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.

The CFFA Expo: Pull up a chair and set a spell

I only had four hours — Squirt hockey game in Avon at 3pm — but I made the most of it on Tyers’ Row at yesterday’s CFFA Expo. It really is the best little fly fishing show around (Somerset, eat your heart out). Thanks to the CFFA for hosting, thanks to everyone for stopping by, and my apologies to the gentleman who wanted to see me tie the Usual — you never came back, and I had to roll at 1pm. We’ll shoot for next time.

“I’m telling you, Mark, I’m going to catch a fish this big on this fly.” 

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Next up: Flatwings, Soft Hackles and Bucktails for Striped Bass tying demo at The Compleat Angler, 541 Post Road, Darien, CT, Saturday, February 27. I think in years past it’s been 10am-2pm, so I’ll go with that. For more information/directions, visit http://www.compleatangleronline.com

 

Farmington River Report 2/4/16: Ixnay on the Unkskay

There’s a time and a place to be an intrepid explorer, and that time was…Tuesday. Today I wanted to catch some trout. Winter fishing being like buying real estate — location, location, location — I headed for the retail district. Not too crowded, and people willing to share the water (thanks, Zach and friend).

So it wasn’t stupid good, but it was good enough that after 90 minutes I had enough house money to want to go spend it elsewhere. A few notes about the river and fishing:

The permanent TMA was about 400cfs and slightly off-color. The closer you got to the Still, the murkier the water. And it was cold. I’m guessing 34/35 degrees.

Indicator nymphing was the method. The water I fished was neither slow nor deep, but I decided early on to fish two BB shot on my drop shot rig to slow the drift. It seemed to work.

I took several trout in what I would describe as “softer water,” that transition zone between current seam and frog water.

The takes were on the subtle side. No indicator screeching to a halt, or dramatically plummeting to the depths; it was the equivalent of a trout sipping a midge off the surface. It was simply no longer there. Hook set downstream, and off we go.

All my fish today had an intact adipose and were in the 12″-15″ class. I fished a size 12 (2x short) SHBHPT on bottom, and a size 16 (2x short) new midge emerger/nymph thingy I made up last night on the dropper. I am mildly depressed to report that there was no interest in the new fly. But I’m confident that some day there will be.

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See you Saturday!

 

 

 

A belated birthday and the CFFA Show Saturday 2/6

Last week currentseams.com quietly celebrated its third birthday. The site has now grown to nearly 375 followers, and I can’t thank you enough for your readership and your support. Of course, when we reach our 400th follower, we’ll do a fly giveaway drawing. (If you’ve won in the past you know that a currentseams fly goody package doesn’t suck.)

Speaking of flies, I’ll be on Fly Tyers’ Row at the CFFA Show on Saturday, February 6, Maneely’s Banquet Facility, 65 Rye St., South Windsor, CT. I’ll be there from 9am – 1pm. This is one of the best local shows anywhere. For more information and directions, visit http://www.ctflyfish.org.

If you are planning on attending, and there’s something specific you’d like to see me tie, please let me know now so I can pack the appropriate materials. I’ve already had one request for the Squirrel and Ginger wet, and we’ll make it so.

Always a popular pattern. Especially with trout.

Squirrel and Ginger cork

 

Farmington River Report 2/2/16: Blankety-blank

I’ll make a long story short: I blanked today. In keeping with the time-honored tradition of making excuses, I spent most of the day out of the permanent TMA, fishing in spots I don’t usually fish in the winter. Serves me right for wanting to explore and avoid the crowds. So while the catching stunk, the fishing was extraordinary. Mostly nymphing, but I tried streamers as well. I know I was getting deep enough, as several rigs and flies were donated to the river gods. We’ll get ’em next time. Rain on the way. That’s good, because I don’t like the river at this height (205cfs/305cfs).

I know where you live. I just didn’t visit today.

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