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Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Freshwater anglers prepare to wet their lines for trout

‘Rite of spring’ 

By Cynthia Drummond, Rhode Island Current

Chain link fencing keeps predators from the long concrete tanks outside the Lafayette Fish Hatchery, just five minutes off Route 1 in North Kingstown. But that doesn’t stop the great blue herons in nearby woods from keeping tabs on KC Fernstrom when he unlocks the gate one February morning to check on the fish.

Rhode Island
Trout Season: 
April 13, 2024 to February 28, 2025

Opening Day of Trout Season starts at 6 a.m. on the second Saturday in April and continues through the last day of February at midnight.

Find answers to common questions and safety tips at

“They’ll push at the door,” said the longtime hatchery manager for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). “They’ll go down and they’ll push at the next door, hoping that one day, one of those doors will open.”

Fernstrom doesn’t blame the resourceful herons for wanting access to the fish. After all, many humans do too. Inside the tanks are 90,000 rainbow, brook and brown trout almost at the point of adulthood.

And by the second Saturday in April, many of those fish will be swimming in designated area freshwater locations where they will be fair game for anglers and herons alike. That’s because Opening Day of trout fishing season begins, April 13, at 6 a.m.

“It’s a rite of spring, really,” said Christine Dudley, DEM’s Deputy Chief of Freshwater Fish. 

Interest in freshwater fishing is high on Opening Day, of course, but there is a year-round demand for hatchery trout, which are big enough to be stocked when they weigh 1 pound or more. Trout that evade capture are not expected to survive the summer, because the water gets too warm, food is scarce and oxygen levels become depleted. So, the hatchery has a constant supply of fish ready to go.

DEM operates four hatcheries: the Lafayette facility in North Kingstown; the Perryville hatchery in South Kingstown, and the Carolina and Arcadia hatcheries in Richmond. The hatcheries raise several species: rainbow, brook and brown trout, a small number of landlocked, or Sebago salmon, and, in even smaller numbers, the sought-after golden rainbow trout. 

The Lafayette hatchery is a noisy place, both inside and out, with powerful pumps circulating the water and producing the oxygen that the fish need to survive in captivity. Fernstrom, in his mid-40s, has been working here since 1998. 

“I’ve worked every aspect of this job,” he said. “I’ve been here as an intern, I’ve worked as a supervisor, I’ve worked as a manager, and now, I’m a biologist.” 

Fernstrom’s favorite part of the job  is working with the newly-hatched fish.

“I love raising the baby fish,” he said. “That’s my passion, watching them grow, right before your eyes.” 

Fernstrom has two co-workers: Elaina DeRiso and Matt Swartz at the Lafayette hatchery. 

DeRiso has been working under contract at the hatchery for about a year. She described her job as “just raising the fish and seeing everybody enjoy them when they get to go out and fish and everything, knowing that I raised them.” 

Added DeRiso: “Everybody loves it.” 

DeRiso and Swartz feed and tend the newly hatched fish, or fry, which, as they grow, will become “parr,” a term that refers to trout that are less than 1 year old. 

The fry are kept in indoor tanks and are fed a mixture of fish meal and vitamins, 24 hours a day. Such intensive feeding produces quick results. Although growth rates and sizes can vary, Dudley said a trout that would need two years to grow to its adult size in the wild grows to the same size in 18 months at the hatchery.

“About 25 years ago, the hatchery formulated a special diet rich in protein that enables our trout to grow faster,” she said. “They’re stockable at a minimum of 1 pound in 18 months versus the standard two years.”

DEM has been stocking freshwater fish since 1871. Back then, there weren’t enough native fish to meet the demand from anglers.

There are about 20,000 licensed freshwater anglers, excluding children, those with disabilities, and Rhode Islanders age 65 and older who are able to fish without a license. 

The stocking program costs the state about $1 million a year, and employs six people full time and one hatchery technician, under contract. The cost is offset by $750,000 in federal funding and an additional $250,000 in fishing license fees and trout stamps. 

