“Once a stocked trout is in the river for a while, it becomes just like a wild one.” I hear this idea a lot. Anglers of all experience levels have levied this argument, likely from the time stocked fish were first planted in a river. It’s the premise that stocked trout adapt to their surroundings, that they take on the characteristics and habits of their wild counterparts. But is this true? Is it, really?
No, it’s not. In short, stocked fish are stocked, and there’s no amount of time in the water that changes that.
Now, I’m well aware of the dissenting opinion. It’s a popular one. I’ve heard it a lot and understand the argument. But I don’t buy it — not because I’m guessing, but because of what I’ve seen and experienced over decades on the water. I’ve caught a lot of trout, both wild and stocked, and there’s a clear difference between the two.
It’s not all that complicated, really. Stocked trout are a different animal, and they tend to stay that way.
It all begins at the genetic level . . .
** Note ** This article has received some comments that miss the point. This topic here is about a trout. It’s not about a population of trout. Surely, we all recognize that the brown trout, introduced over a hundred years ago into various parts of the United States, are now wild trout. And they act like it. That’s a good example. But again, this article is about what happens when a trout is stocked in a stream. Does that one trout take on the characteristics of a wild fish?
It’s in the Genes
The best wild trout come from a gene pool that has existed in the watershed for generations. Perhaps it’s a native population of brook trout, present in the Appalachian streams since the last ice age. Or maybe it’s a strain of German brown trout, introduced to many American river systems in the late 1800’s. In both cases, these trout are wild. And their genes are largely unaffected by the progress and intrusions of mankind. The best wild trout populations are specific to their own river systems, and they’ve adapted to the seasonal highs and lows, to whatever the decades of chance have brought to the collective population. The strength to thrive and persist is in those wild genes.
Hatchery trout are the opposite of all that. Most stocked trout are from hatchery strains that have been genetically selected to grow fast and feed aggressively. Fish farming is a business. So hatcheries promote trout strains that live best in a hatchery.
These hatchery fish are the result of science. Hatcheries are prone to the outbreak of disease, because so many fish are in close proximity. They harbor schools in the thousands of trout per ten-foot-wide tank. So fish biologists select the trout most resistant to such disease. And these hatchery trout produce eggs for the next generation. However, the same strains, selected to thrive in a hatchery, are poor performers in the wild. The return on hatchery fish — the ones that make it through a full year — are shockingly low, even where they are protected by special regulations like catch and release. Conditions and rivers vary, but the estimated rate of return can be lower than five percent. It seems that stocked trout are ill equipped for a wild environment.
(For a thorough, science-based reading of the hatchery system in the US, and its history, check out Anders Halverson’s book, An Entirely Synthetic Fish. For even more reading on the subject, work through the contained bibliography.)
READ: Troutbitten | Clarity and Science about Wild vs Stocked Trout
Likewise, hatcheries do best when trout grow quickly. The faster a fish develops, the sooner it can be sent to the river. So biologists select the fastest growers to be the next breeders. What makes a trout grow fast? They feed aggressively. And that quality is nothing like our wary wild trout.
So then, stocked trout are genetically different than their wild counterparts. And they don’t become “wild” just by placing them in a wild environment. In fact, they usually die. But what of the ones that do adapt enough to survive? Don’t they learn to find natural food, don’t they blend in, learn the rules of the stream and become wild? No. Not really.
Buy An Entirely Synthetic Fish HERE
A stocked trout may hold over for years, and certainly, many do. But remember, the percentage is very low. Even when a trout does hold over, it never loses the propensity to feed more aggressively than a wild fish. And it also grows faster than its wild cousins.
Genetically, stocked fish are different, and that simply does not change. A German Shorthaired Pointer will never herd animals the same way an Australian Shepherd does, no matter how long you keep him on a farm with sheep and cattle. Likewise, the shepherd will never be the wonderful bird dog that the pointer is. The genes don’t change.
These days, some select private hatcheries focus on collecting eggs from pure strains of trout. In essence, they breed trout from wild stock. They may produce cleaner looking fish with more vibrant colors. So the trout look more wild, and when they are stocked, it may be impossible to distinguish a hatchery creation from the real thing. But while these fish are much closer to wild than their mainstream hatchery counterparts, they still suffer from the same fate as all hatchery trout — human, artificial conditioning . . .
Experience is the Best Teacher
A wild trout is born in the stream. The head and tail sprout from an egg into a form called an alevin — it looks very much like a tadpole. A month or more later, the trout is a full fledged fry — a small, inches-long fish trying not to be eaten by bigger fish. It learns caution. It learns to hide and be wary. And it learns the natural rhythms of nature, of the food cycle and bug life. It may even experience both drought and flood conditions in its first year.
These learned and imprinted behaviors of a trout’s early life can never be fully changed.
I encourage you to walk through a trout hatchery someday. (Many of them give tours.) When my boys were younger, we enjoyed taking a bucket of fish-food pellets and walking along the long concrete tanks, throwing a meal to the fish. I noted the habits of these trout. They ate quickly. They were competitive and very eager to feed. Notably, a human being walking overhead was a signal to feed, not a signal to dart away to the nearest undercut bank.
Even in private hatcheries, trout are conditioned for artificial feeding. And they’re conditioned to the protection that a hatchery provides. Likewise they learn to school up and feed in groups. Essentially, they are coddled and protected until the time they’re released into the wild. And I argue, emphatically, that a stocked fish never completely unlearns these early lessons.
The Life and Times of the Troutbitten Guy
I have a somewhat unique perspective on all of this, because of the places I’ve lived and the unusual amount of time I’ve been given for chasing trout. I grew up in western Pennsylvania, where acid mine drainage made the possibility of reproducing wild trout a thing of the past. (Some of these streams have since been recovered, and that is fantastic.)
So, I learned the habits of stocked fish, and I know them well. But I’ve spent the majority of my life, since about 1993, surrounded by wild trout and casting to them. I’ve tried to think like a trout and understand what, why and how they eat in these spring-fed waters of central PA.
I’ve also spent decades exploring every county in Pennsylvania, with a four-wheel drive, topographical atlas of the state and a list of trout waters from the fish commission. Along the way I’ve made a point to fish both wild and stocked rivers. And my experience teaches me, over and over, that stocked fish never become wild.
