Commentary

We Are Wild Trout | Looking forward, after Pennsylvania’s first wild trout summit

on
September 1, 2017

Is this a wild trout movement? There’s certainly more outspoken support for Pennsylvania’s wild trout than I’ve ever seen. The massive turnout at the Wild Trout Summit last Saturday, on a cool and partly-cloudy day (perfect for actually fishing instead of talking about it) was a huge show of support for wild trout, not only from die-hard anglers, but from industry professionals, biologists and scientists alike.

We know the PFBC trout plan is failing financially. Their system, based on hatchery fish, is coming to a roadblock.

SILENCE

In fairness, this wasn’t much of a summit. A summit is a meeting, a dialogue and a negotiation. This was not that.

The large crowd of wild trout supporters had a slew of questions, but we were asked to hold them until the end. The panel then allowed a half hour to answer written-in questions, with limited discussion.

The elephant in the room, hatchery trout and the effects on wild fish, was avoided and never addressed.

I have respect for the PFBC. I’m thankful for much of what they’ve accomplished for the health of our rivers and the sport of angling in PA. Many of us have friends on the Commission staff. We know the Commission is full of good, smart people whose hearts are in the right place. We’re told that their hands are tied because of politics and because their funding comes from license sales.

Noted. But that’s not good enough.

Here’s the problem. There’s enormous support for wild trout in Pennsylvania (far more than the Commission recognizes, and I’ll address that below). We all want to do something, yet we feel powerless. We’re told to write to our congressmen. Check. I do that. But shouldn’t the Fish Commission be listening? Shouldn’t they be my first stop?

If the PFBC wants to reach a large number of passionate wild trout anglers, I offer this Troutbitten blog as a means for that. I’d argue that no other active PA fishing publication writes more about wild trout and has more support from wild trout anglers. I welcome any conversation with the commission. If you want to speak to wild trout anglers in PA, I invite you to do it here at Troutbitten.

THE REAL SUMMIT | WE CAME TOGETHER

The real summit happened in the halls and on the sidewalks. It was a meeting of the minds. Everyone kind of looked up to see a mass of like-minded anglers who care about the future of wild trout in PA, and it felt good. Across the room, we spotted someone we’ve always wanted to talk with, and we made friends. We came together.

I’ve read hundreds of comments online since the summit and fielded dozens of messages. Make no mistake, the summit consolidated a movement.

I see that some are still focused on the “let’s all come together” phase. But look around. We’re past that now.

With all our various ideas and approaches for protecting, preserving and enhancing wild trout, we are together. We accept that there are many ideas and approaches among us. But there is no argument that will draw us apart.

We are together as a large group of anglers who care about wild trout. We are gear fishers, fly fishers, minnow fishers, dry fly guys, plug chuckers, streamer junkies and worm dunkers. And we all care about wild trout. Now it’s time to figure out what to do next.

READ: Troutbitten | Why Wild Trout Matter

I have some wild trout management solutions that I’ll offer below. But first …

COMMISSION MISSION

Let’s acknowledge the Commission’s stated goal of “Resource First.”

The mission of the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission is to protect, conserve and enhance the Commonwealth’s aquatic resources, and provide fishing and boating opportunities.

Wild trout are a tremendous resource. The Pennsylvania creeks and rivers themselves are a resource. And yes, the hatchery trout are a resource.

At odds then, is how to balance and manage these resources.

We know it’s not easy, and that’s OK.

I recognize and commend the Commission’s efforts to identify wild trout waters and to expand the Class A Wild Trout list. Those waters receive special environmental protections, and that’s extremely important.

But now it’s time to protect the fish themselves, to improve those waters, to let them be what they should be, and stop adding hatchery fish over good wild trout populations.

PFBC SURVEYS & STUDIES

As part of the summit, the Commission cited stats and survey data in a few selected studies. Many of the policy decisions about wild trout and hatchery planted fish are based on these surveys. And I think that’s flawed.

READ: Bill Kosmer’s thoughts about the summit on his blog, Trout Tails.

