A pair of fish culturists from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission stands atop the truck as a line of bucket-bearers forms leading up to it, and the work begins. Each bucket received a splash of water and a dollop of flipping, fighting trout — rainbow, brown and brook all mixed together in one writhing mass.
There’s a splash zone around the truck as the trout fling sprinkles of water on their way into the buckets, occasionally protesting the transfer successfully enough to fling themselves away from the bucket and onto the ground, where bucket brigade members promptly grab the twisting creatures and replace them in the water-filled buckets, where they can breathe once more.
It’s trout stocking season in Western North Carolina, and the Wildlife Commission truck held 1,425 pounds — 2,400 individual fish — of trout to go in the West Fork Pigeon River upstream of Lake Logan near the Burnett Siding Baptist Church and Cold Mountain Shooting Range. The shipment is one of many that the Wildlife Commission will make over the course of the coming spring and fall to boost the success of anglers in these Delayed Harvest waters. Last year, the Wildlife Commission stocked 240,000 pounds of fish in the WNC counties covered by the Bobby N. Setzer Fish Hatchery in Brevard — the area includes all of District 9 from Buncombe and Polk counties west, as well as a few bodies of water in adjoining District 8.
“What this does is it makes the fishing experience so much better,” said Ron Gaddy, a member of the Trout Unlimited Cataloochee Chapter organizing the bucket brigade. “It’s not just about fishing. It’s about our economy.”
Anglers will travel a long way to cast their lines in premier trout waters, and when they do they spend money on fishing supplies, meals out, hotel rooms and a thousand other things. A study released this year found that 149,000 trout anglers fished 1.6 million days in North Carolina during 2014, contributing $383 million to the state’s economy. The western counties contain some of the best trout fishing in the Southeast, and when chances of success go up — as is the case when waters are stocked — so does the attractiveness to out-of-town anglers.
The stretch of the Pigeon River that was stocked last week is designated as a Delayed Harvest waterway, meaning that anglers are allowed to keep their catch only during the summer months from June 1 to Oct. 1. The rest of the year, the river is catch-and-release only in order to keep the waters from being depleted too quickly. However, Gaddy said, he and many other trout anglers would like to see some waters in Haywood County designated as catch-and-release only all year long.
“Other counties have made designated waters catch-and-release year-round,” he said. “That would provide better fishing through the winter months.”
Jackson, Buncombe, Burke, McDowell, Watauga, Avery, Transylvania, Ashe and Yancey counties all have waters with this designation. For some of those gathered that Friday, however, the event was about more than improving angler success. It was a chance to see fish up close and to experience the beauty of Haywood County’s mountains firsthand.
According to TU Cataloochee President Tom Thomas, this hands-on stocking method is a more fish-friendly way to get the fish in the river than dumping them all out in one spot. The buckets allow the fish to be distributed throughout the river, increasing their chance of survival once released. And with 32 volunteers, the boost in manpower is a big help to the Wildlife Commission. The Oct. 6 stocking drew a record number of volunteers, more than double the typical number of 15 or so — Thomas attributed the heightened interest to exposure in publications such as The Smoky Mountain News.
Eventually, the stock truck emptied out and there was no more work to be done. But that doesn’t mean everyone turned around and went home. Many of the 32 people who had come to help had also come to fish.