The Forgotten Trout of Pennsylvania


Let’s take a quick look back to more humble times. To what once was in the State of Pennsylvania, in the hopes of getting a clearer view of, where we have been.

I find it difficult to plot a course to a destination without a point of origin.  To find out where we are, it would only be appropriate to search for where we have been.  I don’t want to assume, when the next step I make, might be off a cliff.  I want to know exactly where I am.  Our GPS tracker is our History.  Luckily for the Pennsylvania Trout angler, there are some excellent documentations that read as cherished Trout scripture anywhere you live in the world today.

The early writers, Charlie Fox and Joe Brooks among others, thankfully found it important  to document the characteristics of the Brown trout introduced to our waters.  They described the German or Black Forest strain as the stay at home or resident trout.  The Scottish Loch Leven strain was the mover of the two.  Defined by its characteristic of movement through watercourses, ascending tributaries to spawn.  The taxonomist Dr. Gunther described the Loch Leven strain as a typical River Salmon.  Charlie Fox called it the Super Trout, in his letter titled as such, to the Harrisburg Fly Fishers.  This documentation can be found in the important book, ‘Limestone Legends’.  The early plantings of Brown Trout flourished and grew very large.  To the Loch Leven the Loch or Lake was replaced quickly in it’s new ecology with the Mill Dam pool or the large slow pools of the arterial main stem rivers and streams as fall back post spawn winter retreats.   It makes no difference to the trout what we call it, it serves the same purpose to them.  Words are only relative to us.

Harder to catch than the Brook trout, the old fishing methods fell short, to the frustration of anglers. The Brown Trout got mixed reviews from anglers and wasn’t embraced well by all anglers.  I speculate that it didn’t help, not having a pretty name like Rainbow.  It is hard to compete with the flashy appeal of the Golden Rainbow hybrid, the Palomino trout.

Our water systems closely matched the indigenous systems of the Brown Trout.  The early plantings with all their amazing adaptable wildness (in tact genetic diverstiy), adapted quickly and for a brief window of time, Pennsylvania’s lucky anglers had the privilege to witness the potential that the Brown trout demonstrated.  Pennsylvania’s notoriety as a Trout State grew internationally as a result and is now a distant memory with few survivors of the time to tell the stories of an almost forgotten Legend.  The challenge represented by the Brown Trout created the Legends of the sport as they developed new ways to catch them creating the storied past that Pennsylvania enjoys to this day.  Fly Fishing owes no other for the birth of the sport and the advancement of it to this point in history, like it owes the Brown Trout.  Shame on us for not taking along for the ride the most deserving.

It was not considered important to maintain separation of the strains or to even document their introductions.  At an unspecified time, they were crossed in the hatcheries and also at an undocumented time and location, released.  The Great Assumption is that all the Brown Trout introduced into the wild were crossed, either in the hatchery or crossed in the wild naturally making a Brown Trout is a Brown Trout is a Brown Trout.  To summarize they became viewed as all being the same.  As a result of this Great Assumption and at exactly this time, we lost sight of the value that movement represents in Brown Trout and the potential that they represent for us.  The Loch Leven label and all that it implies was lost on an assumption.


Today, a growing number of trout anglers pursue wild trout over stocked trout.  More anglers and biologists today accept that stocking over wild is detrimental to the wild trout population.  This was not always the case.   For a long time many argued stocking had no adverse effect on wild naturally reproducing trout and this was not that long ago, Believe it or Not.  Thankfully today irrefutable scientific data backs the claim that it is harmful in many ways and more people are accepting of this fact. A greater potential is the selling point to achieve an altered management vision.  Our streams, rivers and Brown Trout have already demonstrated a well documented greater potential.  Thankfully these genetic traits and expressions still exist.  The best and least altered examples exist on the fringes.  These trout give us our heading and serve as a compass for a new course in Trout management with the greatest return.  They are the best suited to survival in our waterways and have the tools to adapt to climate change.  If we are to give the Brown Trout the respect it is due, The PFBC is the farmer whose Blue Ribbon crop of Pennsylvania today are growing in the fencerows and forgotten places on the farm, where we haven’t taken the plow.  Regulations don’t protect these trout where they are found today.  Fisherman are charged with that responsibility and for me and others it has come in the form of secrecy, worry and lost sleep.    Technology today is a very real threat to this passive form of protection called secrecy.  Regulations don’t protect fish, we do.

