The Wood River

Burt Strom

There are many streams whose mouths kiss the Atlantic along New England’s southern coast. Their great variety is testament to the random nature of the geologic transformations which created them, and to the biological processes which blessed them with life.

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Among the many is the Wood/Pawcatuck watershed whose lower section forms the Connecticut/Rhode Island border. Further upstream is a major section of the system: the Wood River. The Wood River is largely within the state’s Arcadia Park system, and is a favorite among Rhode Island trout fishers. It is also a primary focus concerning the stocking of hatchery raised trout.

Most fishers are happy with the current policy in which the state provides fish according to demand. Others, unfortunately a minority, note the river’s physical degradation from over use. Some are concerned with its inability to sustain its ancient wild native brook trout population, a problem clearly related to stocking practices and to aggressive fishing that is nearly unrestricted and unmonitored.

In the village of Shannock on the Pawcatuck is a plaque on which is a dedication to the 17th century battle between the Pequot and Narragansett Indian tribes. The battle was fought over control of fishing in the river. Scholarship holds that there never was a “salmon run” up the river (now the system is segmented by numerous dams.) There was likely a herring run, as occurs in many coastal estuaries. And there is research indicating a once thriving brook trout population: fish with access to the sea and to upstream spawning waters.

For many years the State of Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has, within its freshwater fisheries division, managed trout hatcheries and delivered (too frequently!) quantities of large trout (rainbow and brown trout) to the Wood/Pawcatuck. This has been done throughout the system, all the way up to the shallow streams that merge to form the upper Wood River. Small brook trout in their quest for food are no match for the much larger hatchery fish. And large fish will devour small brook trout.

essay2Stocked fish are the main attraction to Wood River fishers. Power bait, live bait, spinner, and fly fishermen share the bounty. Stocked fish are doomed to starvation ! The habitat is utterly incapable of sustaining them. But the planted trout provide “good fishing.” This ranges from easily attracted new fish to the challenging presentation required to seduce wary remnant fish. The cycle provides fun and challenge to the fishers of the region who love to catch large fish in an attractive setting. Though these trout bear scant resemblance to their wild ancestors they do attract fishers of all types and help sell fishing licenses and tackle.

Revenue from federal excise taxes on the sale of tackle is provided to individual states. It sustains the system of DEM employment within the state that has become dependent on this cash flow. The Dingell Sport Fish Restoration Program was created in 1950 with the passage of the Dingell-Johnson Act. The Act placed a 10 percent excise tax on some fishing tackle and the moneys are distributed to the states for use in “sport fish restoration projects.” The apportionment to the individual states is based largely on the number of licenses sold within each state. The funds may be used for stocking and other purposes. The breakdown of Dingell Johnson moneys within Rhode Island is not known (e.g. stocking versus habitat improvement.) However it is known that there has been a long term emphasis within the state’s fresh water management upon hatchery maintenance and fish distribution at the expense of policing and other non-license attracting activities.

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Thus in Rhode Island we have an avid population of Wood River fishers, nurtured by the state with an abundance of synthetic fish (cf. An Entirely Synthetic Fish by Anders Halverson) and their behavior unhampered by policing. A pretty and interesting place to fish and one that is bounteously stocked gives the Rhode Island trout fisher a gift in a sadly compromised Wood River.

Besides the official stockings, the state periodically brings truckloads of trout to the fly fishermen of Trout Unlimited’s ‘Narragansett’ Chapter. These are brought to a meeting point on the river for (TU 225) members to “float stock” them. The TU volunteers place the fish along a two mile section of the Wood River that is its most popular venue.

TU225 has resisted, with vehemence, any regulations changes, or other environmental recommendations which would diminish its fishing activities. The symbiosis between the DEM freshwater fisheries division and the TU225 Chapter of Trout Unlimited is an obstacle to moving forward with sensible regulations,  physical preservation of the stream, and the salvation of its once thriving population of wild native brook trout.