Just as they do every fall, Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife workers are stocking dozens of rivers and ponds with rainbow trout, raised in hatcheries, for anglers to catch.
But this year, because of the drought, a few places won’t get fish. And some anglers are choosing not to go after wild fish—to give them a break.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of western Massachusetts is in a severe or even extreme drought. Stream flows are “much below normal” in most of the state, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That’s tough on fish.
Brian Keleher, a fisheries manager with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, took me to the eastern bank of Dufresne Pond in Granby, where lily pads are splayed out over mud flats.
“I really don’t think there would be anything of any size at least over here,” Keleher said.
There are small pools, but they’re not a great place for fish trying to hide from predators, like birds.
“Fish can be trapped and exposed,” explained Keleher. “They have no where to go, no where to escape. They can’t escape to the depths.”
Keleher has been assessing ponds and streams to see if they can support some of the 60,000 hatchery-raised rainbow trout the state is stocking this fall. Most rivers and ponds will get stocked. But not this pond or the Manhan River in Southampton.
“We can see probably at its deepest point, it’s maybe around, I don’t know, four inches deep,” Keleher said, stepping into the Manhan. “Normally, in a non-drought year, it would be quite a bit deeper than we are seeing right now.”
Kelleher explains that when water is shallow like this, it warms up, something cold-water species, like trout, don’t tolerate well. Warmer water also reduces the dissolved oxygen fish need.
“This is usually one of our best locations for this area; a nice deep place where we can pull the large fishing truck up and kind of toss the fish right in,” Keleher said. “Given the conditions right now here, there’s no way we could toss fish in the river right now. Their backs would be sticking right out of the water here.”
Further east, in Central Massachusetts, unless there’s heavy rain soon, the state isn’t stocking any of the four rivers it normally does. And fishermen who prefer to catch wild fish, not the hatchery-raised ones, are also doing things differently.
Paul Beaulieu is an aquatic biologist and vice president of the Massachusetts Rhode Island Council of Trout Unlimited. He forged through tall ferns and flowering asters on what’s usually a well-worn path to a much-loved stream in Shutesbury.
“Right now, this is fully overgrown because everybody knows there’s no water in the stream,” said Beaulieu, talking about the West Branch of the Swift River, which flows into the Quabbin.
Beaulieu learned to fish here nearly 50 years ago, taught by his father, grandfather and uncles. He’s never seen this river so low.
“A few years ago, right where you are standing on dry ground, I caught a seven pound landlocked salmon right here,” said Beaulieu.
Rather than being bank-full — ten to 13 feet wide — the stream is narrow and dry in places. Beaulieu said he usually fishes every summer weekend and into early fall. But this year, only twice
“Both times on the Deerfield River, because I knew there was flow coming out of the hydroelectric dams,” said Beaulieu. “But basically I’ve been doing a lot of hiking and bird watching this summer, instead.”
He said other fishermen are also fishing less.
“Honestly, we didn’t want to stress the fish any more than they are already stressed,” said Beaulieu.
Another conservation-minded angler brought a thermometer along with his fishing rods this summer. If the water reached 70 degrees — warm enough to stress trout — he fished elsewhere.
Despite the drought, hope still swims below the surface.
“I was looking into this deeper hole and did see two brook trout swim by,” said Beaulieu. “Small ones , three to four inches. Kind of confirms what I’m hearing from other Trout Unlimited guys. [In] fact, there goes one now. The brook trout are congregating in these deeper pools waiting for the water levels to come up.”
If there’s enough stream flow, cold water fish like these “brookies” can sense where the cooler water is and will try to move into it.
“Two or three of them down in there, under that stump, under that log that’s hanging out over the stream,” said Beaulieu, pointing towards a dark pool. “They’re not easy to see. That’s why they have survived for eons. They’re good at hiding.”
Right now, fishermen, fisheries managers and maybe even fish are hoping for lots of rain and snow in the coming months. Already with this drought, according to MassWildlife, it could take years for fish populations to totally recover.