Thursday, February 16, 2023

The Responsibilities of Chasing Wild Trout


With the closing of stocked trout waters in Pennsylvania coming soon, many anglers will be getting the itch to go trout fishing. Spring is right around the corner and the rising temperatures match many anglers' rising desire to hit the water to go trout fishing. Special regulation areas and DHALO areas will see more activity than in the last four to six months.  This time of year, also means the most pressure that Class A Wild Trout Waters will receive all year. Being an avid brookie chaser, this time of year scares me to no end. I decided to use this fear to fuel this article. I want to share what I feel are the responsibilities that an angler must take on when deciding to target wild trout.  These precautions should be considered when fishing for all trout, but the future of wild trout fishing depends on the actions we take today.

My good friend and fishing partner, Jeremy Troutman, shows the proper way to navigate a native brook trout stream when the eggs and fry are still in the stream bed.
The most important topic to cover is proper wading techniques in the late winter and early spring months. This is a topic that is rarely discussed but in my opinion is by far the most important. After trout spawn, their eggs develop under the gravel in the stream bed in what is called a redd. It is vitally important that an angler not wade in these loose gravel areas of streams from September to late April. If I must cross a stream during this time frame, I pick areas with large rocks and faster moving riffles. These areas are not prime areas for trout to make redds as there is no loose gravel to deposit eggs into.  One angler who does not know about proper wading techniques during the times while eggs and fry are developing can completely decimate an entire trout stream of that year’s spawn without even knowing that they did anything wrong. Unknowingly stepping on redds can potentially kill hundreds of wild trout eggs or fry.  Most anglers hit on the fact not to fish over spawning trout.  Although that is an important topic, I feel that improper wading is far more of an issue. Avoid stepping in loose gravel areas at all costs when fishing in the late winter and early spring on streams that hold wild trout. Many times, the fall hurricanes, and November rains in the Northeast will often deposit silt and other debris that will make redds extremely difficult to spot. Even if you hook into a monster trout and feel the need to get the fish into the shallows to land it, please do not step into these areas. Most often these areas are located towards the end of pools, where loose gravel is deposited. 

A gorgeous wild brown that I had just picked out of the water for a photo. At the sound of the photo capture the fish was placed back into the net.
The next important topic to cover is proper fish handling techniques. A net is a must to keep the fish safe while landing the fish and removing the hook. Once the fish is in the net, always keep the fish in the water or just above the water.  If the fish happens to jump from the net, you want it to land back into the water and not onto the bank or bounce off of rocks. If you plan on touching the fish wet your hands and be sure they are completely wet. Dry hands remove the protective slime coating that is on the fish that can lead to infection.  When you land the fish do not set the fish on the ground or let it roll around into the leaves. This will make the fish dry out faster and the leaves and other debris that may be stuck to the fish can also remove their slime coating. Just because the fish swam away doesn’t mean that it won’t end up with a skin infection later due to it being mishandled.  I can’t stress enough the importance of a net to avoid the fish hitting the ground and make safe fish handling easier.

Had this spinner still had barbs on the hook, this would have been a difficult extraction process.  This would have increased the stress on this wild brown and possibly damaged the corner of its mouth.

Barbless hooks are a must when fishing for wild trout. Barbless hooks penetrate the fish better and take very little effort to remove, regardless of what is on that hook. Barbless hooks are vitally important if fishing with bait or scented plastics. These types of bait have a taste and fish will attempt to swallow these offerings. You can greatly increase the odds of a fish surviving a hook removal with a barbless hook compared to a barbed hook. If fishing store bought flies or spinners, take the time to pinch your barbs flat before you fish.  You can always purchase a hook file to sharpen where you pinched the barb.  Your goal should be to cause the least amount of damage to the fish as possible, and barbless hooks are the best way to accomplish this goal. 

Notice how calm this fish is. The fish is completely wet, laying on its side in my wet hands. This wild tiger was in a state of tonic immobility.
Capturing photos or videos of fish is the next topic that I would like to cover. I love to capture the beauty and wildness of these fish. I personally feel that you can safely do this but must take proper precautions while capturing a photo. You want to reduce the amount of stress on the fish as much as you can.  Keep the fish in the net and in the water during the entire process until you are ready to capture your photo. Do not let the fish hang suspended by your hook. Have your phone, or friend ready with the camera on and in capture mode. Keep the fish in the net then lift the fish from the net and snap your photo. This should only have the fish out of the water for a second or two. After a photo is captured, immediately put the fish back in the net and put the net in the water. One trick that I like to do is to turn the fish onto its side while it is in the net. This has a calming tonic immobility effect on the fish. When you pick the fish up from net and they are still completely wet, they are far less likely to wiggle and flop in your hands. They still feel like they are in the water in a sense because they are still wet, and your hands are wet. If you keep them out of the water in the net, then touch the fish with dry hands they will flop around as they are trying to get back into the water. Some fish will just be uncooperative. I will only make two attempts to capture a photo of a fish, if both attempts fail, I just put the fish back in the water. No fish’s life is worth risking capturing a photo, period.

A wild rainbow trout from a tiny stream. If this stream was broadcasted on social media it would sure to receive a large increase in pressure due to the rarity of wild rainbow trout in Pennsylvania.

The last topic I want to cover is over pressuring a stream. Pennsylvania is second only to Alaska for miles off streams or rivers. There are plenty of wild trout streams to target. I want to caution anglers from hitting the same small trout water more than a few times a year. If you do target the same small water within the year, space these trips out with a few months between them. You will enjoy finding new water, and not over pressure a stream. Even if you only have one wild trout stream in your area, your are far better off taking a trip to find new water than burning out your local stream.  If you do have a successful day on the water, it is wise not to broadcast the stream names on social media or other internet forums. Doing so will bring added pressure to these small streams, and some of that pressure may come from anglers who do not know about the responsibilities listed above. I have seen some of my favorite trout wild trout streams become barren after the spot was announced to the masses.

My ten year old son admiring the beauty of his first wild brown trout caught on a fly he tied himself.

I don’t want this article to come off as a lecture, but I care deeply for the future of wild trout. It is vitally important that we as anglers do our best to take care of these wild trout so they are around for future generations of anglers. I did not mention catch and release but I hope most anglers would practice the catch and release of wild trout. There are plenty of hold over and stocked fish to take home.  I hope to be able to educate as many anglers as I can about these responsibilities and hope that they also pass on this information. This article in not about greed or claiming these wild trout as my own, but is intended shed light to anglers who may not even realize they are doing anything that may harm these fish. I would love for the mindset and education of many anglers to grow, as well as their love and understanding of wild trout. The biggest point I hope to point out in this article is that there is no stock truck out there to replace any of these fish, so please read and learn from the responsibilities I list above if you do not already do so. Tight lines and best of luck in your adventures.