I fish some areas where the state stocks enough trout fingerlings (about five-inches) to maintain a decent population of trout in the river (even at low returns). And these fingerlings-turned-adults still feed differently than their wild brothers, many years later.
Our state now promotes what they call the Keystone Select Trout program, telling anglers they are provided a chance to catch “trophy” fish, stocked by the state. I’ve fished these locations. The trout are indeed large, and they are often attractive fish that look quite wild. But they are remarkably easier to fool than their wild brothers that reside just a few miles up in the headwaters.
In short, the longer a trout lives in a hatchery, the easier it is to fool.
Even after many years in the stream, a hatchery fish does not change much. My friends and I once caught the same twenty-inch trout six times, over a few seasons. When one of us fished the area, we either caught or spotted this trout. And I noted how differently it responded to my streamers. Initially, I believed the trout was wild, because it was in an unstocked river, surrounded by wild fish. But after multiple times catching this fish, and watching its aggressive reactions to poorly presented flies, I came to believe it was a holdover from a club that stocked and fed fish many miles below.
READ: Troutbitten | Why Wild Trout Matter
Just because you want to believe it . . .
Anglers tend to convince themselves of things they wish were true. You may want badly for that large Whiskey to be a Namer, so you make yourself believe it. And you keep the measuring tape packed away, because you’re sure enough that this one is a two-footer. We all know anglers like this, right?
But you can’t wish something into reality.
I meet trout fishers from all different parts of the country — some from places that harbor no wild trout or only small populations in isolated mountain streams. In these areas, the state often stocks hundreds of thousands of trout every year to create a trout fishery. It’s a manufactured scenario. And honestly, sometimes the fishing is fantastic. Anglers who fish these rivers might argue vehemently that their fish are “nearly wild” or “just like wild trout.” But if they visit true wild trout waters on a regular basis, they will see the comparison for themselves. When you fish for both, the differences are undeniable.
READ: Troutbitten | Wild vs Stocked : The Hierarchy of Trout in Pennsylvania
Stocked trout fisheries, especially those that feature large, “trophy” fish, may even train an angler to expect certain unnatural habits of a trout. Stocked fish often take attractor types of retrieves that simply do not produce over wild fish — not on any regular basis. I often mention this to my guests: Be careful what you learn from success on the river. Always consider what kind of trout you fooled and how you fooled it.
I’ve written a lot about wild trout here on Troutbitten. And a good, long read through those articles reveals my strong stance for protecting and enhancing wild trout populations wherever they exist.
READ: Troutbitten | Tag | Wild vs Stocked
Stocked fish are a poor substitute for the real thing. And that will never change. They are genetically different, and they are conditioned to be different. Experience has taught me that none of that changes, no matter how many seasons a stocked trout may hold on.
I’m also against private clubs stocking over wild trout populations. It should be illegal. This practice is against our PA fish commission’s stated management policy regarding Class A Wild Trout waters. And I believe our fish commission should stop all stocking and feeding of artificial trout in wild trout waters. Keep wild trout wild.
The proliferation of stocked and fed club trout sets a dangerous precedent of expectations, especially for the new angler, who learns that big, fat trout can come pretty easily.
But I’m not against stocking, either. I’m thankful for the trout I grew up catching in western PA — the stocked rainbow and brown trout were in streams that could not support a wild population. Stocked fish certainly have a place. But they are not wild. And they will never take on the true habits of wild fish.
Fish hard, friends.
(I welcome your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below. Be nice to each other.)
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Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
Stocked holdovers must “interbreed” with wild trout in places. Are the offspring wild?
Yes, of course. “Wild” means born in the stream. So in that case, they are wild. And this is one of the many reasons why stocked trout should not be stocked over wild fish. In weakens the gene pool. However, if you talk to a lot of the state fishery guys and girls, they will tell you that most of the trout that come out of a hatchery are unable to reproduce. FWIW.
Unfortunately NYS does stock over wild trout, most notably in East Branch of the Delaware. Our DEC is currently looking to revise the ways that our trout rivers will be managed, with greater distinction and support for wild trout and stocked trout. They are also looking to modernize their approach to managing the Delaware tailwater fisheries. Hopefully this will bring an end to EB stocking.
Agree. Sure would be nice if the states would put the resource first. Trouble is that the hatchery programs are so embedded in the financial systems of our state agencies, it’s tough to make big changes.
RIGHT…embedded in the financial system. Do we expect the many employed by DNR to give up their jobs???????????????
I live in the driftless region where 90% of browns/brooks are wild. Though in some years there will be stocking programs that does stock to diverse the gene pool. You must remember that wild brook and stock brook still have the same chromosomes and same DNA. They are not two different fish. To say that a wild is superior to a stock in terms of survival is very inaccurate. Infact stock fish actually survive better than the wild. They grow faster resulting in outcompeting for food vs. The wild. The only factor that a wild may have over stock is the stealth to avoid predation from preditory birds. Offsprings of stock trout will become F1 wild being born in the wild. A stock trout will not be as vibrant in color not due to a genetic disadvantage but more so because it did not get access to eat insects from the river that will give its vibrant pigmentation. Stocking provide more genetic diversity into the wild fish gene. This prevent purebreeding in the wild which can result leading into genetic defects or immunocompromising.
“You must remember that wild brook and stock brook still have the same chromosomes and same DNA. They are not two different fish.”
In many places they are. Most hatcheries select for trout that grow fast and feed quickly. (I covered this above.)
” In fact stock fish actually survive better than the wild.”
They most certainly do not, Dave. And I’d challenge you to find any legitimate study that states that about stocked trout. In our state, the survival rate is in the low single digits, but it depends on how and when they were stocked too.
“Stocking provide more genetic diversity into the wild fish gene. This prevent purebreeding in the wild which can result leading into genetic defects or immunocompromising.”
No thank you. I’d rather let nature provide the genetic diversity. I trust nature more than man to take care of things. Over the millennia, trout did pretty well for themselves without needing us to save them from the things you mentioned. But hatchery fish do spread disease to wild populations, so there’s that.
I hope so too Rick. I love the East Branch.
