by Joseph Gresser
MORGAN — Eliot Acres Road is a narrow gravel byway in Morgan. It is marked private, but Saturday morning it saw serious traffic, and a parking shortage.
Groups of people walked down the muddy track toward a small, low building, passing others headed in the other direction as they went. Each group carried or pulled a cooler. All had traveled to get bags of brook trout hatchlings for release in Northeast Kingdom beaver ponds.
Peter Engels, whose name is emblazoned on a sign above the door of the hatchery, was one of those who started the project nearly 30 years ago. Since then, about two million tiny fish have been grown from eggs and distributed around the Northeast Kingdom.
He was at the center of the controlled chaos involved in distributing bags of fish, but graciously took time to explain the process to a newcomer.
The site, alongside a brook that empties into Seymour Lake, has an even longer history as a fish hatchery, Mr. Engels said. It was originally the location of a state hatchery that supplied fish to stock the streams of the Northeast Kingdom.
Sometime in the seventies, the state decided to give up the Morgan hatchery. They tore down the building that housed the tanks and other equipment, leaving only the concrete pad on which it sat.
Around 20 years later, Mr. Engels recalled, “A bunch of guys got the idea, ‘Why don’t we raise fish to stock in beaver dams, places where fish don’t get to? People get to beaver ponds, so let’s see if the state will let us do something.’”
The state was agreeable to the idea, and in 1990 the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Conservation Group, talked to local contractors. With a lot of donated materials they built the present facility on the old concrete pad.
Fish America provided $10,000 in grant money to pay for the tanks and other equipment needed for their work.
That includes incubators in which the eggs provided by the state are placed into cabinets in which screen-bottomed racks are stacked. Once the fish are hatched they go into long aerated tanks into which water from a nearby spring is pumped.
The larval trout can’t feed themselves, but instead get sustenance from a yolk sac attached to their bodies. By the time the food in the sac is exhausted the fish, now called fry, can eat for themselves.
At that point, the volunteers tending the tanks begin to serve up food made from ground up dried fish, Mr. Engels said.
Vermont’s Department of Fish and Wildlife provides a great deal of assistance and support, he said. In addition to supplying the eggs, they also provide food, oxygen tanks, and expertise.
“The guys always supply us with help,” Mr. Engels said. “If we see signs of disease they come over and tell us what to do.
“We couldn’t exist without the result of a really good relationship with Fish and Wildlife,” he said.
The hatchery also relies on an extremely dedicated group of volunteers. From the time the eggs arrive at the hatchery in November until the last brook trout fingerlings head off to their new homes, there need to be people present every day to make sure everything is going well and the fish are being properly cared for.
The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Conservation Group gets much of the money it needs to keep going from membership fees, donations, and the sale of caps and other items.
Mr. Engels said the goal is to have the fish ready to go in early April, “as soon as the weather is decent.”
He admitted there have been years when there was so much snow some people couldn’t find the beaver ponds they hoped to stock.
Mr. Engels told of one person who went out on his snowmachine to distribute fish, but didn’t see he was in the middle of a pond until he got off and walked around a bit.
“This is more like a normal year,” he said. The road in to the hatchery is in much better shape than some years, when it is a muddy mire, he added.
People who show up to get their fish are given bags containing around 275 fish, each about an inch long. That is enough to stock a pond about an acre in area, Mr. Engels said.
The process of bagging fish is a bit more complicated than one might think at first. Once they are caught in a small net, the fish are weighed. About three ounces go in each bag.
Once put into a large homestyle freezer bag, the fish get a shot of oxygen injected into their water.
Without that boost, Mr. Engels said they would be able to live for a half hour or so. With oxygenated water they can survive for about six hours, he said.
That still gives the stockers a limited amount of time to get out to the beaver ponds and distribute fish. For that reason fish are handed out between 7 and 9 a.m.
Coolers are required because the trout can’t survive in temperatures higher than 70 degrees, Mr. Engels said. The volunteers who hand out the fish are careful to be sure their customers have ice in them to keep the fish cool.
Generally speaking the vast majority of the fish are gone by the second day of distribution. Fish are handed out on Saturdays and Sundays. Mr. Engels said he hoped to have all out the door by Saturday, April 16, at the latest.
The next day is Easter. Almost no one shows up to get fish on Easter, he said.
Asked if fishermen are really that concerned with the holiday, Mr. Engels said simply, “Fishermen have wives.”
As it turned out, no angler will have to worry about a disturbed spouse. All 88,000 fingerling trout were distributed by Sunday.
When his visitor wondered if any brook trout manage to establish populations in beaver ponds, Mr. Engels shook his head.
Almost none survive, he said. There are all kinds of predators that will gladly make a snack of a tiny fish.
One, he said, is the caddis fly, an insect that lives near water. Their larvae live in water and are more than happy to dine on trout.
There are no brook trout in Vermont lakes, because lake trout, voracious eaters, gobble up any that venture into those deep waters.
Obviously those who take the trouble to carry little fish to remote ponds have an interest in their fate. Mr. Engels said he used to spend a great deal of his time fly fishing in some of Vermont’s remote ponds.
These days, he needs a cane to get around, so he has to content himself with the knowledge that he is adding to others’ enjoyment of the outdoors.
While Mr. Engels educated his visitor, volunteers were dealing efficiently with a constant stream of people. Some came by themselves, a few arrived as a family, both to see the hatchery and to go out together to the woods.
Mike Corrigan of St. Albans showed up with his friend Alan Wright. They took ten bags to distribute in ponds on the eastern side of Jay Peak.
Mr. Corrigan said he’s been doing this for many years. On his phone he displayed a photo of Mr. Wright when he was much younger holding up a trophy-sized brook trout he caught in a beaver pond.