For April’s second Saturday, we have planned and waited, packed and repacked. Cursed for pre-dawn shivers in frigid canoes or poorly chosen float tubes, loved for an inevitable warm rising sun, remembered for simple pleasures of reopening tackle boxes, fly cases and rod tubes, Rhode Island’s official opening of trout season means more than just wetting a line. Each opening day is a right of passage, a thoughtful first entry in a new year’s fishing log, a long-anticipated call to reconnect with our waters, our friends, our children.
Rain or shine, breezy or glass, sunrise on the second Saturday in April christens Spring’s greatest day.
This year, DEM will stock approximately 80,000 brook, brown, and rainbow trout statewide.
A brown and brook hybrid called a tiger trout makes its debut with a promise of striking colors and aggressive attitudes. Stocking trout is a year round affair, from carefully conditioning water temperatures for brood stock to managing fry and fingerlings to handling thousands of mature fish. DEM manages hatcheries in North Kingstown, Carolina, Arcadia and the small village of Perryville.
John Hoxie started Rhode Island’s first fish farm in 1877, raising brook trout on a piece of Rowland Gibson Hazard’s land in the village of Carolina. His Clearwater Trout Farm grew from crashing native stocks, destruction of anadromous waterways and fish passages coupled with a seemingly relentless appetite for fish. The American Fish Culture Company, one of many business interests of Mr. Hazard, was created in 1892 and grew quickly in a robust economy blessed with low cost feeds and abundant clean water. In 1938, AFC opened a small off-site facility in Perryville, taking advantage of artesian wells and continued strong demand.
For reasons of markets and time, the facility was transferred in 1955 to the RI Department of Fish and Wildlife where it continues to serve state stocking operations as the Perryville Trout Hatchery.
Dug into the earth at the end of a winding dirt cartway lined with fields of corn and rust, past century old gravestones bearing Colonial era names like Champlain and Babcock, little has changed there.
Tommy Thompson stands in rain pants, dragging a white net clear of the pool to dry on clips hung from a chain link fence. 50℉ water runs down his arms, warm against an almost freezing, relentless Spring wind after corralling a days delivery.
Tommy is the Senior Biologist, a six-year veteran of DEM, who oversees flow-through raceways, tanks for rearing the most amazing tiny brown trout and a pool glistening with rainbows. Spawned last Fall and safe inside a metal building, brown fry swim in fading green fiberglass tubs, tight as a fist, far away as possible from the shadow of humans looking over them. Outside, almost a dozen positive pressure artesian wells percolate clean groundwater into the main pool which then drains over a more modern concrete spillway, through long cement corridors where golden rainbow trout weighing up to seven or eight pounds circle and splash. Exiting water greets a quiet stream advanced from Dead Man’s Spring; together they cross under a busy highway and feed Mill Pond and her downstream cornmeal grindstone.
Wild trout feed on insects such as mayflies, caddis and dragonflies, some small mollusks, amphibians, a few other fishes, polychaetes and leeches. In the interest of good economics, trout were once fed a gruel of pulverized sheep and pig throats, hearts and lungs, known then as “plucks” and barrels of spoiled salmon. Modern hatchery meals, pelletized and sprinkled from automatic feeders or by hand, are far more nutritious and better sourced.
Bundled tightly in fleece under waders and rain jackets, Tommy and DEM biologists, Tom O’Brien and Madeline Haines return to the water, carefully positioning wood and wire boxes of rainbow trout.
In advance of stocking season, there might be forty thousand trout circling the pond under the semi-protective overhead netting. They secured and counted precisely four hundred, no more, no less. Once the truck was positioned, just outside the gate and sagging pine arch, James Pendlebury climbed up on the sideboards, opened doors to separate pens and received net after heavy net of wriggling fish. Theirs is a smooth precise quick dance, transferring fishes they have helped breed, feed and protect.
For a while, Perryville was open to the public, complete with food bins for the kids, picnic tables and fireplaces.
To protect the fish and a close neighbor from unexpected visitors, it’s no longer that way. Nature, however, doesn’t heed “No Trespassing” signs. Osprey and herons occasionally navigate through gaps in the twine security system while by night, mink and otters find their way past the fence line, leaving behind tell-tale clean fish frames.
There are more than eighty waterways to stock from the four facilities, which takes them right up to the afternoon before Spring’s greatest day.
Peeling off waders before hustling out to catch up with James, it’s obvious from Tommy Thompson’s ease that The Perryville Trout Hatchery is in the best hands and that it’s no small feat, raising and delivering trout for the best opening day ever.