Fish Local

Catch-and-eat in the Pioneer Valley

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By Laura Sayre, Photos by Dan Little

You either see it or you don’t. On Route 116 between Amherst and Sunderland, a small brown sign: TROUT HATCHERY. If you fish, you know what this means. If you don’t, you may not see it at all. Trout?

We hear a lot these days about the overfishing of the oceans, about the sustainability of different fisheries, about the healthfulness (or otherwise) of consuming different types of fish. But virtually all of these discussions assume you are standing in a supermarket or sitting in a restaurant. That sign hints at the fact that there are other places to stand: at the water’s edge, for instance, with a fishing pole in your hands.

Commercial fishing is overwhelmingly concentrated on marine fishing, but freshwater recreational fishing dwarfs saltwater recreational fishing in terms of numbers of participants and time and money spent fishing (according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Americans collectively spent 383 million days freshwater fishing, vs. just 75 million days saltwater fishing). The State of Massachusetts, via the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife (aka MassWildlife), does a great deal to support recreational freshwater fishing.

Central to their efforts is the trout stocking program, of which the trout hatchery in Sunderland is a part. Nearly half a million trout, most of them 12 inches long or longer, are stocked between April and May each year, along with another 60,000 or so in the fall. The fish are put into hundreds of publicly accessible locations—lakes, ponds, rivers, and brooks—across the state (a full list can be found at mass.gov/trout).

The primary mission of the program is recreation, explains Marion Larson, chief of information and education for MassWildlife. The agency also engages in conservation, restoration, and monitoring activities, but the trout stocking is designed as a “put and take” as opposed to a “put and grow” system—they are there to be fished, free for the taking (while respecting daily catch limits and other regulations) once you have purchased your fishing license. Kids ages 14 and under can fish without a license, and the first weekend in June is traditionally designated as “free fishing weekend,” with no licenses required.

The primary rationale for the trout-stocking program is the economic stimulus that fishing provides—the bait and tackle shops, the boating, the travel, the gear. (At the national level, the US Fish & Wildlife Service estimates the economic value of fishing at $46 billion a year.) The program is also largely self-supporting, funded by license fees and via a federal excise tax on fishing equipment. Approximately 200,000 fishing licenses are purchased in Massachusetts each year.

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Trout have been grown in hatcheries for a hundred years or more. They are both popular for fishing and respond well to hatchery production, says MassWildlife Assistant Director of Fisheries Todd Richards. The Massachusetts program currently raises four types of trout: brook trout, native to Massachusetts; rainbow trout, the most numerous in the hatcheries, native to the western United States; brown trout, a European species; and tiger trout, a cross between male brook trout and female brown trout.

Four of the five state trout facilities are in the Pioneer Valley (in Sunderland, Montague, Belchertown, and Palmer). The fifth is in Sandwich, on the Cape. The brood stock are maintained in Sandwich and Palmer and then the hatchlings are grown out in open, outdoor “raceways”—long rectangular basins with through-flowing water—at the other facilities. The trout are fed on fish pellets made from whole wheat, fish meal, soybean meal, and other ingredients for 1½ to 2 years until they reach the 12-inch release size.

The hatcheries themselves are interesting places to visit, particularly with kids. The McLaughlin Fish Hatchery in Belchertown is the biggest, with 10 paired raceways about 500 feet long located just west of the Swift River, near the base of the Quabbin. The Sunderland and Montague hatcheries are older and more scenic, with old stonework and tall pines shading the raceways. You can buy a handful of fish food from a dispenser for a quarter, and watch trout of different sizes swirl and surge around in the water. Great blue herons stalk the edges of the raceways, while gulls circle overhead.

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Of course, there are many other types of fish to be caught in the Valley—including shad, bass, pickerel, and walleye—and many anglers practice catch-and-release as opposed to catch-and-eat. Some areas are designated as catch-and-release only. Advocates of catch-and-eat point out that an unknown number—possibly 50% or more—of caught-and-released fish won’t survive, so you are not necessarily conserving fish by not consuming them.

There are, it should be emphasized, fish consumption advisories, particularly for certain species and certain waters. The major contaminants of concern are mercury and PCBs. Because trout that have been stocked by MassWildlife will have had little time to accumulate contaminants in their bodies, these are considered to be among the safest fish to eat. The official guidelines from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health state that pregnant women, women intending to become pregnant, nursing mothers, and children under 12 should not eat any freshwater fish caught in Massachusetts except for stocked trout. Guidelines for other people depend on the species and the body of water, but many types of fish are fine to eat in moderation. (See mass.gov/dph for more information.)

“Being able to eat something that you’ve caught is one of the motivators for people being out there,” says Larson. In terms of popularity among Massachusetts fishermen and -women, according to Richards, “Bass are number 1; trout are number 2.”

Jeremiah Kermensky, who grew up in the Valley and fished with his father and grandfather and now fishes with his young daughter, says they catch mostly bass and stocked trout, throwing the bass back. “Our family ate a dozen trout over the winter. Anything you can get that fresh is going to be delicious,” he says.

What he enjoys about fishing in the Valley, too, is the range of places you can go. “We go to Nashawannuck Pond in Easthampton, to the Ware River, to Ashfield Lake, ice fishing on Cranberry Pond, between Sunderland and Montague. People have their little places they like to go, but there are always new places to discover.”

That attitude points to the other value of recreational freshwater fishing, intimately linked to its food value: It gets people out into the woods and on the water, where they can observe the state of our local environment firsthand. “Fish are the classic canary in the coal mine,” Richards says. “The fishing opportunities in the state have dramatically improved since I was a kid … Water quality in particular has gotten quite a bit better since the 1970s, thanks to the Clean Water Act.”

Challenges today are more often linked to water flow and to habitat than to pollution issues per se, he says, “although we still have the challenges associated with a high population density in a small state.” MassWildlife continues to improve wild fish populations through habitat restoration and protection, but in the meantime stocked trout function as a kind of farmed-fish-in-the-wild, getting us out of the supermarket and into the woods.

More information about freshwater fishing in Massachusetts, including regulations, public events, and waterway access details, is available online at mass.gov/trout and related pages.