Trout trans­plant suc­cess­ful

Vol­un­teer ef­fort pop­u­lates Ozarks rivers with Bon­nevilles.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - CLAY HENRY

Dreams are com­ing true on two Arkansas tail­wa­ters al­most daily as fish­er­men catch Bon­neville cut­throat trout hatched in the stream beds of the Nor­fork and White rivers.

The fish sum­moned smiles from those who par­tic­i­pated in what many thought was a highly am­bi­tious project five years ago on the two pop­u­lar Ozark streams.

Renown fly fish­er­man Dave Whit­lock led the ef­fort, of­fer­ing sci­en­tific ad­vice. Wy­oming Game and Fish Depart­ment har­vested the eggs and sent them to the Nor­fork Na­tional Fish Hatch­ery.

T.L. Lauer­man of Moun­tain Home helped or­ga­nize the prepa­ra­tion and plant­ings with a throng of vol­un­teers, mostly from Trout Un­lim­ited chap­ters in Arkansas. Vol­un­teers joined from five other states, some as far away as Wis­con­sin.

The shared pas­sion for fly fish­ing, worry over fund­ing for the lo­cal hatch­ery and a strong de­sire to in­tro­duce a strain that could pos­si­bly re­pro­duce and spawn mo­ti­vated many of the vol­un­teers.

They pre­pared and planted the eggs with the bless­ing of the Arkansas Game and Fish Com­mis­sion, and their ef­forts ap­pear to have paid off with more and more an­glers catch­ing Bon­nevilles.

There is even a grow­ing sus­pi­cion the de­sired spawn has hap­pened, al­though the proof may be a year or two away. An­glers, mean­while, worry reg­u­la­tions won’t pro­tect the ma­ture fish needed to pro­duce a good spawn.

Bill Thorne, the Arkansas rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the Trout Un­lim­ited Na­tional Lead­er­ship Coun­cil, said the project was a suc­cess from the start for his group.

“Any time you get boots in the river, it’s a win-win for us,” Thorne said. “Now that we see ma­ture fish, I feel like a fa­ther. You talk to any of the other 50 vol­un­teers, they all feel like proud par­ents.”


More than 50 peo­ple dug and sifted gravel to the de­sired qual­ity in order to plant more than 50,000 eggs each year for four straight sum­mers in the Nor­fork and two sum­mers in the White.

Vol­un­teers did a dou­ble plant­ing in the Nor­fork in 2015 be­cause of high wa­ter lev­els on the White. That meant a dou­ble hatch in the Nor­fork. There won’t be a plant­ing this year be­cause of high wa­ter. Last year’s plant­ing was can­celed at the last minute af­ter Wy­oming of­fi­cials dis­cov­ered dis­ease in a few of the hatch­ery fish that pro­duced the eggs af­ter they had been shipped to Arkansas.

Whit­lock is fa­mous for re­design­ing the egg boxes — the Vib­ert-Whit­lock Egg Sys­tem — that were used to plant the brown trout eggs in the White and Lit­tle Red Rivers in the 1970s. Whit­lock lives near Tahle­quah, Okla., where he and wife, Emily, op­er­ate a fly fish­ing school and teach paint­ing. He lived near Moun­tain Home for three decades af­ter re­sign­ing as a chemist to pur­sue fly fish­ing ven­tures.

Lauer­man would like to give the two rivers one more plant­ing in June 2018 to hit the goal of five years.

“Maybe we can con­tinue it past that, but we didn’t want to do any­thing less than five times,” he said. “By do­ing five, we’ve given it a good shot of get­ting enough ma­ture fish in the rivers to see if they can sur­vive and spawn.”


Catch rates in the Nor­fork have raised eye­brows and ex­cite­ment from fly fish­ing guides. Lauer­man re­ceives texted pho­tos of Bon­neville trout al­most daily, and the fish are get­ting big­ger. Re­ports also are com­ing in from the White be­low where the cut­throats were planted at Rim Shoals.

Guide Davy Wot­ton has seen his clients catch more than a dozen.

Rogers an­gler Sean Paquin caught a 21-inch Bon­neville on the Nor­fork while fish­ing with Cot­ter guide Brock Dixon on May 26. Dixon has had an­glers catch mas­sive tro­phy browns, one as long as 36.5 inches, but he’s just as proud of the 21-inch Bon­neville cut­throat Paguin landed.

“We didn’t re­ally know what we had at first be­cause the wa­ter was off-color,” Dixon said. “But I knew it was a big deal when we got it in the boat. Sean didn’t be­cause he had never been fly fish­ing be­fore. But that’s the beauty of a fish like this, it pro­vides a chance for ed­u­ca­tion.

“We both got ex­cited pretty quickly and when we ran into some other guides on the river and showed them the pic­ture, Sean saw the shock that his catch pro­duced and

then he re­ally got ex­cited.”

Kristo­pher Bouldin, a Nor­fork guide, said the odds are good his clients will catch the new cut­throats.

“I’d say my clients are catch­ing them on one out of four trips,” he said. “It’s be­com­ing more fre­quent of late, and we are catch­ing good sized fish and smaller fish, too. Some days we catch three or four.”

Guide Nathanael Ferguson of Moun­tain Home also caught a big Bon­neville in late May. It was an­other Nor­fork fish, this time mea­sur­ing 19 inches. Like the one caught from Dixon’s boat, it was fat and fought like crazy.

