BLOOMINGTON -- The brown trout that DNR biologist Mike Dean has been rearing in net pens below Bloomington Dam never have been an official part of the Maryland stocking plan, but this fall, if all goes according to plan, some 15,000 of the browns will be released in Western Maryland.
If they are released, they will represent a triumph for Dean and will be a feather in the cap of the DNR Freshwater Fisheries program, because rearing brown trout is not so easy as culturing rainbow trout.
The major drawback, said Ken Pavol, regional fisheries director for Garrett and Allegany counties, is that browns take longer to raise than rainbows, which traditionally have been the base for Maryland's stocking program.
"You have to figure in an 18-month growing season for a significant proportion of your fish," said Pavol, "which is going to tie up your nets and take production away from you.
"If he [Dean] were asked just to raise rainbows, he could produce numbers and sizes that are much higher. All hatcheries managers can.
"But we need the browns for our management program."
The advantage of brown trout is that they can tolerate moderately acidic waters and most of the trout waters in Western Maryland are below neutral in pH levels.
Rainbow trout, which can tolerate higher water temperatures than brown trout or brook trout, must have virtually neutral pH levels to reproduce naturally.
Brook trout also are more tolerant of moderately acidic waters, but they are best suited to very cold waters.
The browns might go all over the state, including Frederick and Washington counties, Dean said.
"But most will go to Region I, which is from Sideling Hill west," said Dean. "That is where we have the best habitat."
Dean said it is likely that the browns will be released in reservoirs for ice fishing.
Dr. Robert Bachman, chief of Maryland's freshwater fisheries, said that the net pen program, which has produced trout at or below the state average of $1.25 per fish for three years, cost $50,000 to operate over a two-year period, including costs of set-up and operation.
"There is plenty of high-tech stuff in there -- but the thing that made the difference is that they [Dean and Region I staff members] designed it and put it together," Bachman said. "So there were no outside costs for consulting on building and engineering. All the way it was an in-house project."
Initially, Bachman said, the net pen program was projected as a project for Jennings-Randolph Reservoir, the 1,000-acre lake that backs the North Branch of the Potomac River eight miles west of Bloomington.
The reservoir already holds good populations of walleye, bass, bluegills, brown, brook and rainbow trout. A small population of lake trout also has been introduced by West Virginia's DNR.
In other parts of the United States, lake pens are used to rear trout in cold months and catfish when the weather warms. As far as Dean, Pavol or Bachman knows, this is the only inland net pen facility that raises brown trout year-round.
"All I ever said was to try to raise some fish in nets out there; I wanted to do it in the [reservoir]," Bachman said. "Fortunately, they found a better place down below the dam."