Bringing the Rouge River back to life may be as hard as swimming upstream, but a group of dedicated volunteers at the Metro East Anglers are working every day to make it happen.

Their Ringwood hatchery’s 16,000 litre tanks are stocked, and with the spring, tens of thousands of young rainbow trout, Coho salmon and brown trout will make their way into the Rouge River and other streams and water passages.

Urbanization, which brings road salt and construction mud to the watershed, presents an ongoing challenge, but getting the fish population back to the point where it can sustain itself is the group’s goal, says longtime member Bruce Burt.

“Most of the eggs in the wild just die so we bring them here. We have an 80 per cent survival rate with the eggs, where in the wild it’s less than one per cent,” he says.

The Ringwood Fish Culture Station, which operates through private sponsorship and a deal with the Ministry of Natural Resources, has 20,000 tiny brown trout emerging from its eggs now and saw 150,000 Coho salmon eggs hatch over Christmas; by fall, the latter will be ready to swim in the Credit River.

But bringing rainbow trout back to the Rouge, the volunteers’ local river, is their raison d’etre and Burt sees more benefits to having them there than just good fishing.

“To me, the stream becomes more valuable,” he says. “If people see life in it they say, ‘don’t put that shopping cart in there! I’ve seen rainbow trout in there!’ The whole public values it more if they can see there’s life in there.”

Burt says there are 15 core volunteers who handle the daily duties of feeding and looking after the young fish, but dozens more help with other activities through the year. A big one that takes place in the spring is the harvesting of eggs from fish returning to their spawning grounds, via the Milne Dam’s fish ladder. Those operations start in late March and peak in mid-April.

Another substantial effort is the distribution of pens in which salmon are placed so they can spend time growing and acclimatizing to Lake Ontario, before being released into the wild; not so different, except on a rather more substantial scale, from bringing a pet fish home from the store and placing its Ziploc bag in the aquarium for a few minutes first.

“When you dump the pen, they know where they are so the predators don’t have a feast,” volunteer Matt Chambers says, noting the salmon can triple in size during their few weeks in the pens. Indeed, he joined the group when he saw the anglers at work on the pens a few years ago.

“I was at the pier fishing and they kind of suckered me in,” he laughs.

He says the increasing health of the population is not going unnoticed and the fish, which jump clear out of the water during fishing season, are now attracting many more anglers on that once-quiet pier.

The anglers took over the hatchery when the ministry was about to close it a decade ago and have expanded their efforts over the years. Funding troubles reared their head a few years ago when the Ontario Federation of Hunters and Anglers pulled up stakes, but while they’re always looking for new sponsors, things have stabilized, Burt says.

With Rouge Park ever closer to a reality, Burt is hopeful there will be further opportunities for the dedicated volunteers to reinvigorate the watershed, but they’ve got plenty hatching already.

For more information, visit metroeastanglers.ca