Lauer­man said fish­er­men talk about how hard the new trout fight.

“That’s the whole point with plant­ing the eggs, you’ve got tough, wild fish raised from eggs, and they spent their en­tire life in the river,” he said.

“The next thing is to see if they spawn. It would com­plete the project.”


The idea the Bon­neville trout could spawn is not a reach, but it’s not a sure thing.

“We are not sure about the ge­net­ics of these eggs,” Whit­lock said. “We know they came from a hatch­ery. The ev­i­dence shows that if they are third gen­er­a­tion hatch­ery, the fe­male loses the abil­ity to spawn. They don’t know how to nest prop­erly.

“So the hope is that these eggs were not from overly do­mes­ti­cated fish. If there are some that fit the cor­rect ge­net­ics, then they will spawn. That will be a great thrill if that hap­pens.”

He re­called the thrill years ago when it be­came ev­i­dent the browns were re­turn­ing to spawn where eggs had been planted.

Bouldin, who par­tic­i­pated in the egg plant­ing, said he thinks the Bon­neville trout have spawned.

“I saw the spawn­ing beds this spring, ex­actly where the eggs were planted five years ago. I saw fish over the beds, al­though I can’t con­firm they were Bon­nevilles,” he said.

He added he didn’t think the fish he saw were brown trout be­cause they spawn in the late fall.

Whether the spawn was ef­fec­tive isn’t clear be­cause the flood­gates at Nor­fork Dam were opened later in the spring. If those first ma­ture Bon­nevilles spawned, it’s likely they will con­tinue and it will grow as the next three hatches ma­ture.


The new trout’s pres­ence causes one clear con­cern: pro­tec­tion. Arkansas Game & Fish has stronger reg­u­la­tions for cut­throats than for rain­bow trout — only two can be kept, and they must be 16 inches. But the ma­ture Bon­neville adults need to be pro­tected to achieve a spawn.

A slot limit might work with big­ger fish. A slot limit al­lows an an­gler to keep only fish be­tween two lengths. If the slot limit is 10-16, fish 9 inches and be­low and 17 inches and above would be re­leased. That would mean the small ju­ve­nile fish and the tro­phy size ca­pa­ble of spawn­ing would stay in the river.

Lauer­man said he’d be pleased with a re­duc­tion to just one Bon­neville per day, al­though per­haps with a much longer length. He’d pro­pose some­thing like the 24-inch min­i­mum for brown trout in­sti­tuted on the Nor­fork and White four years ago, a change that has pro­duced an in­crease in large browns.

“What I’ve seen is a huge change in the con­ser­va­tion mind­set on these two rivers from the guides,” Lauer­man said. “They would be for new reg­u­la­tions if this pro­duces an­other great wild trout species on our rivers. We think we are on the verge of some­thing in­cred­i­ble.”

Re­quested changes in reg­u­la­tions are very likely to come up in two public work­shops on trout man­age­ment for Bull Shoals and Nor­fork tail­wa­ters, said Christy Gra­ham, trout bi­ol­o­gist su­per­vi­sor for Game & Fish.

“We’ve al­ready talked to a cou­ple of in­di­vid­u­als who have called for more pro­tec­tion,” Gra­ham said. “We’re go­ing to re­visit the man­age­ment plan and con­sider it. Get­ting more pro­tec­tion is def­i­nitely on our radar.”

Gra­ham em­pha­sized the new trout is not a threat to any na­tive species and noted all eggs are cer­ti­fied as dis­ease free.

The suc­cess of the Bon­neville plant­ing ex­ceeded ex­pec­ta­tions, Lauer­man said.

“There were a lot of naysay­ers when we talked about this project. There were naysay­ers back in the 1970s when Dave be­gan the project with the boxes he de­signed to plant brown trout eggs in the White and the Lit­tle Red. The bulk of our brown trout pop­u­la­tion is be­cause of those plant­ings. Peo­ple were skep­ti­cal then, but we’ve got a tremen­dous brown trout fish­ery now.

“We wanted to prove again that you can have a suc­cess­ful egg plant­ing in our rivers. We needed a marker fish, some­thing that would be eas­ily rec­og­niz­able. So that’s why we went with the Bon­neville cut­throat.”

The Bon­neville trout have much big­ger spots and more spo­radic than the Snake River fine-spot­ted cut­throats. The dif­fer­ences are ob­vi­ous and there has never been Bon­neville cut­throat trout in any Arkansas river.

“It’s a land­mark project,” Whit­lock said. “I’m so tick­led. What has been done is in­tro­duce a new wild trout to our north Arkansas trout fish­ery. It’s go­ing to im­pact thou­sands of peo­ple.”

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/CLAY HENRY

Kristo­pher Bouldin, a Nor­fork tail­wa­ter guide, shows a cut­throat trout caught by his wife, Becca. Kristo­pher said his clients are catch­ing the new trout one out of four trips.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/CLAY HENRY

Sean Paquin of Rogers and Cot­ter guide Brock Dixon show a Bon­neville cut­throat trout. Paquin caught a 21-inch Bon­neville in the Nor­fork River on May 26.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/CLAY HENRY

Fish­ing guide Brock Dixon re­leases a Bon­neville cut­throat trout. A five-year ef­fort has in­tro­duced the Bon­neville to Arkansas.

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