Chesapeake Now! Trout Stocking, Survival & Angling Tourism
Feb 13, 2015 11:53AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
By Barbara Pash
It was a warm day in early March, as temperatures go. Snow still covered the ground. Icy patches on the paths to the streams made them slippery. But to Jay Sheppard and the 20 volunteers who met him that morning on a section of the Patuxent River, the first sign of spring had already arrived. The state’s annual trout stocking season had begun.
Every year, from February to May, the state Department of Natural Resources releases more than 400,000 adult trout into streams throughout the state. The species are brown and rainbow, from 10- to 12-inches and up in size.
The release schedule is based on water temperature and environmental strategy for each stream. Some streams are designated catch-and-release; others, put-and-take. If the water gets too warm in summer, a catch-and-release stream may become put-and-take.
That’s a lot of fish to release, even over a four-month period, and organized groups of volunteers like Sheppard’s are needed to help.
On this March day, Sheppard, vice chairman resources for the Mid-Atlantic Council of Trout Unlimited, was overseeing volunteers from his chapter, Potomac-Patuxent. They were one of eight groups from that non-profit environmental advocacy chapter alone releasing trout in the area.
“Much of the trout stocking is for recreational fishing, both local anglers and tourism,” says Don Cosden, chief of the department’s inland fisheries who is in charge of the stocking program.
The department has other trout stocking initiatives although none are as big as the spring program. In October, it releases 33,000 adult brown and rainbow trout into local streams for the fall fishing season. It also releases approximately 300,000 trout fingerlings, two to four inches in size, throughout the year in streams that can support them.
The trout are released into a stream where they had once flourished. For one reason or another, the stream had become so degraded that it no longer supported the trout or, at least, not in large numbers. After the stream is rehabilitated, efforts are made to keep it that way.
“That’s part of the program—protecting streams from degradation,” Cosden explains. “There’s no point in restocking a stream with trout if the fish won’t last even a couple of days.”
Stream degradation and the resulting diminished water quality can occur because of deforestation, acid mine drainage, and/or early agricultural practices. Often, says Cosden, the water has become too warm for trout.
“We don’t rehabilitate streams where it isn’t feasible for trout to live,” he says. “We focus on small headwater streams where we can have the most success, and that may improve the quality of nearby streams.”
In some cases, the stream has trout but not in large enough numbers for recreational fishing. “The stream could support more trout so we supplement them” with stocking, says Cosden.
The department raises and stocks two species of trout, brown and rainbow, because they are more tolerant than brook trout of the water quality. Brook trout is the only species native to Maryland and the East Coast. Restoring them to local streams is not part of the trout stocking program.
But if a stream has been restored, Cosden says, the department will re-establish brook trout in it by taking native wild stocks from nearby streams in order to preserve the genetic character of the population.
Besides trout, the department also raises large-mouth bass and sunfish species for a one-time release into local streams. They become self-sufficient, says Cosden, and balance the stream population.
While the focus of the department’s stocking program is recreation and tourism, there is an ecological benefit. “Healthy streams help other organisms like insects, frogs, turtles, and crayfish,” Cosden says, “and restore the predator-prey balance” of eagles, osprey, and kingfishers that hunt the fish.
The way Jay Sheppard remembers that March day, he and his 20 volunteers arrived at a section of the Patuxent River between Howard and Montgomery counties around 9 in the morning. Their goal: stocking two sections on the Patuxent River and one on the Middle Patuxent River.
He split the volunteers into three crews. A natural resources department truck met each crew at designated points where the volunteers could access the river. The crews were given plastic boxes with rope handles.
Each box held 150 adult trout. “They could continue to grow if not caught by anglers or eaten by predators,” said Sheppard, who joined one of the crews.
The crews donned waders and entered the frigid-water streams, pulling up to five boxes behind them. “We walked up and down the stream to various pools where the trout were released,” Sheppard remembered.
“We spread the trout out over the stream. If we put 500 fish in one pool, they’d starve because there isn’t enough food,” he said.
The vast majority of the trout are born, fed, and raised in two natural resources department-owned hatcheries: Albert Powell Hatchery in Hagerstown, Washington County, and Bear Creek Hatchery in Garrett County. A few private groups have permits to raise and release brown and rainbow trout, but they must follow natural resources regulations.
As an environmental teaching tool, Trout Unlimited also sponsors “The Trout in the Classroom.” It sets up tanks in public schools, the department provides fingerlings, and the students feed and care for them over the winter. In spring, the students release them into approved local streams.
Maryland is not the only state with a trout stocking program. Almost all have them, even warm-climate states like Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama, according to Joe Evans, of the department of natural resources.
Maryland’s stocking program began long ago but reliable records date only to the late 1940s. That’s when sport fishing became really popular, says Cosden, and Maryland and other states started programs to replace the disappearing native fish.
“First it was to satisfy local demand, and then it was for people who fish and who travel to fish,” he says.
Over the years, in response to angler demand and habitat loss, the department’s trout stocking program increased to a peak of about 550,000 trout in 2005. In 2007, the department reduced stocking levels because of a parasite that affects mostly rainbow trout. The stocking number has stayed constant since then.
In 2013, the trout stocking program was paid 75 percent by the federal sport fish restoration fund and 25 percent by state non-tidal fishing license fees and trout stamps. The program is part of, but has not been separated out from, the department’s overall hatchery budget of $1.5 million.
Cosden says the department has not done an economic analysis of the program. But two reports indicate its value to the state.
A 2012 National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries report put the economic impact of recreational fishing expenditures in the state at $426 million.
Another report, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2011 survey, counted 426,000 Maryland resident and non-resident (fresh and salt-water) anglers in the state who spent $535 million on the sport.
“Trout fishing is a popular sport for locals and as a tourist draw,” Cosden confirms. But without the stocking program, “we wouldn’t have the trout population fishermen want.”
To learn more about state trout fishing & stocking, visit the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ landing page on the program at: DNR2.maryland.gov/fisheries/Pages/trout/index.aspx