Fishing licenses, which are $21 for Rhode Island residents, are required for people over the age of 15. Trout conservation stamps, which are $5.50 if purchased online, are also necessary for people who plan to keep the fish they catch.

Demographics of stocked fish

Rainbow trout comprise about one half of Rhode Island’s stocked fish species. They are popular with anglers because they are good fighters, and have attractive, rainbow-colored skin. Fish hatcheries like raising them because they are hardy fish that grow quickly.

“The rainbows, I would say, are half of all our trout,” Fernstrom said. “Then we have the other half, the brooks, the browns and the golden trout. They’re really rainbow trout, but they’re a genetic mutation.”

The golden trout, introduced in only the past five years, is the product of a research project at the University of Rhode Island.

“URI was playing around with them, and they had some excess,” Fernstrom said. 

“Some golden trout were released in ponds and were an instant hit, so DEM purchased golden trout broodstock in Pennsylvania and began stocking them in 2019.”

Any angler who catches golden trout and emails a photo of them to DEM receives a gold pin.

“People go crazy for that pin,” Fernstrom said. 

Larger fish live outdoors in the long, concrete tanks, or raceways, protected by fencing from those ever watchful herons until they are big enough to be trucked to the fishing ponds. 

In each raceway, the water roils with hungry fish, expecting to be fed whenever a human approaches. Some raceways are crowded with large trout that wre ready for release and others hold fish for later stocking dates. 

“I can’t have all the fish really big all at once,” Fernstrom said. “It’s too much demand on the resources.”

‘Fish don’t know weekends’

The thousands of fish and their stages of growth are recorded on spreadsheets, but Fernstrom doesn’t need to look at his computer. “We have them for reference, but I’ve done this for so long, I know what I have,” he said. 

Water for the hatchery comes from three wells on the property. There is also a large standby generator. Fernstrom is notified by an alarm if something goes wrong. He lives seven minutes away from the hatchery and can be there in 10 minutes. 

“I can’t have a beer because I might have to work,” he said. “The winds make me nervous. We have backup but they fail – there’s only so much actually we can do with the budget we have. Fish don’t know weekends. They don’t know holidays. We’re here 365.”

Without circulating water, the fish will quickly die. There have been losses, caused by failed pumps. 

“You’ve got 20 minutes,” Fernstrom said. “It’s happened twice in my career. We don’t lose everything. We always manage to save some of the fish. You make some tough decisions. So, it all depends on the scenario. The worst-case scenario, we’ve never lost all three wells, but we typically lose the two big ones. When we have something catastrophic happen, the motors blow in the pumps.”

He pauses to knock wood on his desk.

“I don’t want to jinx myself,” he said. “Since we did the last upgrade on them, we have not lost the pumps, which is the biggest problem. The decision you’ve got to make is, say you’ve got one well. What fish live, because you can’t keep them all.”

Sometimes, young fish don’t make it to adulthood for other reasons.

“You get the mortalities,” Fernstrom continued. “Just like humans, things die without explanation and you try and figure out why, so you can prevent it from going further. Sometimes, you can’t. That’s why we take on so many fish, because stuff happens.”

The state’s stocked trout do not live long enough to reproduce in the wild, and Dudley said their DNA is not mixing with that of wild trout. She also noted that the stocking program has benefited the state in other ways.

“There was a need to provide a quality angling experience,” she said. “Property was acquired by the state, which was the impetus for public participation in outdoor sports, including fishing. These properties will never be developed and are held in the public trust in perpetuity. Stocked trout are much more sought after because of their large size, enjoyable fishing experience, and for subsistence anglers, a great food source.”

Not everyone believes releasing hatchery trout into water bodies with native trout is a wise resource management policy. Wild trout advocates, such as the group, Protect RI Brook Trout, are trying to persuade DEM to limit its stocking program to ponds that already contain non-native species.

Fernstrom’s perspective is more practical, and focused on meeting a constant demand.

“I look at this as a business,” he said. “The fishermen are my customers and this is my product, and they want my product and they pay money for the product.”



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