I’m dumbfounded by the logic. Every time I stare at one of these signs from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, I struggle to make sense of it. I well know the reasons given for the signs and the policy itself, but it’s the wrong choice. The signs read:
This Stream is Managed as Both Class A Wild Trout Stream and Stocked Trout Water
That makes no sense, because you can’t do both. It’s a contradiction in terms. Either manage the water as a Class A stream and take care of it, affording the trout the protection they deserve, or treat it as a stocked trout stream.
The key here is the term Class A. Under the fish commission’s own definition, Class A wild trout waters in PA have excellent, self-sustaining populations that “represent the best of this Commonwealth’s naturally reproducing trout fisheries.” That is, until the commission decides to continue stocking over these Class A groups, year after year.
Here’s the full quote:
“. . . It is the Commission’s policy to manage self-sustaining Class A wild trout populations as a renewable natural resource to conserve that resource and the angling it provides. Class A wild trout populations represent the best of this Commonwealth’s naturally reproducing trout fisheries. With rare exceptions, the Commission manages these stream sections solely for the perpetuation of the wild trout fishery with no stocking.” — PFBC 2019
Ahh, those wiggle words — “with rare exception.”
Stocking over wild trout harms the wild population. That’s a documented fact.
In the worst cases, hatchery fish stocked through the US have spread disease and decimated wild populations. But thankfully, that doesn’t happen everywhere. More commonly, hatchery fish are disruptive because they follow a different set of rules than their wild cousins. It’s their upbringing — their daily life in a concrete runway. It’s also in a hatchery trout’s genes to feed aggressively and hold in groups. In short, hatchery trout don’t play nice with the wild ones. And a dominant wild fish can work itself to exhaustion trying to kick out many small hatchery fish and defend its territory — because stocked trout don’t follow the rules of a wild trout stream.
If that sounds like a lot of whining for one poor trout, I agree. But, multiply that effect across a population, and the impact can be stunning.
Anecdotally, I’ve seen all of this myself. And scientifically, the studies are there if you’d like to read them. Anders Halverson's book, An Entirely Synthetic Fish thoroughly documents the hatchery system in the United States. And the contained bibliography runs deep.
So, hatchery trout harm wild populations. And that’s one good argument against trying to blend the two incongruent managements of Class A wild trout and stocked trout streams. But here’s another point, from an angler’s perspective:
Class A streams are special. That’s why we value them so highly. We choose to fish for wild trout at every turn, because these places — these fish — are the pinnacle of our game. These Class A wild trout streams are rare enough to be granted careful and cautious management wherever they are found.
Many anglers choose the chase of wild trout, specifically. No one travels halfway across the country to fish for a stocked trout. (Not once they know the difference.) So, where there are Class A populations, these rivers should not be supplemented with hatchery fish. It’s a foolish waste of resources. And it cheapens the river system.
Why Are These “Class A” Rivers Still Stocked?
So why then? Why these signs? Why the inconsistent policy?
The answer, as you may already know, lies with tradition — in the expectations of local anglers, in the history of an area and in the ingrained, mistaken premise that the state can do this job better than nature.
Throughout the last century, trout hatchery systems across this country began establishing a culture of trout fishing that followed a stocking schedule. Where industry had destroyed viable trout populations, hatchery trout were added as an apology — as an appeasement. But as the hatchery programs grew in size, they became big business. And trout were added to more streams — not just the barren ones. Those hatchery programs grew with revenue from added license sales. While easy trout were stocked at the nearest bridge, a stocked trout culture was embedded in these communities. The fish commissions and their huge hatchery programs became inseparable, until sustaining the hatcheries became a primary purpose of many fish commissions.
I grew up waiting for the first day of trout season. We parked at the bridge on Plum Creek, a few miles down from the coal-fired power plant, and we caught stocked trout that lived there for a couple weeks. After which, the rock bass went back to being the bosses of the stream, no doubt glad to be rid of this bother of fake trout and strange fishermen.
There’s a history to all of that. There’s a culture that I understand — traditions that many still care about. But that way is dying. We’re moving on. And the hatchery mentality of stocked-trout-first is no longer the majority position across this state. (In license sales? Perhaps. But in angler hours? I believe not.)
It’s time for the fish commission to truly protect, preserve and enhance the wild trout streams of PA, whether that is the easy thing to do, or whether it’s hard. Stop stocking over all Class A wild trout stream sections in Pennsylvania.
There are two common reasons given for why these Class A waters continue to be stocked. Here they are . . .
The Hatchery Fish Protect Wild Fish Argument
“By stocking a wild trout stream, the state provides stocked trout for meat anglers to keep, therefore protecting the wild trout from being taken.”
This is absurd. And things just don’t work that way.
Most meat anglers keep what they catch, regardless of whether the trout is stocked or wild. Granted, the stocked trout can be easier to catch, and in the first few days of the open season, I agree that the majority of trout on a stringer from these streams are stocked. But weeks later, as the stocked population dies off or is harvested, that ratio of wild to stocked trout on a stringer flips.
Again, I’ve seen this first hand. In rivers where trout are stocked over a wild population and harvest is permitted, the wild population is noticeably cropped.
The Posted Land Argument
“If the state stops stocking that stream, many of the landowners will post their land and deny access.”
This is perhaps the best and most valid argument, with troubling and pertinent consequences, because this does happen. Plenty of land holders provide public access to a piece of river running through their property, specifically because the state continues to stock it. That’s the deal. And if the state stops stocking, the landowner may well follow through with their threat to post the land.
So be it. Keeping the access open is not worth damaging the resource — the Class A population in the river.
However, if the state takes the hundreds-of-thousands of dollars invested over many years of stocking a section of river and uses those funds to buy easement, they can provide public access to these Class A waters to all anglers. That’s not a pipe dream. And it already happens. I’ve also seen local organizations work with landowners, getting big results that start by simply being friendly.
Is any of this easy? Of course not. But every solution has it’s problems. So let’s put the wild trout population first, and then work from there.
Clarity and Solutions
I know this is a controversial topic. I’m certain the PFBC sees this as a complex issue. I’ve written my own strong opinions here, and you probably have your own. And if we disagree, I think that’s alright.
Let me also clarify my position on trout stocking, in general. I think trout stocking is fine in streams where wild trout cannot thrive. Like many across this state, I grew up in a region without water that was clean enough or cold enough to support wild trout. I’m grateful for the stocking program in Plum Creek and some of the other local streams of my childhood. But . . .
. . . Stop stocking over good wild trout populations. That’s it.
I advocate for policies that help sustain and improve our excellent wild trout waters.
As the human population rises, our trout population declines, and that statistic will never flip the other way. I think we’re well past the tipping point where trout fishing should now be seen as recreation more than a means for sustenance . Where there are Class A populations of wild trout, protect them with catch and release, with slot limits or with shorter harvest seasons. I’m not in favor of restricting tackle, but I am in favor of restricting the harvest.
This is not just a Pennsylvania problem. It happens in other states as well. And I suggest writing to your state’s fish commission. Tell them to stop all stocking over good wild trout populations.
It’s the right thing to do. And sometimes, that’s where government policy should start.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N