My goal when I started this site was to provide an outlet for independent guides and other avid fly fishing conservationists to have a voice here in Pennsylvania. With that goal in mind, I am starting our “Streams of Consciousness” series to open discussion about what some of us are witnessing in wild trout fishing here across the commonwealth. I hope you will join us in the conversation.
About Guest Contributor: Eric Richard
Eric is owner of Coveted Waters Guide Service and has been chasing wild trout since he was old enough to wade the shadowy waters around the Cumberland Valley. Eric has dedicated much of his life to fly fishing and specifically tracking the movements of wild trout. He recently wrote a chapter in the Keystone Fly Fishing book from Headwaters Guides. Privately, his knowledge and insights have inspired many other guides and now he is breaking his silence in an effort to promote and encourage better wild trout management in our state. I have fished with Eric many times over the years and his observations and instincts are only matched by his work ethic and kindness. We are honored to share his thoughts ahead of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s upcoming Wild Trout Summit August 26th. Here is the first part of his story, enjoy.
What are we protecting?
By: Eric Richard
The first big trout I caught was a wild brown trout. I entered it into the Patriot Newspaper “Big Fish Contest”, identifying the un-stocked stream. The stream became stocked soon after. Fortunately, this is not where the story ends. However, at a young age I gained a painful first-hand experience of the destructive results from stocking over wild trout. The devastation sparked a fire inside my heart and mind to learn the truth of what I just witnessed. I went out and bought some books on trout. In silence I began my work seeking to discover more about these fish and their behaviors. Ultimately, I was pursuing their protection from well meaning folks that included myself. What I have learned is that the streams are only a part of the story when it comes to wild brown trout management in Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, historically, we have managed the streams and not the trout
I seek to protect wild trout like those that made me the fisherman and conservationist I am today. It has become clear to me that to protect them requires us to advance our understanding of what they are. What it really means to hold one. There were two strains of salmo trutta (brown trout), the Lock Leven strain and German brood. At an undocumented time they were crossed and planted in our streams. Initially, the first plantings flourished and prospered reaching amazing size that grew the legacy, heritage, and history of trout fishing in our commonwealth.
The Letort Spring of Carlisle may be our best case study in our quest to understand modern wild brown trout management. A trout angler is made by the quality of the quarry he or she choses to pursue. The environment dictates what traits are necessary for the trout to adapt to be successful. The angler in turn must concede to and adapt to those characteristics of the fish for success. Yet, as so often is the case, when anglers or streams become famous the deserving don’t always go along for the ride.
The Letort became famous along with its noted anglers who are legends of the sport through their skillful writings of cutting edge tactics. The infamous stream conditions found on this hallowed water required observations and tactics from a master angler, but what of the fish? In spite of Charlie Fox and Joe Brooks’ efforts describing to anglers the two different strains of brown trout, the Loch Leven fish never received recognition due to the crossing of the two genetic strains forming what we believed to be one. Long-standing naturalized populations of brown trout in Pennsylvania demonstrate Lock Leven characteristics and remain unprotected.
The Loch Leven strain was the mover and the Black Forest strain was the stay at home of the two. The Loch Leven strain was the most easily suppressed both in the hatchery and in the wild. At no time in the history of Pennsylvania has our management taken into account the migratory behaviors or characteristics of the Loch Leven form. In their natural form the most successful and well-adapted trout become the largest. The Loch Leven acquire size through adapted movements affording them the most intake with the least resistance while maintaining protection from predators. Hint: This is how you find them. They are hunters over a larger range and can be found precisely where they need to be when they need to be there.
Like the trout, I also grew up hunting. These trout require hunting, which fuels the passion for pursuit and makes every discovery that much more rewarding. In that pursuit I have become the same as the predator I tracked. I had to find its favorite hunting grounds. As a hunter I found respect for the wild brown trout’s will to live. Over the years these fish have humbled me. I am a part of the same creation, a harmony in nature where I am a member of the band.
If we are to protect these fish or manage these trout, we must include their range. They must be protected throughout their range, not only in the LeTort but in the Conodogouinet Creek as well. In a natural setting there will be as many of these trout where they should be when they should be there. We should not be surprised to find that not one hundred percent of them return to their natal stream. This is a key characteristic to the invasiveness of these trout.
If there is a stream capable of reproduction they can get to, they will. We continue to find wild trout in streams recovering from pollution or where stocking has ceased or even reduced. Therefore, stocking on their nursery streams is undervaluing their existence and has suppressed them. The sin of stocking on the nursery waters is the suppression of the ability for these trout to demonstrate for us their full potential. I have witnessed the detriment of stocking over them in their nursery stream but, more importantly, the benefit of altered stocking. I have also observed these fish establish their population on streams where stocking has ceased.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission needs new ideas. The stocking program is expensive to maintain and license sales have decreased while revenue is stagnant. We must consider our management in ways that benefit these highly adapted fish in areas where they naturally exist by allowing them to demonstrate their potential in these key areas. These are big, beautiful trout, and management practices that suppress their greatest natural ability suppress interest in our sport. A change in wild trout management that recognizes the value of these migratory fish will grow our sport here more than any celebrity or celebrated stream could. These fish can make legends out of any waters we let them.