I have trouble putting much value into surveys. When presented with a question and the options to answer A or B, my answer is often C, and I’m frustrated by the way the questions are framed.

Why are we arguing policy decisions based on telephone survey results from 2008 anyway? That’s before most of us had smart phones and Facebook in our pockets. And that’s well before the latest surge in popularity of fly fishing and C&R.

How about a social media survey from 2017? That might be just as irrelevant and just as exclusive to a full faction of trout anglers.

READ:  PFBC’s Pennsylvania Trout Fishing Survey

At the summit, the Commission cited studies pointing out that wild trout anglers are a small minority. I take issue with those numbers.

If Joe Angler lives next to a stream that’s been stocked his whole life, Joe will tell you that stocked trout are very important to him. But what if Joe’s river is removed from the stocking list? What if slot limits are installed and the wild trout fishery rebounds within two seasons? Now Joe Angler will care a lot more about wild trout the next time he’s surveyed.

The Commission’s surveys show that a majority of PA fishermen fish for relaxation and for sport, not to fill the freezer. Most anglers just want to catch fish, and they like fishing stocked waters because they hold trout (for a while). But in many stocked waters, the quality of fishing would improve and the viable fishing season lengthened if stocking were ended, if slot limits were installed and wild trout were allowed to thrive.

More people want to fish — just to go fishing — rather than kill their catch. The mindset of river as supermarket is fading. Yet that’s what the PFBC still caters to.

The Commission cites survey data showing that “Wild Trout Anglers” are in the minority.

But I believe we are largely unaccounted for. I feel the commission dramatically underestimates the interest in wild trout and the desires of Pennsylvania fishermen.

I’m tired of the accusation that wild trout anglers are in their own bubble. I’m not in a bubble — I see the full picture. And I’m not exclusively a wild trout angler. I fish for all trout, and I care about all trout. Yes, I care about stocked trout. When I travel back to my roots in Western PA, I’m thankful there are hatchery trout in some of the rivers I grew up fishing. I’m thankful for all trout fishing opportunities, and I’m not just a wild trout angler.

But I believe hatchery fish and wild fish should be managed separately.

Furthermore, who cares what percentage the wild trout anglers are? Isn’t the idea to put the resource first? Wild trout are the most valuable resource. We should work to protect, conserve and enhance that resource.

Photo by Chase Howard

SOLUTIONS

Everyone has complaints. Yes, here I am complaining. But how about solutions? I’ll offer mine.

Stop stocking over Class A wild trout populations and install slot limits. Let nature build the fisheries again. Then educate the angling public about wild trout. Let’s break that down a bit …

I suggest to end all stocking on Class A waters. The commission has this data and they are gathering more. Yes, stop stocking all of them with legal trout or with fingerlings. Then keep an eye on the Class B waters. Try to determine which of those Class B waters could be Class A if stocking was ceased and wild trout were given a chance.

Use slot limits to manage harvest and maintain the wild population. For example, allow anglers to keep medium sized fish but not small or large ones — perhaps two trout per day from April until labor day, and no-kill after that.

Then start the education. Feature wild trout wherever they’re found. Include a page in the PA license regulations handbook about the value of wild trout and why rivers with Class A populations will no longer be stocked with hatchery fish. Teach what resource first truly means. Use social media as a place to feature wild fish, instead of posting PA Golden Rainbows.

Teach anglers that the fishery will improve, that the fishing will be better without stocking over wild trout.

Take the extra hatchery trout and add them to put-and-take fisheries where wild trout cannot thrive. I fully understand that hatchery trout are a key resource for good angling opportunities in large regions of the state. I grew up in wild trout purgatory (Southwestern PA). Use hatchery trout where they make sense. Stop wasting them by stocking them in good wild trout rivers.

No one is suggesting that the hatcheries should fold. We are not suggesting that all stocking be eliminated. We are not suggesting that all wild trout rivers be designated Catch and Release. Instead, we’re suggesting a smarter alternative where wild trout are found. As Bill Anderson suggests, “The answer is to curtail hatchery costs and let nature grow the trout!”

