Casting for Community Connections
How one national fish hatchery became a lifeline during a challenging time.
Right now, it is easy to get caught up in everything we can’t do. With safety restrictions in place, many of us miss the yearly milestones that define our summer and autumn months. From fireworks and fairs to concerts and fishing tournaments, we can’t help but yearn for these moments that bring us together.
Communities are rising to the challenge, finding creative and safe ways to connect with one another whether through social media or social distancing. Our national wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries have stepped up, as well, providing virtual programming like this live series from John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Philadelphia or this butterfly walk recorded by staff at Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge in Connecticut. We’ve reached out to visitors through crafts and scavenger hunts, with mindfulness-minute videos and photography contests.
While these creative alternatives have been met with enthusiasm (and we have been more than happy to provide environmental interpretation), we are a fish and wildlife organization. If we can inspire visitors to do only one thing, it’s to head outdoors.
If you stock it, they will come.
This spring, the North Attleboro National Fish Hatchery found themselves with a sudden surplus of brook trout when local fishing events that they had planned to stock were canceled due to safety concerns. Instead of dwelling in disappointment or delving into the digital world, staff made quick use of the resources they had nearby.
The team stocked and re-stocked the hatchery’s small pond weekly with an estimated 1,600 good-sized, catchable brook trout. Strictly safety first, signs reminding visitors to maintain social distance were posted nearby.
The hatchery saw at least 1,000 visitors of all ages and experience levels over the course of a few months. Without a designated fishing event, visitors took advantage of a freshly stocked pond and an open gate.
Outdoor activities such as these are crucial at a time when our primary habitat has become the indoors. Fishing gives families the chance to connect with one another and, more importantly, to participate in a sport other than wrestling for control over the household WiFi.
One visitor, who self-identified as a “stuck-at-home parent,” wrote “allow me to commend your efforts and your sincere attempt to make life a little better in these trying times. Giving kids and some bored-senseless adults an opportunity to get outdoors, take in the beauty of nature, and possibly catch a trout is just what most Drs. would prescribe. Your genuine compassion for all that these times have plagued us with is a blessing. You have brought smiles, muddy feet, and sincere joy to a few of my grandkids.”
With never more than 15 people on site at one time, there was plenty of room for anglers to safely discover their local hatchery. Fishermen and -women came from far and wide. Among them was local Crossroads Anglers Fly Fishing Club member, George P. Forte. Delighted with his experience and eager to share, he emailed his thanks to the hatchery manager, Shane Hanlon:
“I would like to give you and your wonderful staff a resounding THANK YOU for your hard work for our community. The most recent offering being the daily opening of the hatchery pond across the street. We can all see you have managed it perfectly to be a resource of fun and hope to our community in tough times. Especially now, when folks are looking for natural and safe outdoor activities, the weekly stockings and maintenance of Free Fishing for all, has been absolutely precious. I have shared the resource with fishing buddies from our fishing club and even my pastor and his son.
“But the fishermen I spoke with around the pond were from all over, as far as Rhode Island and the north shore of Massachusetts. I witnessed families teaching their children. I was able to show others my technique as well, all amid the myriad of red-winged blackbirds, families of geese and turkeys. You have helped to manicure a gem right in in our very backyards. Thank you!”
While maintaining a safe distance, George and other members of the fishing club shared their knowledge with new anglers, giving them advice on everything from casting a line to preparing a meal of freshly caught fish. By simply providing a safe space for people to experience nature, the hatchery was able to foster community connections in a time when our neighbors have never seemed farther away.
While out in the field, these community members provided invaluable information to hatchery staff. For example, as more people visited the hatchery, George noted that fishing line was being left behind. He immediately contacted Lead Fish Biologist Stephanie Vail-Muse, and the next day, Stephanie put up a receptacle to collect the line for recycling.
While collaboration between staff and the community keeps these public spaces safe for the wildlife and people that thrive here, the contagious enthusiasm of groups like Crossroads Anglers inspires new visitors to find their way to the wild. After this free-fishing opportunity, the North Attleboro National Fish Hatchery saw an exciting increase in locals coming by to take walks, participate in nature photography, or just sit in solitude.
These lands are your lands.
Although we may not be able to host the events you’ve come to expect, we are still here. Our staff continue to work hard to maintain the spaces and resources that foster connections not only to each other but to our natural roots. In times like these, when people may be fearful to leave the safety of their homes, we want to remind you that your backyard is much bigger than it seems. On these public lands, you need no invitation. What better time than now to rediscover your true nature at a hatchery or refuge near you?
It’s time to expand your habitat; you may be surprised to find that the great outdoors is a lot closer than it seems.