By DAVID SMITH/ecoRI News contributor
WOOD RIVER, R.I. — The question of whether the state should stop stocking trout on the upper reaches of the Wood River, from Barberville Dam on Arcadia Road upstream to Route 165, was met with mixed reviews on April 12, the opening day of trout fishing in Rhode Island.
Several fishermen said they were unaware of the issue, but most wanted the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to continue stocking. A few others said such a move would be a small price to pay to protect native brook trout and to enhance the viability and prestige of the Wood River.
Unfortunately, one way of seeing if a brook trout is wild or farm raised is by gutting it. The fillets are deep-pink on wild and native fish, while stocked trout display white fillets, mainly due to diet. Stocked trout are also prone to deformed fins, while natives are not. Natives also display more vivid spots.
Scott Trichka from Bridgeport, Conn., was fishing on the Wood River and is one of the proponents of saving the wild brook trout populations. “It’s not the end of the world” if the state stopped stocking in that section of the river, he said.
Proponents believe that stocked trout compete too strongly with the wild population for space and food.
Trichka was fishing with a group of friends, including Ron Merly, a three-time president of the Nutmeg Chapter of Trout Unlimited. He is also the author of “Flyfisher’s Guide to Connecticut.”
“From the Barberville Dam up, there are wild brook trout and plenty of habitat,” he said. “I think it is a good idea to see if they can self-sustain. It would make it a much more diverse fishery.”
Merly said that national Trout Unlimited (TU) policy doesn't support stocking over wild populations, a vision not shared by members of the local Narragansett Chapter. Several members of the Rhode Island TU chapter recently discussed the topic while tying flies at the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association campus. They seem to believe that the state will never stop stocking the river.
In fact, when the state stocks trout above the dam, local TU members join in the effort. They have floating traps they use to ferry fish upstream, in an effort to spread the farm-raised fish out.
“You can’t stop it (stocking) without having more information,” Narragansett Chapter member Ed Walsh said. “They (a group called Protect Rhode Island Brook Trout) want to make a blind decision.”
However, the state needs to sell fishing licenses to sustain recreational and sport fishing and anything that would hurt those sales might sway the decision.
The Narragansett Chapter of the TU is addressing some of the need for data by regularly surveying the river to record oxygen levels and water temperature. Water temperatures above 68 degrees are deadly for trout. It’s cold springs in the river that can sustain them, and Merly said trout will find those pockets to survive.
Merly said there has never been a study regarding the population of wild brook trout. That could be accomplished with electro-shock surveys or visual inspections when trout are spawning, he said.
Narragansett Chapter anglers say that DNA testing could help determine the population of native brookies, but they have been told that it is too expensive an endeavor for the state to pursue.
“Take a survey from the anglers and ask them what they prefer,” Merly said. “They should have a say because they are the ones who buy licenses.”
Merly and his friends were at a recent DEM meeting where a proposal was made to better protect the state’s population of wild brook trout. “They (DEM) were receptive,” he said, “but not the local TU chapter. It’s a short stretch of the river. Give it five years and see what happens. You would be surprised.”
Others fishing along the banks of the Wood River on the opening Saturday of trout fishing season had mixed opinions when the issue was explained to them.
Cranston resident Clay Roffey has been fishing along the banks of the Wood River above Barberville Dam for many years. He said he would be in favor of stopping the stocking of trout in that section of the river.
“I’m in favor of it if it is the only system to be affected,” he said. “I love it up here and I don’t have a problem with catch and release.” He said the quality of the Wood River is a rarity and “one of the greatest natural rivers on the East Coast. If they want to preserve it, so be it. It’s important to protect what’s here.”
John Kerr, a Connecticut resident, said he wouldn’t be in favor of stopping the stocking of trout in the river above Barberville Dam. “Maybe farther up,” he said, “but not in this section.” He believes the wild brook trout population is quite good upstream.
Paul Souza traveled from Fall River, Mass., to fish on Wyoming Pond, created by a dam on the Wood River in Hope Valley. “I’m not really sure. I look forward to this,” he said to the question about the state’s practice of stocking rainbow, brown and brook trout as he loaded his boat and his limit of trout into his truck. “I need to learn a little more about it.”
Kane Streichert and his friends from New York called the frenzy of opening day the catching of “welfare trout.” “I saw three guys catch their limit in 10 minutes,” he said. “What’s the point?”