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Low Water Levels, High Temperatures Affect Farmington River

Many fly fishermen stayed home this summer, but others see conditions improving.

Summer nearly always brings lower water levels to a river system such as the Farmington. Longer days, warmer temperatures and a decrease in the water table simply mean less water.

For those who fly fish, it usually just means that mornings and evenings are the best times to venture out. But this year, the lack of snowpack and little precipitation has, for a variety of reasons, kept many off the river entirely.

Frank Plona of Canton hasn’t fished for a couple months now and he is far from alone. Richard Woolfson of West Hartford was casting a few lines in Burlington Monday afternoon but said it was just his second outing in the past several months.

“When it’s low like that we don’t fish,” said William Case of Farmington, president of the Farmington Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited. “They’re too stressed.”

The low natural water level, combined with minimal and warmer-than-usual releases from the West Branch Reservoir/Goodwin Dam and a hot, humid summer have affected activity for many.

“It has been a tough year due to low flow and warmer temperatures,” said Peter Aarestad, director of the Inland Fisheries Division of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Natural Resources. “We greatly appreciate their concern and the fact they [fishermen] are voluntarily curbing their efforts.”

While Aarrestad and others said they have received reports of a few dead fish in the Farmington below Collinsville, Aarestad doesn’t believe fish kills have happened in huge numbers.

But lack of fish wasn’t the reason some anglers stayed away or limited their activities. Fish can be harder to find with fewer deep pockets and changes in the river, and the light equipment and tippet used by most fly fishermen in the summer require “playing” a fish for prolonged periods, which many said could be fatal in less than ideal environments.  

That’s not a problem for those keeping the fish, but many fly fishermen practice catch and release. In some parts of the river, generally called Trout Management Areas, it's even required year round and further sections are added after Sept. 1.

Low water and warmer days also help further drive up water temperatures, which has been a problem this year. 

“Once water temperatures get about 70 degrees it can really affect the fish,” added Louis Gaudet, a fishing guide and employee at Up Country Sportfishing in New Hartford. “They get pretty sluggish.”

Gaudet and others said most who fish regularly have either gone out only early in the morning, stuck with faster and deeper water, or stayed home altogether.

“We’ve worked too hard and too long to make this a world-class fishery,” Gaudet said.

Much of the reason for the great trout fishery is far from completely natural. Water does come from the Still River in Riverton and other tributaries, but a series of dams helps with flood control, river flow and power generation. 

The water released from Goodwin Dam in Hartland on the west branch above Riverton is "tailrace" or bottom release water, generally consistently cool as the trout prefer. It's helped make the river, especially from Riverton to Unionville, a trout stream that's gained national press and attracts anglers from the Northeast and beyond.

“It’s a great fishery out here,” Aarestad said.

This year, though, the temperature of the water released from the dam has been warmer, according to DEEP fishery biologist Neal Hagstrom. He said it's recently been about 68 degrees rather than the normal 55 to 60 degrees.

The releases have been kept fairly low this year, officials said. It’s a delicate balancing act as water is needed year round and much of it is regulated, Aarestad said. Several sources also pointed to low water levels in the Colebrook Reservoir above Goodwin and the Otis Reservoir in Massachusetts, as further reason officials are being cautious with the releases.

In addition, the release by the Metropolitan District Commission is largely regulated by numerous agencies and agreements such as the wild and scenic river act and riparian and power rights, officials said. Those interested in flow data for various points along the river can link to it from this page on the Farmington River Watershed Association's Web site. 

Although many environmental groups advocate free-flowing rivers, it is sometimes a tradeoff, said Eileen Fielding, executive director of the Farmington River Watershed Association. Before the dams were installed in the Farmington it would often dry out in hot summers, resulting in larger fish kills, she said. 

Fielding said one problem the organization has seen and is working on is that some poorly designed culverts in feeder streams along the Farmington can sometimes cut off fish access in low water since they are not deep in the stream beds.  

Of course what everyone on the river would really like to see is some sustained rain. 

“It’s rain that’s the critical issue,” said Tom Delekta of Torrington, former owner of Fall Mountain outfitters.
 Low water also makes for fewer rapids and riffles between the pools of water, decreasing the oxygenation in the water.

But there are positives. Nights are getting cooler and if that trend increases it will help greatly, Hagstrom said.

“We’re right on the edge,” he said, “hopefully we’re going to be in pretty good shape.”

Also Tuesday, DEEP crews went upriver through New Hartford and parts of Barkhamsted “electrofishing,” or sending electric shocks into the river to temporarily stun the fish and collect them.

The practice allows the agency to get a good idea of fish population and evaluate some of the fish for health. In addition some brown trout are taken as “brood” fish.

It’s for the Farmington River survivor strain brown trout program, in which biologists take fish that have survived in the river for some time or were born in it for breeding. The practice is aided by small tags behind the eye of the fish that are colored based on the year they were stocked and placed according to their size classification at the time.

Most are put right back into the river and Tuesday, 63 fish were taken to the hatchery in Burlington for breeding. They will eventually be returned to the river. The program has worked very well and has helped produce a population of brown trout that is increasingly reproducing in the wild, Hagstrom said

“We have a wild population that’s done very well,” he said. Although not native to the Farmington the brown trout is a good choice since they do well in the river and generally do not compete with brook trout, he said. 

It will be especially useful if funding for stocking is threatened for financial reasons, he said.

Hagstrom was also encouraged by the numbers Tuesday. The fish in New Hartford and the small part of Barkhamsted were plentiful and seemed to be doing well, although there was evidence that some had been pecked by avian predators, he said. Some fish will be further evaluated by DEEP.

Hagstrom was also thrilled to see natural tree wood that blew into the river from last year’s storms. That helps provide cover for the trout and can help send a force of water down that clears sediment from the riverbed, he said.

“It’s something this river really needs,” he said.

Water levels have also affected some recreational users this year. 

Farmington River Tubing, the company that runs the summer tubing rides from Satan’s Kingdom in New Hartford to Canton near Bristol’s Farm was affected, said Jeremy Harraden, manager of the company.

In August, the average ride time went from about an hour and a half to three.

“A lot of people didn’t want to spend that long out there,” he said.  “It definitely affected business.”

The tubing is done for the season but Gaudet foresees a fall of good fishing.

“Once we get cool nights and cool days everything will be fine,” Gaudet said. “Fall fishing is going to be some of the best.” 

That could also be bolstered by another 2,400 trout DEEP had planned to stock for Labor Day. The conditions caused the agency to hold off but the stocking could be done as early as this Friday, Aarrestad said. 

Mike September 12, 2012 at 12:12 PM
It would be interesting to know what the cost of each fish stocked into the river is. I recall a study in the late 60's said it was $30 or more. The cost should include food, facilities, payroll, etc. from the beginning to release and possibly after.
brian September 12, 2012 at 02:53 PM
Excellent Article - Canton has such a great resource with the River which is Internationally known as an excellent fly fishing location!
LMS September 13, 2012 at 04:28 PM
While we are considering the costs, keep in mind the revenue generated by this wonderful fishery.

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