In October, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission will unveil a strategic five-year plan for managing its pivotal resource: trout.
With hatchery production maxed out at 3.2 million adult fish a year, the agency is expected to put new emphasis on fingerling plantings and wild trout, according to fisheries management chief Dave Miko.
"We're about to let people know our priorities," he said. "We'll present 24 action issues that include assessing wild waters, identifying streams where fingerlings could grow, [growing] the near-shore brown trout fishery in Erie, and securing angler access to streams."
With "zero" room, he said, for adding new streams to the Approved Trout Waters program, the agency will be looking more closely at where to put adult hatchery stock to get the biggest bang for the buck.
"At $2.73 a trout, we don't want to be stocking where just two anglers fish," Miko said. "By the same token, we're continuing to look at trout residency. Our goal is to evaluate 40 to 50 streams a year to determine if fish are moving beyond angler access. Where movement is a problem, it's a waste of the resource, too."
Although the overwhelming majority of anglers target stocked trout, the commission is hopeful some will consider wild trout fishing if it is made more accessible. The agency is focusing on waterways near populated areas.
"We have 40,000 [potential wild trout] streams that we have not stepped foot in, tiny mountain tributaries one-quarter to one-half mile long that we want to look at and prioritize in terms of human impacts, ranging from Marcellus shale drilling to mining activities to development," said Miko, who indicated the goal is two-fold: to protect the streams and make them known to anglers.
The commission also will reconsider how it manages Class B wild trout waters, where stockings traditionally have occurred.
"We're going to look at 'high B' streams to determine whether [a cessation] of stocking would allow them to become Class A over time," Miko said. "Class A streams are the highest quality fisheries in the state. They contain the greatest biomass of naturally reproducing trout and are not stocked, since hatchery-raised trout out-compete wild trout for habitat and food. Not stocking some Class Bs would free up trout for marginal fisheries."
Efforts are also underway to identify new streams where fingerlings are likely to grow to adult size, creating what Miko characterized as a near-wild-trout angling experience.
"Fingerlings develop wild characteristics when they grow in a stream," he said. "They develop the nice coloration and the wily nature of wild trout."
At a cost of just 65 cents each, fingerlings also would save the commission a bundle. Currently, the agency plants at least 1.2 million trout fingerlings a year.
"We're fin-clipping on Mill Creek, the Lehigh River and other streams this summer and next summer, to gauge survival," Miko said. "We'll identify the stream characteristics -- the water chemistry and habitat -- that best support fingerlings and look for similar streams we can stock with fingerlings elsewhere."
Although mine drainage, acid rain, development and landowner postings are still a problem, environmental improvements funded in part by Growing Greener have resulted in cleaner watersheds in many parts of the state.
"What we're seeing in traditional farming areas, for instance, is that streams are starting to come back and support wild trout, and in the Pittsburgh area, larger streams are cleaning up to the point where they could support stocked trout," Miko said. "So the potential [for new fisheries] is increasing."
Miko said the commission typically receives three or four requests a year from groups wanting a stream added to the stocking program. While this can occur only if other streams are removed, few meet the stocking criteria.
"We have to electro-fish to see what's already in the stream naturally, and perform a water quality [test] and at least a cursory habitat analysis," Miko said. "We measure public access and parking opportunities. There are a lot of factors to consider."
In Allegheny County in 2003, the Forest Grove Sportsmen's Association succeeded in getting Montour Run added to Approved Trout Water, but only after years of habitat improvements and club stockings. By contrast, Washington County's Pigeon Creek didn't make the cut.
"We surveyed it and determined it's a warm-water fishery," said southwest regional fisheries biologist Mike Depew, "and there were issues around pollution and sewage."
A number of sportsmen's clubs stock streams on their own, which is permissible as long as the species are approved by the state. The Tri-Community Anglers Association stocks trout in Allegheny County's Piney Fork and Peters creeks, and has held fishing derbies on Peters for years despite PFBC assurances the agency has no plans to add the waters to the state stocking program anytime soon.
For years, sportsmen have stocked Cross Fork Creek in Potter County. The Cross Fork Creek Sportsmen's Association, other groups and individuals were unhappy when earlier this year the commission reclassified the two-mile Hungry Hollow stretch as Class A water, prohibits continued stocking over native trout populations. Anglers are asking the commission to allow independent stockings to continue on that section, which would require delisting it from Class A or moving the Class A parameters slightly upstream. The commission resurveyed the stream in recent weeks and will issue a decision on the status of the stream sometime this fall, although any change would be subject to a vote by the commission board.
"We have to factor angler preferences into every decision we make, although never at the expense of the resource," Miko said.