NY: DEC hatches stocking plan

Staff shortages challenge as trout kickoff nears

Albany – New York’s April 1 trout season opener will almost
assuredly bring hardy anglers out to at least ceremonially wet a
line.

It’s been that way for years, and the 2011 kickoff won’t likely be
any different.

For DEC fisheries staff, however, the 2011 season brings monumental
challenges.

“From a staffing perspective, it will be a pretty challenging
spring to get the fish delivered in the time window we have with
the number of people that we have,” said DEC Fisheries Bureau Chief
Phil Hulbert.

“Simply getting enough people to take care of the fish (in the
hatcheries) is a big challenge right now.”

A combination of staffing shortages and budget cuts has left DEC’s
hatchery staffing at record low levels, more so at some hatcheries
(such as Chateaugay) than others. Combine that with restrictions on
overtime, and Hulbert says DEC will be scrambling to stock about
two million trout in state waters this spring.

“Most of the stocking needs to be done by Memorial Day weekend –
mid-June at the latest in some waters up north where the
temperature holds,” he said. “Getting seasonal help on time will be
important, and the ability to use overtime will be critical.”

DEC has 66 hatchery staffers now, down from a full complement of
79-80. Some facilities, however, have seen more dramatic staff
shortages that others depending on who took early retirement
incentives.

Already, the staff shortages last fall forced DEC to cancel its
annual egg collection effort on Raquette Lake lake trout. That
wasn’t a huge setback, since lake trout are long-lived and
slow-growing and missing a year class shouldn’t be noticed by
anglers. But it remains to be seen if the egg collection halt was a
one-time cancellation or could signal the end of that effort.

Also, staff shortages at the Chateaugay hatchery in the North
Country forced the early stocking last fall of brown and rainbow
trout. In essence, there were not enough people to care for the
fish. As a result, the trout were released as large fall
fingerlings instead of being held for stocking this spring as
yearling fish.

Volunteer assistance with the trout stockings, Hulbert says, is
always appreciated. But he adds volunteers can only perform certain
tasks like hauling buckets to the water. “They can’t drive our
trucks,” he said. “So there’s really limited opportunities to ease
the pain.”

DEC is looking at the possibility of consolidating some stocking
trips as one way to deal with the manpower shortage. Regardless,
the trout simply have to be stocked to make way for the next batch
of fish.

“We can’t wait too long,” Hulbert said. “The next crop of fish is
growing and they need expanded room to grow.”

The staffing levels have forced DEC to eye the future of its
stocking program, not only for trout but for warmwater species, as
well. In addition to the lack of manpower, many of the state’s
hatcheries are in need of major repairs and renovation work, some
of which has been performed.

“We’ll certainly have to take a look at what we can accomplish next
year,” Hulbert said. “But right now, job number one is getting what
(fish) we have out the door.”

New York’s April 1 trout opener is, typically, more of a tradition
and ceremonial outing than a successful one in terms of catching
fish.

That could very well be the case again this year, as the season
kickoff may be met by high water conditions based on a mid-month
check around the state.

Heavy snows and the customary, expected March rains could send
streams raging. Water temperatures will almost assuredly be cold
enough to make trout sluggish. And in the North Country, many ponds
and lakes may still be iced over.

That’s not unusual. And often it’s not enough to keep diehard
anglers looking to signal the start of the trout season home.

The fabled Catskills trout rivers such as the Beaverkill and
Willowemoc always attract an opening day crowd, no matter what the
weather.

And he spawning run of rainbow trout in several Finger Lakes
tributaries annually brings scores of anglers out on April 1. And
the state is able to stock some waters prior to the season opener
on most years.

Whether staffing issues delay trout stockings in some waters that
otherwise would have seen pre-season plantings of trout remains to
be seen. In past years, however, some waters in southeastern New
York and even a couple in the North Country have received fish
prior to the April 1 kickoff.

Many waters, however, hold wild trout as well as holdover fish from
previous stockings.

The season runs from April 1 through Oct. 15 under general
statewide regulations.

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