Congratulations! It’s 2,700 trout fry

Anxious trout dads from Trout Unlimited attend a successful birth


REGION — It was a crisp day late last November, a perfect day for the familiar ride up to the Beaverkill Trout Hatchery in Turnwood, NY, which traverses the still very beautiful upper Beaverkill Valley. Frank Salt, Val Reinhardt and I, all members of the Upper Delaware Chapter of Trout Unlimited (TU), discussed the upcoming day’s activities as we enjoyed the scenery. It was our third consecutive year of supporting a project to plant fertilized brown trout eggs in some of the area tributary streams, but the previous two years had been, literally as well as figuratively, a washout, due to late November flooding. We still believed in our project, and felt under the gun to demonstrate a success so that we could re-energize folks to participate, and possibly expand the scope of the project to include more eggs and more streams.

At the hatchery we met Sherry, one of the Shaver family members running the Beaverkill Hatchery, to receive our order of 3,000 eyed brown trout eggs. After discussing last year’s results—we had experienced about a 60 percent loss in 2006 and close to 100 percent the year before—Sherry helped us load 12 Whitlock-Vibert boxes, each with 250 eggs, and we were on our way.

The Vibert box was originally designed by Dr. Richard Vibert, a French fishery biologist. The objective was to create an artificial incubation chamber that could be loaded with fertilized, eyed trout eggs and then planted in the appropriate gravel sections of natural trout stream environments. With this technique, an artificial “redd,” which is the name of the real trout nest where eggs are deposited in the wild during spawning, can be created in the absence of natural spawning fish. In this safe haven, tucked away under the protective gravel of the streambed, the eyed eggs can hatch free from predation. The slats in the sides of the box are sized so that the unhatched eggs cannot fall out, but the slender egg-sac fry can swim out and escape through the gravel when ready, thus duplicating the birth of a naturally spawned trout.

Vibert’s box was redesigned in the early 1970s by Dave Whitlock, a well known American fly fisherman and fishing writer. The new box, known as the Whitlock-Vibert Box, now has two chambers, one for the eggs and another that serves as a nursery area. The newly hatched fry drop down into this second chamber and are protected until they are mature enough to survive outside the nest.

Whitlock-Vibert boxes are now used all over the word to help create, improve and preserve trout and salmon populations. Three years ago, I proposed to the Upper Delaware Chapter of Trout Unlimited (TU) that we plant some boxes on a trial basis. Our chapter members, always keen on new ways to help the local trout fisheries, approved the project.

Our first two years we had a great turnout of folks to help do the plantings, but as noted, our results were seriously impaired by unfortunate weather. The third year we were down to four hands (Salt, Reinhardt and I were joined for the box plantings by Tom Brown, dean of the Upper Delaware fishermen, and another TU member), but all four were determined to prove that the box planting idea could work. It took us most of the day to place the boxes, containing eggs that were two to three weeks away from hatching, as per the instructions of our expert trout mom, Sherry.

One box went to Hankins Creek, four to Callicoon Creek, and six to the North Branch of Calicoon Creek. The last was planted in Little Equinunk Creek in Pennsylvania, near my home, where we also had obtained permission from the regional fisheries biologist. Focusing on Upper Delaware tributaries known to support natural reproduction and also accessible to us to enter and plant, we had selected these and filed for the required permits from New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

To give ourselves a better chance this year, we redesigned our planting system to have a heavier-duty planting cradle tethered to cast concrete block anchors with stainless steel eyebolts. Key to success is finding stream sections of proper depth and flow, similar to where the trout themselves would build a nest. The objective is to ensure good water flow through the nest so that silt does not deposit and clog the gravel, stopping the flow of oxygenated water that the eggs need to develop and hatch.

Another key issue is timing of the plant. As brown trout are fall spawners, we attempt to place the eggs at the same time as if spawned naturally. That means, typically, a late November planting with expectation that hatching will occur in December or possibly January if water temperatures really turn cold.

Would our precautions be enough to make the third time lucky? At least flows were good this year, with no flooding. Fingers crossed, we ventured out to see our results.

Anticipation was high as we pulled up on the anchor tether to retrieve the first box from Hankins Creek. It was easy to see that there were only a few dead eggs left in the first chamber—and then we saw them. A few fry-sacs, still in the nursery chamber. What an amazing sight! We were all proud trout dads.

As we retrieved each box the results were the same. We estimate a 90 percent plus hatch ratio—2,700 trout or more—which is as good as it gets. The survival rate of wild-born fish is normally less than 10 percent. Perhaps someday someone will catch a beautiful, wild, 20-inch brown trout in the Delaware that was hatched from one of our plantings.

This year we hope to expand the program, but the key ingredient is more labor to help do the plantings and prep work. Why not come join us?

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Photo by Frank Salt
Fertilized, eyed brown trout eggs can be obtained at the Beaverkill Trout Hatchery in Turnwood, NY. (Click for larger version)
Photo by Frank Salt
Loaded Whitlock-Vibert boxes are set into a planting cradle. (Click for larger version)
Photo by Frank Salt
Upper Delaware Trout Unlimited members Mark Rando, left, and Val Rheinhardt prepare a nest site. (Click for larger version)
Photo by Frank Salt
Success! Newly hatched trout fry with egg sacks still attached are found in the Whitlock-Vibert box. (Click for larger version)
Photo by Frank Salt
Proud trout dads Tom Brown, left, Val Rheinhardt and Mark Rando rest from their labours of helping to bring 2,700 new trout into the world. (Click for larger version)