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The Shoreline’s Secret Trout Culture

Year in, year out. Sure as the sun will rise. On the third Saturday of April, at 6 a.m. sharp, a barrage of live bait, lures, and imitation flies hits the waters of Connecticut lakes, ponds, and streams. Those waters hold several species of fish, but, almost to a person, the thousands of anglers who show up at dawn’s early light are after one kind: trout. More precisely, trout of three species. From casual worm dunkers to fly-fishing fanatics, they have been raring to go since February 1, when almost all trout waters legally close to fishing for a hiatus, during which more than a quarter million trout are stocked in the state.

Luckily for the shoreline, a river runs through it.

Stocking by the Inland Fisheries Division of the State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) continues until the end of May, although select spots, such as the Hammonasset River, which separates Madison from Killingworth and Clinton, receive fish later in the year as well. Trout bite in all seasons, but spring really means trout fishing, when streams and lakes are flush with water and fish and temperatures are cool, so trout have not gone deep to escape heat.

Annually, the state stocks about 650,000 trout produced in its three fish hatcheries. Most of these fish are produced and shipped by hatchery personnel within a 12-week period. “Imagine shipping that many products—alive and squirming—in such a short time. The hatchery guys do a terrific job,” says Tim Barry, fisheries biologist who oversees the trout stocking program.

Arguably, the epicenter for trout fishing in Coastal Connecticut is the Hammonasset River. It has plenty of public access on both sides and is especially scenic to boot. It is managed for superior trout and is one of the streams open year-round. Except in spring and summer, its best stretch is catch-and-release, starting September 1.

Certain of the most pristine streams also harbor small, residual populations of wild brook trout, the only species truly native here, alongside stocked brook, brown, and rainbow trout, some of which have habituated and established self-sustaining populations. The Farm River in Branford and East Haven and North Stonington’s Shunock Brook are among those managed by DEEP for both wild and stocked trout. “Shunock produces small wild brown trout,” says Barry.

It is testimony to the allure of trout that DEEP promotion of April’s third Saturday as “Opening Day” describes it not just as the first day of trout season but as well of fishing season, sometimes in the same press release. The news media, for which Opening Day requires extensive and automatic coverage, and most freshwater anglers also equate the start of fishing season with trout.

The attraction lies in the nature of trout themselves. They are sleek and elegant, delicately marked and hued; creatures of cold, clean waters, foam-flecked and clear, in high latitudes and, out West, in high country; of quiet, crystalline pools fed by churning rapids, of chill lake shallows newly freed of ice, and cold deeps after surface temperatures warm.

True, the largemouth bass is the most popular freshwater game fish nationwide, likely because it is far more widely distributed than any trout species. Bassfishing programs on television draw Duck Dynasty audiences, both in demographics and popularity.

Undeniably, although Connecticut has hordes of bass enthusiasts, largemouth bass fishing is a tradition rooted in the South and Midwest, in regions where bass thrive in waters that trout, far too refined physiologically to inhabit mud holes in which bass can survive, do not tolerate. Largemouth bass fishermen talk with awe about monster “hawg” bass. It is difficult to imagine a trout angler using sobriquet for a fish that bears colors as delicate as those of a rainbow and has a body sleek as a torpedo. A largemouth explodes from below to suck up a duckling with raw, predatory power. A trout rises to pluck a newly hatched fly from the water with elegant, laser-like precision. If a largemouth taking prey or fiercely battling at the end of a line can be likened to Conan with a barbarian broadsword, a trout is Zorro with an aristocratic rapier.

Many fly-fishers consider themselves angling nobility, who would not deign to tempt trout with anything but the assorted bits of fluff and feathers they create to mimic adult and immature flies and other trout prey. Indeed, among them are people whose knowledge of aquatic insects equals that of professional entomologists, enabling them to match their artificials to those in the waters they fish. No question about it, they can catch trout when no one else can. DEEP treats them nobly, reserving portions of a few prime streams for fly-fishing only, such as an upstream stretch of the Salmon River, where it empties into the Connecticut at Haddam Neck.

There is an undeniable snobbery in the way some fly-fishers scorn anglers who use lures. Some of the lure flingers, in turn, view wormers as a touch hoity-toity, while on the lowest rung of the hierarchy, desperate for a bite, are fishers who employ bits of canned corn or minuscule marshmallows chemically concocted to attract fish. Then there is the vast majority, whose presentation of a fly often is a noisy, amateurish splat on the water but enjoy trying it, and who use lures, earthworms, mealworms and—yes—even chemical glop and kernels of canned corn when need be. Corn works because it is an ingredient of some commercial trout feed and, so it is said, resembles fish eggs.

A bait many casual trout anglers often pass up are small golden shiners and other minnows, partly because they must be kept live in a container of water. Nevertheless, they work well, especially for large brown trout. Although insects and other invertebrates are trout mainstays, browns also enjoy eating other fish, as do rainbows, although to a lesser degree. Brook trout are the least piscivorous. A surefire bait is the “perch bug,” actually the aquatic nymph of the dragonfly, which can be gleaned from weedy lakes and ponds. Many artificial flies patterned after this nymph work well, but if you can, get the real thing; despite its name, it is a killer on trout.

