- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2002

HAGERSTOWN, Md. Netful by wriggling netful, rainbow trout are hoisted from thigh-deep troughs at the Albert M. Powell State Trout Hatchery and dumped into a tanker truck bound for the Patapsco River, 60 miles away.
This usually doesn't happen in early February, a month normally devoted to growing the fish to the half-pound weight and 10- to 12-inch length typical of trout stocked in Maryland streams and lakes.
The drought has changed that. It's so dry that fish are being stocked earlier and at a smaller size than the state's 70,000 trout anglers ordinarily expect. Some streams may not be stocked this spring and others are in danger of losing wild trout that could take years to replace.
State trout specialist Howard Stinefelt said the situation is becoming critical.
"This may be a first in my 30 years that we may have to cut numbers because of low flow," Mr. Stinefelt said one brisk morning last week as hatchery workers loaded 3,000 trout into the truck. The Powell hatchery produces most of the more than 400,000 trout stocked annually in Maryland waters.
"We've got the fish; we don't have the water," Mr. Stinefelt said.
Five months of below-normal East Coast rainfall have led to record low stream-flow and groundwater levels in some parts of Maryland, say U.S. Geological Survey hydrologists.
Bear Creek Spring near Hagerstown, which feeds the Powell hatchery, is running at less than half its normal rate of 3,200 cubic feet per second. Less water moving through the raceways means less room for fish. It also means more labor for hatchery workers who must remove waste that the weakened current can't flush from the 200-foot-long channels.
"It all relates to an inability to flush and keep water flowing over those fish," said H. Robert Lunsford, freshwater fisheries director for the state Department of Natural Resources.
Stocking for put-and-take trout fishing, which opens statewide March 30, usually begins in late February and continues through mid-May. This year, the trucks started rolling on Jan. 28 to make room at the hatchery for younger fish, Mr. Lunsford said.
Hatchery manager Wade Moore moved 600,000 fingerlings the class of 2003 into concrete outdoor raceways in January so newly hatched 2004 stockers could occupy the facility's fiberglass indoor troughs.
Mr. Lunsford said the state is stocking trout that are smaller, at 9 to 11 inches, and lighter, at about 5 ounces, than in years past, and that's not the worst of it.
Although the spring stocking schedule posted on the DNR's Web site optimistically lists inputs similar to last year's at most locations, reductions are likely unless precipitation increases, Mr. Stinefelt said.
He said some Catoctin Mountain streams slated to get trout next month including Fishing Creek, Friends Creek, Middle Creek and Owens Creek are too low for stocking. Farther west, the streams between Clear Spring and Cumberland are in poor shape, he said.
Mr. Lunsford aims to put trout in all the usual spots but said smaller streams may get fewer fish than they have in the past.
Fish that can't be placed in streams will be stocked in lakes and ponds in the same county. "We can't send them back to the hatchery," Mr. Lunsford said.
Mr. Stinefelt said deeper trouble awaits wild brown trout in Gunpowder Falls, one of Maryland's best-known trout fisheries, below the Prettyboy Reservoir in Baltimore County.
The stream sustains trout year-round for more than 10 miles below the dam because it is fed by cold water released near the lake bottom. The drought has lowered the lake level so much that Mr. Stinefelt worries the temperature, even at the bottom, will rise too high this summer to support the tens of thousands of trout that live in the stream.
"There is a possibility we will run out of cold water for the Gunpowder Falls fishery," Mr. Stinefelt said. Natural recovery of a large loss of fish could take years, he said.
"There's not hardly anything we can do" except pray for rain, Mr. Stinefelt said.
"We've been doing that since September."


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