KIDDER TWP. — For his last in-season trout stocking of the spring, waterways conservation officer Aaron Lupacchini did something different.
As the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stocking truck pulled up to Red Rock along the Lehigh River on Tuesday, volunteers lined up to carry buckets of trout. But instead of pouring the fish into the river, they emptied the buckets into rafts.
Thanks to weeks of coordination, a stretch of the river upstream from Lehigh Tannery down to White Haven was float-stocked with trout. Rather than dumping buckets into the river from the bank, the trout were spread out through the stretch, marking the first time the technique had been used on the Lehigh in nearly 30 years.
“I’m excited. We’ll be able to put fish in areas where we haven’t been able to stock before due to terrain,” Lupacchini said. “This will benefit anglers, and with that brings additional tourism and business to the area because these fish will be spread out and available to anglers year round.”
To accomplish the task, Lupacchini had to tackle several issues. First, he asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reduce the amount of water released from Francis E. Walter Dam, bringing the flow down to 500 cubic feet per second. That made the river level manageable for the rafts to navigate and stock the trout, but there was a four-hour window before the flow had to be increased.
Lupacchini also had to secure rafts and volunteers to get the fish onto the river. That’s where Whitewater Challengers in Weatherly pitched in, donating three rafts and eight crew members to release 350 pounds of trout throughout the river. The company also donated all safety equipment for the trek. The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources also followed the rafts along the Lehigh Gorge Trail to ensure that trained medical staff were on the scene the entire way.
Lastly, students from the Keystone Job Corps Center in Drums joined the group to help release fish and the rafts floated down the river.
With all the pieces in place, the rafts were filled with water, then trout, before gliding away.
“It seems kind of fitting to make the last in-season stocking the best one,” Lupacchini said. “This took a lot of planning but float-stocking is an efficient way to spread out the fish to extend the fishery in the river.”
The benefits of the stocking weren’t just limited to anglers. Mike Mayewski, an academic teacher with Keystone Job Corps, said the float-stocking was a great learning experience for his students.
“Most of our student population comes from major urban areas and this is a unique experience for them,” Mayewski said.
It took the rafts about three hours to make the trip, and about half that time was spent stocking trout, according to Charlie Boyle, assistant ground crew manager with Whitewater Challengers.
Boyle said fish were released in deep holes and behind large boulders throughout the river — places that just aren’t accessible with traditional stocking methods.
“It was a different experience from the start just by putting water in the rafts. That’s kind of opposite of what we want,” said Boyle, who also fishes the river. “We were able to really spread the fish out and perhaps some will holdover and have a chance to get bigger.
“I would gladly help do this every year. It’s a big benefit to the fishery on the river.”
University of Scranton student Nick Hook, who helped carry buckets of trout to the rafts, said he fishes the river often and is likely to make more trips now that a stretch has been float-stocked.
“It makes the river a more diverse place to fish because the trout aren’t just where the truck has stopped,” Hook said. “The float-stocking will allow people to spread out more, work for the fish and stay on the river longer.”
Now that the groundwork has been laid, Lupacchini hopes to make the float-stocking an annual event. After the rafts launched, Lupacchini took the stocking truck upriver toward the dam to release more fish the traditional way — by carrying buckets and dumping them in.
Those fish will spread out as well, Lupacchini said, but he hopes the float-stocking will provide a longer-lasting benefit to the angling community.
“This was the hardest year to float-stock the river because all of the relationships had to be established,” Lupacchini said. “Hopefully we can maintain this and incorporate it into a long-term partnership so this gets done every year.”
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky