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The Northeast has plenty of good trout fishing rivers: The Kennebec in Maine, the Wood River in Rhode Island, the Housatonic in Massachusetts and Connecticut. But one of the most famous is the Batten Kill, which runs through Vermont and New York. Fishermen have tried their luck there for more than a century, but today anglers say the fishing isn’t what it used to be.
Government scientists say the problem isn’t pollution or water quality, but tidiness. There’s not enough natural debris in the Batten Kill to protect the fish. As part of a collaboration between Northeast stations, Susan Keese of Vermont Public Radio reports.
In Manchester, Vermont, Peter Kutzer, a casting instructor for Orvis is giving a private fishing lesson. The world-renowned fishing outfitter has its headquarters and fly fishing school a little over a mile from the Batten Kill.
“Get that bottom hand on that rod and just slide the top hand up a little bit more.”
The Batten Kill is steeped in history, said Kutzer.
“It’s known as being a very challenging river but actually having some very nice-sized wild brown trout and wild brook trout. And it hasn’t been stocked in 30-some-odd years.”
That means most of the fish in the river were born here, unlike the many trout streams where hatchery-raised fish are the norm. Wild trout are harder to catch, said Kutzer.
“People work a long, long time to catch that nice fish but when they do, it’s usually the highlight of their career.”
But in recent decades fishermen say that while some big fish are still around, younger trout have become scarce. Scientists suspect it’s because the river doesn’t offer them much protection.
Trees have been cut from the banks during highway projects. Landowners and kayakers have cleaned up debris. But it turns out trout – especially young ones -- rely on rock formations and dead trees and branches to create eddies, pools, hiding spots and shade, according to Cynthia Browning of the citizens group Batten Kill Watershed Alliance.
“Trout need protection from predators, they need protection from floods, from ice from hot weather.”
Trout populations were down by 70 percent from historic levels, said Browning. Now state and federal agencies are working with the Watershed Alliance to try to fix the problem.
“They studied 12 different variables, water temperature, chemistry, diseases, predation and the thing that they came up with, the missing habitat component, was cover and shelter.”
On the Batten Kill in western Vermont, about ten miles from the New York border, a yellow bucket loader picks up a 60-foot felled maple, roots and all. Water streams from the bucket as it pivots the tree into position.
Standing midstream in chest waders Scott Wixsom of the Green Mountain National Forest is directing the operation.
“What we’re going to do is place the root wads in the bank running out into the river, making it appear like they’ve fallen naturally into the river.”
Wixsom has been trained in a technique pioneered in Western states like Colorado and Montana. It uses natural river dynamics to correct man-made problems.
State biologists are counting the fish to see whether the strategy is succeeding here. They’ve seen an increase in the number of young fish in the past twp years, but they’ll need a few more years of data to determine if the project is a success. Meanwhile, the Watershed Alliance is planting trees along the river banks --- that someday will become natural debris.
Northeast environmental coverage is part of NPR’s Local News Initiative