Every second week in April, fishermen throughout New England have flocked to the Choiniere-Willoughby River Access for a fishing experience like no other. The Willoughby flows north from Lake Willoughby to Lake Memphremagog.
In spring, the trout swim up river about 15 miles from Lake Memphremagog to spawn in the rocky shale of the river just below Lake Willoughby.
The river is known for its abundance of steelhead trout. Studies have shown that the steelheads in the Willoughby have five times the natural reproduction rates of trout in almost any other Vermont river. But, for the past several years the fishing hasn't been that good.
Nobody seems to know what the problem is. About 90% of the catches are put back in the river by the fishermen who catch them, so one can hardly blame the situation on over-fishing. Several members of the Orleans Rod and Gun Club lay the blame on the current restocking program. They say the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department is restocking the river in the wrong place. The fishermen want the current program stopped or modified. There's also some cross border fingering. The Vermont fishermen think the Canadians are overfishing Lake Memphremagog. The lake is home to the trout.
The Willougbhy River has undergone a number of restocking programs in the last 14 years and mistakes have been made. One of the early programs resulted in the restocking of fish with genetically defective hearts. The current program seeks to undo the damage by using only the original native fish in the river as breeding stock.
More information about the restocking program can be seen in this interview with state biologist Len Gerardi.
Unlike so many rivers elsewhere, the Willoughby River is still relatively unpolluted. It is rich in oxygen and particularly appealing to the Pacific coast steelheads which were introduced to the river in the early 1900s. This variety seems the most comfortable in the river according to VT Fish biologist Len Gerardi.
The state of Vermont derives general revenue from the collection of licensing fees. Restrictions on the number of fish you can catch are an important part of providing future income for the state while still providing a quality fishing experience through regulation and restocking programs. The apparent decline of fish in the Willoughby river may be a harbinger of things to come. Don't be surprised if tighter restrictions on what you can catch in Vermont lakes and rivers are imposed in future years.
Annual fees for Vermont fishing licenses 2004: