It was, without question, one of the premier trout streams in the whole Northeast. A beautiful river of clean, cool-flowing fresh water that gathered from upwellings and seepages beneath the ground in central Suffolk County and meandered south through parkland, pine barrens and scrub oak until it spilled into Great South Bay — and it was loaded, absolutely loaded, with trout.

It was on this river, nestled inside 3,473-acre Connetquot River State Park Preserve, that a generation or three of Long Islanders made their first attempts at coaxing one of nature’s most wary freshwater fish with a mix of feathers and assorted fabrics wrapped around minuscule, barbless hooks. Many caught their first rainbow, brown or brookie in these waters, learned to fly-fish with passion and shared the tradition with others.

Then calamity struck: Infectious Pancreatic Necrosis, an ailment that kills many juvenile trout, was discovered in both the hatchery fish and wild fish in the river. Because New York State Law prohibits the stocking of diseased fish, the hatchery had to shut down in 2008 until the disease could be eradicated. Anglers, New York State Parks and the Department of Environmental Conservation have worked together ever since to get the hatchery facilities and fishing back up and running.

CONNETQUOT 2.0

Now the dream is closer to reality. The river was recently restocked with trout provided by the state and DEC, fly-fishing is once again thriving, and the park’s own hatchery has raised 19,000 rainbow trout that recently tested clean.

Norman Soule, a state park fish culturist, feeds the trout being raised in the Connetquot River State Park Preserve Hatchery on March 27, 2017. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

“We are getting back on line,” says Norman Soule, a fish culturalist at the park. “And anglers should be happy because we’ve got plenty of big fish measuring between 16 and 21 inches in the river right now.”

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Tom McCoy, a 70-year-old retired businessman from Northport who frequently tries his luck on the river, agrees. “The fishing has been really good,” he says. “I’ve been catching plenty of nice trout.”

Tony Ertola, a 56-year-old nurse from East Yaphank, had similar luck on several trips over the past month. A part-time fishing guide, he took his 17-year-old nephew out last week and they caught about 10 trout apiece measuring up to 22 inches and weighing 4 pounds while casting streamer flies. “Fishing has been fantastic,” he says.

That, says Paul McCain, proprietor of River Bay Fly Shop in Oceanside, is one of the true values of having the Connetquot reopened. “It’s a great place to introduce novices to the art of fly fishing,” he says. “You can see the fish in the river, they’re big enough to put up a great fight, and they are plentiful enough that you’ll probably catch a few even on your first try.”

NEW WRINKLES

Tom McCoy, of Northport, works a stretch of the Connetquot River on March 25, 2017. Photo Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Not that there aren’t a few changes. If you’ve fished here previously, you’ll notice fewer overall fish in the river. Whereas the entire mile-long stretch of fishable water within the park used to be stocked before the hatchery was closed, now only the section below the hatchery receives fish.

“We also have a slot limit now,” Soule explains. “You can keep two trout per session but each must measure between 10 and 13 inches. Larger or smaller fish must be released. Once you creel a second fish, you are done fishing for that session. All brook trout caught above the hatchery must be released unharmed. Below the hatchery you can keep brookies that fall within the standard slot limit.”

REMARKABLE JOURNEY

Richard Remmer, director of the advocacy group Friends of Connetquot and a member of the Long Island State Parks Commission, has been a driving force in the process to reopen the hatchery and put Connetquot River back on the trout hot spot list.

“It’s a great feeling to know things are finally getting back on track,” he says, citing the work of fishing and equestrian clubs along with birding groups, photographers and others who were active in the journey. “Ultimately, the most important thing is that the river is on its way to being fun again for anglers of all abilities. That’s what I always liked best here.”

Javier Soto, of Manhattan, holds a brown trout caught March 25, 2017, in the Connetquot River in Oakdale. Photo Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Armond Saidai, a 58-year-old graphic designer from Port Washington, agrees.

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“It’s already starting to feel like the old days around here,” he says. “The fish are getting bigger and smarter every week as the fishing pressure begins to build. Soon, you’ll need to make reservations well in advance just to get in.”

Considering the past eight years, most Long Island fly-rodders would be thrilled with that arrangement.