To me, it makes no sense to continue on with a misguided and failing hatchery system, with the excuse that employees will lose jobs.
If I read you correctly, you believe the state should continue the act of stocking over wild trout so that the hatchery employees continue to have work.
I feel certain that the good work that hatchery employees provide can be put toward a much more productive and sustainable cause.
Stocking over wild trout is an immense waste of resources, and it’s wrong.
Stop stocking over wild trout. That’s all.
Experiencing at guiding clients for wild trout and stockers raises a thought. If you can catch the same fish time and time again after releasing is the wild trout now domesticated like the hatchery raised fish !!?. Once condition of any species the wild label dissapears.
With sincere respect, I don’t understand your logic. Why would being caught a few times make a wild trout anything like a stocked trout?
A wild trout is wild. It starts that way, and it’ll finish that way. Same with a stocked fish.
Thanks for that article, I read it twice and I understand truly what you’re saying and agree. Hopefully the folks that are in charge of the stocking programs can understand what you’re saying. It is vitally important that they do. I forwarded this to my list up fishing buddies. Thanks again Joe
Having had responsibility for managing a large provincial stocking program for decades I agree with much of what is said here. Hatcheries are very much a product of the industrial age. However, some comments (like hatchery fish don’t reproduce in the wild) are misleading. Hatchery raised fish using wild genetic stocks have been essential to restoring depleted great lakes lake trout stocks, and the aurora trout would not exist were it not for hatcheries. But I do agree we can’t build a wild fish and that’s why it’s so essential to protect them from overexploitation, habitat loss, and yes, hatchery fish.
Spawning in the wild is highly dependent on how removed the population is from wild broodstock. First generation wild fish raised in a hatchery for a year will spawn effectively in the wild.
Right on. Good point. But trout from those eggs often don’t do well in a hatchery environment either.
And the survival rate, once stocked, also depends on many other factors such, as how long the trout was in the hatchery and if the trout can adapt to the particular river it is stocked in.
I would invite you to tour Bath Fish Hatchery in NY. 2.5 hours from Bellefonte, I would love to show you some very successful wild strains of trout we raise and stock and where progressive changes are being made. As Rick said, NY is in the middle of designing and implementing a brand new trout stream management plan which should benefit self sustaining populations of trout. Lumping all fish raised in a hatchery together is not good conduct when there is so much diversity between them.
Great! I’m really glad to hear that. Is this a private hatchery or a state hatchery? I’d love to learn more about the way the hatchery is set up and how you have a wild strain of trout dealing with close quarters in hatchery conditions.
I did not lump all hatchery trout together in the article above. I specifically mentioned the quality trout that some private hatcheries are raising:
“These days, some select private hatcheries focus on collecting eggs from pure strains of trout. In essence, they breed trout from wild stock. They may produce cleaner looking fish with more vibrant colors . . . etc.”
But at the end of that paragraph, I also brought up the conditioning to human/artificial environments that hatchery fish go through. How do you deal with that conditioning? Again, I’ve fished for some privately raised trout, that were absolutely gorgeous. And yet, the longer they were in the hatchery, the less like wild trout were their habits.
It is a state facility. Some of the hardest challenges in raising first generation wild fish is that they often maintain much of those wild characteristics. Jumping all the time, where they position themselves in a race way, shyness to feeders, light and shadows. They are picky on feed size, often lacking the same aggressiveness as domestics. Trying to move wild fish through pumps is much harder as they fight the flow the whole time. The difference is night and day between them right up until we stock them. They are more difficult to raise but we work to accommodate their needs and do so with great success.
Chuck. Thanks so much for that description. I sent you an email.
Also, you’re describing a first hand account about the differences between first generation wild fish and standard hatchery fare. I think that’s valuable info anyone who doubts that there’s much difference, genetically.
Dom…love your knowledge and viewpoint… and no I am not concerned about hatchery employees…I agree with you .I am strongly pissed about the waste of stocking trout….5% survival…ridiculous.
That’s interesting. I did not know that a large portion of hatchery fish are sterile. The survival rate is also surprisingly low. Just curious, where did that 5 percent survival rate come from? Was it in Halverson’s book? I wonder where he got it. Don’t get me wrong; believe the survival rate is low, I am just curious about the evidence.
Yes, it’s in Halverson. And as I mentioned, the bibliography he provides in the back is full of studies and papers. I went down that rabbit hole some years back. I’ve even heard returns as low as two percent, but that was after two years. Again, if gives you an idea of how wasteful the hatchery system can be. The majority of stocked trout are built for put and take and nothing more.
You know ..there fish some are different than others. Just have to enjoy the ones we can.
I have fished for trout for 60 y now and i have learned a few things. The fish i enjoy most are the fish im fishing for at the moment. If i really don’t like the fish i leave them alone.
Bet you could not tell difference without a tag !!
I bet you might be right. Some stocked trout are poor imitations of their wild counterparts. Our standard state hatchery fish are pretty easily identified as stocked, even when they hold over. But many private hatcheries raise trout in more natural conditions, even feeding foods that contain carotene (I’ve been told) to encourage more natural colors. Honestly, I think it’s sad when good looking stocked trout are planted on top of already excellent wild trout populations. For the angler, it’s sometimes impossible to tell if your catch was wild or stocked. And that cheapens the experience.
Hey in Oregon I know they get the eggs from wild fish and return the fish to the wild..Salmon steelhead and trout these are ODFW fish not some money making fish farm..I believe your article was not region specific..Cause what we do here a lot of other states don’t.. That’s why hatchery Salmon fight just the same as native after 2 yrs in the Ocean..Same with the sea run cutthroat trout. Your research wasn’t really research it was more observation and opinion..
Correct. This is not scientific research here. It is opinion, and my paragraphs above convey that. Harvesting wild eggs is surely the closest you can get to wild. Other states and areas do the same. It’s still an artificial process. And the longer those fish are in the hatchery before being planted, the less wild they ever will be. I think that’s obvious.
As I understand it the hatcheries adjust the water temperature on the eggs which sterilize the fish?
Anyways I think when trout have been breading in a waterway long enough they become like any native fish I’ve ever caught. The original stocked fish never will fully, but it’s offspring can. Just like when cats and dogs become feral again.
