METHUEN — The Ramp Rats had been on high alert for weeks, and now a pickup truck that had pulled into the lot and parked quickly in the corner, almost like the driver was trying to hide, had made them beyond suspicious.
The Rats don’t miss anything that happens on the boat ramp here at Forest Lake. They’re a crew of a dozen or so older guys who park next to each other and hang out all day, every day, either fishing or telling lies, usually about fishing.
And the Rats did not miss the fact that the pickup had a big logo on its door — MassWildlife. And this time of year, they knew that could mean only one thing.
“Is that them? Are they stocking?” the gossip began as car windows were rolled down and naps were interrupted.
“I think they’re stocking.”
“They’re definitely stocking.”
“It’s about time!” Out came the flip phones and a rumor began rippling through Methuen, the Rats dialing quickly and barking out the two words trout bums long to hear each spring: “They’re stocking!”
The driver of the pickup was waiting for a man named John Sheedy, who at that moment was driving an even larger MassWildlife truck toward Methuen, finishing up the long ride from Central Massachusetts. On the flatbed in the back of Sheedy’s Ford F-550 was a tank containing 900 rainbow trout, which he and three other fisheries workers had carefully netted and weighed that morning at a state hatchery in Belchertown.
The fish are part of the half-million trout the state will grow at its five hatcheries and then release into lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams across Massachusetts this spring, expressly so they can be caught by fishermen. It is not a restoration project; the state has those, but the goal of the trout stocking program is to provide recreation. And, perhaps, dinner.
“Catch and release has a place, but stocked trout is not that place,” said Todd Richards, MassWildlife’s assistant director of fisheries. “We want people to catch them and take them home for a healthy meal.”
To say the stocking program is popular hardly does it justice; it borders on mania, and there are crews like the Ramp Rats all over the state, stalking their favorite spots, waiting for a tank truck to show up.
MassWildlife tries to be stealthy about it; they’d like the fish to have a moment to get settled and to keep the crowds down, especially during the pandemic. They don’t officially post that a spot has been stocked until 24 hours after the fish have been released, and anglers monitor the trout stocking web page like it’s a stock ticker, refreshing and refreshing until a black pin shows up on the map indicating the fish have arrived. The trout stocking page is not only the most popular on the MassWildlife website, it’s routinely one of the top five across the mass.gov system. Anglers report it works better than the vaccine stocking page.
Still, the secret rarely lasts the full 24 hours. The MassWildlife trucks are a giveaway, and word spreads fast. Last year, during the coronavirus lockdown, so many anglers showed up at Plug Pond in Haverhill after it had been stocked with some larger broodstock trout — upwards of 100 fishermen crowded around a dock, according to reports —that the city had to temporarily close it down.
By the time Sheedy made it to the boat ramp at Forest Lake, a crowd was waiting for him, rods in hand, ready to pounce as soon as the first fin hit the water.
“Where have you been?” one of the Rats shouted at Sheedy as he got out of the truck. “You were here earlier last year.”
Sheedy smiled behind his mask. A fisheries manager, he will spend the 10-week trout-stocking season hearing some version of that statement over and over each day. Everyone thinks they’re getting a raw deal; everyone thinks their favorite fishing hole is the last to get stocked.
Sheedy backed the truck down the boat ramp to the lake, and he and Josh Gahagan, the technician whose arrival had sounded the alarm, climbed onto the flatbed as some filmed the scene on their phones and others hustled to prime fishing spots along the banks of the lake.
They opened a valve on the bottom of one of the three 250-gallon tanks, and soon the trout were shooting out. “There they go!” someone shouted. A small child jumped up and down with excitement.
Just down the bank, a half-dozen fishermen were scrambling to get their lines in the water, including a 26-year-old named Nathan LaFollette, who said he had come every day for three weeks waiting for this moment.
“It’s the best time to actually get one,” he said as he hustled to a spot about 100 yards from the truck. “Last year all the fish were caught so fast.”
About 15 minutes later, with the lake surface dotted by splashes from the trout getting acquainted with their new digs, LaFollette was the first to hook up, and an excitement raced around as everyone stopped to watch the first dinner leave the lake.
“It’s a monster,” he yelled as he reeled hard. More than 200,000 of the rainbow trout the state will release are over 14 inches, and LaFollette was sure he had a whopper.
And then, just as he was going to reach for it, the fish broke the line and swam off.
“Noooo!” he shouted. “That thing was huge! It was the size of a literal frying pan.”
He tied a new lure onto his line as he kept talking about the one that got away. With each sentence, the fish grew larger. And larger.
Just like that, trout season had begun.