Fishing the Farm River

Design by Sara Offer

Behind Grace Reformed Baptist Church on Route 100 there’s a big white corrugated plastic sign that reads (in crisply-stenciled red letters) “NO FISHING ON SUNDAYS.” It keeps watch over a muddy, often stagnant stretch of the Farm River, which runs south between Lake Saltonstall and the Quinnipiac River before emptying into an East Haven slough. I chuckled a bit when I first saw the warning, but a young fisherman upstream of the church scared me straight: “They’ll send the cops after you on Sundays if you try to fish the Church Hole—I wouldn’t risk it.” 

Between late October and mid-May, a thirty-foot stretch of the Farm behind Grace Reformed intermittently teems with hundreds of brown, rainbow, and brook trout. These fish aren’t born there—they come of age in an aerated tank in one of the hatcheries run by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP)—but all of them die there. Many die of a filet knife to the head when catch-and-take fishing season opens in April, but the rest suffocate when the water gets too warm and stagnant in the summer. In some bygone era the Farm might have supported a self-sustaining population of native brook trout, but now the summer heat is too much.

When I last fished the Farm this May, I did what some call “following the truck.” DEEP’s website allows you to track stocking day-by-day, and I went fishing the day after the fish truck dropped its last payload of the season. When I got there the Church Hole was more fish than water. The confused, hatchery-fed fish wouldn’t take a fly, but they turned ravenously towards my pink trout worms. It felt like bad sportsmanship; I reeled in another ugly, colorless hatchery trout on every cast. I left after fifteen minutes, successful but not exactly satisfied.

Driving home to New Haven through strip malls and suburban wastes, I puzzled over the unnatural scene at Grace Reformed. Why on earth would Connecticut put tax dollars towards something as silly as intermittently filling a hot-tub-sized pool of water with doomed non-native fish? DEEP may claim to stock the Farm River for the benefit of anglers, but most of the river—and indeed most of DEEP’s stocking sites—are on private property. I access most of the river by trespassing. The supposed ecological benefits don’t hold up to scrutiny either: most hatchery trout aren’t native to New England, and research indicates that intensive fish stocking does far more ecological harm than good. Why, then, does the State of Connecticut spend so much money on it?

In my view, the Farm gets its fish for less practical reasons. I think DEEP does it because people feel like there should be trout in Connecticut’s streams, because it would be deeply unsettling to accept that climate change has rendered streams like the Farm River sterile, because it would be an admission that we aren’t living in the mythological New England of yesterday. The way I see it, DEEP’s efforts amount to sacrificing hundreds of thousands of trout at the altar of Norman Rockwell. The muddy hole behind Grace Reformed Baptist Church is perhaps a fitting place for such a sacrifice: between October and May, the water stays cool enough at least to wash away our ecological sins.

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