NOTE: Penns Creek and The Little Juniata River are excellent examples of the good things that come when stocking over wild trout is ended. They are both premier wild trout destinations in the east.
READ: Troutbitten | Troutboomer and the Little J — Bill Anderson and the Little Juniata River

Lastly, with the money saved, buy public easements (angler access) along these rivers and use it to protect, conserve and enhance the trout fisheries. Get in touch with a local Trout Unlimited chapter. They’ll tell you what the river needs.

THE TROUTBITTEN GROUP

Since the summit, many have followed discussions through various individual Facebook posts and blogs. As Eric Richard likes to say, many of us are “dancing around a fire” for wild trout.

Well, we need a fire ring.

In an effort to consolidate a group that feels passionately about the future of wild trout in Pennsylvania, I started “The Troutbitten Group” on Facebook.

I’m sure the conversations there will diverge into the techniques of fishing for trout, and they should. But I hope the group provides a platform for discussing ideas for managing PA wild trout. Let’s see what becomes of it. Here’s where the next summit starts.

WE NEED EVERYONE, INCLUDING THE GUIDES AND THE COMP GUYS

We are gear fishers, fly fishers, minnow fishers, dry fly guys, plug chuckers, streamer junkies and worm dunkers. And we all care about wild trout.

Noticeably absent in much of this dialogue are the majority of Pennsylvania fishing guides. Wild trout need the support of the guiding community. We also need the support of the competition fly fishing community.

My friend, and well known PA fishing guide, recently told me that he feels conflicted about this because he often guides a private club that stocks over an excellent wild trout population.

I say who cares? We still need you. Sure, I see the duplicity, but I also understand the business of guiding. I understand that some clients want the hero shot with a big fish, and I understand that club owners know what brings in big dollars.

I think changing the club culture is a separate issue. That too probably starts with education, and it might take time to deliver the message to clients and club owners that overstuffed, artificial trout aren’t really much of a prize. Maybe guides can start sending that message. Wouldn’t we all like to guide over wild fish that are given a chance to grow into size without overcrowding and overfeeding?

The truth is, we need guides to be at the forefront of this discussion. They know the waters best.

READ: Troutbitten | Wild vs Stocked — The Hierarchy of Trout in Pennsylvania 

NOW IS THE TIME

The wild trout summit was successful in engaging and building a community of anglers who are dedicated and passionate about wild trout. We are together. It’s a network. Now we must decide what to do next.

I invite everyone to visit the Troutbitten Facebook group to figure that out.

I honestly believe that the majority of anglers would be happier with a good wild trout fishery rather than a good stocked trout fishery. In some places, fishermen just need to be given the chance to see the difference.

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

Photo by Pat Burke

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11 Comments
  1. Reply

    Bryan Allison

    September 1, 2017

    Good luck Domenick. Commendable efforts. While Montana may seem ‘behind the times’ on several fronts, trout stream management isn’t one of them. This state already went through what Pennsylvania appears to be facing now back in the ’70s. Below are the links to a couple good summary articles on the subject, featuring Dick Vincent and his central role. Public perception and trout management policy did a 180 here. The bottom one is a video that’s well worth the watch.

    http://fwp.mt.gov/mtoutdoors/HTML/articles/2004/DickVincent.htm

    http://www.outdoorlife.com/blogs/gone-fishin/2014/04/montana-trout-fishery

    • Reply

      Domenick Swentosky

      September 1, 2017

      Right on. Thanks for those links, Bryan. Yeah, MT is sort of the model for what can be done.

      Skeptics immediately point out that PA is more populated, and our access to public/private water is different than MT. Fair points, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to jump those hurdles.

  2. Reply

    Bill Anderson

    September 2, 2017

    Notice that in Montana TU played a major role in the transition from a grow and stock to a wild trout only policy. Where is the PATU on this subject?

  3. Reply

    Mike

    September 5, 2017

    Hi ! I’m not sure I know the reasons why it should be one way exclusively . Any educational explanatory links you can toward? The stocked fish are detrimental to “wild” trout? Thanks

    • Reply

      Domenick Swentosky

      September 5, 2017

      Hi Mike,

      What do you mean by “one way exclusive?”

