Early spring in southeast Pennsylvania is typically cold and wet, and while that’s not the kind of weather to make for a good stroll along the state’s scenic creeks and streams, the season still manages to call out thousands of would-be trout anglers each year. Last Saturday’s trout season Opening Day (Pennsylvania trout season opens April 4 in the SE counties and April 18 in the rest of the state. details here) was a holiday for many people.
When I was a kid I’d sleep over at my friend Lee’s house because he lived a little closer to the Bushkill Creek than I did. We could be out the door and standing along the muddy bank at 5am with all the other creek squatters. You had to get out that early to claim your spot, and even then Penn Pump Park would be swarming with folks clutching their coffee mugs while sitting on tackle boxes. In most of my memories of those days we were also shivering in cold rain. Now I’m in the second half of my 40s, still fanatical about fishing, yet the last thing I want to do on a barely-spring morning is elbow fight my way into a three-foot area of muddy creek bank for the opportunity to tangle lines with strangers and possibly pull out a trout that was tossed into the creek only a day or two earlier. That’s what opening day has become.
Each year the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission pours about four million adult trout into the state’s waterways—almost all of those waterways cannot sustain their own wild trout population due to a combination of pollution, low oxygen and unhealthy water temperature (trout are cold water fish). Four million (nearly) fish is a lot of fish. I used to look at numbers like that with excitement and anticipation wondering how many of them I’d be able to claim. Most trout anglers in Pennsylvania have never caught a wild-born fish. Most have never even cast into a body of water capable of keeping a trout alive for more than a week or two. Now I look at numbers like four million and think about what’s been lost or sacrificed along the way.
I don’t mean to disparage people who enjoy catching stocked trout on opening day or opening weekend, but having been engaged in this activity for so long and taking it so seriously, I now tend to look beyond the thrill of the catch and think about what led up to it and what comes after. Before the catch you have trout farms—shallow swimming-pools churning with fish fattened on trout-chow. These fish create truckloads of waste which needs to be disposed of and usually ends up unnaturally in some otherwise natural body of water. Before the catch come the streams which have already been damaged by farm runoff, highway runoff, chemical spills, human sewage, bank degradation and litter. Before the catch come the “no trespassing” signs, the industrially-produced trout bait, the tossing of cigarette butts. After the catch comes the stream litter in the form of Styrofoam or plastic worm containers, Powerbait lids, tangled nests of monofilament, beer cans. After the catch come the trampled stream beds, eroded trails, rutted parking areas and more “no trespassing” signs. After the catch, the fish that evaded capture eventually die when the lack of oxygen or warm water or PCBs get too much for them.
Does the thrill of catching a few stocked fish lead a person to further and deeper appreciation of the natural world? Does it lead to a more fully-engaged outdoor life? Maybe. I have to admit that it did for me in the beginning. So how can I be a hypocrite and look down on that process now? I remember a moment many years ago. I was on a group fishing boat in the Gulf Stream off of Charleston SC. We were fishing the bottom for grouper and snapper, but an angler somehow managed to hook a beautiful dorado (dolphin fish). As the boat mates wrestled the large fish onto the boat it was impossible not to be struck by the beauty of the thing—metallic greens, blues and yellows rippled throughout its body. The mates then started hitting it with clubs to kill it, and with each strike the colors were replaced by film noir grays until the whole fish looked like a crumpled piece of aluminum foil. I’ve seen similar things happen with trout.
Trout are lovely. I have a tattoo of one on my shoulder, but the hatchery-bred stocked trout that opening day anglers proudly display on their stringers are only a dull imitation of stream-born wild trout. Trout fishing for me is now a luxury—and I don’t mean that only in the sense that I have less time available for it than I did when I was younger. I mean that as true wild trout experiences becomes rarer, they become more cherished, valued and worthy of preserving. In an ideal world, one without fracking and sprawl and casinos and golf courses, I’d want the state of Pennsylvania to put as much money and effort into sustaining wild fish and wild waters as it does in growing artificial trout for artificial angling.
Unfortunately I don’t see the world working like that anymore. Instead of perpetuating Opening Day’s carnival-like atmosphere, maybe the PFBC could put more of the millions it spends annually on fish hatcheries into water quality improvement and environmental education. Would that mean less fishing licenses get sold? Yes. Would that mean less money goes into the pot for the next year’s water conservation efforts? Yes. Now see the problem we have on our hands?
This spring, like most of my recent springs, I’ll wait a few weeks until the mania has died down. I’ll wait for the fiddleheads to start popping from the dark earth and leaf buds to sprout on tree limbs. I’ll drive a little farther, hike a little deeper, until I find a creek that probably hasn’t seen an angler since last year. Maybe I’ll get to hold a small stream-born brook trout in my hands for the few seconds that it takes to pop him off the hook and back into the water. That will be enough to sustain me.
Here’s a poem I wrote about catch and release fishing.
The above photo comes from the Maryland Dept of Natural Resources because the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission didn’t have any good stocking pictures I could find.