Wild vs Stocked : The Hierarchy of Trout in Pennsylvania

by | Apr 19, 2016 | 37 comments

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?

fulldayshands-6

Grobe with a happy brown. The great thing about Montana — they’re all wild.

The Hierarchy

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.

Wild Trout

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.

Fingerlings

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?  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.

Holdovers

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.

A decent holdover that gained some color and lost the mush-mouth of a freshly stocked fish

Stockies

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.

The colors on this stocked bow are a little washed out and the tail is rubbed on the bottom and top. It’s clearly a stocked fish, but Aiden had a great time catching it.

Club Fish

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.

— — — — — — — — — —

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.

— —  — — — —

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is hosting a Wild Trout Summit concerning “The Future of Wild Trout in Pennsylvania.”

The event is Saturday, August 26, 2017, from 9:30 am – 4:00 pm.

The public is encouraged to attend. Registration is free, but required.

If you care about wild trout in Pennsylvania, please attend the summit.

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

Wild brown from unstocked water.

 

Pellet pig. This ridiculous fish was someone’s pet for a long time to get that fat. It was probably the heaviest trout I’ve ever caught, and it went on multiple tail-walking runs. Fun times, but that’s a sad excuse of a trout. It is what it is. I’d much rather catch the wild brown shown above.

 

Come on, man

 

Another fat, stocked bow. The front fins on this one were deformed and the interior of its mouth was soft. Both are dead giveaways for a stocked fish.

 

Standard, freshly stocked brown with flat, dull colors

 

Wild Brown

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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37 Comments

  1. Really nice article. I agree with everything you said.

    Reply
      • Very interesting n covered a lot of grounds. Hope to c u at the trout summit

        Reply
  2. Good read. While I am “guilty” of fishing for stocked trout at times, I have always struggled with the ethics around it. My main focus for participating in hunting and fishing is the food aspect, so I have also struggled with ethics of catch and release as well (My first post on this page, not trying to start an argument). But I certainly realize the PA waters would never be able to withstand taking wild trout.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the thoughts, Tom.

      Nothing guilty about fishing for stockies, though. I fish for stocked fish pretty often throughout the year. It is what it is. My biggest issue is with stocking fish over wild trout populations.

      I also keep some stocked trout for the table a few times each year. Once they have been in the water for a while and the flesh firms up I keep some. But I never kill wild fish anymore. Too precious. That’s just my own choice.

      Reply
  3. Nicely written, sensibly presented, and I love the lack of entitled judgement that creeps into so many similar trout-themed literary works these days. And the nod to acknowledging the tangle which is wild vs native – your perspective is obviously gained from knowledge and experience rather than a blind following. Good stuff.

    Reply
    • Bryan, that’s one of the nicest comments I’ve received. Thanks very much. That was the goal. Fishing is just fishing, after all. Thanks again.

      Reply
  4. Dominick,
    Everyone kills wild fish. It’s called hook mortality. The best I’ve ever seen studies show is a 3% mortality rate for dry fly fishing, worst is long shank streamer fishing. Releasing a dead or dying fish to me is foolish whether wild or stocked. I like that you do accept that there are variables and that many a current fisherman/conservationist would not have ever adopted the sport without stocked fish. My sixty plus years of experience have shown me many different variables that would prove just the opposite of what you say, and many that would agree. Without hijacking your blog or getting long winded I have personally seen the decline of wild fish quality and numbers when stocking was stopped. The obvious reason for this are that stocked fish are easier to catch and many a limit was reached before a wild fish could be caught by the average fisherman. I have seen streams go from producing large natives, and a healthy population of them, to a stream that you can hardly find any fish on now since stocking has ceased (even with improved water quality). Of course our states commissions could help by not allowing any bag limits, but that brings us back to releasing dead or soon to be dead fish. Thank you for the opportunity for an open and quality discussion.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comment, Phil.

      It seems that you are against Catch and Release regulations because there is natural mortality that occurs with fishing. Right?

      You also seem to be arguing that stocking trout on top of wild trout populations actually protects that wild population.

      I just disagree with both premises.

      I do understand your point that if you end stocking, then more wild trout will be caught. I agree that in many locations if you stop stocking fish, the regulations would also need to be changed to then protect the wild fish. As I said, I believe the put and take culture needs to be reexamined.

      If a creek can support a wild trout population, then I would argue that it should be managed to support those wild trout, but if you can’t get on board with Catch and Release regulations, then it won’t work.

      You sighted some studies above. I think you could also find some studies that show dramatic increases in trout populations when waters are managed under catch and release, regardless of the minimal hook mortality.

      Thanks for considering.

      Reply
    • The hook mortality is true but it’s not necessarily foolish to release a dieing fish, that fish is composed of nutrients aquired from the stream you caught it in and by releasing it you’re simply giving the nutrients back.

      Reply
  5. I live in North Carolina, a state that has some stocked rivers. I’m sort of torn about them. My main beef with stockers is not because they are ugly, pale, and sometimes fight like a wet sock, it’s because they are used to hide the health of a fishery. They give people the impression that a water can hold trout when in fact the water is unsuitable for trout to live in year round. Hatchery fish don’t mind silt, algae, nitrogen, and loss of shade trees to cool the stream. I think if the fish people caught were more closely connected and reliant on their habitat, they would care about the habitat more. I really do wonder what our fisheries would look like without stocking and more reasonable catch limits.

