The COVID-19 emergency is already making it less fun to fish for trout.
Trout stockings will continue, but state fisheries officials earlier this week postponed West Virginia’s heavily promoted “Gold Rush” stockings and also changed stocking procedures to make sure anglers comply with Gov. Jim Justice’s social-distancing mandates.
In an attempt to prevent crowds from gathering at trout-stocking sites, Division of Natural Resources administrators immediately halted the practice of letting anglers know when some streams and lakes would be stocked.
They also suspended the agency’s long-time practice of posting to the DNR website the names of all the streams stocked on that day, and they shut down the “Trout Fishing Hot Line” that allowed anglers to call for a daily stocking report.
The idea behind those changes, said hatchery supervisor Jim Hedrick, is to keep anglers from flooding to streams the day after they’re stocked. “The governor’s guidelines call for people to stay at least 6 feet apart,” he said. “That’s hard to maintain when a lot of people converge at the spots where we stock.”
When hatchery workers stock a stream, they tend to stop at pools that allow them to easily carry netfuls of trout from the truck to the stream’s bank. When anglers are able to anticipate a day’s stocking, they often gather at those pools to await the truck’s arrival.
A new DNR policy, which will remain in effect for as long as the social-distancing mandates remain in place, calls for hatchery workers to skip any stocking spots where more than 10 anglers have gathered.
“They’ve been ordered to drive on to the next spot,” said DNR Director Steve McDaniel. “We have to get the fish into the streams, but we also have to enforce the governor’s executive order.”
To help enforce the 6-foot spacing, a Natural Resources Police officer will follow behind each stocking truck to ensure that anglers stay at least that far apart.
The changes have prompted some anglers to question whether trout stockings should be suspended until the COVID-19 crisis is over. Hedrick said the trout have to be moved out of the state’s seven cold-water hatcheries to make room for next year’s fish, which are already hatched and growing.
“We only have so much capacity in our hatcheries, and we’re at the limit of our capacity right now,” Hedrick explained. “If we held onto this year’s fish, we’d run into overcrowding problems as next year’s fish continued to grow.”
Overcrowding, he said, creates two problems.
“First, if we don’t stock [the mature] fish and clear them out of the [hatchery’s] raceways, their growth is stunted,” he added. “Once they begin to stunt, it’s almost impossible to catch them back up to the size we want to stock.
“The second problem is disease. Whether we’re talking about trout in a raceway, or people with COVID-19 in a big city, overcrowding quickens the spread of a disease.”
DNR officials also need to stock all the trout allotted for 2020 because the virus scare has closed the factories that supply the hatchery system with trout food.
“If the folks who run those factories have told their employees to stay at home, the factories aren’t producing food,” Hedrick said. “Right now, we still have feed available, but we don’t know how long our supplies will last.
“We’re supposed to be getting another delivery soon, and as far as I know it’s still on schedule, but we might run into issues down the road. I think we’re fine through the end of the stocking season, but after that it gets kind of iffy.”
Hedrick said agency officials didn’t want to postpone the “Gold Rush” stockings until early May, but they had no choice.
“The governor’s order says to avoid creating crowds,” he explained. “The Gold Rush stockings were publicized in advance, and if the crowds were anything like they were last year, they would have put hundreds of people at those stocking venues at once.”
Some of the waters originally earmarked for Gold Rush stockings will not receive them in May. Hedrick said waters likely to have water temperatures too high for the trout would be passed over, and the trout would be placed in waters cold enough to allow them to survive.
If the social-distancing orders are lifted in time, the May stockings will take place. If not, Hedrick said the golden trout earmarked for the stockings will be incorporated into regularly scheduled stockings.