If you think a trout is a trout and there’s no valuable distinction concerning where that trout came from, then may I suggest closing this article and moving on? Maybe go fishing.
Whatever type of fish you like to chase and however you like to fish for them, I’m not here passing judgement. If you enjoy the game that you play, then you’ve achieved the most important thing in any recreation. Sometimes, that’s all there is to it.
With those disclaimers out of the way . . . stocked fish are a poor representation of their wild counterparts. There are, in fact, tremendous differences in the behavior, the growth rate, the selectivity, and the appearance of stocked trout versus wild trout. Each of these variables are, well . . . variable. For example, it’s not uncommon to catch a stocked brown trout that appears wild. Private hatcheries are raising some damn fine looking browns these days, and even the state hatchery fish are much improved in appearance from just twenty years ago.
The State of Things
The history of trout in Pennsylvania is a sad one. Somewhere along the line, the idea that humans and science could create a better product than what nature provides became stuck in the minds and sub-cultures of Pennsylvania residents from towns all across this beautiful state. Initially, hatchery trout were a government/corporate concession to the industrialized public that went something like this:
“Hey, we’re sorry we’ve destroyed your trout streams and the wild trout in them with atrocious timber management, the abominable lack of chemical regulations and the devastation of unfettered coal mining. But don’t worry about it, because we’ve created for you . . . the hatchery trout, and it’s better than the real thing.”
After that, things went downhill for a while.
These days, clean water has returned to some damaged watersheds that can once again sustain wild trout populations, but we’re still allowing antiquated tradition and embedded culture to dictate sensible trout management.
But things are looking up. In some areas of the state, the fish commission is focusing resources on stream improvements and easements rather than hatcheries and fake fish. It’s a slow process, but I commend the commission for starting the move forward.
In truth, the responsibility is yours and mine. We need to help shift the remaining Pennsylvania put-and-take culture away from its affair with hatchery trout and toward valuing sustainable wild fisheries wherever possible.
To push forward and shift the tide toward putting wild trout populations first, it’s important that all modern catch-and-release trout fishermen are on the same page. I thought we were, but I’m continually surprised to find anglers who don’t seem to make the distinctions that I always assumed were obvious.
Why do we value wild fish over stocked fish? What are the benefits, and what exactly are these distinctions?
It’s part of human nature to categorize. We place a value on everything — this is better than that; I like this more than that. Simple judgments. Preferences. So don’t tell me a trout is a trout. It isn’t. And deep inside every guy who argues that he “just wants to go fishing and doesn’t care what’s wild or stocked” is also the innate understanding that a wild fish holds more value.
The best trout is one that nature has created — stream-born and wild. Through natural selection, populations of wild trout have adapted to their environs. Born in the stream, a wild trout deals with impending predation from the beginning, and it tracks down food at the same time. This unassisted start creates a strong fish that reacts and moves in concert with the stream life around it. It lives where it’s supposed to live and eats what it’s supposed to eat. A wild trout is a natural part of its ecosystem.
Uncorrupted wild trout are at the top of this list, and if you don’t instinctively understand this ideal, I honestly don’t know how else to communicate it.
As a side-note, the native vs non-native species argument is a complicated one, and it’s not something I’ll try to tackle here. I will say that I’m thankful for the introduced brown trout to this state, for without them we would have vast stretches of troutless, prime water that is simply too warm in the summers for our Pennsylvania native brookie. The brown trout, first introduced to our state in 1886, have created wild trout fisheries where they could not have existed after the industrial revolution. It’s also a more selective quarry, arguably enhancing the fishing experience. Wild brown trout grow larger than our native brook trout and are gorgeous creatures.
Whether brook trout, brown trout, or one of the few self-sustaining populations of rainbow trout in our state, the wild trout is the preeminent fish on this list. Wild trout hold the highest value. There is no fair comparison.
