Survivor: Farmington (Browns Built To Last)

“Survivor: Farmington,” an essay about the CT DEEP’s Farmington River Survivor Strain Program, first appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of The Drake. The photo and caption did not appear in the article, and this is my original text. 

by Steve Culton

They took her from the river in September, 2012. She was chosen for her wild traits and rounded belly that indicated a healthy female ready to spawn. Once her eggs were harvested, she was returned to her home waters. But not before a red elastomer was inserted near her left eye. That color and placement would forever identify her as a broodstock female, one of many mothers of the Farmington River Survivor Strain Class of 2013.

The next April, I fished the West Branch of the Farmington. The Hendrickson hatch was winding down, and the trout were transitioning from taking emergers in the film to picking off duns that haphazardly lingered on the surface. Her take was powerful enough to rip the line from my fingertips and cause my drag to buzz in protest. I rarely put trout on the reel; this was going to be my first of 2013. What’s more, this fish was not going to come easy. I ended up walking a fair distance downstream to land her. It wasn’t until I was reviewing the day’s photos that I noticed the elastomer. I had sensed there was something readily distinguishable about the way she hit, bulldogged, and refused to come quietly. Now, it all fell into place. Survivor Strain.

Here she is in all her glory: the actual fish I was writing about.

Big Survivor Strain brown hen

The Farmington River Survivor Strain program was initiated in 1993 by what is now known as the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP). Neal Hagstrom, DEEP Senior Fisheries Biologist, describes the program as, “an attempt to use the river to select the best possible animals for that environment. We take certain trout to the hatchery, spawn them, then put their progeny back in the river, assuming that those fish will be best adapted for the conditions they’ll face.”

Survivor Strain’s inaugural class were descendants of stocked Cortland, Rome, Bitterroot, and Seeforellen browns. “The hope was that we would get improvements in production and survival,” says Hagstrom, “and we saw that in the first year. We went from about a 20% holdover rate to about 50%. We now find fish in the West Branch that are upwards of eight years old.”

Broodstock for the program are collected through electroshocking. Each September, the Metropolitan District Commission draws down the flow from Hogback Dam so that DEEP crews can complete their harvest. Their goal: one hundred brown trout worthy of producing the next generation of Survivor Strain. Like an NFL scout on draft day, Hagstrom explains the DEEP’s talent evaluation process. “We try to get fish that have spent at least a year in the river. We want genetic diversity. We want browns from multiple age classes, and multiple sources like Survivor Strain, and most importantly, wild fish. We want a lot of different parents to get as many possible combinations of genetic material.”

The DEEP harvested approximately 80,000 eggs in 2013. That biomass will generate 70,000 fry. In keeping with the tenet of genetic strength and diversity, the hatchery will set up dozens of parental combinations for the young ‘uns: wild mother/ wild father; wild mother/Survivor father; small wild father/large Survivor mother; and so on. This elasticity creates a population that is well equipped for the natural challenges of the river – not to mention heavy fishing pressure. Young-of-year Survivor Strain are wary of humans, even in their hatchery pens. Where standard-issue stockers are indifferent to people, Survivor Strain fish will dart away. “When we first saw it, it was like, wow, this is really cool!” says Hagstrom. “We had two tanks together, and their behavior was like night and day.”

To facilitate their annual trout census – and inadvertently, enable you to track your catch – the DEEP color codes Survivor Strain trout with elastomers. Left eye placement means the fish is an adult; right eye, a yearling. Colors change every year; 2011 yearlings received red or yellow, while 2012 yearlings received green. Thankfully, for those of us who are color blind, Survivors also have their adipose fin clipped off.

Not surprisingly, anglers are the program’s biggest fans. What’s not to like about cantankerous trout with breathtaking colors that grow to trophy size? As a bonus, the West Branch has seen an explosion in the wild brown population since the introduction of the program. A new record was set in 2013 of just over fifty percent of trout that were naturally spawned in the river. That bodes well for those of us who live for chasing gator browns. Mike Humphries, DEEP Inland Fisheries Biologist, says it’s a myth that the river’s lunkers are pen raised. “The highest percentage of big trout on the Farmington aren’t hatchery fish. They’re wild.”

And to think it all started with one tough mother of a stocked brown.

14 comments on “Survivor: Farmington (Browns Built To Last)

  1. Mike says:

    Great read on a GREAT program. Do you know if the DEEP uses volunteers to help with the shocking in September?
    I would love to spend the day with them.
    Thanks for the great read.

  2. Jim Smith says:

    Steve, Thanks for this. Very interesting. I enjoyed it very much. Unfortunately, we both know this wonderful program is not without critics. Long may the Browns reign! Take care and all the best to you and your Family.

  3. Steven Rudolf says:

    Thanks for the summary, Steve. Great information and a tribute to the managers of the program. Now if I can just catch a couple.

  4. Jon murphy says:

    Awesome read steve! Thanks!
    Jon from fly class

  5. Gary S says:

    Do you remember how hard it was to convince the DEP to establish a TMA on this river back in the beginning ? Thank god we persevered. We are now “Not Harvesting” the fruits of our labor.

  6. Gary B says:

    Very interesting article! Yes Gary I remember. They said the water was too cold for adaquite insect life.

  7. Mina says:

    Thanks for the article. I brought a handful of those to net last summer, they fought quite hard, lots of fun to hook into. Several of them had tiny heads in comparison to their body, that was really strange.

    • Steve Culton says:

      Mina, that football body/90-pound weakling head comes from (I think)spending a substantial amount of time in a hatchery pen. IIRC, they were not yearlings. I caught a few of them, too.

  8. […] Normally, the MDC drops the flow from the dam for the collection; obviously, that won’t be necessary this year. For more information on the Farmington River Survivor Strain program, click here. […]

  9. […] something special about stream-bred brown trout, more than likely a descendent of super-fish Survivor Strain DNA. They fight like […]

  10. […] If you’re interested in learning more about the Survivor Strain Program, here’s a short piece I wrote a few years ago for The Drake.  Survivor: Farmington […]

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