March 14, 2011
How will Pennsylvania's trout season turn out this year?
For the past several years there have not been many changes to report in the Pennsylvania trout forecast. Great fishing, yes, but different, no. This year big changes are taking place in one specific part of the state: at Lake Erie, where a new brown trout program holds exciting potential. Statewide, stocking numbers will be unchanged.
"We're expecting very similar (stocking rates) to last year, about 3.2-million, and our fish should average around 11 inches in length. They've been that way for the past few years," said Tom Greene, Coldwater Unit Leader for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
Last year the Fish and Boat Commission stocked approximately 3,222,700 adult trout. Another 737,000 adult trout were stocked y cooperative nurseries for a total of 3,959,700 adult trout.
As has been the case for the past few years, some lakes that are normally stocked with trout will not be stocked because the lakes are drained. This was brought about after an inspection of dams around the state revealed that many are in poor condition. Several of these lakes are either state park lakes or lakes which are under the control of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. Budget limitations have made repairs of these dams a slow process. This year the Southwest Region will be hit hardest.
"Supposedly the Hereford Manor Lakes, unless something unforseen happens, probably won't be stocked for 2011 because they're in the process of being drawn down," Greene said.
"North Park's still down, that's going to be down for this year. They're still working on Brady's Run Lake. It probably won't have an opening day program there, but we're hoping that sometime during the spring that we'll get trout in there, at least salvage part of the spring season."
Trout anglers in that part of the state, the Southwest Region, will get some relief through the stocking of other water which has not been part of the adult trout stocking program.
"It's not as big as Hereford Manor or Brady's Run Lake, but we have a small lake in Brush Creek State Park, a small pond, that we're going to put on in that vicinity. Hopefully that'll help in that area. But that's not going to be as large as those other waters. And then we're hoping that Brady's Run will be back on line in 2011. We're hoping that North Park will be back in 2012," Greene said.
Each year the adult trout stocking program gets a little boost by stocking some of the hatchery brood stock. As with the stocking of other adult trout, the number of brood stock that will be put into the streams and lakes will be like recent years. This is based on a formula that makes it very likely that they will be caught.
"We try to put those out based on levels of angler use and per categories of water," Greene said. "Certain waters are allocated certain numbers, (a pre-determined) number per mile typically, based on the higher use areas get slightly more per mile than the lower use areas, favored toward public ground versus private ownership, things along those lines. So typically what we try to do is match up with our angling harvest information. In the more popular areas, we go a little heavier than we do in some of the others."
Fingerling stocking is another important component of trout stocking. It has created some of the finest trout fisheries in Pennsylvania.
Asked if there would be any significant changes to fingerling trout stocking Greene said, "No major ones. We're holding steady right around 1.1-million a year. We're looking at the same group of waters, and we've experimented with some other waters. But typically the same places such as the Allegheny tailwaters, the Clarion River, the Yough tailwaters, those types of areas."
The Little Juniata River has been one of the brightest spots in the story of improving water quality in Pennsylvania. After several year of being negatively affected by several point and non-point sources of pollution, this stream began making a comeback in the 1970s. Fingerling brown trout stocking has contributed to it becoming one of the most highly regarded trout fisheries in the state.
A survey last August showed, however, that natural spawning has produced most of the resident brown trout. Streams and lakes are continually surveyed to provide data to support continued stocking, or to determine whether stocking should be discontinued.
Other noteworthy trout waters that are supported by fingerling stocking include the Schuylkill River, the Lehigh River, Jordan Creek and Monocacy Creek. The latter three have produced some of the largest rainbow trout reported in Pennsylvania over the past few years. The state record rainbow trout, 15 pounds 6.25 ounces, was caught from Jordan Creek.
Several of the waters in the fingerling stocking program are, or were, only marginal trout waters based most often on water temperatures during summer. This may have some impact on the preference toward stocking brown trout fingerlings.
"We specify what we want, as we do with adults. About 70 percent of the fingerlings we stock are brown trout. On the flip side you're looking at more like 55 percent of the adult trout we stock are rainbows, about 30 percent brown, and about 15 percent brook trout adults."
Some years, though, fingerling trout stocking numbers increase because of surplus trout in the hatcheries. One example is at the Kinzua Dam tailwaters on the Allegheny River, one of the first Pennsylvania waters where a great fishery was created by stocking fingerling trout.
