Guest blog post by fisherman, retired Boston Globe writer and CRWA volunteer Nick King
Much has been written, and rightly so, about the tremendous progress that has been made in cleaning up the Charles so that it is, at times, a swimmable river. Much less publicized is the fact that the Charles is increasingly fishable too, and I don’t mean just for its plentiful native bass, pickerel, carp and panfish but also for the wiliest and most sought-after species the trout.
Tim Matthews of MA Fish & Wildlife prepares to stock trout into the Charles River
A net full of rainbow trout to be put into the River
Tim tosses trout into the Charles at the Needham-Dover bridge. The fish fly through the air...
And land with a splash in the river. Photos by Nick King
Yes, it’s true, there are trout in the Charles River! Can I hear a hallelujah?
It may be a reality as surprising as it is welcome to those still harking back to the river as a meandering flow of “dirty water,” as the old and now outdated song goes. But equally surprising is that trout in the Charles is neither natural nor new; in springtime for decades, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has stocked the Charles with adult trout in half a dozen fast-water runs in the upper reaches of the river.
The trout stocking is purely to provide sport for recreational fishermen, not to sustain a permanent trout population. The Charles is not and never will be a natural trout habitat, nor are trout native to the river, as it is simply too warm for most of the year. But what is new is that the cleaner Charles has attracted the attention of increasing numbers of fishermen, and the state has responded by increasing the number of trout it puts in every spring.
“Fishermen provide the best feedback,” says Ken Simmons, chief of hatcheries for MassWildlife. “More and more fishermen lead to more and more fish being stocked. We’ve definitely adjusted upwards.”
The allotment of stocked trout for the Charles is a drop in the bucket when compared to the overall statewide stocking program. With a hatchery budget of $2.5 million (three quarters of which is reimbursed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service with the remaining quarter funded by fishing, trapping and hunting license fees), the state stocks half a million trout every spring in more than 500 different rivers, lakes and streams across the state. Another 80,000 fish are released in the fall. Of that, the mighty Charles gets about 2,000 trout in the spring only.
It makes sense. As a low gradient coastal plain river, the Charles is too slow, too warm and has too little oxygen to sustain trout except in the winter and spring months. Trout don’t do well once the water temperature rises to 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Data collected by the CRWA monthly water monitoring program tell the story: water temperatures in the upper reaches where trout are stocked usually reach 68 degrees in June, and occasionally as early as May, but not this year. July is virtually guaranteed to be too warm for trout: of the 101 samples taken in July over the past decade, 99 registered 68 degrees or higher.
And so it is that the state typically confines its trout stocking in the Charles to the months of March and April and depending on weather and water height, sometimes May. Half a dozen sections are targeted, mostly in rapids or fast water below dams in Natick, Millis, Medway, Norfolk and Dover. It is there that the Charles River becomes, for a brief period of time, home to the gold standard of fresh water fish.
Three species of trout are stocked, all raised in one of the state’s five trout hatcheries and ranging in size from 12-18 inches long. The rainbow trout, so-called because of the broad reddish stripe running from gills to tail, is popular because it tends to leap when hooked. The brown trout, a hardy and strong species of European origin, has taken hold in a few colder rivers and streams across the state but of course is only temporary in the warmer Charles. And the brook trout, a true native of North America, is an intriguingly pretty fish with its bluish color and distinctive sprinkling of red dots. Wild brookies still exist in some 1200 cooler, shady streams feeding into the Charles, but again, the Charles itself is not conducive to sustaining these little natives.
The state’s motive for stocking trout is to provide recreational opportunities for fisherman, not to enhance the natural world. “Put and take” is the operative jargon: the state puts the fish in and anglers, along with herons, turtles, otters, ducks and other predators, take them out. There’s plenty of competition. The trout either become someone’s dinner or unfortunately, as spring becomes summer and the water warms, they die.
But they are lasting longer than they used to when the river was unclean. “Trout are a good bio-indicator,” said Tim Matthews of Fish & Wildlife as he stocked the Charles on a cool gray day in early May. “They won’t survive in a dirty river.”
From a personal standpoint, I can attest that angling for trout in the Charles opens up a whole new dimension of appreciation of the river. Fishing, particularly fly fishing, focuses the mind and the eye. Concentrating on reading the water makes the bridges, the dams, the roads and the cars recede, enabling the river and its environs to come into focus as their own magic world.
And when you have a trout on the line, and at the same time you spot a doe and her fawn picking their way across the shallows below the Needham-Dover bridge, and all the while the clean water of the Charles is swirling all around you, well, it doesn’t get any better than that.