My state stocks mostly sterilized trout so they do not interbreed with the native trout population.
The brook trout have been in my area since before people were. And the stocked fish seem just like them to me once they adjust as a population. (not individually)
I agree with you. So this article asks if a stocked fish ever becomes wild — a single fish and not a population. The generational question is a good one too, but a different discussion. But after a generation or so, those trout become very wild and can be very difficult. For example, every brown trout that we catch around here. Not native. But oh my are they wild.
I fish mainly wild trout in the Eastern half of PA. My preference are the streams with no over stocking. I do fish some streams with over stocking. And yes, there is a HUGE difference between stocked and wild. I can tell by how they strike and fight if it is wild or stocked. The biggest difference I have seen: either wild trout I get 2 or 3, maybe 4 casts, then I have to move to the next hole. If I catch a wild fish. I have to move on, because the rest will go hide. With stocked fish, even if they they have been holdovers for a few years, I can catch several in the same pool.
I’m from McDowell County in West Virginia and there’s a trout stream called Elkhorn Creek that will change your mind real quick. The trout were put in about 40 years ago when a stocking truck broke down beside the creek and offloaded his tank since the trout would have died if not. The creek is full of big and small browns and rainbows. You can get your fly rod or spinning rod bent pretty good with frequency. The creed dumps into the Tug River that also has plenty of good trout now. The difference is probably that the creek is fed by of the cleanest mountain springs in the country. You can drink the water running straight of a pipe stuck in the spring, a lot of people get their already ice cold drinking water year round. You can find stories about it on YouTube.
This article asks if a stocked fish ever becomes wild — a single fish and not a population. I feel like I addressed that in the article and in these comments. I agree with you completely that a stocked population of trout can and will become wild over the generations of trout. I fish for such trout every single day — the wild browns here were, of course stocked so many decades ago. They are not native.
But individual stocked trout do not ever become wild. That’s the point here.
Cheers, and thanks for the comment.
I can’t agree. I have been chasing them a long time, 60 years in multiple states. I rarely fish stocked water.
The fish in the picture is a Triploid rainbow. They can’t reproduce but but get huge. They would beat any rainbow record if allowed. They carry over Ok. Not in streams much. I am in the west and desert streams grow trout fast. One of my favorite rivers has a lot of big and small fish. They reproduce but are overtaken by Squawfish over 15-20 years. They have to restock and start from scratch. Those fish thrive and reproduce nicely. 5 years past the restock the fish are smart and the offspring are truly wild. Plus the fact that high lakes are stocked by airplanes that create fisheries where there were none.
Your story about spotting a 20 inch trout and catching him several time doesn’t hold water. A trout lives 5-7 years max. So a 20 inch fish would be dead in a year or two. Also, how did you recognize him? Did he have a tattoo?
Your understanding of how long a trout can live is wrong. Also, it’s quite easy to recognize a brown trout by looking at its spots. Their patterns are all unique.
It truly is impressive how bad hatchery fish survive in a river. I’ve watched so many seasons worth of trout stocked in C&R water die off under summer drought conditions or heavy winter freezes. Meanwhile, the wild trout are there through it all, surviving incredibly harsh conditions no thanks to the stockers taking up valuable space in the same niche.
My first experience with this was when a local hatchery lost a hundred thousand trout one fall, during a flood. Those five to six in trout were EVERYWEHRE. I remember complaining to the guys in the local fly shop, that we’d be catching these rainbow trout in our brown trout fishery for many years to come. They told me, no. They assured me that the hatchery rainbows would not make it through the winter. I doubted them. They were right. By spring there were none to be found.
Hey Dom, was this Bellefonte in ‘04? Either way, that was the first time in central PA and man I thought I was doing well until I realized there was a hatchery overflow.
Ha! Yes, it was. I remember because it was hurricane Ivan remnants that came through. That was 2004.
Yeah, any rainbow you catch in central PA is stocked from some source. Some guys will tell you that there are a few patches of wild bows on Spring Creek. I don’t really believe they are wild, but I don’t have enough history with them to have a real strong opinion either. I do run into patches of small bows there. Guys may say they’re wild, and they’ll talk about par marks, etc. I just think they are stocked fingerlings from elsewhere, and they swam up together.
That is a great piece. Thank you. And Anders Halverson’s book is a real mindblower. Everything you’ve written here comports with my own experience, especially on those Pennsylvania waters.
One question, as we now have wild brown and rainbow trout in our waters where they historically did not exist (wild meaning they are self propagating and have become wily and adapted to their waters), is that because those early seed stocks from California (rainbows) and browns (Germany and the UK) were not yet so genetically hybridized to emphasize voracious eating and fast growing? In other words, why did stocking work then and not now?
Thanks again for this thoughtful piece.
Thank you, John,
And yes, I think you hit the nail on the head. Our now established populations of wild browns in PA (and many other states) were from wild brood stock. Meaning, the seeds were unaltered.
In Wisconsin, years ago… Dave Vetrano tried something different: The DNR didn’t hold onto brood stock, but went out and shocked brown trout egg and milt donors out of streams. The fry were then raised in tanks with mechanical feeders (not a guy walking down the row throwing feed), and given overhead cover. Wisconsin and Minnesota (I think) are still mostly following this pattern, and then they stock fingerlings rather than grown browns – mostly in streams where natural reproduction is low. They might be doing the same with brook trout, as they try to preserver what they think are closest genetically to what existed before the ag disaster / rampant stocking of the late 1800s/early 1900s.
Rainbows are raised and stocked in the more usual manner, although Minnesota has experimented with fingerling stocking recently.
That’s good stuff. Closer to natural is almost always better.
The same can be said about hatchery vs. wild steelhead. Generally, we can “feel” when we have a wild fish on vs. a hatchery. Are we fooled from time to time? Yes, but rarely. While I don’t have an answer for stocking vs. letting nature take it’s course, in the end, we do our best to educate fishermen that fish throughout the world deserve our upmost respect. To kill and eat fish in put and take lakes but to put back those wild fish so that our kids have a fishery to love as we have.
