LANSING — Before anglers could cast their lines in the cool, clear waters of Ashe County’s hatchery-supported streams on the first day of trout fishing season April 6, somebody had to make sure there were trout in the water to catch.
Part of Spike Gouge’s job as assistant superintendent at the Armstrong State Fish Hatchery in Marion includes throwing, chucking — sometimes flinging — trout into designated waterways around the western part of North Carolina, but that’s only his final responsibility in the process of spawning, raising and transporting those fish to their wilderness homes, he said from the driver’s seat of a NCWRC trout truck filled with 1,400 of his latest hover on a sunny Thursday, April 4.
“The main reason we stock is to provide a public fishery,” Gouge said. “Fish that we stock aren’t really for population enhancing — they’re for angling.”
Without the brook, brown and rainbow trout dumped into Big Horse Creek at Lansing’s Creeper Trail Park April 4 and several other times at 15 total locations around Ashe County during the trout fishing season, there would not be many — if any — fish for anglers to catch, according to Gouge.
“A lot of this habitat is not as suitable as it once was many years ago to support wild populations, so we’re providing an angling opportunity where there might’ve at one time been natural reproduction of fish,” Gouge said. “By providing that opportunity, a lot of these smaller mountain streams that have wild populations of fish aren’t being impacted as much.”
Gouge parked his trout truck at Creeper Trail Park, where he was quickly approached by a handful of locals volunteering to help stock the creek. Together with NCWRC Technician Nicholas Watson, Gouge packed trout from the back of the truck into buckets for the volunteers to dump in the creek, and handed a net full of flopping fish for one volunteer to fling into the water.
“We spawn and raise our brook and brown trout ourselves, and we get our rainbow trout from a federal hatchery in Tennessee,” Gouge said. “These are anywhere from 12 to 14 months old.”
Once the volunteers were busy transporting their trout to the water, Gouge and Watson filled nets of their own and ran to the banks of Big Horse Creek, shaking their nets as fish plopped into the water. After collecting their buckets and thanking the volunteers, Gouge and Watson hopped back into the trout truck and rumbled off further upstream.
“What we’re doing here is the absolute most stressful part of the fishes’ lives,” Gouge said.
After making the two-hour drive from Marion to Lansing, Gouge said he and Watson stocked a total of 800 trout at several locations along Big Horse Creek, in addition to dumping about 600 trout in the South Fork New River on April 6. During restocking season from the beginning of March to the first Saturday in April, NCWRC staff will drop just shy of half a million fish into the hatchery-supported waters of western North Carolina, according to Gouge.
“It’s a lot of work, and this is the finished product,” Gouge said. “You deal with a lot of different things throughout the year that finally get you to this point — it’s a good feeling.”
Further upstream on Big Horse Creek, Gouge parked his trout truck at the edge of a bridge. Watson hopped out, grabbing a length of PVC pipe and hooking it to the bottom of one of the fish compartments.
With the turn of a valve, trout funneled into the pipe by the dozen, shooting out the other end and smacking into Big Horse Creek 15 feet below. A small crowd of interested anglers gathered nearby, watching as the creek filled with future catches.
“We get a lot of fanfare, lots of spectators,” Gouge said. “It’s the most rewarding part, seeing the anglers and the people excited.”