Rhode Island's Wood River: Moving Things Forward

Members of Narragansett chapter of Trout Unlimited and Protect Rhode Island Brook Trout at RI’s Wood River.

Members of Narragansett chapter of Trout Unlimited and Protect Rhode Island Brook Trout at RI’s Wood River.

Good News From RI’s Wood River

Bob Mallard, National Vice Chair - Native Fish Coalition

Few waters in the northeast have been talked about and written about as much as Rhode Island’s (RI) Wood River over the past few years. And unlike nearby and equally talked about Red Brook in Massachusetts, the news has not always been good — and I am being nice…

For years local trout conservationists have challenged Rhode Island Department Environmental Management (RIDEM) and Rhode Island Fish & Wildlife (RIF&W), as well as each other, as to how the Wood River should be managed. While not always pleasant, these discussions were absolutely warranted.

As many of you know, while there has been a lot of commentary on the www regarding the Wood River, there has unfortunately been very little progress made to date. Everyone was equally dug in regardless of whether they were on the right or wrong side of the argument. No one was winning and everyone, including the resource, was losing…

As I have said in the past, I would not have chosen the Wood River as the launching pad for wild native trout management reform in RI due to its high level of usage, wildly varying user groups, and visibility as arguably RI’s best trout stream. In fact, it is the only water in RI that I covered in my book, 50 Best Places Fly Fishing the Northeast. Doing this was akin to picking a fight with the biggest guy in the room, it won’t be easy, and it’s likely not to go well for you…

With that said, Protect Rhode Island Brook Trout’s (PRIBT) position that the Wood River was ground-zero in the battle to save RI’s wild native brook trout was ecologically sound and absolutely defensible. And with the cat out of the bag, NFC had no choice but to side with PRIBT and regardless of who it might offend or upset. The upper Wood River is arguably RI’s best chance to save self-sustaining native brook trout.

A while back I received an email from the president of Narragansett chapter of TU. This led to a phone conversation during which I reiterated that while it wouldn’t have been my choice as a place to take a stand, NFC fully supported PRIBT’s position on environmental grounds regardless of the social and political implications. I told them they were on unstable ground and that defending the current management plan, or worse, being part of it, was untenable.

A few months later NFC was again approached by Glenn Place, president of Narragansett TU with some questions about possible signage for the Wood River. We discussed their goals, offered some general guidance, and told them we would do whatever we could to help to try to make it happen as we saw it as an important and long-overdue step forward .

Last week Narragansett TU received three batches of new signs to be posted on the upper Wood River. Partnering with RIDEM and RIF&W, the signs address habitat, litter, and trout, including acknowledging that wild native brook trout are present in the river along with a request to help protect them through voluntary catch-and-release.

To be clear, there is still a lot of work to be done if the Wood River is to reach its potential as a wild native brook trout river. This includes removing some old dams, planting trees, fixing damaged habitat, and addressing stocking and angler exploitation. Folks will need to make concessions to make it happen and no one will get everything they want. And the conservation train moves very slowly so patience is key…

But again, NFC sees this as a great and important step forward, and something that should be embraced and supported by all.

Special thanks to PRIBT for pushing the envelope, jamming a foot in the door, staying in the saddle, and making people aware of this invaluable and unique resource, the challenges it faces, and what needs to be done to help it meet its potential.

And likewise to Narragansett TU for moving beyond stocking, and working with the powers that be to make these signs a reality. And for being patient and staying the course as the wheels of progress ground painfully slowly forward.

Lastly, thanks to Maine NFC Chair Emily Bastian and National Board Member Ben Brunt for providing logistical help and bearing with everyone while they ironed out the wrinkles and put a solid win on the board for our wild native fish…