It’s the food!

Fat Pennsylvania Brook Trout

In this post I’ll be breaking from my normal protocol of not naming streams. The stream discussed below is no secret, and while it’s treasures are known, catching them is far from easy. From my understanding of this blog’s audience (there isn’t one), the chance of this post having any impact on fishing pressure is about zero.

In my quest for large PA brook trout, I’ve been using every tool and piece of information at my disposal. I’ve arrived at the conclusion that the state can be broken down into three categories in terms of streams that could support large brook trout. There are the headwater streams, beaver ponds and limestone streams.

In the headwater streams, the habitat that could hold a trophy brook trout are plentiful. Almost every small headwater stream I’ve visited has the occasional log jam pool with deep blue water, or the natural rock outcropping that creates deep pools along bends in the stream. Typically these headwater streams are unpressured, so harvest isn’t as big of a limiting factor. Often, the water quality in these streams is fine, though typically they trend on the more acidic, less alkaline side of chemistry. They’re also typically packed with wild brook trout, and in most cases, they aren’t invaded by brown trout. The one limiting factor in these headwater streams is food.

Beaver ponds, which could arguably simply be a feature of a headwater stream, are a promising proposition. These ponds create environments unlike the flowing stream in that they’re often deep, with lots of cover, and little to no current to cause the fish to exert energy. In theory, this should allow them to grow larger since they’re not working so hard to feed. While these ponds have produced some very nice brook trout, I’m still skeptical that they could produce a unicorn brook trout. Again, these ponds tend to simply be features of the mountain headwater streams, and they’re simply not the food factory needed to grow huge trout.

This brings us to limestone streams. A true natural wonder of the Central Pennsylvania landscape. These streams are typically bug factories where they’re unimpacted by human development. Unlike the freestone streams of Pennsylvania, these streams have high pH and Carbonate Hardness. This in turn, allows a different set of creatures to inhabit their waters. Primarily Scuds (Gammarus) and Sow bugs (Asellus aquaticus), but the usual cast of aquatic bugs are also typically more prevalent on these streams as well.

The brook trout at the beginning of this article, and the one further down the page are examples of what brook trout can look like when they have a better diet. These fish are miniature versions of the goliaths of Labrador or Ontario. Fat brook trout with a tall mid section and humped shoulders.

By Michal Maňas – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1869909

This increase in food supply obviously increases trout growth rates. These streams are no secrets, and they’ve been coveted for decades for their uncanny ability to produce enormous trout. From Pennsylvania to England, limestone (or Chalk Streams over there) are the pièce de résistance of trout streams. Unfortunately, in Pennsylvania, in the 1800’s when anglers started descending on the limestone streams from all over the world, what they encountered were brook trout instead of the brown trout they were used to in England.

While it’s been written that some of these limestone streams produced brook trout of up to 2-3/4 pounds, apparently that wasn’t enough for these early “legends”. They longed for the big Loch Leven trout of their homeland. This was the beginning of the end for big brook trout (naturally occuring anyway) in Pennsylvania. The browns were stocked, and they became the coveted species of the angling world.

Today, almost every single limestone stream in Pennsylvania is full of wild brown trout. A very, very small number of them still hold brook trout. One in particular is likely the only place in the state where you could potentially catch a trophy brook trout. Unfortunately, that stream has had an enormous amount of misfortune over the years.

By Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38705856

By the 1930’s, Big Spring Creek near Newville Pennsylvania had 16 pound, 31 inch long brown trout swimming it’s watercrest lined depths. Apparently, Big Spring was not immuned from brown trout stocking. Ironically, one of the saving graces of this stream’s history (as it relates to brook trout anyway) was the construction of a hatchery dam near it’s source. It was the first of 2 hatcheries that would be built on the stream during it’s lifetime to date. The old hatchery caused massive siltation of the downstream sections, which apparently almost completely destroyed the natural reproduction in the stream.

In addition to the hatchery, there were mill ponds constructed which seems to have had the same effect. The end result was a great reduction in the number of large brown trout in the stream. Through it all, the brook trout held on, and while their sizes were reduced, their presence remained all the way up through the 70’s, when a final blow was delivered to the stream courtesy of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

I can’t say this any better than what Charles Fox wrote in 1978 in “Rising Trout” – Second Edition;

“…In the passage of time the landscape has changed in the rural village of Springfield at the head of Big Spring. Pennsylvania authorities elected to construct and maintain a mammoth trout hatchery at the source.