All trout are salmonids, members of the salmon family, but the three species that are the mainstays of our trout fishing belong to different genera, not exactly kissing cousins and distinguished from one another by features such as scales, color, and tiny differences in bone structure. Brook trout are technically char, a group that includes the Arctic char and lake trout. Brown trout, originally from Eurasia, are kin to the Atlantic salmon; rainbow to the Pacific salmon such as chinook and steelhead. The latter, in fact, is a rainbow that lives part of its life at sea and spawns in freshwater. Inland Fisheries also stocks some brownbrook trout hybrids, known as tiger trout.

Each species favors a particular type of habitat, especially in streams. Browns, which can be especially active at night, linger during the day in deep, quiet pools, especially edging the banks and below fallen trees. Brook trout also like pools, although often those more shallow and active than those in which the brown hangs out. Rainbows go deep in lakes and ponds and gravitate to big pools and fast water in streams. Generally, however, if a trout hits while you are fishing virtually any spot in Coastal Connecticut waters holding these fish, it may be brook or rainbow.

Most anglers gravitate to spots that are heavily stocked and easy to reach and fish. Killingworth’s Chatfield Hollow State Park, with its brook of the same name and Schreeder’s Pond, is designed by the state for easy fishing and quality fish. It is designated a “Trout Park,” the only one in Coastal Connecticut. DEEP bills Trout Park as especially suited to families, ideal for children. Rogers Lake in Lyme and Old Lyme and Quonnipaug Lake in the far northern reaches of Guilford are also managed by the state for high-quality big fish.

The Farm River, flowing from North Branford through Branford to East Haven and Long Island Sound, offers top trout fishing even in a highly populated area. The Eight Mile River, which starts in East Haddam’s Devil’s Hopyard State Park and flows through Salem into Hamburg Cove in Lyme, receives a heavy stocking. It is part of the National Park Service’s Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Abundant fish also go into Latimer Brook in East Lyme and Waterford, as well as Green Falls in North Stonington.

If you are put off by the crowd, which definitely can be madding early in the season, there is a pleasant out. Seek lesser streams that are stocked with a few hundred, rather than a few thousand, fish. Less fish, perhaps, but less competition and commotion from other anglers as well, so you can often catch your limit. Look for places that require some energy and walking to reach, leaving the couch potatoes to fish by the roadside at bridges. Tim Barry suggests hiking along streams that course through state parks and forests. Beyond that, scattered throughout the countryside are tiny streams, some so narrow you can hop them, with waters yet untainted, that shelter small native brook trout, so wary that a shadow may spook them for the day. They are a challenge, to be fished ever so lightly and treasured for their purity, with a wild nature no stocked trout ever will attain.

Secret Places
There are some eager fishermen who unabashedly follow the trout stocking trucks, sometimes tossing their lines even before the last fish is unloaded into the water. They keep track as best they can of where and when the stocking trucks are releasing their silvery cargo. Starting a few years ago, however, you can find where trout are stocked in many streams with no more effort than a few mouse clicks. The Inland Fisheries Division has a webpage that offers topographical maps with stocking sites marked for many popular streams and even some off the beaten track. Not all trout streams, mind you, but more are being added. You can have an enjoyable outing using these maps
to seek out spots that otherwise may be overlooked. Often, there is direct access where the trout are released. Trout Stocking Maps for Connecticut are available here.

Trout Ninjas
A tiny clan of anglers, secretive as ninjas, prowls the downstream reaches of some of Coastal Connecticut’s estuarine rivers, such as the Eight Mile, the Hammonasset, Latimer Brook, and Whitfords Brook, in Groton. The lower portions of all are open to fishing year-round. Living in the waters of these streams and their estuaries are the rarest, most elusive trout in the state, sea-run browns. For several years, the state has been releasing strains of trout that can live an anadromous life, foraging in marine waters and spawning in rivers. Difficult to find and not easy to hook, these hard-fighting fish attract only a few anglers totally dedicated to catching them. The fishermen who have success are so tight-mouthed about where and how to catch them that it is a good bet not even the families of some know of their addiction. State fisheries biologists continue to experiment with different fish strains, hoping that someday the sea-run ninjas will not be the only anglers who hook up with these fish.

Best Trout Lures
Most fishing lures are designed to look like prey, but one of the most tried-and-true trout lures are, in the words of its maker, “not designed to imitate anything.” The Mepps spinner, made by Sheldon’s Inc. of Antigo, Wisconsin, attracts fish by the flash and vibration of a small, revolving blade that, when moving through the water, attracts fish the same way a toy at the end of a string entices a cat to pounce. The spinner triggers basic survival instincts in fish—such as territorial defense—that cause it to strike.

Michael Sheldon, the Mepps trout expert, has some advice for how to use spinners on trout. To conserve energy, he says, trout laze in quiet pools where they do not have to swim to battle current, but not far from moving water. They wait until the current brings food near them, then dart out to take it. Sheldon says look for breaks in the current, such as where a rock diverts it. Cast upstream, then retrieve the spinner just fast enough for the blade to turn.

A fast current may even do the job for you. Retrieve on your side of the rock to lessen the chance your spinner will hang up. When the spinner enters slack water, let it drop so the trout has an easy target. Some Mepps spinners are truly hightech. The new Comet TRU-V is enhanced with paint that reflects ultraviolet light, which is also reflected by baitfish. While it’s mostly invisible to the human eye, fish like trout sense it and, therefore, can see the spinner even in deep water that filters out other wavelengths of sunlight.

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