Wild brook trout are among state’s best catches

I grew up spending time in the outdoors in and around the Juniata Valley. For as long as I can remember, I have memories of being on the mountain or along a stream.

Those early experiences molded me into someone who greatly appreciates how beautiful, and yet delicate, our natural resources can be.

Those two attributes are the best ways to describe one of my favorite creatures and its required habitat in Penn’s Woods. In my eyes, the wild brook trout that call Pennsylvania’s mountainous, cold-water streams home are truly a gift that must be protected so that future generations can enjoy what has become my favorite fish to chase with rod and reel.

They require quality water and minimal handling once caught to continue to thrive in the streams which have supported them long before anyone considered them to be wild, or the more common term of native.

Native brookies got that nickname because they naturally occurred in these streams before Europeans landed on the coast. The popular trout species for stocking including browns and rainbows were introduced to the state. And while they can and do now produce naturally in the right streams, they are not typically thought of as wild trout.

My love for wild brookies can be traced back to a hike I went on with my father many years ago. While spending a weekend at my family’s cabin, he told me about the many camping trips he made with a friend as a child. My grandfather would drop them off on a mountain and pick them up a few days, and many miles, later. During that time they patiently hiked and fished along a stream full of wild trout.

Within a week my father and I hiked into that magical area for the first time. I was amazed that such a beautiful area existed relatively close to my home.

The stream cut through a valley on the mountain and eventually made a dramatic drop down its northern slope into a well-known creek. It featured long pools, plenty of small waterfalls and other attributes that make for perfect trout conditions. That day I caught dozens of brook trout with dry flies, including some of the most beautiful fish I have seen to date.

Since that trip with my father, I have explored dozens of similar streams throughout Pennsylvania. Many are located near my family’s permanent camper in the Pine Creek Valley. There, it seems there is a great wild trout stream around every corner. I now make it a goal to catch a trout in a new stream each year with a dry fly.

Wild brook trout are special to me for a multitude of reasons. As I just mentioned, the bright yellows, reds, oranges and other colors of a native brookie cannot be matched. What makes them stand out to me is that while there is a standard look to one of these fish, it is not uncommon to catch one that is very unique in its color scheme.

I also love the locations most wild brookies thrive in. Instead of a pull off or under a bridge where stocked trout are typically caught, these trout care located in areas with clean, cold and moving water in wooded areas that usually required a hike or drive on a mountainous dirt road.

Finally, these trout are aggressive and can be caught rather easily if you can make a good cast. The key to catching one is not allowing them to see you or your shadow. If you can avoid being detected, there is a high rate of success on streams that support a healthy population of fish.

The majority of trout anglers target the stocked variety instead of the naturally producing fish. These trout which are dumped in our local streams and lakes are paid for with the help of trout stamps purchased by licensed anglers.

Trout stocking is a put-and-take system that has worked well over the years locally. I have enjoyed many opening mornings of trout season with my family landing fish that spent most of their lives in a concrete runway before being tossed into the stream.

Many fishermen have complained to me about the cost of a trout stamp over the years. However, I have never had a problem paying some extra cash to help ensure my kids can catch and release a few trout. I also enjoy catching stocked trout with my fly rod during the late spring and early summer.

This year marks the first time wild trout enthusiasts like me have an opportunity to contribute funds that solely will be used towards these amazing fish and the streams they inhabit.

The Voluntary Wild Trout Permit will be available along with the 2019 Pennsylvania fishing licenses. The permit, which is not mandatory to fish for wild trout, acts a donation that will be only used for wild trout projects.

Permits are $26.90 for a single year. Five and 10-year permits can also be purchased at a discounted yearly rate.

Money generated through the permits will be used for the following, according to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission:

¯ Support projects to upgrade the quality of a trout fishery that results in an increase of the stream’s classifications

¯ Improve in-stream habitat, such as adding large woody debris or limestone sand dosing for acidic streams

¯ Fund gill lice research on wild brook trout

¯ Leverage other funding to support removal of culvert blockage work

¯ Support efforts to maintain and improve Pennsylvania’s best wild trout fishing waters

¯ Help prevent the spread of invasive species through signage and public education

¯ Develop a climate change strategy for wild trout

¯ Mitigate the impacts from hemlock decline/loss for shading cold-water streams

The Fish and Boat Commission also stated that no money from these permits will be used for the stocking program.

The Voluntary Wild Trout Permit funds raised it 2019 will first be used in 2020. At that time the commission will have decided how it will best be used to benefit the trout and their habitat.

Wild trout streams in the commonwealth, while mostly small bodies of water, do also include famous water such as sections of Penns Creek and Spruce Creek. These amazing sections of streams are regarded as some of the best trout fishing opportunities on the east coast.

The species of trout in these steams is also not limited to brookies that call the smallest streams home. Brown trout thrive in some of the state’s best waterways. My favorite catch on a wild trout stream was a tiny tiger trout. This truly rare wild trout is something many anglers will never see in a lifetime of chasing wild fish.

I would also like to add that the stream where I caught the wild trout had a lot of rehabilitation work done to it by a local trout group. Seeing how well that worked first hand has me excited for what the Fish Commission can possibly do with the permit revenue.

The permit was first proposed in 2018. It was viewed as a way for those who enjoy wild trout fishing to directly support the sport they love. Catch-and-release fly fishing anglers have especially been known to be generous to organizations such as Trout Unlimited and stream groups to help improve stream habitats.

Early numbers provided by the Fish and Boat Commission have confirmed these wild trout enthusiasts are purchasing the permits in the first quarter of the year. This support will continue to show the agency that there are many of us who believe our wild trout and their streams need protection and improvements.

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Zach Knepp writes about the outdoors for The Sentinel.

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