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An Open Letter to Region 5 and Region 6 Legislators

Below is a copy of the open letter from St. Lawrence County Fisheries Advisory Board member Tim Damon, to legislators in DEC regions 5 and 6, outlining the concerns and proposed solutions regarding the DEC stocking program.

In the past, hatchery truck drivers have taken it upon themselves, in an effort to speed the stocking process along as much as possible, to make the unilateral decision that  some designated stocking areas were to be bypassed altogether and that no trout were to be stocked at particular sites.  One of the common excuses used by the truck drivers to justify such a decision is that a “posted” property sign may be visible near the area.   The drivers, however, are apparently not aware that NY State public fishing rights (PFR) sites on the banks of private property are not uncommon, and that the property owners have every right to post their property against hunting, hiking, camping, etc., but must allow the public to fish the areas according to the set regulations and restrictions that must be adhered to while fishing on PFR sites.
In addition to the PFR sites’ accessibility, if an angler can gain legal access to a body of water such as the St. Regis River (SRR) or the West Branch of the St. Regis River (WBSRR) through a right-of-way, such as a road or an abandoned bridge, and the river bottom is owned by a public utility, where the utility has agreed to allow public fishing (as is the case on sections of the WBSRR), the angler has every right to wade and fish upstream or downstream in the river throughout the utility’s river bottom property regardless of adjacent posted properties. 
The following anecdotes illustrate two of these types of problems:             
A DEC truck driver from the Caledonia, NY hatchery refused to access an area of the SRR to stock trout when he saw a “posted” sign on the property that he was supposed to cross to gain access to the river stocking site.  A member of the St. Lawrence County Legislators Fisheries Advisory Board (SLCFAB) was present at the time and informed the truck driver that the land owner was present and permission was previously granted the DEC to access the PRF section of the river through his property.  The truck driver  told the SLCFAB member and other volunteers that the driver had authority to determine where the trout were to be stocked.  Even when the SLCFAB member told the driver that Frank Flack (DEC Region 6 Fisheries Manager) said he wanted the fish stocked there, and after being handed a copy of an email message from the DEC Fisheries Manager stating that the 2-yr olds were to be stocked there, and after handing the driver a copy of the current DEC stocking map from the fisheries mgr. showing that the location was to be stocked, the driver boldly said it wasn't up to the Fisheries manager, but that the decision was ultimately up to the truck driver.
Other potential problems of this type seem to have originated from the hatchery managers themselves.  This past Spring, a SLCFAB member was notified by a DEC Fisheries biologist that one of the five designated stocking locations on the SRR had recently been “posted” and, therefore, would not be stocked again.  The fisheries biologist said that he received the information on the “new posting” for DEC Region 5 Hatchery Manager, Peter Brue.  The SLCFAB member investigated the matter and found that no such “posting” had happened and that the information that Mr. Brue gave to the region’s fisheries office was false.  If such a rumor reached the attention of the hatchery manager from another source, shouldn’t he have investigated and/or corroborated the misinformation prior to passing it on to the fisheries dept.? 

Details of Problem #2:
On those occasions when the hatchery truck drivers feel compelled to stock each of the designated locations, often times the drivers will decide to stock a very small, token amount of the fish at one or more of the designated sites and super-concentrate the vast majority of the section’s remaining allotment in a single “bridge hole”.  Such was the case this past May on the SRR where a truck driver from DEC’s Chateaugay hatchery made a very quick stop and allowed only a very small amount of fish to be stocked there.  When asked by volunteers, who were there to help spread the fish out by carrying buckets of trout upstream and downstream, why the driver would not let them spread the fish out and why he was only allowing a very small amount of fish to be stocked at the site, the driver simply kept repeating that he “had to get out of here” and “be snappy.” 
Details of Problem #3:
When left unchecked, many DEC hatchery truck drivers will simply drive to the fewest, most easily accessible bridges on their stocking route, and by using a large pipe and hose connected directly to the holding tanks on the truck, they will pipe the trout from bridge height into the river sections.  
 When hatchery trout, especially the trophy-sized two-year-old (2YO) brown trout, are super-concentrated in a few “bridge holes”, they acclimate slowly to their new surroundings, they disperse slowly, they compete for the limited forage in the small areas and they become very easy prey.  The angling scenario is akin to shooting fish in a barrel.  Many times, trout that are stocked in this super-concentrated manner, especially the 2YO trout, are near completely harvested or poached from the bridge holes within a matter of a few days after stocking. 
In recent years, the scenes on the SRR after the speed-stocking and super concentrating the 2YO trout in bridge holes, is shocking.  Blatant over harvesting, the catching of limits and quickly transporting them home and coming back for "another limit", the unsportsmanlike conduct and rudeness of the mobs, the litter, the carnival-like crowd concentrated around the bridge holes...  all of this can be lessened simply by taking the time to spread the fish out.  
The sports minded angler who fishes more than 2 days a year, outside the bridge holes, after the stocked fish have had time to acclimate, often does not reap the benefit of the large trophy-sized 2YO trout that his/her license fees have paid for.  Instead, when these trout are super-concentrated in the bridge holes, especially just before the peak seasonal fishing pressure days of Memorial Day weekend, the primary beneficiaries of the current stocking scenario make up a tiny percentage of the angling public, consisting primarily of those who only like to fish in such an artificial, carnival-like condition, as well as poachers, hatchery truck followers, and “once-a-year” anglers.
When considering the expense and manpower it takes to raise 2YO trout and transport them, is it unreasonable to expect that the majority of the fish should last in the river more than a few days before they are poached out by irresponsible anglers that follow the stocking truck, or who only fish one week a year, and only fish the bridge holes because they have no wish to walk more than a few yards upriver to fish?  True anglers expect that some trout should last at least throughout the fishing season.  In short, the current system caters to poachers and the Memorial Day weekend carnival crowds.
The most recent excuse that the DEC is using as justification for speed-stocking is the “budget-cuts” excuse.  This is simply not a reasonable excuse when you take into account the time and cost of raising and transporting these trophy-sized fish relative to the tiny increase in cost for 3 extra hours of truck driver labor.  These 3 hours of extra time will be exponentially offset by the significant increase of available recreation hours for anglers, as trophy-sized fish will be in the river throughout the season, not just for one week.  As word get out that the large trout are still in the river throughout the season, tourism dollars will not be limited to, and concentrated around Memorial Day weekend.