    I do have two very selfish reasons for secretly liking stocked fish though. The first is that they soak up the vast majority of the fishing pressure. Second, and most important, marginal trout water that gets regularly stocked with 12″ fish is a good way to grow large brown trout.

    And yeah, club fish are down at the bottom. If you see a photo on instagram or elsewhere on the web of a very large, very well fed fish caught in the southeast, odds are its a club fish. It’s another example of hiding the health of our fisheries.

    Reply
    • Hoyt, that’s a great point about hiding the health of a fishery. Well said.

      Reply
  6. Another quality post Domenick. I’d like to know how we came to feel that we can create something better than Mother Nature. I’m not even sure what Colorado stocks any more other than tiger musky. I rarely see a stocked rainbow any more and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a stocked brown. Thanks for the food for thought because now I’m going to check.

    Reply
  7. Great article. As a fan of language, I’ve long maintained that words mean things – and in this context, it is important to carefully choose the words we use to describe fish.
    Along the lines of some of your points and others’ comments, this all comes down to considering interests. Who gets prioritized? The ecosystem? The anglers? The revenue? If there is some sort of compromise, which side do we err on?
    Thanks again for the good read!

    Reply
  8. Very nice article! I wish others could understand the wild fish as we do and give them the respect they deserve!

    Reply
  9. Good article, of which I agree with on many aspects. Not all mind you, but most. Would our waters be better if all were wild fish and nobody kept a fish? Sure, certainly on a trout stream level. But on a fishing level it all depends which rock one is casting from. I practice C&R on almost every water. But that’s me. Am I doing it “right”? I wouldn’t say that, because we all get out of fishing what we seek to find. And to manage entire waters strictly to satisfy me or you, would please just that…..me or you. You like myself love brown trout….your pics make that obvious. But the article lends itself to thinking the difference is a pellet pig….or “these”. And anything other than those big wild hook-nosed browns are good enough for a preschooler, but not much more.

    A well written & thought provoking article that provokes many of the expected thoughts. In a perfect world, I would tend to agree with you.

    Ralph

    Reply
    • Thanks for your thoughts, Ralph.

      It certainly isn’t a perfect world, but I think we can try to change some of the imperfections.

      I purposely didn’t offer many solutions in the article because that strays too much from the main thrust of it — to simply identify the different types of trout in Pennsylvania, where they come from, and what their value might be. The only suggestion that I offered is to stop stocking over wild populations.

      You’re right that it’s an opinionated piece. I certainly recognize that everyone has their own views and some regions of PA can hardly support a wild trout ( I grew up in one!) so that’s often all there is to offer. I’m thankful for stocked fish where wild trout cannot be.

      My only objection to you comment is this: I didn’t suggest that stockies are all pellet pigs and only good for a pre-schooler. In fact, I said they are fun to catch, sometimes live long enough to become decent holdovers, and they “should fill a specific role, providing angling opportunities where wild trout cannot thrive.”

      I fish for stocked trout plenty of times throughout the year, but I always understand where they came from and what I’m fishing for (an artificial substitute). Many times, I’m thankful that the stocked trout have been placed there to give me a chance to catch fish where wild trout cannot reproduce. But there are other times that the presence of stocked trout frustrates me because I know they are on top of a wild population that could thrive if given the chance.

      I think you and I agree on most accounts. We both love those big, wild browns. I think we may disagree on what could be done about it. Again, it’s an imperfect situation, but that doesn’t mean there’s no solution.

      Thanks again, Ralph.

      Reply
  10. Point taken, I may have read into things a bit. My apologies.

    I’m with you on the difference. I reckon I just acknowledge it, and then keep fishing. You’re right, it’s imperfect. I do think some waters can be managed as a wild fishery. The Upper Delaware, the Juniata for example. But many smaller waters would be tough to impossible unless privatized, which opens a whole new can of worms.

    I’m just glad the hatches are coming off finally. 🙂

    Ralph

    Reply
  11. Domenick,

    Great Article! I enjoyed the Club Fish being referred to as “pets.” I always got a chuckle out of the guys who hold out those obscenely disproportionate, morbidly obese fish for a photo. I think the equivalent of that would be a kid who catch a trout from a kiddy pool at the ExpoMart. However, each their own.

    Another great piece and keep them coming. Very refreshing blog.

    Reply
  12. Very nice article and I agree. After fishing nearly exclusively for wild brown trout, I really don’t get excited anymore about stocked fish. Don’t get me wrong, if I’m somewhere they’ve been stocked, the tug on the line somewhat satisfies me. If I fish alone I’m always on one of two nearby wild trout streams. I certainly don’t catch the numbers of fish like you do on a stocked stream, it’s seem more fulfilling.

