Few issues get Mountain State anglers stirred up like the issue of trout stocking. About the only thing fishermen can agree on when it comes to stocking is that it’s best done in places where water is present.
The issue was already a powder keg when Gov. Jim Justice decided to take a fishin’ trip in April to Glade Creek at Babcock State Park. The governor dumped in a bucket of golden trout, donned his waders and proceeded to show those uppity trout who was in charge.
Naturally, he got skunked. Serves him right for following the stock truck.
The trip was intended as a photo op for the governor to announce a new, statewide trout stocking policy. The mandate, in a nutshell, is this: Up ‘til now we’ve been doing it wrong, and from now on, dad-gum it, we’re going to do it right.
There’s no doubt the old way of stocking left much to be desired. I witnessed this on a recent weekend at the Cranberry River. I was there on the Saturday of West Virginia Gold Rush. The Division of Natural Resources had promised to stock 44,000 golden trout in lakes and streams from April 1-6, culminating in a special Saturday stocking that included Cranberry.
Because the Saturday stocking was announced ahead of time, I figured one or two people might show up. Turns out I was right – only it was one or two people for every 10 feet of river. I’ve waited in lines at the DMV where I had more personal space.
My plan was to camp along the river the night before, then get up early and ride my bike up past the lower gate into the Cranberry Backcountry, where no motorized vehicles are allowed (other than for official DNR use). I would wait for the stocking truck to come down the road from the upper gate at Cranberry Glades, then proceed to strike gold (or more accurately, get gold struck).
It was a good plan. So good, in fact, that everyone else had already thought of it. A couple of miles into the Backcountry, it looked like I’d sprinted into the middle of the Tour de France.
I upped my pace, and about seven miles in, I met the stocking truck. It stopped where a group of guys were fishing off a bank covered in riprap. A DNR worker grabbed a net and scooped up a batch of wriggling fish from the tank. A heave-ho and the trout enjoyed a brief career as flying fish before plunging into the river. He did this six or seven more times.
When the truck left, a school of slightly stunned goldies lay before us. I was a bit stunned, too, as barbed hooks began zinging past my ears. In for a penny, I thought, and began plopping my lure into the middle of the pool. Fishing lines were crossed and tangled several times, but at least everyone remained good-natured about it.
A handful of fish were caught within about 15 minutes, then all the goldies came down with lockjaw.
We were looking at some nice-sized trout, but there was one who was the grandpappy of them all. I began targeting him with my casts. The guy next to me was doing the same thing. He was throwing some kind of crawfish imitation, which had already landed him some fish.
I was using a Trout Magnet, basically a small plastic worm on a jig hook, and it was doing a wonderful job of being ignored completely. I tried every color of worm in my box. I finally threaded on a fluorescent red and yellow combination. For reasons known only to the trout gods, Grandpappy Goldie decided to hit it.
The fish was on and I got him to the water’s edge. When I tried lifting him up over the rocks, my light line snapped. Likely, it had been frayed on a rock. It’s what I get for leaving my net behind.
Pappy swam back out to the middle and sulked. At this point, I was sulking too. I made some desultory casts, but my heart wasn’t in it.
I’m not sure how much time passed before the trout began to show an interest in their surroundings. Keep in mind these fish had never been in a river before. I suppose they thought they were in a really big hatchery (which is what a river is, if you think about it).
Groups of three or four began to split off from the school and swim around. At first, they always returned to the main group. Finally, I watched several fish split off and go downstream through a riffle. They never came back.
In that way, the fish and the fishermen slowly dispersed. By late afternoon, it was easy to spot goldies distributed in different types of water – some in pools, some holding in faster water. They were behaving more like real trout. But there’s no way to know how many were caught in those first few hours.
The new and improved stocking method went into effect after Gold Rush. Under the governor’s directive, trucks are to be manned by extra workers assisting hatchery personnel. These helpers carry buckets of trout both upstream and down from the truck, spreading the fish out instead of dumping them into a single pool.
The DNR reportedly has contracted with the West Virginia Association of Rehabilitation Facilities to provide the extra help. This nonprofit organization has offices across the state and helps find employment for people with disabilities and receiving rehabilitation services.
“We are committed to giving anglers the best that West Virginia can offer,” DNR Director Steve McDaniel said of the updated stocking procedure in a press release.
Predictably, the best isn’t good enough to please everyone.The new program is drawing legions of comments on social media, both for and against.
“I like the idea. People can’t stay in one spot and catch their limit twice. They will have to walk for them now,” said one commenter in a Facebook fishing group.
“Why do we have to change the stocking program just because our governor can’t catch a fish?” opined another.
Amidst all this kerfuffle, there is a question no one is asking – not the governor, not the public. Why all this emphasis on hatchery trout? Why not expend more resources to support wild trout?
It’s not as if we don’t have streams with self-sustaining rainbow and brown trout populations. We do. But we could have a lot more. Wild trout need clean, pollution-free water that’s not choked with sediment. They need streams and rivers with a tree canopy left intact to control light and temperature.
More also needs to be done to protect our small streams that are home to eastern brook trout, which have been in decline for decades. Why isn’t the governor talking about restoring habitat and improving water quality for these true West Virginia natives?
There’s no denying that put-and-take stocking is popular. Hatchery trout are generally easier to catch, and people love to eat ‘em. You can save more with a trout stamp than with Kroger coupons.
While put-and-take fishing can be great fun, all of our efforts don’t have to be on taking. Couldn’t more of our time and resources be used on giving?
To wrap up my trip to the Cranberry, by the time I got back to camp, I was Gold Rushed out.
The next day I traded my spinning gear for a 4-weight fly rod, and went off in search of small streams and native brookies. A different kind of gold — and a different kind of rush.