By Kierran Broatch
Thriving in Connecticut’s West Branch Farmington River (WFBR) is a strain of brown trout that have become highly sought after by those who fish there. The reoccurring story of the Survivor strain begins every September, when some of state’s finest trout habitat is sampled by the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Inland Fisheries Division. Over the course of a few days, fisheries biologists and their staff amass on the Farmington, accessing fish populations and capturing trout to bolster this unique stocking program. The section of the river that is typically surveyed is the upper Trout Management Area (TMA), a few-mile stretch from the Rte. 219 Bridge to the power lines in People’s State Forest. The river is sampled by method of electrofishing, in which electricity is sent through the water, temporarily stunning fish so they can be easily netted.
If necessary, the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) cuts back the river’s flow to approximately 100 cubic feet per second (CFS), which makes it somewhat easier sampling deeper pools. The crew generally starts above the Rte. 219 Bridge and works their way upstream. When a fish comes within range of the electrodes in the water, it usually experiences muscular convulsion, allowing it to be netted and placed into a holding pen being towed behind. When done properly, electrofishing results in no permanent harm to the fish and they return to their normal state within minutes. As the holding pens near capacity, the crew stops along the bank to handle the trout. Along with fish counts and measurements, biologists cherry pick top-shelf brown trout to serve as broodstock in their Survivor program. The Farmington River’s successful Survivor strain is akin to a thoroughbred race horse. These high quality brown trout are a result of years of cross breeding the upper TMA’s finest specimen.
Each fall, anywhere from 60 to 120 adult brown trout are taken back to the Burlington State Fish Hatchery as Survivor broodstock. The criteria for breeders depends on the overall condition and quality of the trout. Only the best candidates for successful spawning are chosen. From the holding pens, the browns are rushed by net to awaiting stocking trucks and brought back to the hatchery. After their service, the captured browns are released back into the upper TMA later in the fall, where they habitually move back to the general area of capture, sometimes to their same exact lie.
To differentiate Survivor offspring among other trout in the Farmington, they are given elastomer tags, or colored identification marks. These tags are implanted into the transparent tissue above one of their eyes. Survivors are stocked in two different size classes. The two-year old adults (approximately 14-18”) receive an elastomer above their left eye. The yearlings (approximately 6-12”) are injected with one above their right eye. The color schemes of the tags change from year to year, allowing fisheries biologists and anglers to conveniently keep track of Survivors’ age and how long they’ve spent in the river. Occasionally, however, elastomer tags can fall out or become overgrown with tissue, so keep that in mind when trying to identify a suspected Survivor.