A few weeks ago, I had a client reach out about a potential trip on short notice. While I couldn’t pull off a day on the stream, I was able to outfit this gentleman and texted him some location pins so he could venture out on his own. While discussing fishing in the area, he inquired about a map tool on the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission website called “Best Fishing Waters.” (Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, n.d.-a).
I haven’t looked at that map in quite some time, so I decided to see what they had listed for the best brook trout streams in Pennsylvania. What I found was quite unfortunate. The map listed several of Pennsylvania’s largest and most well-known streams. Penns Creek was listed as one of the best streams in the state for brook trout. Those familiar with Penns Creek know that it wouldn’t be on the top of the list for the best streams in the state for brook trout.
Some of the other streams listed on this map as being the best brook trout streams in the state were quite obviously not. Two small streams in Eastern Pennsylvania classified as Class A brown trout were also listed as being the best streams in the state for brook trout. Something was wrong with the mapping tool. I’m sure mistakes like this happen with data entry all the time, but it made me realize an important issue in Pennsylvania.
As I mentioned, several of our high-profile or most well-known brown trout fisheries are published on the best fishing waters map. We have Penns Creek with multiple regulation types to protect the brown trout. The Little Juniata River is Catch-and-Release for 13 miles and is dominated by brown trout. Spring Creek in Centre County (which was also listed as the best brook trout stream on the best fishing waters map) is catch and release with fly fishing only regulations, and again, it is dominated by brown trout.
The state recently created a new “slot limit” regulation type that they will apply to numerous streams across the commonwealth. The slot limit regulation allows for year-round fishing, use of all tackle types, and the harvest of two trout per day that are at least 7 inches but less than 12 inches in length from the opening day of the regular season for trout through Labor Day, with no harvest permitted the remainder of the year. (Slot Limit Program, March 14, 2022). This program was created to improve the size structure of brown trout where the regulation is applied, as brook trout between 7 and 12 inches would be the largest specimens in the system. It’s worth mentioning that it appears that the impact this program will have on brook trout was not researched.
In addition to the newly created slot limit program, the agency made a sweeping change to harvest regulations outside of stocked trout boundaries last year. Under this new regulation, all trout are to be released in waters that are not explicitly listed as stocked trout waters (Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, n.d.-b). This change was designed to “protect large migratory brown trout,” according to Dave Nihart, the director of fisheries, during a hearing about the proposed change.
Pennsylvania has more flowing waters than any other state in the contiguous United States. Brook trout are said to have been extirpated in most of their range in Pennsylvania. The mid-Atlantic region saw the greatest decline in brook trout throughout their native range (Trout Unlimited, 2006). So how is it that the state has no brook trout conservation zone, no regulation type designed to protect brook trout (beyond a size limit that favors the species), and no large watershed managed exclusively for brook trout?
Many of our neighboring states have web pages that list the best brook trout streams in their state. Virginia DNR lists Crooked Creek, Little Stoney Creek, Rapidan River, Rose River, Hughes River, Jeremy’s Run, Laurel Fork, and Dry River (Virginia DWR, n.d.). West Virginia lists the Elk, Greenbrier, and Williams rivers, as well as Seneca and Gandy creeks, to name a few (West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, n.d.).
West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland all have entire watersheds set aside exclusively for brook trout management. Maryland and New Jersey both have statewide regulations to protect brook trout. It’s challenging to list the best brook trout streams in the state and send out-of-state anglers to those streams if you have no angling regulations to protect the fish from increased angler use.
One of the streams in Pennsylvania that comes to mind as one of our best brook trout streams is Big Spring (discussed here). Big Spring was world-renowned for its brook trout fishing. Decades of misuse resulted in brook trout likely being extirpated from the stream. Recently, numerous habitat improvement projects have taken place on Big Spring, but one of the most significant issues facing the brook trout there are the wild rainbow trout. Interestingly, the “Best Fishing Waters” map for wild trout lists Big Spring as being the best wild rainbow trout stream. A designation I, unfortunately, have to agree with.
Pennsylvania has watersheds in the northern tier that might fit the bill as an equivalent to Maryland’s world-class Upper Savage River brook trout preserve. Unfortunately, those watersheds are not currently managed for brook trout. The image below is a map derived from the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture’s range-wide assessment and highlights subwatersheds with a priority score of .7 or higher. An interactive version of this map can be found HERE.
The orange lines on the map are stocked trout streams where thousands of nonnative trout are added to brook trout streams every year by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, private citizens, Sportsman’s groups, and Cooperative Nursery operators. Numerous streams in the area have special regulations which require catch & release angling. However, these regulations are applied to all species, including the freshly introduced nonnative stocked trout.
Pennsylvania has no regulation which explicitly lists brook trout with any different protection than any other “trout.” All trout in Pennsylvania are addressed equally when it comes to angling regulations. Length, bag limits, and seasons are applied to all salmonid species. The only difference is that the number of waters managed exclusively for brown trout far outweighs the number of streams managed for brook trout because there are none.
Pennsylvania does have a large amount of wild brook trout waters. There are several issues with this, however. Pennsylvania has relatively limited public land compared to neighboring states. Many of our native brook trout streams are on private property. Many of our native brook trout streams contain other species. In some cases, the different species outnumber brook trout. Finally, many of our native brook trout streams are fragmented and isolated, resulting in unstable populations that are highly susceptible to exploitation.
So what is the best brook trout stream in Pennsylvania? Our crown jewel? Where can we send any nonresident who inquires? We don’t have one. Not one that could withstand having that designation applied to it. Not one that has adequate protections to prevent exploitation. Not one that is dominated by brook trout without other introduced nonnative species.
We don’t have a single stream in this state that we could confidently say is our best brook trout water, and that’s a travesty.
Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission. (n.d.-a). Best Fishing Waters Map. Fishandboat.com. https://pfbc.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=1cffa0607e364d73b3f3178c42c4364f
Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission. (n.d.-b). Pennsylvania Trout Season Overview. fishandboat.com. https://www.fishandboat.com/Fish/PennsylvaniaFishes/Trout/Pages/TroutSeasonOverview.aspx
Slot Limit Program. 58 PA. Code CH. 65. 52 Pa.B. 1494. (March 14, 2022) http://www.pacodeandbulletin.gov/Display/pabull?file=/secure/pabulletin/data/vol52/52-11/378.html
Trout Unlimited. (2006). Eastern Brook Trout: Status and Threats. Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture. https://easternbrooktrout.org/about/reports/eastern-brook-trout-status-and-threats%20%282006%29/view
Virginia DWR. (n.d.). Brook Trout. Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. https://wvdnr.gov/brook-trout/.
West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. (n.d.). RIVERS AND STREAMS. WVDNR. https://wvdnr.gov/lands-waters/rivers-and-streams/