I have been fishing in Pennsylvania for as long as I have memories. One of my earliest memories was when I was about three or four years old at my uncle’s house in north central Pennsylvania, fishing for bluegill in the lake in front of his house in about 1982 (I’m aging myself here). Most of my earliest childhood memories involve fishing with my father in a farm pond a few miles from my house, brook trout fishing in the mountains near my childhood home, fishing for bass at the local sportsman’s lake in an old Jon boat my dad bought at a yard sale, and trout fishing the local stream that ran through the farmlands where I grew up.
For a long time, I kept all my fishing licenses, and I recall a bulletin board in my room where I had pinned up the licenses from Pennsylvania and Montana. Sometime after moving away for college, I remember deciding I didn’t need to hang on to those old pieces of paper any longer. There was no ceremonious disposal or even much thought about discarding them. It was simply a part of cleaning out the things I no longer needed.
I’ve never given much thought to buying a fishing license. It’s always been something that was simply a yearly ritual, though more of a requirement than a cherished occasion. The new year meant a new fishing license was required, and that’s about the extent of it.
As I’ve grown older and become consumed by the issue of the threats levied against our state fish, the brook trout, I’ve heard an argument many times that pitted the sale of fishing licenses against what might be best for the brook trout. As I’ve mentioned numerous times on this blog in the past, stocking nonnative trout over wild native brook trout harms native brook trout. This issue is well-documented in many places, so I won’t discuss it in detail here.
The argument goes something like this; “the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission should stop stocking over wild native brook trout.” to which a typical response is; “that would upset anglers, and people wouldn’t buy fishing licenses.” I’ve also read the argument that more anglers are concerned about stocked trout than brook trout, and the commission has to make those people happy. Changes to stocking practices would alienate anglers who would, in turn, refuse to buy a fishing license which would hurt the bottom line of the agency.
On the other side of this argument are the people who are concerned about the fate of our state fish. That is admittedly a minority group within the population of anglers in the commonwealth. The issue of stocking over brook trout is very esoteric. Then within the number of people aware of the issue are those who prefer stocked trout over brook trout. So it appears that appealing to the largest demographic of license buyers is the goal here.
Recently during PFBC meetings, I’ve noticed a distinct lack of any mention of brook trout specifically. The closest mention of brook trout is the generic term “wild trout,” which includes nonnative trout, which are ironically also a threat to brook trout. Late in 2022, I contacted the commission to suggest a working group be established to investigate the issue of barrier removals and the impact that might have on brook trout. As stream quality is improved and pollution that acts as a barrier to invasion is remediated and barriers are removed, is there a threat to the isolated brook trout populations due to removing the physical and chemical barriers to invasion? My request went unanswered without so much as a casual “we’ll get back to you.”
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s social media accounts reach thousands of anglers. The content the agency chooses to highlight influences its thousands of followers. To date, brook trout are the least mentioned and least posted subject. The most common subject pushed on social media by the agency is stocked trout and, more specifically, nonnative trout. They even removed the brook trout from their logo and replaced it with a nondescript “trout” graphic. It’s as if they’re ashamed that brook trout even exist.
I don’t believe managing a state’s fisheries should be a popularity contest. Focusing on the most popular subjects does nothing to inform the public of the plight of our state fish. The lack of angling regulations aimed at protecting, conserving, or enhancing brook trout reinforces to the public that there’s nothing special about the species. Responses from the agency in media dismissing the negative impacts of stocking over brook trout do nothing to educate the public about the potential harm to fish.
I’m not a big fan of paying for things or giving my hard-earned money to entities that I don’t agree with or for things that I don’t support. Unfortunately, a large percentage of the fishing license cost supports what I strongly oppose. So, after 30 years of buying a Pennsylvania fishing license, I won’t be buying a 2023 fishing license. I simply cannot, in good conscience, financially support the actions of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
This in no way means I won’t be fishing in 2023. In fact, I’m excited to share my adventures this year and plan on documenting them all here throughout the year. I have a trip planned for the Adirondacks in May (in order to pick up a new Hornbeck boat I ordered last year), camping trips in West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland, and more short trips to Maryland and West Virginia.
All of those states have committed significant resources to protect native brook trout. They all have large tracts of public land with streams that only contain native brook trout without any other trout species. It’s not that I dislike the other trout species; it’s just that I don’t want to go into a remote mountain stream to catch brown trout. If I want to fish for brown trout, I’ll fish in the tailwaters where they’re isolated, and their impact is contained. Despite what it seems to be the mission of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, it’s possible to have isolated populations of trout rather than to try to get as many species to live together as possible.
I have mixed emotions about my decision to withhold my license fee. I have been guiding in Pennsylvania over the past two years, and so I’m discontinuing guiding in Pennsylvania as well. I also have boats with launch permits from PFBC. The grand total of my yearly license cost is $182.82, which I donated to Maryland DNR this year. On the one hand, it’s sad that I’m giving up fishing in Pennsylvania after 30 years. On the other, I’m excited to spend more time (and money) in other states, and I do feel better about withholding my license fee from the state. At least I know I’m not contributing to the demise of brook trout.