Despite threats from industry and anglers, brook trout populations are rising statewide

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CHAMPION, Pa. — Half the allure of native brook trout fishing is the hunt. First, search for a tiny, possibly unnamed stream that might hold them. Then, far from the intrusion of other anglers, find a habitat capable of supporting each tiny pool's alpha aquatic predator.

Approach the spot with extreme stealth. On a creek that might be narrower than the length of the rod, fly anglers cast between the ceiling branches, dropping the fly no more than just a few times before the fish gets suspicious. And sometimes, when it's all done right ...

BAM! The strike can be savage -- more explosive than some might expect from a fish just big enough to fit in a hand.

Beautifully speckled, Pennsylvania's state fish can be a joy to catch. Despite their sensitivity to the temperature and quality of water, and acute susceptibility to developmental impacts, the statewide population of brook trout is growing. Across the state, thousands of small tributaries that once drained mine discharge are cleaning up. A state Fish and Boat Commission program to record baseline chemical signatures of 54,000 undocumented stream sections in advance of the fracking rigs is finding scores of previously unknown populations of naturally reproducing brook trout.

"[Unlike stocked trout] they've been in that water since their inception, so they're going to be a lot more wary of anything that's unnatural," said Bill Nagel, a retired banker who teaches fly tying at the Orvis shop at Galleria Mall. "Stealth is a major component of fishing in the smaller streams. You sneak up on them -- and I mean sneak. You crawl, hide behind a tree, whatever it takes. It's kind of hide and seek with these fish."

Despite their wary nature, native brook trout are curiously less selective than bigger trout in bigger waters.

"It's perplexing," said Nagel. "You can't slap the water with the line, or put the line over them -- even the shadow of the line over the water can put them down -- but when your presentation of a dry fly is good, they're likely to take it no matter what it is."

But brook trout fishing isn't fly fishing only. Even streams enrolled since 2004 in the Wild Brook Trout Enhancement Program are open to all-tackle catch-and-release fishing. On the theory that more regulation provides greater protection, in recent years Fish and Boat has published the names, locations and directions to the growing number of delicate waters that hold native brook trout.

"During the initiation of this regulation package we did angler creel surveys on those waters, and some [surveying] since then," said Fish and Boat fisheries division chief Dave Miko. "There was no change in [brook trout] population from before the regs and after they were in place. We believe, based on angler contacts, that there's relatively low angler use [of these streams] and high catch-and-release rates."

Miko concedes he's "not saying poaching doesn't happen" on waters where the locations of native brook trout streams have been publicized. But by and large, he said, the poachers don't stray far from the roads and brook trout populations can stretch far into the headwaters.

He agrees, he said, that the concept of "all-tackle catch-and-release" fishing can seem counter-intuitive if the goal is to encourage fishing but keep the fish alive. He refers to the principle of "compensatory mortality."

"Bait angling certainly has a higher hooking mortality than spin and fly fishing," said Miko. "The scientific literature, however, shows that in most cases natural mortality in a wild trout population is 40 to 60 percent per year whether there's anyone fishing or not. Remove a brook trout from a hole and another takes its place -- another brook trout will take that good spot and because of that not die of natural causes. That's compensatory mortality. On a population level there's no measurable difference between the all-tackle approach and those that die of natural causes."

The Wild Brook Trout Enhancement Program includes fewer than a dozen streams, but it's noteworthy following its peer review in the Journal of the American Fisheries Society.

"We're pretty confident of the work we did on this regulatory package," said Miko.

Almost all of the state's native brook trout live outside the program undisturbed by angler pressure. Encouraging fishing for native trout takes some pressure off the angler-financed trout stocking program, which spends about $2 on each of the 3.2 million trout raised and stocked annually by the state. But Miko called those savings "an unintended consequence" of angler interest in native brook trout.

Even the discovery of new native trout populations isn't really about the trout. The Unassessed Waters Program, that statewide effort to survey some 45,500 streams that have never been visited by the agency's biologists, has more to do with shale gas than trout.

Where sustainable wild populations of brook trout are discovered, state Department of Environmental Protection regulations automatically protect the trout, their habitat and upstream tributaries from development on public and private properties. The restrictions ban all outflow into the water.

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