Wild populations still occur every year from stocked trout to this day. Not all wild populations are hundreds of years old. I can’t count how many streams I find wild fish in that were not present until recently. I also argue that fingerling stocked trout can be become just as picky if not more picky than wild trout. Many wild trout I catch are much more aggressive than stocked trout they have to eat to survive. I also can’t count the number of wild trout I know have seen caught multiple times across multiple fisheries including big tailwaters. If you ever get the chance visit Mossy creek its completely fingerling stocked with some adult trout stocked privately but those fish will kick your theory out the door. I do think it all varies some from stream to stream/state to state. Not all hatchery fish are the same across the board but there is a reason people have been saying this for years and years.
Good stuff, Eric. Thanks for the input.
I have noticed a serious decline in the hatchery brown trout genetics along the east coast. I am seeing a lot more browns with connected spots/lines along the body like tiger trout in multiple states. Most of the browns used to have clean round spots some even sparsely spotted and got red dots after being in the water multiple years but very few like that today in our state fish and game system. It seems these new browns don’t do nearly as good in our put and grow fisheries where the older browns did very well.
I’ve seen the same in places.
I’ve noticed that too Eric. Almost like chain pickerel markings.
Your thoughts are on point. I often think that when i bring a trout to net that I can tell the difference between a stocked fish and truly wild fish. Maybe its the excitement of the moment but it does motivate me to search out and fish the streams that are not under the influence of regular stocking programs. Its hard to argue with the power you feel when you land a 10 inch fish on Spring Creek, Pa. I feel fortunate that there are still waters within a 5 hour drive here in the Northeast where I can pursue my passion to catch wild fish.
Another great article. This article and Halverson’s book should be required reading for every angler who purchases a trout stamp. The resiliency of wild trout was evident in the year that followed the 2016 drought. Water in my favorite wild trout stream was reduced to a trickle and yet many of the wild fish found a way to survive. Nature finds a way!
Food for thought… in streams with a large abundance of a specific food source, stocked trout that have been in the stream for some time are more difficult to catch if you do not have an imitation in your box of that specific food source. The reason being that stocked trout are conditioned to feed on pellets – the same food day in and day out. Freshly stocked trout (super easy to catch) will try to eat just about anything (including sticks and rocks) until the find a food source that they can successfully eat and then associate that with food. My observations have been that during periods when the are rising, unless you have the exact imitation, they can be difficult to catch. I am of the belief that a good presentation will usually catch the trout you are targeting but I have had instances where this is just not the case. Wild trout on the other hand have to be more opportunistic, which would be a trait that is selected for for survival. Generally, I do agree that wild trout are more difficult to catch, but this is my theory on an exception in which I have experienced quite often on my home waters over the last twenty years. Thoughts?
I know what you mean. Stocked trout are often not nearly as predictable as wild fish. The wild ones do what they’re supposed to. And they often turn on, as a group, to a specific prevalent insect, while recently stocked trout may completely ignore the same insect. That’s my experience.
Most of my fishing is done on a put and take creek in Maryland and a DH Keystone Select stream in south east PA simply because they are close to where I live. I’m also fortunate enough to fish wild trout streams in northern Baltimore County (though not as often because they are a little farther away). I agree with you that wild and stocked fish are certainly different. They have to be. I love my local streams and can sympathize with the folks who say the fish are “nearly wild” and “just like wild” but at the end of the day they just aren’t.
Maybe angler ego gets mixed up in this a little bit. There are certainly anglers who feel that they are superior or inferior based on the provenance of the fish they chase.
The fish always surprise me, both wild and stocked. They constantly humble me also. They’re mysterious. It’s one of the reasons I love fishing. No matter what stream we’re on or what fish we’re after, all we can do is try to fish well and enjoy the day.
Thanks for this thoughtful article. I believe that you are right on all the major points of the stocked vs wild issue. Here are my thoughts.
Many state fish commissions will need to continue stocking trout in waters that don’t support natural trout populations. This is a legitimate use of their budget. But they also need to explore other initiatives: acquisition of waters or access for the public, remedial work on some streams, the establishment of sanctuaries in some headwaters or sections of streams, mandatory catch and release regulations on wild trout waters, limiting seasons on wild trout waters, limiting fishing pressure on wild trout waters, etc.
As you point out, limiting expectations will be an important factor going forward in preserving and improving our wild fisheries.
I have fished area’s in the state of Maine all wild trout and there is nothing like it and they are not easy to catch.
They never stop fighting.
I hope and pray that they never stock Hatchey fish in the remote ponds that are there.
I’ve seen ponds in the middle of Maine that had wild fish and they stocked Hatchey and in several years the wild fish caught Hatchey disease called cocoa pods a parasite that attaches to the gills and a fish dies because it can’t breathe.
To my knowledge that parasite never dies until all host are dead.
How many generations of trout does it take to become wild? All Salmo trutta (and a few Loch levans) came from Europe. Surely, the reproducing populations of North American Brown Trout can by now, be considered wild. Maybe non-native, but surely wild. Likewise the reproducing populations of Rainbows transplanted from the Western states to the East generations ago can now wear the “wild” badge. So, at what point does this happen?
As soon as it was born in the stream.
Same reply as Brenden, here. As I brought up in the article, what me mean by wild is born in the stream.
Also, many readers have lumped their bias about groups of trout over time to this article. And that’s a great discussion as well. But it’s not in this article. This is about what happens when one hatchery trout is stocked in a river. Does that trout ever become wild in nature? I argue that it does not — not completely.
The key question is, why do the vast majority of stocked trout fail to holdover? The forces of natural selection obviously do them in, but why? Which traits are they missing? Which traits make them susceptible to an early demise? And for that tiny % of stocked fish that make it, maybe, just maybe they posses the traits that wild fish have?
Well put, Domenick. I get it now and agree 100%. My main river is loaded with wild Browns and is stocked with “fingerling” (5”) Rainbows. Thanks for the clarification. Good job.