Details of Problem #4:
Trout are stressed and more prone to mortality during the stocking process.  Trout mortality is greatly increased when the stresses of transport and stocking are compounded by the stresses of water temperature shock.  Cold water and its inherent higher percentage of dissolved oxygen significantly decreases the incidences of trout mortality while stocking.  Simply put, the colder the river temperatures are when stocking, the higher the stocked trout survival rate will be.  In recent years, the 2YO trout have been stocked in the SRR later in May.  This past Spring, the trout were stocked just prior to Memorial Day weekend when the water was not only very warm for stocking a trout river, but which is also the weekend that sees the most severe fishing pressure of the season on the SRR.
It is ironic that one of the justifications some DEC truck drivers often use, when they want to speed-stock the trout, is the all-to-familiar excuse that the fish cannot be spread out by the volunteers with their buckets because the trout are too stressed.  In the past when this excuse was given, some of the volunteers consisted of biology professors with PhDs from area universities, biology graduate students, licensed fishing guides and others who are qualified to access the state of stress in a trout  The DEC truck drivers are not biologists; they are not educated or trained fisheries managers and should be given very little, or no authority or discretion as to how or where the trout should be stocked. 
An anecdote to illustrate the poor decisions of the truck drivers was evident this May when the driver from DEC’s Chateaugay hatchery that was delivering the large 2YO trout to the SRR cut short the volunteer’s efforts to bucket-spread the fish and decided to “pipe” the fish directly from the bridge, which was a considerable height from the river, into very low, very warm water.   As the stocking date was so late in the year, the water level so low, and the water so warm, many of the fish were killed and laid belly-up on the bottom of the bridge hole, readily visible to the volunteers and public.  The irony is that not a single trout that was bucket-spread out by the volunteers in this section showed signs of significant stress.
Details of Problem #5:
In past years, volunteer groups and organizers who wish to help bucket-stock and spread the fish out have had inconsistent, and many times late notice of when and where to meet the stocking trucks.  It seems that even DEC’s Regional Fisheries managers are often contacted at the last minute with such information from hatchery management.  The inconsistency and lateness of the stocking notices makes it difficult for volunteers to organize an effort. 
The DEC hatcheries’ management primarily and consistently notifies two area hunting clubs of the SRR and its tributaries’ stockings prior to annual stocking dates. Hunting club reps meet the truck drivers and “sign” for the fish, effectively corroborating that the truck driver has, indeed, stocked the trout at the designated locations.  This notification scenario has been very problematic on the SRR, WBSRR and their tributaries for many years as the two hunting clubs that are notified by the DEC, often spread the word of upcoming stockings to unscrupulous members and others, who in turn notify their friends, friends of friends, and so on.  The end result has been that many times large groups of  these self proclaimed “volunteers” show up to “help” with the stocking, only to dissuade the truck drivers into spreading the fish and to hamper the efforts of the  volunteers who want to spread out the fish.  
These false volunteers, who receive prior notice of the stocking dates and times from the hunting clubs, have two reasons for showing up to watch the truck driver pipe fish into the bridge holes; the first reason is so that they can be the first ones to know where and when the fish are stocked and which bridge holes have the highest concentrations of fish stocked so that they can then quickly return to the concentrations of fish and poach as many as possible, and the second reason is to thwart the efforts of anyone who wants to spread the fish out.  These false volunteers will stop at little to make sure the fish are super-concentrated and very easy to poach out of the smallest areas as easily and quickly as possible.  These are not sports-minded anglers or the general angling public, yet the current stocking scenario and the DEC truck drivers cater to these mobs.  Such facts can be easily corroborated by watching the false volunteers during the stocking, then by visiting the bridge holes over the course of the next several days and watching these same false volunteers “catch their limits”, drive away, and return minutes later to poach another “daily limit”.   They continue the process for a week or so until most of the fish are taken from the river.
As an anecdote to illustrate part of the problem; one year an SLCFAB member along with a college professor from a local university organized a group of student volunteers to bucket spread the fish.  As the volunteers met the truck driver, they witnessed more than a half-dozen, highly intoxicated false volunteers stumble out of a bar across the street from the designated meeting area.  The drunken mob had been previously notified, either directly or indirectly, by the hunting club as to the time, date and place of meeting and came over to the truck to meet with their comrades and follow the truck to the stocking sites.  Once at the stocking sites, the belligerent, drunken, false volunteers began hindering the true volunteers with violent gestures, posturing and threats, and effectively thwarted the spreading of the trout. 
