fish, and last year there were 21 catchable trout captured. So we saw a little improvement, but this particular run has only okay habitat for adult fish.
Moving up to the pool, the team got started at the bottom of the station (which is half way up the pool itself). I had been assigned to help Ken measure and weigh fish, so I did not see the activity first-hand. But the time it was taking for the team to complete the pass indicated that they were either being very thorough or they simply got a lot of fish. Luckily, the latter was the case, as they collected 59 catchable fish in the first pass alone! Over the next two passes, another 33 fish were collected (22 on the second pass and 11 on the third) for a total of 92 catchable sized trout from 6 to 20.5 inches in length. While the numbers still need to be crunched, the 10-13-inch mid-size trout—bread and butter trout on most any eastern freestone stream—seemed to be very well represented. The trout-per-mile estimate is something that will be ascertained when all the data is crunched, but the overall numbers are quite favorable with the best we have seen since habitat restoration started on the river. (Big thanks to Orvis for being a consistent supporter and leader in these efforts.)
For a perspective of what this data tells us, I looked back at past shocking results. In 2012, the year after Irene, the number of catchable trout captured was 81 in the pool section. Last year, a drought year, the number of catchable trout collected in the pool was 42. In the two years prior to habitat work being done, 10 fish were captured each year. Clearly population numbers in a wild-trout stream do fluctuate from year to year, but the habitat work raises the floor. Whether or not we’ve hit the ceiling is hard to say.
It is fair to say that the Battenkill is doing pretty well, all things considered. It remains a frustratingly difficult river in which to catch fish, but they are there to be caught. This leads me to close on a final note of thanks. Ken Cox has been working on the Battenkill since about 1980, and 2016 will mark the end of Ken’s career with Vermont Fish and Wildlife.
I have gotten to know Ken pretty well over the course of the years. During the very contentious period when the Battenkill truly was in decline, Ken took a lot of heat from people very unwilling to listen, when he presented scientific rationale for what might be happening on the river. He preached patience when impatient people like me thought that simply dropping a few trees in the river was all that was needed. (If only it was that simple!) He stood his ground politely but firmly advocated for maintaining the fishery as a wild one when giving up and bringing in the stocking trucks would have been easy. Through it all, his view has been that it is his job to help create the conditions for a quality fishery, while it is up to anglers to actually go and catch the fish.
So thank you, Ken, for your efforts, and the next time I get skunked I won’t blame you. You did your part.
Doug Lyons lives in Massachusetts but frequently makes the 3+-hour drive to fish his beloved Battenkill, as he has for more than 30 years. Click here for his 2015 write-up.