That doesn’t make sense and is antithetical to your argument. You argue that the genetic differences of stockers mean they’ll never be wild individually, but as soon as a fish hatches in a stream its “wild” even if both its parents are stocked? Wouldn’t they be carrying all those genes and traits bred into them through generations of farming? I understand that growing up in the wild will give it a vastly different experience than a hatchery and set it up better for success, but it’s still the same “hatchery genes” right? While I agree with you on many fronts and am a huge fan of Halverson’s book, I think you’ve oversimplified the argument and created an unscientific false equivalence based on your feelings and rudimentary observations. While those stockers are not as a whole the same as their wild counterparts due to interbreeding and selection of desired characteristics, they are still trout and they still carry the DNA of their ancestors. That DNA will rise to the top whether in five generations or 5 months. What I’m saying is that if you stock 10,000 fingerling in a stream that can support them, sure many or most will die due to lack of ability to deal with their environment. But they are still trout, they still have the genes to be “wild”, and some of those fish will start to express those genes and wild behaviors, as some will only display hatchery behaviors. It’s called survival of the fittest, i.e. evolution. There Wouldn’t be any wild browns or rainbows in the eastern US if this wasn’t the case, they’d all have been picked off long ago. But we do have them, in countless numbers. If no hatchery fish ever became wild this would not be possible. Again I don’t dispute most of what you claim, just that it’s impossible for stockers to become wild and that they all die, and that the next generation is automatically wild. There is a lot of nuance in genetics and evolution and its silly of us to think that a few generations of domestication can do away with millions of years of natural selective breeding. Nature will find a way, those that are able to express the genes that will thrive in that particular waterway will do so and those that continue to mute those genes to display the characteristics we bred into them will likely die.
Thanks for comment. Respectfully, no, I’m not oversimplifying anything.
There are two problems here:
First, like many of the other commentors, you’re taking an article that I wrote about a single trout and bringing into it the discussion of whole populations. That’s a great topic too, but it’s not what this article is about.
Second, you don’t care for the definition of wild. But that’s what it means. It’s a fish born in the river. I can’t change that, and neither can you. I certainly agree that the term is problematic, given the situation you set up, that the next generation from stocked parents is automatically wild. But there we are again, back to problem one.
Sounds like you would like a new term for wild trout born from stocked parents. Great. Let’s come up with a new word. We need one, I agree. But then, how many generations down the line will that term apply?
Wilds means what it means. Born in the stream. In your scenario, are we to call that trout born in the stream from stocked parents, “stocked?” Certainly not. So you and I agree that the topic is nuanced.
Essentially, we’ve hit on the very problem with stocking over wild trout in the first place. Things get muddy and unclear.
Stop stocking over wild trout. That’s always the answer, in my opinion.
I’ve always referred to holdover trout as “acclimated” – which is not to say they’ve lost their habits developed in the runways or changed their DNA, but that they’ve gained the ability to identify natural food sources. I’m sure any trout can learn this. So, for example, the longer the trout lives in a stream, the more willing it is to accept a PT nymph as a food source. So for me, I’d prefer catching a holdover trout to a freshly stocked trout. And of course, I’d prefer a wild trout to a holdover trout. It only makes sense that a trout that’s been in the stream a year or more is more in tune with nature than a trout “fresh off the boat”, even if it’s DNA isn’t a wild strain.
Totally agree. And that’s how I broke it down here:
Although, that kind of classification of things tends to frustrate some people. And I understand that too. But I think it’s extremely helpful to understand what we are fishing for. Only then can we really know what we should be learning.
Dom…it appears there is bigger conversation brewing re:” mayfly populations decimated” throughout. ALL trout will be subjected if the claim is true!
What I read is the study is about the Hex hatch. Am I missing more?
Hello Dom! Just had to chime in on this discussion! Great read and interesting points ~ this really gets my blood pumping! My favorite stream here, close to my home, has been getting fingerling brown plants annually for 10+ years. Along with adult rainbows that are stocked yearly as well. The browns are in great shape for fingerlings. There also are some wild browns in the stream. This past April, the PFBC, on their in season stocking run, to this particular creek, felt the need to stock adult browns. The reason, they claim, was the hatchery “RAN OUT” of rainbows o.O. I find this counterproductive trying to establish a better brown trout fishery only to risk interbreeding of these hatchery mutts. I’ve also seen the stress on the resident browns since these hatchery fish were stocked. I’m still catching them (hatchery adult plants) almost every trip out. It’s about 50/50 hatchery or fingerling wild. I hope this doesn’t have any long term effects on this stream. I just find it really frustrating they dumped whatever fish were available to keep the truck chasers happy. However, possibly jeopardizing what was originally established. Thanks again for your insightful information! I wholeheartedly support what you say!
I’m with you. We have some streams around here that the state “manages” as both Class A Wild Trout and Stocked. That’s their language, not mine. I almost posted a picture in the article above, showing the one of the dumbest signs from a state institution that I’ve ever read. But I probably already said enough.
My experiences are similar to yours and I wholeheartedly agree, hatchery trout never truly act like wild fish no matter how long they live outside the confines of a hatchery. Most waters I fish contain only wild fish, but I do occasionally fish a few waters with a mix of wild and hatchery fish (all fin clipped). The hatchery fish hold in different locations than the wild fish, don’t respond to hatches or flies the same way, and definitely don’t fight as well either. I can tell in seconds after hooking a trout whether it’s wild or a hatchery fish, and that includes fish stocked as fingerlings. I guess hatcheries have their place, but I sure am glad I live where wild and native trout still have strong populations.
I am a 67-year-old woman, an avid angler since age 6, a fly fisher since age 15, and now retired from a decades-long part-time career in the fly fishing industry as a guide and instructor. Amen, Dominick, to your thoughts on hatchery vs. wild trout. I’ve been preaching something similar to anyone who would listen for many years. This is a long overdue discussion, and thanks for promoting it. Hatchery trout are like a drug. The addicts love it and it feels good, but it’s not healthy for anyone involved. When the PAF&BC stopped stocking Slate Run, in north central PA, one man I knew ranted that the Fish Commission was “destroying” that stream. By not stocking it? Really? “Who wants to catch five-inch Brook Trout?” he sneered. I do, if they’re wild. And, of course, they’re not all five-inches long. To have big wild trout, you must first have little ones.
Bless you for your dedication to Wild fish.