Pennsylvania stocks fingerlings in some rivers that might surprise you, and I’m continually impressed with the quality and appearance of adult trout that were stocked as fingerlings. If it’s not wild, then a stocked fingerling (usually 3-6”) is the next best thing. These fish get a head start in the hatchery but grow into adult trout by spending many seasons in a natural habitat, looking at natural food, and making good decisions that keep them alive. Fingerling trout take on the look and the disposition of wild fish — almost.
The downside of fingerling stocking? They still have stocked trout genes. Also, mortality is very high. Thousands of trout are stocked for minimal return. But the few that make it often grow into some very nice fish.
Stocked, adult trout that make it past the first season are holdovers. Commonly, anglers use the term holdover for a trout that was stocked the previous year, but I’ve also heard the term used for a trout that makes it from spring into fall.
Whatever the definition, the prevailing qualities are longevity and duration. Holdovers are stocked fish that have survived angling pressure, natural predation, rough weather and varying stream conditions, during which time they tend to take on more natural, wild appearances and habits.
Having made it past the sickle of natural selection, a holdover is the best of the best stocked trout — or it just got really lucky.
I grew up fishing for stocked fish in western Pennsylvania. There were precious few wild trout in my area (largely as a result of acid mine drainage), and without the stockies, I would not have learned to trout fish.
That is the stockie’s value, and that alone should be the stockie’s purpose — to populate rivers that cannot support wild trout. Certainly, not every troutless river should receive hatchery trout, but if it’s the kind of river that once held trout before human beings screwed it up, then it’s probably a decent choice for stocking.
The madness that is opening day of trout season is centered, in large part, around stocked fish. I get it. I understand the tradition, and I can still feel my ten-year-old excitement the night before the big day. I can smell wet earth in the dimly lit basement as my father and I prepare our rods and reels for the next morning. The stocked fish we chased brought us together, and that gives them an extraordinary value.
But opening day also makes me sad. It’s often a scene of lawn chairs, muddy banks, buckets, stringers and line-ups of anglers who only fish once or twice a year. They are missing so much, it seems. And worse, they learn about trout fishing by catching stocked fish.
Hatchery fish are genetically selected to feed aggressively and grow quickly. They’ve lived their entire lives in an artificial environment, often in overcrowded concrete troughs, and they frequently have deformities such as stubby fins, rubbed snouts or mangled tails. They eat brown hatchery pellets similar to dry dog food, so the flesh and skin colors are nothing like a wild fish.
In a hatchery, they never learn to use cover, to feed selectively or to play by the rules of a natural trout stream. Instead of shying away from overhead movement as a threat, they often learn to associate it with incoming food. The larger the hatchery trout is when stocked, the longer it has played by the artificial rules, and quite frankly, the dumber it will be when released into a real trout stream.
Simply put, large stockies are no trophies. Fun to catch? Sure. But rare, special, or full of any exceptional value? No.
Stocked fish should fill a specific role, providing angling opportunities only where wild trout cannot thrive. And trout should not be stocked over top of healthy wild trout populations.
At the tail end of this list are trout found in clubs. Most clubs stock fish, then feed them on a daily basis, creating, in essence, pets for their clients. Because people like catching big fish, clubs often stock fish much larger than what a stream can naturally support. A two-foot fish in a twenty-foot wide, freestone stream, surrounded by five other two-foot fish, is probably hungry. And hungry equals gullible.
Club fish aren’t always easy, though — this is fishing, so there is no always. Club fish, like regular stockies, often play by a strange set of artificial rules. They may fall for ridiculous patterns during a caddis hatch instead of a Pheasant Tail. And when club pets are overfed, they become pellet pigs with full bellies, uninterested in eating much else and difficult to convince with a fly.
To me, there is nothing more artificial than the club set up, and that’s why these fish are at the bottom of the list.
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It’s time to recognize the exceptional value of wild trout and understand the limited value of the stocked trout. We shouldn’t get them confused. By pushing for regulations that protect wild trout and enhance their habitat we can prepare a better future. By choosing to showcase wild fish over hatchery fakes we will send a signal.
Value the wild trout. Protect it. Catch it, and release it.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N