Brown trout eggs placed at Westover Farms

    If you were at Westover Farms on any given Saturday and saw a group of men in waders it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise, provided they were also carrying fishing poles. But if you saw a group of men in waders with rakes, shovels, hoes, and strange-looking wire baskets, you might just be a little confused.

    That was the scene on the morning of December 12, however, as a group of about 20 members of the Trout Unlimited Gateway Chapter (GTU) from St. Louis gathered at Westover Farms—a trout fishing, shooting sports and lodging destination located east of Steelville at the end of Route BB—to begin work on a new project that could ultimately improve brown trout fishing in the Meramec River. The group worked most of the day placing baskets containing 30,000 brown trout eggs in Dry Creek and the Westover Spring branch.

GTU volunteers work to remove nonviable brown trout eggs from good ones in preparation for putting them in Dry Creek and the Westover Spring branch.

    GTU has been working with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) to improve brown trout fishing in the Meramec River’s Red Ribbon trout fishing area for the past several years. The Red Ribbon stretch runs from the Highway 8 bridge near Maramec Spring Park to the MDC’s Scott’s Ford Access on Thurman Lake Road. In the Red Ribbon area, which is stocked with brown trout and also has rainbow trout that get into the river from Maramec Spring Park, anglers may only keep two fish over 15-inches in length daily and must follow strict regulations that prohibit most bait and soft-plastic lures.
    In hopes of improving brown trout fishing in the Meramec River, GTU has helped fund a telemetry project being conducted by MDC in the Red Ribbon area. Each year, about 40 stocked fish are tagged with acoustic telemetry equipment which allows biologists to track fish up and down the river. The project was started after electrofishing surveys conducted by MDC revealed that brown trout numbers were diminishing in the river even after repeated annual stockings.

Brown trout eggs were placed in small, white plastic cages that then went inside wire-mesh cages which were filled with clean gravel.

    It is hoped the telemetry study will determine why the fish are disappearing in the river. Possible explanations include increased water temperatures, flooding, predation, movement of trout outside of the Red Ribbon area, or other factors.
    Brown trout stocked each year in the Meramec River are raised at the Maramac Spring Park hatchery, which is operated by MDC.  As those trout are raised in raceways and fed by hand, it is theorized that predation may be a significant factor in the loss of fish once they are stocked in the river. The trout have been disappearing at a rapid rate and some of their acoustic tags have been located after the fish were eaten by predators.

GTU members learn how to properly prepare the stream bed for the brown trout egg baskets.

    That led to Saturday’s GTU project at Westover, which is designed to see if brown trout can be hatched from eggs placed in a stream and then grow to maturity. The idea is that, while many of the young trout raised in the stream will also fall victim to predators, the ones that survive will be better conditioned to a natural environment and more able to survive.
    To complete the project, GTU members first sorted through 30,000 brown trout eggs by hand to remove any that were not viable. Good eggs were then placed in large test tubes before being placed in small, plastic-mesh boxes called Whitlock-Vibert Boxes, which were then placed in larger wire-mesh boxes that went into the stream.

The first brown trout egg basket is placed into Westover Spring branch.

    Whitlock-Vibert Boxes have a successful track record.  They are comprised of two chambers—the smaller, upper chamber holds the eggs until hatching.  Once the eggs hatch, the young fish called “alevin” fall into the larger, lower chamber, where they are safe from predators until they are able to swim free of the box. The clean gravel surrounding the egg box allows a second safe-haven for the fish to further develop enough strength to venture out into the stream and begin feeding on plankton and small insects.
    About 20 locations at Westover Farms were selected to place the egg baskets. They were each put in areas with good water flow and covered with clean gravel. GTU members will return in few weeks to see if the eggs hatched. GTU and MDC are currently developing a monitoring program to track the project’s success.
    Westover Farms was selected for the project, rather than using the Meramec River, because it currently stocks only rainbow trout. That means any brown trout found in Dry Creek or the Westover Spring branch in the future will have to have grown from the eggs. If the project works, GTU hopes to continue its work with MDC to plant brown trout eggs in the Meramec River.

Two egg baskets are filled with clean gravel before they are put into the Westover Spring branch.