In a year of pandemic-related business closures, the outdoors have remained open. Pennsylvania fishing license sales increased by 20% to 970,000 so far in 2020. The state Fish and Boat Commission is trying to connect those anglers with more big fish by adopting a new plan for managing trout.

At its quarterly meeting Monday and Tuesday, commissioners voted to approve the broad Strategic Plan for Management of Trout Fisheries in Pennsylvania 2020-2024. One of its conditions expands an experimental program that will make trophy-sized stocked trout accessible to all-tackle anglers in Central Pennsylvania. Another new regulation extends rules regarding all-tackle slot limits of wild trout on a famous Class A wild trout stream in Centre and Mifflin counties.

Many fly and spin anglers take advantage of the Keystone Select Stocked Trout Waters program, in which retiring trout farm breeders are stocked in waters managed under Delayed Harvest Artificial Lures Only regulations. On those waters, in addition to regularly planned stockings, former brood stock as old as 4 years and 20 inches or more in length are stocked at a rate of 175-225 fish per mile. Regulations call for catch-and-release from the March stockings through mid-June.

Last week, commissioners established a new Miscellaneous Special Regulation along one section of Bald Eagle Creek within the Soaring Eagle Wetlandin Centre County. The regulation is identical to current Delayed Harvest Artificial Lures Only rules, except that all tackle and all baits will be permitted. Year-round angling with all tackle and harvest of up to three trout per day at least 9 inches in length will be permitted from June 15 through Labor Day, with no harvest through the rest of the year. The program goes into effect Jan. 1, 2021.

In a statement, Fish and Boat said the regulation is designed to provide for an extended period of catch-and-release angling with all tackle types for stocked trout. As stream conditions become less favorable for trout survival due to decreased flow and elevated water temperatures, harvest will be permitted with a reduced creel limit. William C. Brock, District 3 commissioner, called it an “experimental regulation.”

“[It] is appropriate for this section of stream for several reasons,” he said. “By designating this section as a Keystone Select Stocked Trout Water with a higher concentration of trophy-size fish, we are providing an opportunity to anglers that was previously unavailable in this part of the state. Secondly, by allowing fishing with all tackle in this high-use location, we’ll be able to study and evaluate the survival of fish that were released after being caught by baited hooks versus lures on similar waters statewide.”

All tackle fishing on special regulation waters has been questioned. Delayed Harvest rules and catch-and-release culture on those waters ensure that anglers using approved gear can always find trout. In an all-tackle delayed harvest stream section, more trout are likely to be harvested.

“There’s a wealth of literature showing that fish caught on bait have a higher mortality after release,” said fisheries biologist Kris Kuhn in an interview prior to the meeting. “The trout stocking program allows for put-and-take with no expectation of survival year after year. One of the things we don’t have in the Keystone Select program is a regulation that allows bait anglers to enjoy that program as well.”

Pennsylvania has dozens of Keystone Select waters, but none were in Central Pennsylvania because, said Kuhn, those waters naturally produce large numbers of wild, trophy-size trout.

The new Delayed Harvest area is on public land within Soaring Eagle Wetland between Julian and Port Matilda. It is being developed by the State College-based Wildlife for Everyone Foundation and was dedicated last week.

Though the new Miscellaneous Special Regulation in a Delayed Harvest Keystone Select area was described as an experiment, it will not help determine if all-tackle fishing is appropriate on other Delayed Harvest Keystone Select waters, said Mr. Kuhn.

Another all-tackle experiment will extend current slot size limits on a portion of Pennsylvania’s largest and longest limestone stream. Boiling to the surface in a cave some 15 miles east of State College, Penn’s Creek is a Class A wild trout stream globally famous among anglers for its historic green drake and mayfly hatches.

The board extended a Miscellaneous Special Regulation that was soon to expire on one section of the creek. The use of all tackle types and harvest of up to two trout per day measuring 7-12 inches will continue to be legal from opening day through Labor Day. The harvest of smaller and larger trout is banned, and no harvest is permitted through the rest of the year.
Andy Shiels, Fish and Boat deputy director of field operations, said continuing the Penn’s Creek program makes sense.

“Years ago we moved to make that wild trout fishery catch and release,” he said. “There was pushback from cabin owners saying they wanted their kids and grandkids to be able to fish on their land, and they threatened to post their properties if the rules weren’t changed.

“So we instituted special regulations, all tackle and harvest of 7-12 inches, so kids could take fish home for dinner, but bigger fish had to be thrown back.”

Shiels said Fish and Boat electrofishing and creel survey work show that overall trout harvest on Penn’s Creek is minimal.

— John Hayes/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Tribune News Service