The effluent from the troughs, which in reality is from the trout, stains the once crystalline water and gray slime coats the once sparkling gravel. The great native population of brook trout is no more. There does, however, exist some stocked trout fishing in the water below, which has been “improved,” and the average-size fish is 17 inches.

It is not my role to pass judgment on the merits or demerits of the conversion that sacrificed the real thing at one place so that an inferior substitute could be put at another. It is my province, though, to advise readers that this book chapter is no longer a suggestion or recommendation to visit Big Spring in order to enjoy some natural fishing for a unique native trout population; rather it is the documentary of the glory days of a once tremendous stream, the elements of whose anatomy were in near-perfect balance.”

I will pass judgement; what was done to Big Spring is reprehensible. I think I’ve read every piece of literature available on Big Spring, and I can’t imagine what on earth anyone involved in the decision to open a hatchery on Big Spring was thinking. What distorted idea of reality would lead to anyone thinking it was a good idea to destroy a world renowned fishery in order to raise hatchery fish?

I assume anyone reading this knows the story of the hatchery at Big Spring. If not, basically, a fish hatchery was constructed just West of the source of the stream in the early 1970’s. The hatchery essentially completely destroyed the stream from just downstream of the source all the way to it’s termination. The effluent from the hatchery devastated the insect life and the trout. Prior to it’s closure in the early 2000’s, the stream sported a population of stocked fish, and a section known as “The Ditch” held a lot of hatchery escapees and supposedly a tiny population of the Big Spring heritage strain of brook trout.

I have my doubts that any of the brook trout in Big Spring are of the same genetic lineage as the trout that were written about in the 1800’s both far and wide. While the hatchery was shut down and dismantled, the state continues to stock the middle section of the stream to this day. The only fish stocked are brook trout, which I will give them credit for, they’re still a genetically inferior product, and I’m sure they’ve interbred with whatever wild fish were still in the stream.

Fat Big Spring Brook Trout
Holdover Stocked Brook Trout

There is a clear distinction between the fish in Big Spring in terms of appearance. I would love to see a genetic survey done of the fish here to see what is really going on. Don’t get me wrong, these are some beautiful fish, I just don’t know what the ability of this strain is to attain large sizes. The first photo above is of what I assume is a stream bred brook trout. The photo below is a stocked fish that has held over in the stream for what I would assume to be about a year.

There is also still a large abundance of wild rainbow trout in Big Spring. I’ve read that there have been proposals to lift the harvest limitations on rainbow trout only to attempt to remove or reduce their numbers from the stream. I have little hope that anything like this is possible. What is for certain, is that the food supply in Big Spring is capable of producing large trout.

Big spring is only unique in that it is one of the few remaining limestone streams in Pennsylvania that hasn’t been overrun by brown trout. There are a handful of other smaller limestone streams that still hold brookies, but they’re mostly private property, and/or very difficult to access. They also don’t have the ability to produce fish of the same size as Big Spring.

All of this leads to the question of; what if? What if even one more of PA’s limestone streams were to have brook trout instead of brown trout? I often wonder what the Letort would be, or Spring Creek, or even Penns Creek if it weren’t for the browns. There are times where I would like to travel back in time and strangle those responsible for bringing brown trout to our waters. While they have produced large brown trout, they’re not what they should be.

I know I have an extremist view of trout populations in the state. A lot of people I know love to fish for wild brown trout. There certainly are some big ones around, and I fish for them too. Everytime I find myself on a highly productive stream with a huge food abundance though, I can’t shake the thought of what they would be like if they were full of brook trout instead of brown trout.

Large Wild PA Brown Trout

The fish above is from a limestone stream in Central PA which also holds a very tiny population of brook trout. From what I can gather, the brook trout are largely migratory, and more or less inhabit the feeder streams through most of the year. When they’re caught in the main stem, I suspect they are simply using the stream for movement from one place to another. There are so many brown trout in the mainstem that it would be next to impossible for brook trout to take hold there. All of the best holds are taken up by large, aggressive brown trout.

I have absolutely zero hope than any of this will change. I don’t think it’s even possible at this point to restore brook trout to any of these streams. I think it’s partly what drives me to find big brook trout. Afterall, they wouldn’t be unicorns if they were as plentiful as the large brown trout.

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