A large drop in the number of wild trout in the Batten Kill in recent decades prompted major action by volunteers and fisheries biologists in New York and Vermont, with dozens of projects being pursued to bring the river back to its natural state.
Those projects have helped the famed river’s wild brook and brown trout populations rebound, but work is left to be done to minimize the impacts of development, river use and climate change. The kill’s fishery begins in the mountains of southern Vermont, stretching to its confluence with the Hudson River nearly 60 miles later.
The national cold water fisheries advocacy organization Trout Unlimited has three chapters in the watershed. Its members are working with a host of agencies and organizations to put together a watershed-wide study of the river, known as a Trout Unlimited Home Rivers Initiative. The project could last 15 years and bring hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of restoration work to the Batten Kill and its tributaries.
Factors such as barriers to fish passage, water quality and temperatures are gauged as part of the project, with solutions weighed for the problems that are found.
“It’s a very detailed and science-based approach, looking at the whole watershed,” said John Braico, a retired pediatrician from Glens Falls who is leading the effort.
Braico, who has held numerous state and national posts with Trout Unlimited, said state and federal biologists in New York and Vermont, soil and water conservation districts and the Battenkill Watershed Alliance have been on board with Trout Unlimited to carry out the project.
Braico said the first step will be fundraising to hire an executive director, with $168,000 needed to start. He said $40,000 has been committed already, and funding is already in hand from Trout Unlimited to allow for the hiring of a season fisheries technician, who could start some work later this spring.
The river has long been a major tourism draw, and renowned trout stream.
But past studies found that trout numbers declined because of factors that included a lack of natural cover such as woody debris in the river, which resulted in trout being eaten by predators such as merganser ducks. Why the fish cover disappeared has been a matter of debate, but clearing of obstructions by outfitters running canoe, kayak and tubing trips was at least partly to blame.
“It was gross habitat deficiency,” Braico said. “You had a few big fish, some small fish and nothing in between.”
Since then, efforts to rebuild habitat in Vermont and New York have resulted in recovery of the trout population, with wooden structures and rock added in places, and the channel narrowed to improve flow and water temperatures.
On one section of river in western Vermont, electrofishing was done before 2017 habitat work, and just three adult fish and a few younger trout were noted.
When surveyors returned months after the work, the new habitat areas held 76 adult trout and 60 young fish.
Braico said trout population increases as large as fivefold have been seen at a number of other restored spots on the river.
“The (Trout Unlimited) chapters will still be involved, but it will be under some professional leadership from TU national headquarters,” Braico said.
Additional stream improvements that have been in the planning stages for years will go forward as the HRI program is pursued.
Cynthia Browning, executive director of the Battenkill Watershed Alliance, said her organization is wholly on board with the Trout Unlimited effort to help restore the river further.
“The HRI would build upon the knowledge accumulated about the river in both states and expand it with watershed-wide research and consolidation of scientific knowledge,” she said. “It would build upon the habitat restoration and conservation already undertaken by extending projects further into the river system. The hiring of someone with scientific, technical, and fundraising skills through this initiative could bring the knowledge and resources to truly make our efforts watershed-wide in both states.”
Keith Curley, Trout Unlimited’s vice president for eastern conservation, said TU has undertaken Home Rivers Initiatives projects on nearly 30 watershed across the country since 1990, with good success. He said the Batten Kill proposal is a “work in progress” that is contingent on fundraising.
“It’s a really exciting opportunity,” he said.