Get Outside: Ending at the beginning

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MANCHESTER — As I sit in my office, the rain is finally coming down after a drought ridden three months.

It's cold, and there's a rawness in the air that we should have been feeling weeks ago. I've just read an email from a friend telling me what I have been anxious to hear for a while: trout are beginning to ascend the tributaries in search of a suitable habitat for spawning. Many of these trout are seeking out the very same riffles from which they emerged several years before as tiny fry. Others take a more random approach, which ensures that the gene pool is diverse and robust.

While most anglers have put down their rods for the season to pick up a bow, rifle, or shotgun in search of other game, I find myself pulled to the river every October and November in search of spawning trout. My rod is put away, and instead I carry a pair of binoculars and a camera. This practice began years ago when the local Trout Unlimited chapter, working in cooperation with Fish and Wildlife officials, spent several weekends floating the Battenkill and walking its tributaries to identify where trout might be spawning. This provided fishery managers with vital data points and research opportunities.

In subsequent years small, perforated plastic boxes were placed near trout rearing nests (known as redds) in order to determine if too much fine sediment was in the stream, which could kill fragile eggs and fry (the results were encouraging). A more ambitious study outfitted a number of large brown trout (16 - 24") with radio tracking transponders to understand the movement of trout throughout the watershed. This two-year study opened a lot of eyes with regards to how closely connected even the smallest tributaries deep in shady hollows are to the vitality of the river itself. Trout were followed as many as 25 miles from their home sites during spawning season; several of the trout going downstream and then following tributaries into sub tributaries to spawn.

Thanks to this information, Fish and Wildlife wisely closed major tributaries to harvest from October 1 to the close of the season.

I began seeking out redds on October 21st (the hunt for redd October?). Typically brook trout would be actively spawning at this time, but warmer-than-average water temperatures and low flows have delayed this activity. I was not surprised that the places that I normally see brook trout spawning were unoccupied, but that will not be the case much longer.

One of my favorite places to look is at the riffle about 30 yards above Union Street, right in Manchester. For the past several years I have seen two or three redds dug out of the gravel by early November.

When the light is right an observant person will see long sections of gravel that are clear of algae. Female trout have been cleaning the gravel by sweeping their large tails and bodies against the substrate, creating a nest that is a model of hydraulic efficiency. When the time comes, a male (who has likely battled other males) will join her as the eggs are expelled to fertilize them. The nest keeps the majority of eggs in place and allows the milt to settle amongst the eggs. The location of the redds, in a riffle, allows water to flow through the nest and keep it clean during the long and cold months ahead before the fry emerge from the gravel sometime in March.

I saw no redds on my initial outing, but did get the opportunity to see a very large brown trout resting in the tangles of a root wad. At first glance it looked like nothing more than a large piece of log that had found itself in the tangle of roots. Closer observation revealed a trout of at least 20 inches resting quietly on the bottom of the stream. With binoculars, one could make out the brilliant spots of vermilion that glowed like neon. A few scars on the flanks suggested hard battles and perhaps an encounter or two with a predator.

This trout, anywhere from 5 to 8 years old, has been through a lot. He or she would have been young when Irene brought its ravages to Vermont. This grand old trout evaded mergansers, otters, and heron, as well as larger trout, to survive more floods and drought alongside harsh winter conditions. Perhaps there was even an encounter or two with anglers.

Whatever its life story, this trout has beaten the odds year after year.

And so, as the season ends there is a new beginning. With it, a reminder that we should cherish that we have streams like this in our area, and do our utmost to protect these resources for future generations.


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