Trucks are traveling the state to fill lakes and streams with trout, and the fishermen eager for spring aren't far behind

Stocking up for the season


The earthy growl of the big tank truck that creeps along back roads beckons Maryland's 56,000 trout fishermen the way the cheery jingle of an ice cream truck calls to kids.

Sloshing around in the tank's cold recesses are springtime treats: dark, glistening brown trout; silver, speckled rainbows; and a sunflower-yellow variety that makes the surrounding water glitter.

In an annual ritual that precedes the opening of trout season March 25, hundreds of thousands of plump, wiggling fish raised in hatcheries are being trucked to streams and lakes around the state and turned loose.

"It's a sure sign of spring," says Bob Lunsford, a state fisheries biologist who is shepherding a truckload of trout on their journey from the Albert Powell Hatchery in Hagerstown to Little Falls, a tributary of the Gunpowder River in Baltimore County.

No matter the weather, thousands of fishing-starved anglers will drag themselves out of bed long before the 5:30 a.m. start of the season to stake out their favorite fishing hole. At Severn Run in Anne Arundel County, the first tick of the clock is marked with the pop of a starter's pistol.

Enthusiasm builds in the weeks before the season.

Trout-truck sightings are posted on Internet fishing chat rooms. The stocking schedule on the Department of Natural Resources Web site gets thousands of hits. And on the road, the biologists who ride the trucks are as popular as the Good Humor man.

The route from the Jennings Randolph Hatchery in Garrett County to the Potomac River is carefully watched by anglers in surrounding hills with binoculars. An informal escort of cars and trucks falls in behind the truck. At each stop, the number and type of fish are carefully noted.

Some pristine waterways are set aside for catch-and-release fishing, but many located close to neighborhoods are stocked to let anglers take their fish home.

"It's the way most of us got our start," says Jim Greco, a Howard County fly fisherman and director of the Potomac-Patuxent chapter of Trout Unlimited. "It's a good way to introduce people to fishing and keep the sport going."

Streams that don't stay deep enough or cool enough in summer to sustain trout are restocked annually.

"If we didn't have any stocking and only had wild trout to play with, we'd have only a handful of places to go," says Jay Sheppard, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientist who volunteers every year. "It's about the only way you're going to see a trout in these parts."

This day, the stocking truck bumps along the Northern Central Railroad Trail where it parallels Little Falls, hauling 2,250 trout. The fish are 16 months old, 9 inches to 11 inches long, and weigh about as much as a navel orange. Each one costs the state about $1.50 for room and board.

Maryland has been raising fish since the 1870s. It built a salmon hatchery at Druid Hill Park and then one on Garrett County's Deep Creek, according to state records. Now, it has seven fish-rearing operations spread out from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore that produce a wide variety of species.

At one point, the legislature contemplated closing the hatcheries and buying trout from out-of-state companies. But lawmakers realized that the state's trout nurseries ensured consistent quality and disease-free fish.

To cover the cost of the program, trout fishermen pay $5 in addition to their regular freshwater license fee.

"It's a good deal," says Lunsford, surveying the work at Little Falls. "It's real outreach to our anglers."

Every couple of hundred yards along the rail trail, the truck stops and biologists and volunteers form a bucket brigade to haul the fish to the water's edge.

A net dips deep into the truck and emerges with up to two dozen fish. After a scoop or two of fish and a slug of water, the biologist nods and the bucket-toting volunteer staggers off.

For Kathy Steen of Parkton and Bruce Currie of Glen Rock, Pa., helping out now means a good day of fishing later.

"I count them all, and I keep track of them," Steen says, only half-kidding.

But Ron Warfield of Upperco says he takes time off from work to help so he can be a steward of the environment.

"It may be a day off, but it's still hard work," says Warfield, wiping his brow. "The good kind, though."

As for the fish, some will fall prey to great blue herons and raccoons before they can be the stars of opening day. Others won't stray far from where they were set free.

"But you'll have one or two mavericks who have a wanderlust," says Lunsford. "And weeks later, they'll be miles from where you'd expect them. It's a surprise that'll bring a smile to someone's face."

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