The SLCFAB member informed regional DEC fisheries management of the situation and asked that an Environmental Conservation Officer (ECO) be present at future stockings to keep the peace.   The ECO Lieutenants have been very accommodating in scheduling personnel to be present at subsequent stockings despite their extreme work load and the huge geographic regions that they must police, and the threats and violent posturing have not been an issue any time that they have been present.  However, the ECOs have not been advised by DEC fisheries management regarding proper stocking practices and have no way of knowing or enforcing, under the current scenario, exactly how and where the fish are to be stocked and spread out.
The fact is – these two particular hunting clubs that “sign” for the fish are, for all intents and purposes, big game hunting clubs, regardless of whether their historic names include the terms “Sportsman’s Club” or “Fish & Game Club”.  Their representatives and their members have shown little or no knowledge of cold water fisheries management, ichthyology or any type of progressive fisheries concepts. 
Solution to Problems #1 and #2:
Regional DEC Fisheries Managers should have sole discretion, in their respective regions, as to which exact locations are to be stocked and how many fish are to be stocked at each stop of each particular section of the SRR, WBSRR and it’s tributaries.  If a situation arises that requires a significant decision, the truck drivers should immediately call the Fisheries Manager for that decision.  If the Fisheries Manager is not available, the next highest ranked person in the regional fisheries management office should make the determination.  A decision maker from both DEC regional fisheries management offices should be available by phone during the stocking of the SRR, WBSRR and the tributaries to take calls from the SLCFAB rep and the truck driver, should an issue arise. 
This solution would end the practice of hatchery truck drivers skipping over designated stocking sites or speed-stocking small, token amounts of fish in certain sites while super concentrating the majority of the river’s fish allotment in the most popular, most easily accessible bridge holes. 
This solution can only work if the Fisheries Managers communicate closely with the Hatchery Managers and the Hatchery Managers strictly convey the Fisheries Managers’ plans, in detail, to the truck drivers.
Solution to Problem #3:
Volunteer bucket stockers should be allowed at least one half hour per designated stocking site to spread the fish out away from the bridge holes.  The half hour allotment should not begin until the hatchery truck is in position and the first buckets of fish are filled.  After, and only after, the half hour time allotment has concluded, any trout left to be stocked at each particular site may be carefully piped in by the truck driver if the DEC will not allow enough time for the entire allotment of fish to be bucketed out.  A representative from the SLCFAB should be on site to time the bucket spreading and to report any problems to the DEC.
Solution to Problem #4:
Stocking dates for all 2YO trout from the Caledonia, NY hatchery should be scheduled for mid April with a secondary, alternate date for poor weather or river conditions to be rescheduled no later than late April.  Earlier stocking dates will greatly decrease the percentage of trout stress, temperature shock and trout mortality.  The higher river water flow conditions common on earlier dates will also help to spread the fish throughout the river naturally and give the trout more time to acclimate to their new habitat before the peak fishing pressure dates in May.  True volunteers are also easier to organize in April.
The exact dates and times to meet the hatchery trucks for stocking should be forwarded to the SLCFAB and the Tri-Town Sporting Club as far in advance as possible, but no later than one week prior to the stocking dates.  
Solution to Problem #5:
The SLCFAB and the Tri-Town Sporting Club (TTSC) should be the ONLY organizations contacted by the DEC prior to stocking the SRR, WBSRR and all its tributaries, as the official “signers” of not only the 2YO trout, but for all trout, including yearlings in the SRR, WBSRR and surrounding and/or connected trout waters including, but not limited to Hopkinton Brook, Trout Brook, Deer River, etc.
These problems have been recurring for many years.  The only reason that the Fisheries Managers may not be aware that the same problems have continued for the past couple years, is simply because nobody has relayed the message to them. 
The SLCFAB has decided to take a stronger stance on these recurring issues as more complaints are surfacing from true sportspersons and true sporting organizations.  The good news is that all of these problems can be very easily, cheaply and quickly solved if all of the proposed solutions detailed above are implemented immediately. 
It is not right to allow these trophy fish, and the considerable amount of our money it takes to raise them, to be wasted in a matter of days while catering to poachers and unscrupulous anglers, a tiny segment of the angling population, while the rest of the angling publics’ opportunities, and the tourism dollars that follow true anglers, are minimized.  We look forward to the time when big trout are in the St. Regis River system throughout the entire fishing season.

Tim Damon
St. Lawrence County Fisheries Advisory Board