It’s pretty simple folks . Hatchery (chicken) trout being diseases like whirling for example. Hence hatchery trout that are stocked are sterile and incapable of breeding. There is nothing wild about them and there never will be . Place like Colorado and the east are for the addicted
I agree with your overview. But not all stocked trout are sterile. And neither all of Colorado or ‘the East” are just stocked trout fishing. In fact, most states with trout populations have succumb to the hatchery machine. Anyway, here in PA, part of the East, we have many regions that are wild trout dominant.
I am 81 years old. when I was a young boy they stocked fingerlings which came via the rail road to the post office. these were picked up by local men and boys in milk cans. they were mostly brook trout. these men and boys distributed these trout in all the small streams in the area. we had wonderful fishing for years afterward. why can’t they still do this?
Respectfully, I’m glad they do not still do this if the creek sustains a wild trout population.
Stocking streams is usually a waste, but in BC, Canada, we routinely stock small trout in many lakes, that have no natural recruitment. And we have some incredible fishing! The fish can grow from weighing 60 grams when stocked to 500 grams to 5000 grams (1 to 10 lbs.) in a year or 2. The fish are often triploids, so they don’t spawn. Popular species are Rainbow, cutthroat and Brook trout as well as kokanee salmon. These programs are behind some of the best Stillwater trout fishing in the world.
One of the different things about stillwaters is how the stocked fish can often be very much isolated. Rivers and creeks allow the stocked trout to spread wherever they like — and they do.
As a young boy I would trout fish a lot my dad took us to a private lake in Antelope Valley called fin and feather it was a membership like then as I got a little older teenagers 13 I would go to Little Rock damn fishing game would put in some nice trout in that lake we would catch them on the Velveta Cheese super duper lures silver with red half stripe when I got my drivers license we would haul a trolling boat up to rock Creek Lake outside of Bishop above Tom’s Place we would troll with Ford fenders flashing dragging a worm behind to number six Single hooks in the worm anywhere from 24 inches to 36 inches behind the flashers with 2 pound test we would catch stockedfish all day long sometimes we would catch native Brown and brookie trout at certain parts of the lake certain times of the day This was in October we also Went to Castaic lake at night to catch catfish in the morning the shad would Leap from the water on to shore evading predator fish I thought they were Bass Used shad On our hooks hopeing to catch the predator fish responsible for shad leaping on to shore turns out the fish were trout big trout hold over stocked trout these trout stronger faster and more fun we came up with a way to trap the shad bring a branch from home with lots of leaves for cover stick it in the water the shad would use the branch to hide we would net the shad use them for bait to catch the holdover trout6,8 and somtimes 10lb trout never heard of any angler catching these monsters on the usual stocked baits floating bait lures don’t know if it was location that the holdover’s were feeding in now that they fed on shad or what they obviously were smarter
If it wasn’t for the stocked trout program in my neck of the woods (southern Appalachia) the trout fishing industry would dry up (pun intended). Also the pressure on wild trout streams would be unsustainable. It’s a great way to get youth interested in the activity as well. Perhaps more should be done to keep the wild gene pool strong but overall I think the program is a valuable piece of the overall fishery in our area.
Hi Robert. I’ve made the same point in previous articles (they are linked above.) I grew up in an area with no wild trout. I’m thankful for stocked trout. But let’s NOT stock over wild populations, that’s all.
I love you purist fisherman discussing how wrong it is to let someone easily cath a fat fish. First of all you failed to mention that all stocked trout are sterile this helps weight gain because they are not driven to reproduce as natural trout are. As all purist state about the wariness of native fish and the excitement of catching a six inch native on a hand tied blue baller special, no indicator or that is cheating. If you want purity through away you $1200.00 Orvis set up and revert back to a tree branch and a hook made of bone. No that’s purity at it’s finest. Long live buggy wip manufacturers. Get over yourselves aka the enlightened.
Lol. So all stocked trout are sterile? Suuuure they are.
Hard to follow the rest of your point but . . .
Fish indicators? Yes please. Read on, and you’ll find a full category for it here on Troutbitten. No purism or elitism here. But you’d have to read on to understand that. Buggy whip? Not sure what that is, but we just like wild trout in wild places, sir. Regardless, I hope you continue to fish as you please and keep a smile on your face.
We have a High Sierra lake in California. We have to get a permit to stock it with rainbow trout. The trout must be sterile in order to plant…. years ago we had native browns and brooks as well, and used to have the planted trout spawn. (Probably fed the browns…)
The good news is we do have great fly fishing for 3 seasons until the lake freezes over.
There are no native Brookies east of the Mississippi, maybe you meant wild?
There are indeed native brook trout east of the Mississippi. It’s the native trout that we have here in PA, and in much of the Appalachians.
After reading about the difference in a wild vs stocked fish you mentioned that a wild trout breeding with a hatchery trout will produce a wild trout. You stated earlier the strains of trout being raised by hatcheries were bred to be an aggressive feeder. So my questions are many but here are two questions that pop up after reading your article. Will the mating of a wild and hatchery fish produce a fish that is “inferior” as far as survival or is it more environment than genetics that that creates a wild fish? Where I fish the state does introduce stocked fish into one of the famous lakes but as fingerlings, not adults. The biomass is incredible in this lake and the fish grow exponentially and will run up the river to reproduce. I guess what I’m asking is when does a stock fish become a stocked fish excluding the fact they were not born in that particular water shed. It appears it’s not quite a cut and dry issue. I would appreciate your thoughts on my comments.
Thanks for the questions.
First, I think it actually is cut and dry. A wild trout is born in the river. It was not placed there, but born in the wild.
But your other question addresses something important:
“Will the mating of a wild and hatchery fish produce a fish that is “inferior” as far as survival?”
Yes. This is a documented problem. Thankfully, nature seems to select for the strongest characteristics for survival in each watershed. So, long term, a population CAN recover from that stocking influence. Also, many hatcheries purposely raise and stock trout that cannot reproduce. I think it’s hard to see any way that stocking trout over a healthy population of wild fish is ever beneficial.
I enjoyed Halverson’s book. My favorite quote, paraphrasing, from the book was—A fish hatchery is what you get when you cross a military base with a sacred cow.
I just want to say that everyone should read that book An Entirely Synthetic Fish. It has been out quit a while but I think any trout fisherman would enjoy it.
