BY TOM VENESKY
Last year, the opening day of trout season caught everyone by surprise — and it was intentional.
As the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced in March 2020, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission decided not to announce the date for the trout opener until just before the 8 a.m. start April 7. The move was made to avoid the traditional crowds on stocked streams and lakes.
This year, things are different. The season will begin Saturday at 8 a.m. and it will be a statewide opening day, with no separate start date for the southeast region.
“People were surprised by the opening day announcement in 2020, but this year they can plan on it,” Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission Communications Director Mike Parker said.
An established start date isn’t the only thing anglers can plan on this year. They can also expect to find plenty of fish, including tens of thousands of trophy trout. More than 4.2 million trout will be stocked for the 2021 season, including 13,103 trophy golden rainbows and other trout ranging from 15 to 22 inches. Last season, the agency increased the amount of trophy trout it stocked, including a 40% spike in golden rainbows, a spike that will remain for 2021.
“Some people fish their entire lives and never catch a golden rainbow trout,” Parker said. “Now, every time they cast in a stocked trout water they have a chance at a trophy. They’re pretty much on every truckload we stock.”
That includes the northeast region, where Waterways Conservation officers released plenty of enormous trout into area streams, rivers and lakes.
In northern Luzerne County, WCO John Cummings said the size of the fish trucked in from the Benner Springs State Fish Hatchery in State College was impressive.
“Frances Slocum got a ton of submarines, and at Pine Creek we put in some golden rainbows that wouldn’t even fit in the net,” he said.
Another change from last year is the process by which the trout are stocked. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the PFBC didn’t allow volunteer help to stock fish. The task was handled exclusively by agency staff.
This year, a limited number of volunteers were allowed to help with the stockings, alleviating the workload on WCOs and allowing for the fish to be spread out.
“We’re back to doing multiple stops on streams, carrying buckets and even float stocking,” Parker said.
In 2020, fishing license sales increased by 18%, Parker said. This year, sales are up another 18%, and that doesn’t include the peak license-buying period of the week before opening day.
Based on what he’s witnessed during the preseason stocking dates, Cummings feels the excitement level is a little higher this year. He attributed the rise in interest to a long year of restricted activity due to COVID-19, and a winter season with a lot of snowfall that kept people indoors.
“People are just really happy to get outside,” Cummings said. “I saw it last year due to COVID shutdowns, and I’m seeing it again this year.”
The switch to a statewide opening day without a separate opener in the southeast — at least for this year — may temper turnout a bit, Cummings believes.
In prior years, Cummings would encounter anglers from Bucks County fishing in Luzerne County on opening day — which was two weeks later than the southeast region. The split opening days would allow anglers twice the opportunity to fish for trout on a first day, but that won’t be the case this year.
“I expect a slight decrease in the crowds in my area because I don’t think those anglers from the southeast will be making the trip,” Cummings said.
Parker said the change to a single statewide opening day was made with the hope that more anglers would fish closer to home. Doing so, he said, limits concerns about overcrowding and COVID.
“We used to have situations, especially in Schuylkill County and others on that southeast border, where a lot of people would travel to those places on the regional opener and it would get crowded,” Parker said. “With a statewide opener, more people may choose the convenience of fishing locally.”
Another factor that could impact turnout, and angler success, is water temperature. As of Tuesday, Cummings was recording stream temperatures as low as 39 degrees. Trout are more active when the water temperature reaches into the 50s.
Still, the potential of cold water on opening day raises an important consideration for anglers fishing from a boat or kayak. From Nov. 1 through April 30, anyone on a canoe, kayak or boat less than 16 feet in length is required to wear a life jacket. Parker said the earlier start to the season means that water temperatures will be cooler and the risk of cold water shock is a reality.
“More people are using boats, especially kayaks, for trout fishing on certain lakes. While we all get excited about the start of trout season, it’s important to remember to wear a life jacket, especially this time of year,” he said.
TOM VENESKY is a freelance outdoors writer. Contact him at veneskyoutdoors.com.