Tale of a trophy trout

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One of the most popular fishing programs that Vermont (and other states) run is that of the so called trophy trout. These are trout that are reared for an extra year in the hatchery before being released into select streams to give the angler the opportunity to catch larger than average fish.

These trout are certainly larger than their stream born distant cousins at the same age. The average 2-year-old stream born trout might be 8- or 9-inches long, perhaps a little longer on a really productive stream. For a stream born trout to attain the size of these large hatchery reared fish may take four or five years and most stream bred fish will never attain that size so what's not to like about a program that offers the angler the chance at a big fish?

While I won't wade into the merits of a clearly popular program I'd like to pose a question: what is a trophy trout?

If size alone is the criteria than the state could easily incubate and raise fish across a broad range of size classes to give the angler an opportunity to catch some really big fish. I view things differently. To me a true trophy trout has a story that goes much deeper than being raised in a sterile hatchery setting on a meal plan that is designed to make the fish as big as possible as quickly as possible while eliminating all the traits that make stream bred trophies so exciting to catch. Each one of these trout has a story as different as the spots they wear. What might that story look like?

For arguments sake let's call our stream bred trophy a brown trout, a highly prized catch among anglers though it must be acknowledged not a native to our lands. That fish, a female for the purposes of this article, started its life in the gravel of a river or tributary stream, not as an egg in a tray being fertilized by a technician.

From the very beginning our trophy faces Darwinian challenges and the law of averages. While our little trophy emerges from the gravel many of her nest mates are fated to a short life, unable to wiggle free from the gravel that kept them safe over the winter. An ill-timed flood may sweep many of these vulnerable young fish away while our trophy has been lucky enough to be sheltered by a rock or a log just big enough to keep the fish out of harm's way.

As the spring gives way to summer our trophy selects a small portion of a riffle as her home that is just a little better protected from predators than those sections of stream that others of her age class are located.

By late August the little fish is maybe 3 1/2 inches long and only a handful of grams in weight. Luck and chance has protected the fish from the clutches of a cackling kingfisher and soon enough the rivers become chilled and winter sets in. If the fall has been dry the habitat to hold the smallest of fish shrinks and perhaps freezes when winter grips the river. More of her age class are gone and we are not even a year into her having hatched out of the gravel.

Still, she finds a portion of the stream to over winter, perhaps adjacent to a spring that prevents the water around her from freezing and keeps her appetite switched on while her nest mates subsist in the near freezing water.

As our stream bred trophy celebrates her first birthday she will notice many young brothers, sisters and cousins that emerge from the spawning gravels to start the cycle again. Our trophy is perhaps 5-inches long — not quite yet a "catchable" trout but will soon be one. In fact, streams with healthy stream bred populations have a "stocking" of sorts that bring the previous year's hatchlings into the sport fishery by July or August as these fish grow to 6 or 7 inches. Little fish perhaps but already they have negotiated challenges, including avoiding the burgeoning population of avian predators that now call Vermont home.

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Our trophy might be a bit bigger than others of her age class and she may have moved out of the riffle and entered a pool habitat, which offers the safety of depth, perhaps a large woody material jam and a supply of food that can be inspected carefully. By the end of summer she is rising to flies hatching out of the stream and perhaps even mistakes an artificial for the real thing and finds herself in the clutches of an angler that proceeds to put her back into the river.

As our trophy enters her second full season in the river she is no longer a prime target of the kingfisher but has now become prey for mergansers; an efficient fish killing machine that will reduce the numbers of trout steadily over the course of the season. Her instincts, developed over the last two years, serve her well and when the ducks make a pass through her pool she quickly heads for the woody logjam she calls home.

When not evading predators she continues to feed and grow and by summers end she is 10 inches and well on her way towards becoming a unique trout but is not yet mature enough to spawn.

By her third season our trophy is feeding routinely on the copious hatches of spring and beginning to attain a size that others of her age class have not yet achieved. Perhaps this is because she has become adept at hunting the various bait fish that dwell in her pool. She feeds aggressively every time the river swells with rain and fills herself with more calories than what just insects can provide. By virtue of this diet she puts on length and weight and feeds less often on the surface, which exposes her less frequently to predators as well as anglers.

As the days begin to shorten our trophy begins to fatten as eggs develop within her. She becomes edgy and aggressive as the leaves begin to drop off the trees. Then one day, perhaps after a rain, she leaves her home pool and seeks out the very same tributary from which she first emerged. She may even zero in on the very same riffle from which she was born. Already an impressive 13 inches she is able to pick a favorable spot to begin to dig out a nest in which she will deposit her eggs. A pair of males will jockey for her favor and the larger one will win out.

And so it goes over the next two seasons, the trophy putting on weight and length, becoming the dominant trout in her pool. Two more times she spawns and passes on her DNA, passing on innate characteristics that are sure to produce a future trophy.

Then the following spring, as the river relents and gives itself to the angler the mayflies begin to hatch. Her smaller cousins feed rapaciously on emerging flies while she picks off nymphs that are drifting past. But soon the underwater bounty is exhausted and she notices (or perhaps a small kernel of memory tells her) that there are easily captured flies drifting on the surface. She drops back from her wood laden home and takes up a position at the tail of the pool.

An angler peering from a favorable vantage point knows that this will happen and is soon in position to take advantage of the situation. The fly selected and the cast made, the fly drifts over the head of the feeding trout. She is not a regular surface feeder and the hunger influences her decision to rise to the counterfeit. A battle ensues, a memorable one at that. The angler is equal to the task however and soon our trophy is in the net. The angler takes care to unhook the fish, admirers her colors and length for a moment and then releases her back to her home and reels in.

While heading out of the water the angler pauses for a moment reflects over the past years and what it took to spawn, nurture and sustain this fish. And that my friends is the story of a true

trophy trout.

Doug Lyons is a long-time angler who splits his time between greater Boston and fishing, hiking and relaxing in Southwestern Vermont. Doug maintains a camp in Shushan, N.Y., along with his wife, Deanna and dog Maya.


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