Writing & Photography of Jim Murtagh

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The Writings & Photography of Jim Murtagh

Here Come the Trout!

Trout fall from the net, like candy dropping from a piñata. Momentarily stunned, the fish collect en masse. A mixture of brook, brown and rainbow trout swim in circles at the spot of their release. Twelve inch long rainbows shimmer in the water, but look like bait fish swimming beside gigantic four and five pound brown trout.

Another net full of fish is emptied from the side of the stocking truck, and 30-40 more trout splash into the water. For a moment, the lake looks like the fabled honey hole anglers dream about in their wildest fishing fantasies. Fish are everywhere! Schools of trout emerge from the shadows, swim straight at you, and then dart for cover. Their iridescent sides sparkle in the sunlight, as their streamlined bodies turn and swim away.

Before the truck departs for the next stocking location, nature’s programmed survival instincts overtake the hatchery raised fish, and they quickly retreat to deep water for refuge. A thousand trout were just released into Lake Saltonstall! When trout season opens, scores of anglers will descend upon this water, trying to coax one of these fish into biting their bait.

If you have ever battled a trout in one of Connecticut’s lakes, rivers, or streams, chances are pretty high that fish grew up under the watchful eyes of David Sumner and his team at the Quinebaug Valley Trout Hatchery.

Built in 1971, the Quinebaug hatchery was one of the first fully automated trout breeding facilities in the northeast. Nestled between the Quinebaug and Moosup Rivers, the Central Village site was chosen after three years of intensive searching.

Sumner attributes the phenomenal success of the hatchery to the fourteen underground wells supplying 5,000 gallons of water per minute to the facility. Unlike most hatcheries that rely on surface water sources, well water is generally free from parasites and contaminants, but equally important, is its constant 52 deg F temperature.

The constant water temperature allows Quinebaug trout to keep growing through the cold winter months. Surface water dependant hatcheries’ growth rates slow considerably, when their water temperature drops. The Quinebaug facility can raise 15 inch long trout in just 18 months; eight months shorter than comparable hatcheries.

Maintaining its own broodstock program is another essential key to the success of the Quinebaug hatchery. To eliminate the risk of introducing foreign diseases, only eggs produced by fish within the hatchery are cultivated. Mature trout are stripped of their eggs in the main hatchery building, and hand-mixed with milt from males. Fertilized eggs sit in fresh water for a few hours to “water harden,” which makes them easier to handle.

Spawning season lasts from July to November, and during this time, 3-4 million eggs will be incubated in the hatch house. Some eggs will be sold to other states to supplement their stocking programs, but most will be hatched and used for Connecticut ’s own stocking and breeding program.

The 5,000 broodstock trout at Quinebaug, which can weigh up to twelve pounds, swim in fifty foot long raceways, until their four years of breeding service is no longer required. These monster trout are then released along side their smaller brethren in the annual stocking program. A portion of each year’s hatch is reserved to replenish the breeding stock.

As the young trout hatch and grow, they move through a series of increasingly larger round tanks within the rearing buildings. The fish are continuously sorted by size to prevent cannibalism. When the trout reach 6-7 inches in length, they will make their way into the fifty foot round pens located outside, where they will stay until they are released. Nets protect the outside tanks from predatory birds such as blue herons, osprey and eagles. When the hatchery is at peak capacity, the trout consume nearly a ton of food daily.

Fluctuations in water temperature stress trout and contribute to high mortality rates. Connecticut stocks it lakes and streams in March, because the local water temperatures are close to the temperature of the water at the hatchery. State biologists determine where, and how many, trout are released into each body of water. Fishing pressure, water quality, and water depth, are key factors in the decision making process. Most spots are stocked repeatedly from March through May, and some lakes even get a fall stocking, if conditions are favorable.

On small streams and rivers, and where water access is limited, the trout are released by hand, using soft mesh nets. Large lakes are stocked from quick-release trucks, which dump hundreds of fish into the water through a 26 inch hose. Boats with aerated live-wells, are also used to distribute fish further away from the banks, and to areas beyond the boat ramps.

To the delight of anglers of all ages, the Quinebaug hatchery releases about 600,000, brook, brown, rainbow and tiger trout in CT waters annually. The tiger trout is a special cross-breed between a brook and brown trout, and has a series of distinctive black tiger bars covering its sides. The hatchery also maintains two well stocked ponds at the facility, which are open to the public on weekends and holidays from March to the end of May.

Most stocked trout will weigh just over half a pound, and measure about 15 inches long. Some fish will elude anglers and survive to next season, and possible spawn in the wild, but most are caught and eaten within a few weeks. Only the larger rivers and deeper lakes in the state maintain the cool water temperature trout need to make it through the summer.

Trout season opens at 6:00 a.m. on the third Saturday in April. Anglers over the age of sixteen need a license to fish. Fishing licenses are available at local sporting goods stores and at Town Clerk offices. Consult the 2006 Angler’s Guide for a complete list of stocked waters and angling regulations.