      As for sources for the info you seek, you can find a lot by digging a little. But I can start you off with a link I posted in the previous commentary post: Why Wild Trout Matter.
      https://troutbitten.com/2017/08/23/why-wild-trout-matter/

      In that article, I included a link to the book “An Entirely Synthetic Fish,” by Anders Halverson. The bibliography included there will provide enough reading for the next ten years of spare time. Great book on the topic at hand.

      And another extremely current source is found here in this article by Troutlook:
      http://www.thetroutlook.com/latest-updates/pros-vs-cons-of-hatchery-stocking-part-3

      The PFBC policy of stocking over Class wild trout populations is based in public appeasement, not in science. It’s an effort to save license sales, and is short sighted, in my opinion.

      The science, as you’ll see in those sources … is on the side of the wild trout.

      So am I.

      Thanks, Mike.

  4. Reply

    Mike Doherty

    September 6, 2017

    I can feel you passion and I’m not questioning the science I’m just not educated. Enough to hold An opinion or start a discussion . Thanks for the” point ” . .I’ll read assess and learn.

    Dominic, were the Wild trout not once stocked fish? Are wild trout all naturals?

    • Reply

      Domenick Swentosky

      September 6, 2017

      The browns were stocked a century ago, or more. Now they are the heart of our best rivers, and wild. The brookies are native to Pennsylvania.

  5. Reply

    Mike

    September 7, 2017

    Domenick , it certainly is tuff to differentiate a 2013 stocked brown from a wild fish . The 1890 strain has probably been long diluted? Is the point that stocked fish are no longer needed in some places and in those spots adding more hinders the growth and health of what’s there? If yes,is this fact or thesis? Thanks

    • Reply

      Domenick Swentosky

      September 8, 2017

      Thanks for the questions, Mike.

      See, I don’t think it is actually tough to differentiate a PFBC hatchery raised brown trout and a wild brown trout.

      When stocked as catch-able fish, they have a very different look to them. Even when they hold over, they rarely lose that hatchery look.

      When stocked as fingerlings, it can be more difficult to tell.

      Some private hatcheries raise much better looking fish. I’m told that’s partly due to raising a different strain and also partly how they are raised and what they are fed.

      State hatchery fish have been genetically selected through the years to feed aggressively, grow quickly, and to thrive in constant temperatures and crowded tanks.

      Those qualities don’t make it very far in the wild, and the survival rate of stocked trout is very low, even for fingerlings.

      So yes, the point is that where stocked trout are no longer needed that they will hinder the growth and health of what is already there.

      And, no, that’s not just my thesis. It’s fact. You can track the info down through Anders Halverson’s book An Entirely Synthetic fish, and in that Bibliography.

      Also, take a look at the latest posts from the thetroutlook.com.

      Thank, Mike.

  6. Reply

    Mike

    September 9, 2017

    Hi Domenick. My point of reference is as a Jersey catch and release outdoorsman . We have few wild trout. There are a hand full of natural 5 inch Brooke’s. My circle includes many conservation minded people who work and support clean cold water. For now, and maybe forever, the holdover is king and allows us to enjoy and be outside. White leaves some room and I’ve order Halverstons book . Thanks for the discussion and resources. If my home was the West Branch I would have a diffrent prospective. I get what your saying . Some places stocked fish are needed. Great thought provoking post . Thanks

    • Reply

      Domenick Swentosky

      September 11, 2017

      Right on. Every watershed is different. I have to say it constantly, that there’s a place for hatchery fish. It just isn’t over top of good wild trout populations. But I’m happy for the stocked trout where wild trout cannot thrive.

      People seem to get into an either/or mindset about so many things these days. I’m not for or against stocked trout. I’m both.

What do you think?

Domenick Swentosky
BELLEFONTE, PA

Hi. I'm a father of two young boys, a husband, writer, musician and fisherman. I fly 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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