For a number of years, folks from the local chapters of the nonprofit Trout Unlimited have been meeting the hatchery truck at the North Fork of the Mills River to hand-deliver hatchery stock in five-gallon buckets to sections inaccessible by truck.
In April I showed up for the stocking of the North Mills and met about 15 volunteers from TU’s Land O’ Sky (Asheville) and Pisgah (Hendersonville) chapters. Over the course of several hours we dumped 2,000 rainbows, brookies and brown trout into about three miles of the upper, middle and lower sections of the river at a rate of about eight fish per bucket. This happens five times each year, and it’s the sort of thing Trout Unlimited members do all across the nation. They figure out what can be done to make fishing better for everyone, and then they take the bull by the horns and make it happen on a grass-roots level.
On most North Carolina trout waters, the season starts the first Saturday in April, when all of a sudden you’ll see hatchery-supported stretches of water lined with people anticipating fish for dinner. This “put-and-take stocking” accounts for the bulk of the state hatchery’s budget. Hatchery trucks usually dump fish off bridges several weeks before opening day, and by the time the fishermen arrive, the trout have spread up and downstream from where they were dropped. According to Powell Wheeler of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the average size of stocked fish is 10 inches; 4 percent of them measure 16 inches or more. From March through July, local streams such as the Swannanoa and Reems Creek get stocked once a month. Wheeler says his agency expects those fish to be caught within one week.
Opening day on the North Mills is the first Saturday in June—two months after it’s legal to harvest fish on most other stocked waters. But one waterway in every county is designated as a delayed-harvest stream. (Others in Western North Carolina include the East Fork of the Pigeon River in Haywood County, the Tuckaseegee in Jackson, the Nantahala in Macon, the Shelton Laurel in Madison, Curtis Creek in McDowell and the Green River in Polk). During the delay period, people can fish those streams but they can’t keep the fish.
Delayed harvest (which was first introduced in 1991) makes large numbers of fish available to be caught, released and caught again by other people during a two-month period each year when the waters have been heavily stocked. Delayed-harvest streams also require the use of artificial flies or lures rather than bait, which allows for a clean release without damage to the fish.
A couple of years ago, there was reputedly a 32-inch stocked rainbow in a big pool at the first ford on the middle section of the North Mills. It was caught by at least three people I know. I don’t know how many times this fish was caught and released, but delayed harvest allowed many people to enjoy catching a lunker before it was caught again on opening day and ended up in the frying pan.
Most folks who fish with fly rods are part of the catch-and-release crowd. Many fly-fisher folk in WNC are able to fish year-round on delayed-harvest waters, as long as they always release their fish and pay an extra eight bucks a year for a license to do so. And in April and May, those rivers are getting loaded up with fish in anticipation of a deluge of fishermen come June.
In addition, fish stocked in delayed-harvest waters are there long enough to adapt to natural aquatic foods such as mayflies and caddis flies in all stages of development, from larvae to the metamorphosed flying form. Trout that get harvested within a week of stocking don’t have time to fully adapt to natural food sources. But presenting imitations of aquatic insects that fish are already feeding on is what defines fly fishing—which is why delayed harvest is so important to catch-and-release advocates.
Stretches of water serviced by a stocking truck are indicated by a 5-by-5-inch green-and-white sign that reads “Hatchery Supported.” You can see these signs on trees as you drive west from Tunnel Road on Swannanoa River Road. In WNC, the amount of fish stocked in a given river isn’t based on how much natural food is available for them, because they’re expected to be harvested fairly quickly. Rather, it’s based on providing 150 fish per surface acre—which explains why the larger Tuckaseegee gets significantly more fish annually than the smaller North Mills or Shelton Laurel rivers.
Although put-and-take trout take up a considerable part of the state hatchery budget, other stocking programs have more esoteric goals. Doug Besler also of the Wildlife Resources Commission told me that last year, five populations of our native brook trout were introduced to watersheds supporting the Asheville water supply. These watershed streams are restricted to the public, but they can support reintroduced populations of native trout that were killed off long ago due to logging and runoff. Such farsighted programs are the bread and butter of TU work. And local members often provide the grunt labor, schlepping trout two at a time through rugged country in five-gallon backpacks rigged with battery-powered oxygen bubblers. These folks work for the future, repopulating areas that will only be available to future generations of fisher-folk.
At a time when news programs are filled with hot-air promises by aspiring politicians, this is the type of grass-roots, community-minded conservation work that supports the idea that individuals can indeed make a difference.
[Jeff Ashton lives in Weaverville.]