"Sometimes we have to have a home for some when we get in a situation where we have to ship some un-allocated fish," Greene said. "So what we request is a 50-50 mix between brown and rainbow (for the Allegheny River below Kinzua Dam), but when we get some un-allocated fish and you're dealing with time and you have only a few waters that are available to take them, that's one of the reasons why (last) year in particular the rainbows went up to the Kinzua tailwaters."
There is some mistaken perception among anglers that these un-allocated fingerling trout that are stocked replace other planned stocking. In reality they should be viewed as bonus trout.
"That's right," Greene said. "We try to go with a 50-50 brown/rainbow mix, but when there's un-allocated fish we have to find a home for them, especially for fish during the summer when we have only a few waters that are available that will hold them water temperature-wise."
The Allegheny River is the largest flowing trout water in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest, if not the largest, in the Eastern U.S. Outflow from the Kinzua Dam keeps the water rich in oxygen, and cooler than it was before the dam was built. Also, there are many underwater springs that help to cool the water and provide refuges in times of highest water temperature.
Although water surface temperature during summer may approach the tolerance limit of trout, this is an outstanding, year-around trout fishery. Since this fishery got its start with the closing of the Kinzua Dam gates, there has never been a trout kill in the river due to high water temperature.
It seems that surplus fingerling trout is the norm. Raising more trout than are required is necessary to assure the right number of adult trout will be ready to be stocked. Also, if water conditions at the hatcheries are unusually good, the number of trout which survive, or biomass, may be above prescribed limits that are based on effluent discharges from the hatcheries.
Though not a part of the normal trout stocking program of the Fish and Boat Commission, the biggest change in trout fishing in the state appears to be about to happen at Lake Erie. Trout stocking into Lake Erie under the current program began in 2009. While brown trout did show up in angler catches in 2010, the best is yet to come.
"I don't think we'll see the full potential of this until next year," said Chuck Murray in an interview last October.
Murray is a fisheries biologist who is stationed at the Fairview Fish Cultural Station. His primary duties are Lake Erie research and management guidance.
Brown trout have inhabited Lake Erie for many years. Attempts were made in the past to enhance the brown trout fishery.
"We've been stocking brown trout for many years," said Bob Hetz.
Hetz is one of a small group of individuals who not only knew about the annual run of rainbow trout, more commonly called steelhead now, into the Lake Erie tributaries, but also started the private sector steelhead program in this state. Through the considerable efforts of these individuals 3-C-U Trout Association was formed. It now operates a system of steelhead and brown trout nurseries that add to the Fish and Boat Commission steelhead and brown trout stocking program.
It would appear that Lake Erie should be the most likely of the Great Lakes to support a great brown trout fishery, mainly because it is the shallowest. Biologists at Lake Ontario learned that brown trout apparently prefer not to inhabit water deeper than 100 feet. However, previous attempts to build up the Lake Erie brown trout fishery in both Pennsylvania and New York have been only modestly successful, at best.
"We stocked more brown trout back in the early '90s than we do now," Murray said. "And they never showed up in our assessment nets."
What has changed to make the Fish and Boat Commission think that it is now time to make another attempt at building a brown trout fishery at Lake Erie?
"I think the difference is round gobie," Murray said.
Each year assessment nets are run for lake trout. Increasing numbers of brown trout have been caught in these nets over the most recent few years.
"We're opening them up and they're feeding almost exclusively on round gobies," Murray said.
This same pattern has shown up elsewhere in the Great Lakes. Round gobie are exotic invaders, probably arriving in the Great Lakes by way of ballast tanks in oceangoing ships. It was feared that they might have a detrimental effect on the Great Lakes environment. Indeed that may still be true; however, in addition to being important to the brown trout diet they were discovered to be the preferred food for smallmouth bass, at least in the Ohio section of Lake Erie.
Brown trout being used in the current Lake Erie brown trout program originated from a New York hatchery. These trout were guaranteed to be free of disease.
All is not bright on the trout fishing horizon. Extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale looms as a threat the likes of which we have not seen since the boom years of coal mining when many of our creeks ran orange. This could be even worse. Sportsmen should be taking active parts in the legislative process. Get involved.