Agreed. I linked to it above and I’ve mentioned it many times across Troutbitten.
I caught the same stocker on the Middle Branch of Clay Creek 4 times in 3 visits this past spring. Honestly by the end of that last visit it wasn’t the drug of the tug it used to be earlier in the journey. Visiting the West Branch Delaware or the Middle Branch of the Provo in Utah to fish with my bro several times a year has become more enjoyable, even if it’s just a few fish, and honestly it makes me up my game and focus more on dead sticking and dead drift techniques. Let’s face it, when the Blue Herons hang out waiting on stockers, you know things are a little bit off.
Hey guys, I’m new to this forum, so please bear with me.
I’ve been fishing a wild brown and rainbow stream in WNC that was recently hit by a major flood, which unintentionally released several thousand rainbows from a local private fish farm. While I know that most all of the trout stocked in WNC are triploid and sterile, I feel like the chances of these farm fish being sterile are close to zero.
I have scoured the original post, and thanks Dom for writing it. I believe it is important for all trout fishermen and women to understand the differences between stocked and wild fish, as far as how they act, feed and impact each individual river system.
My question is this… what sort of impact is the release of these farmed fish likely to have on a healthy wild trout stream? If the eggs are viable, as I believe they are, will the next generation be “wild”, or will they still be overly aggressive feeders who are likely to outcompete their wild neighbors? Will they interbreed and dilute the gene pool, or will the addition of new genes make the population healthier in the years to come?
I know there are a ton of variables here, from the strain that the farm was raising to the availability of food in that particular river. And a myriad of factors in between.
Thanks for any input you guys may have, and thanks for the opportunity to ask a question such as this one.
Hi there. Thanks for the question.
First, with your kind of curiosity, I do think you’d enjoy Halverson’s book, linked in the article above.
“If the eggs are viable, as I believe they are, will the next generation be “wild”, or will they still be overly aggressive feeders who are likely to outcompete their wild neighbors?”
Yes, the next generation will be wild. As the definition of wild is simple: born in the stream.
But you’ll find that inferior strains, or strains selected to thrive in hatchery environments, simply won’t last long in nature. So even if those hatchery fish breed successfully, the traits of grow fast and eat aggressively don’t really match up well for a real river.
Basically, the more customized are the stocked trout, the less likely that they will survive or have offspring that can survive. That said, it obviously happens. And there is no good reason to stock over wild trout, in my opinion.
Will a hatchery raised spawn if it survives in the wild?
Sure. If it can survive, and it’s not sterile, it will spawn and produce wild trout.
To me, it’s funny that we try to define the term “wild” with a clearly drawn line. I like to fish streams where the trout behave like a wild trout. They’ve acclimated to their habitat. The become selective and wary. They feed on the current hatch and even become highly selective in times multiple hatches. In my experience, these are native streams, streams with natural reproduction and fingerling stocked streams. I do agree that adult trout that have been stocked in a stream, never fully acclimate. In fact, most of them, that aren’t caught, tend to die off.
The article linked above, titled, The Hierarchy of Trout In PA, may be of interest to you, as I addressed many of your thoughts there:
Heck, my friends even joined me for a podcast on the topic now:
So, you may not like the term wild, but it means what it means — it’s a trout born in the stream. And it’s just a way to have a factual discussion about these things.
I agree with everything you said about the way they adapt and the differences.
Anders Halverson’s book was a fine read on the subject of stocked trout from their origins to their placement worldwide. I agree that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. The chapter about Montana was a great example of managing a fishery based on data and providing a great fishery based on wild fish.
My favorite quote from Halverson’s book goes something like this: A fish hatchery is what you get when you cross a military base with a sacred cow.
Dom – any data on how the 95% of stocked fish meet their demise? I’m specifically thinking about some of the discussions on your podcast about how C&R survival is quite good….90+%….I don’t see a lot of dead fish even on heavily stocked streams. So how do they go? Poachers, predators, catch and keep, the combined affect of 10% C&R mortality/catch with repeated catching?…..any stats on that?
I think most get taken by predators. Plenty of others die because they can’t handle the conditions. I don’t know of any stats on that, no. But keep in mind, that study we referred to on the podcast was regarding stocking in a C&R stretch. So far less than 5 percent of the fish made it a full year, even where there was no harvest. (And we don’t have a poaching problem.) Point is, nature is kicking the asses of these stocked trout. They can’t handle it — aren’t conditioned for it.
Dom, you mentioned you grew up in Western PA, I did too, was wondering what county you hail from?
Interesting article thanks. Not scientific, but I was surprised to find after 4 years of hard fishing for stocked trout on the Guadalupe in TX, I moved up to the mid-Atlantic almost a year ago, also fishing hard and almost entirely wild trout – but my catch numbers went significantly up after a couple of month figuring things out at first. I guess there are a number of factors – more fish per mile perhaps, more pressure in TX, etc. It seems like in a wild trout stream whenever I fish good-looking water, I always find fish there, even if I don’t catch them. Not so in the stocked streams.
I definitely understand that.
I’m not a trout racist, I like catching them all…with a flyrod and dry flies, of course. Anything else is misguided savagery (This is both sarcasm and humor).
I really liked this article and it made me really think about what I’ve been catching when I go out. I read some of the comments above but not all, so sorry if this was already discussed. I believe nature knows better than any human and it will select what traits are best for the survival of the animal. But, if a stocker does reproduce with a wild trout, do you believe there could be some benefit to this? Or do you believe this could hurt the wild population more than it helps? For example, if we started producing stockers with traits that would be advantageous to be passed onto the wild population vs just producing bigger more aggressive fish? Such as, disease prevention, or maybe being able to aid the fish in survival when waters get super warm in summer and allowing the fish to not be as stressed in that environment?
” But, if a stocker does reproduce with a wild trout, do you believe there could be some benefit to this?”
Almost none, no. Yes, it will hurt the population more than help. And trout will adapt to the conditions on their own. They don’t need the help of hatchery trout. This history of hatchery fish has proven to do far more harm than good.
If you are interested in this stuff, read the Halverson book that I linked to in the article. It’s a factual history of hatcheries in the US. “An Entirely Synthetic Fish.” You don’t need my opinions when the history speaks for itself.