    Reply
  13. Great article, though I disagree that pushing for regulations will help. Most of the issues with fisheries, especially in my state of WV, are caused by that sort of government meddling. The WV Division of Natural Resources stocks adult hatchery fish over wilds. The best fisheries are where they have not implemented those programs and private entities are working, or where the streams have been left to Mother Nature. Trout stocking creates the situation as the author describes in Western PA, a welfare type state of fishing complete with hand outs and dependents just the same as in any other government program. The whole system is a complete waste of resources and our fisheries are the victim.

    Reply
  14. Mike your post is more about political bias than fishing IMHO. I suppose you could extend your thinking to call wild bows and browns illegal aliens. In my part of Pennsylvania there are extremely limited wild trout opportunities. Stocked trout are pretty much my only shot at after work fishing. As artificial as it is, it is a stress reliever and a chance to fish for something. Local water supply lakes have slowly been closed to fishing. Many of the guys here see it for what it is, but we buy licenses and the trout are paid for by our trout stamps and club memberships. Most of the serious fisherman here dabble in it, but fish salt water, or go upstate to fish for wild trout,or bass fish the rest of the seasons. Places where I learned about fishing are no longer available for kids to learn, and the stocked stream may be their only chance to get into fishing. I fish for all kinds of fish, fresh and salt. Trout fishing has more snobbery attached to it than all the rest combined.

    Reply
  15. Maybe wild but not indigenous. They came from across the ocean by ship like most of us!

    Reply
    • Right on. Not the point though …

      “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.”

      Reply
  16. Great article! Wish more people thought the way you do, and hopefully this will help convert more people to the good side. Wild trout are more important than stocked trout. Period. So therefore, trout should not be stocked on top of wild populations nor should they be stocked in streams where restoration is possible. We need to value the creatures that nature created. One thing, I will say though. The top of the list should’ve been Brook trout…wild and native!

    Reply
  17. Dom, I just ran across your thread discussing wild versus stocked trout. Dispite differences of opinion, the comments have remained constructive and on a high plane, absent from name calling and emotion…a welcome change from other discussions on other sites at times. I would like to add a couple of observations based on my 40 plus years of experience on the Little Juniata River. Our river received hatchery fingerling brown trout stockings every year from the mid-eighties until 2010 with various fishery management schemes including “Trophy Trout – kill 2 over 14 inches” (so wrong on many levels). By the early 2000’s many of us became convinced that the hatchery fingerling stockings were adding little more than expensive food for a very substantial wild brown population. In 2009 PAFB began a study to determine the effectiveness of fingerling stocking. PFBC biologists, led by Kris Kuhn, our Fishery Manager, fin clipped all stocked fingerlings for two seasons. Then they conducted an extensive electroshocking survey in 2010. The results were as we expected, over 90 % of the 2 year classes with marked fingerlings were wild born! What’s more they found a strong (3X the minimum) Class A wild trout population exists in the “j”. Hatchery trout stocking was immediately discontinued and our fishing success, both size and numbers has been improving steadily since then! After traveling around the state and presenting the “j” story to dozens of TU chapters and trout clubs, I am convinced that there are many currently stocked streams that would produce better trout populations, and better fishing, if stocking (fingerlings or catch-ables) was discontinued and all efforts were turned instead to water quality and fish habitat improvement. Other states have learned this truth (Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Wisconsin and others) and their success is undeniable. Bill Anderson

    Reply
    • Bill, I’m in perfect agreement with all of that. So much money is poured into the hatcheries and many, many of those fish are, essentially, wasted. I too think much of that money would be better spent on water quality enhancement, habitat improvement and angler access. I think the shift needs to come from the anglers, though. Once the majority gets beyond the put and take mentality, maybe we can move forward.

      Reply
  18. I think anyone who is sufficiently skilled in fishing must come to the conclusion that C&R is the only sustainable way forward.

    Reply
    • Hey Mark, I know where you’re coming from, but I don’t really agree, for two reasons …

      First, forcing C&R everywhere will never happen. Too many anglers want to keep trout. Honestly, I eat trout once in a while, and I like it. There’s just too much resistance to C&R. People will fight it. I also am not a big proponent of fly fishing only areas. Basically, I don’t like restricting people from the ways they want to fish (generally).

      Second, I think liberal use of slot limits would be an excellent way forward. Allow anglers to keep the mid-sized fish. Protect the small fish just growing, and protect the large fish for spawning and making trout babies. From what I see, the vast majority of PA anglers respect the laws of each fishery. Sure, there is poaching here and there, but for the most part, anglers follow the regs, and slot limits would work in a lot of places.

      Reply
  19. What pa streams do you fish? Do you only fly fish? How big was that slob..10lbs? This summer I have hit some big fish…stocked and wild. 3s 4s 5s a 6 and a 7lber! Good article. You should come up to NY and do some steelheading…Nov thru May. It’s so fun. Been doing it 13 years.

    Reply
  20. Any difference in taste?

    Reply
  21. Great as always. I owned a small natural Brook Trout stream when I lived in MA. I loved and cherished it. Re: stocking. I now live in MI. DNR brags about stocking millions of sub legal (illegal to keep). Fish are 5″; will not be legal size by end of season. Seems like they are raping the license holder. Makes me think they are just maintaining their bureaucracy and salaries.

    Reply

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