Matt Dickerson: Fun with fish
There have been occasional years when, for one reason or another, I didn’t make it down to the fish hatchery off Route 53 in Salisbury. This was not one of those years.
The hatchery, more accurately known as a “fish culture station,” has become one of my favorite local attractions. Opened in 1931 (before my parents were born), it is listed in the National Register of Historic Sites. It’s also a vital part of the state’s hatchery program. Although you might not realize it from a casual look around, the biologists and technicians who run it make innovative and continually adapting use of scientific knowledge.
Indeed, they not only make use of existing knowledge, but through careful study and trials of fish breeding, they continue to add to the knowledge base of most effective practices. They use indoor light-controlled raceways to adjust the perceived seasons of the fish in order to get them to reproduce months earlier than normal. This in turn means the young fish will mature more quickly and reach a bigger size when it’s time to stock them. They are also constantly monitoring which strain of fish to raise, and are in the midst of a multi-year process of swapping from one strain of steelhead to another. And they have it carefully fine-tuned to exactly how old each strain of fish is before it reaches ideal breeding age.
That’s some of what you might learn if you speak with somebody who works there. Even if you don’t care about the science and technology, however, it’s a fun place to visit. Though Salisbury doesn’t have a visitor center with informational displays like the much larger and more famous hatchery on Grand Isle, it is where they raise broodstock for spawning and egg-production, and so it has the largest fish in the state hatchery program.
When I made my first visit of the year, back near the start of the summer, I remembered why I enjoyed it so much. Not only is there no entrance fee — who can argue against free? — but visitors are allowed to take one cup of fish food to feed the piscine residents. It’s mesmerizing just to walk down the several raceways, tossing bits of food to a variety of salmonid species including brook trout and lake trout (two different species of the char genus Salvelinus), brown trout (a true “trout” species of the Salmo genus imported from Europe), and both rainbow trout and steelhead trout (cousins of Pacific salmon from the genus Oncorhynchus that are native to western North American but have been introduced to the east.) Toss a bit of food into one of the raceways packed with fish and see them go into a feeding frenzy. Or get down on your knees and take a closer look at the fish and their array of colors, and try to identify which species resides in the section you are looking at.
The best part of a visit might be the pond at the bottom end of the lower raceways where a few dozen old breeder rainbow trout that are no longer productive live out the ends of their lives. These fish can’t be released into the wild because they are too big. Let that fact settle in for a moment! Some of the fish in the pond might be state records if they were allowed to be caught — which wouldn’t be fair to previous record holders who caught fish not raised to record size in captivity. This means the rainbows in that pond are likely bigger than any rainbow ever caught by the vast majority of visitors. There are trout there heavier than any I have caught. If you toss some food into that pond, you are in for a display. Some of the trophy-sized fish can make a wave on the surface rivaling that of a duck landing. Some might rival a small child belly-flopping. And they are so used to being fed that a few will come right up to shore and snatch pellets from the water right at your feet.
And who doesn’t enjoy throwing food to huge hungry fish? Not long after my first visit, I returned with my two daughters-in-law who happily filled their cups with food and fed the hungry mouths. A few weeks after that, when we were hosting a child through the Fresh Air Fund (another of my favorite summer traditions) we brought our guest down to the hatchery to be impressed by the fish. And just this past weekend, when my father was in town, I went down again and, as we tossed pellets to submarines with big mouths and bright red racing stripes, we reminisced about fishing trips we’ve taken together.
Now writing this, I will also confess that I prefer fishing for wild trout over hatchery fish, and I wish that Vermont managed a few more miles of river for wild (and native) fish. But I know that the majority of state rivers need to remain dependent on stocking. While a wild fishery can be good for the economy in that it attracts more visitors than a typical put-and-take fishery, the only way to sustain a wild fishery is to have either restrictive creel limits or an entirely catch-and-release system.
Fishing pressure is too intense, and there is too much desire to harvest trout, to have more than a few wild trout fisheries. A vibrant stocking program provides a tremendous recreational fishery for a variety of anglers. Plus, as land use across the state has changed, and as climate conditions continue to change rapidly, rivers that might have supported native brook trout two centuries ago are less capable of doing so now. This is yet another reason for a healthy stocking program, as some stocked species like rainbow trout are far more tolerant of warmer water than brook trout are.
So I think back on not only my enjoyable experiences visiting Salisbury, but also of their important work, raising broodstock fish that will provide the millions of eggs that are then reared in other hatcheries around the state. If you stop by and get a chance to chat with any of the employees there, you will quickly realize how knowledgeable and also passionate and engaged they are about their work. And then you go and toss a handful of pellets to the leviathans of the deep and you stop thinking about science and just think, “This is very cool.”