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Vermonters Gather To Watch Steelhead Rainbow Trout Make Annual Upstream Journey

Rainbow steelhead trout leaps out of the water.
Vermont Fish & Wildlife, Courtesy
A steelhead rainbow trout leaps out of the water at Willoughby Falls in this file photo from Vermont Fish & Wildlife. There's about a 10-day peak each year for people to view the trout migrating upstream to spawn.

Once a year, for about 10 days from mid-April through early May, nature offers a free show that provides viewers the chance to "oooh" and "aaah." It's the steelhead rainbow trout run, when the fish hurtle up the falls to get upstream to spawn.

The "show" can be observed at Coventry Falls on the Black River in Coventry and at Lewis Creek Falls in North Ferrisburgh.

But for prime viewing, there's Willoughby Falls just outside of downtown Orleans in the Northeast Kingdom.

Vermont Fish & Wildlife's Tom Rogers says watching for the trout requires some patience, and that he's even heard the experience described as "very slow fireworks."

Rogers says the steelhead rainbow trout are best viewed on sunny days from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m.

"Sometimes they jump, and sometimes they really try to swim up the falls," Rogers says. "And so you can see them both out of the water which is cool, but then you've got to keep your eye right on that water – because sometimes they just go right up in the falls and just use their whole body to kind of flip back and forth and really get their way up." 

"Sometimes [the trout] jump, and sometimes they really try to swim up the falls." – Tom Rogers, Vermont Fish & Wildlife

Getting a photo of the leaping trout run may prove to be tricky.

"It's a challenge for wildlife photographers," Rogers says. "You have to be well ahead of the game. People have told me before that the key is to take the photo when you see the nose of the fish."

The steelhead rainbow trout are not native to this region. They were brought here about a century ago and are now naturalized. At Willoughby Falls, the fish are swimming upstream from Lake Memphremagog.

On one particular morning in late April, about two dozen people have shown up by 11 a.m. to see the fish jump, including 10 children from a third grade class at Orleans Elementary School.

A rainbow steelhead trout leaps from the water.
Credit Vermont Fish & Wildlife, Courtesy
This file photo from Vermont Fish & Wildlife features a rainbow steelhead trout leaping from the water at Willoughby Falls, and it showcases some of the fish's coloring.

Bob Pelletier of Newport Center comes annually to photograph the fish.

"It's different every year," Pelletier says. "Some years you'll get fish with not much color to them. Other years you'll get fish with just iridescent blues and pinks and reds."

John Larose has been coming to see this event for years from Montpelier. But he laments rarely seeing them jump on the best of days.

"I've only seen it really good maybe two or three times," Larose says. "Been coming up here quite a few years – just never happened to hit it just right. It's just like when I go fishing. 'You should've been here yesterday.'"

Peak viewing of the steelhead rainbow trout run lasts until May 5.

Watch a quick video of a steelhead rainbow trout leaping at Willoughby Falls recently (video courtesy of Vermont Fish & Wildlife):

Broadcast on Vermont Edition on Wednesday, May 3, 2017.

Ric was a producer for Vermont Edition and host of the VPR Cafe.
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