What is the biggest threat to our best examples of wild brown trout in Pennsylvania? Not pollution or habitat loss, it is us, Fishermen.  Why?  Because trained by the stock trout culture we lack the respect for the fish.  An insipid kind of sport one not worthy of the other, was the way that Vince Marinaro described the degradation of the sport as a result of stocking.  We made our streams and the fish about us, serving us.  Selfish desires and self serving interests of anglers without respect for the fish are the fruit, of that tree.  We have come so far down this path in Pennsylvania anglers today have a hard time believing or accepting.

To begin to grasp any semblance of the rabbit hole that the Brown Trout represents we must first accept it on the surface as one of the most adaptable creatures on the planet.  Our naturalized populations of Brown Trout are in a constant state of adaptation to the ever-changing flowing fluid environment to optimize fitness in order to give their offspring the best chance of survival.  This Law of their existance, if we accept it as such, and there aren’t many that apply to something as fluid and plastic as the Brown Trout, applies only to the naturally existing stream born Wild Brown Trout.   From the very beginning with the first generation removed from the wild, the Brown Trout used for stocking purposes raised in captivity have been continually adapting to a consistent un-changing optimum condition, confined within a box.  From the beginning alternately, the Wild Brown Trout has been adapting not along parallel lines, but rather in a 180-degree different direction from the trout, in our hatcheries.  Each generation is one generation better adapted to survival, wherever it lives and exists.  To take it one step further each water course requires a different genetic diversity or (tool bag for survival), for optimum fitness from another water course as all our streams and rivers are different in some form and represent different challenges to their optimization of that ecology.  So, you see, to look at the Brown Trout as all being the same, could not be further from the truth in any form or fashion, yet that is exactly how we have looked at it and managed it.  This is completely, Unbelievable to me.

How many generations once the magic of natural reproduction occurs before the Brown Trout can demonstrate full potential is the first of two un-answerable questions presented here.  It is important  to understand this because this is where we make an error on assumption in our electro fishing data that generates classification for our streams and justifies stocking.  We make the assumption that on that day, on that 300 meter stretch, on that year and all the conditions to that point in time, the results found by the study are evidence of the trouts demonstrated potential for that stream.  The trout like the ones I’m talking about are a moving target.  Any studies that are done that do not consider all the factors that effect their movement and population density to that point, on that year, at that exact time and place are just electro-fishing.  Wild populations also fluctuate regularly.  Good friend Stephen Grunden put it best when he said, ” They are on a teeter totter balanced on a marble on a merry go round.”  In summary, if a study reveals that the population density does not meet our determination of value as a resource by population density, it justifies stocking.  This is not to the fault of the great understaffed and overworked Biologists working hard in Pennsylvania.  This is a result of the interpretation of data offered by their findings.

The second un-answerable question emerges when we consider the value of the demonstrated Loch Leven strain characteristic of movement of the Brown Trout in our waterways.  The question that cannot be answered unless you are God or a Trout is; How many generations once removed from the wild and raised in captivity in consistently optimum conditions before the ability to adapt to ever-changing conditions is altered or diminished?  Logic would tell us that the instinct to move may have been the first thing suppressed or culled from the herd in our confinement of the species.   Therefore, If I am to make an assumption and because I care about trout, I would error to the side of caution utilizing, (The Precautionary Principle of Conservation), and assume that it was very early on prior to the Great White Fleet.  This understanding makes the trout that exist in our waterways today that demonstrate the Loch Leven strain characteristic of movement by utilizing tributaries to spawn the remnant examples of early plantings, possibly the earliest plantings.  Put another way, at the very least, they are examples of Long Standing Naturalized Populations and of extreme value as they have a greater Genetic Diversity.  Once lost they cannot be replaced in their current form, only nature can do that.  Everything that we do that requires adaptation from them, we alter them.  Stocking has forced the Wild Trout to adapt to something that is completely un-natural.

The greatest examples exist where we have altered them the least.

In our management and fishing what we have lost sight of to be specific is the Value of movement demonstrated in brown trout.  Our collective view of the brown trout became as boxed in and concrete as the trout themselves.  Recently when doing my presentation (A modern look at Brown Trout), I asked three separate groups, ” What does it take for a Wild Brown Trout to grow Large in our waterways?”  Everyone answered in some form or another, Time and Food.  That would be the case, if it was living in the raceway at the hatchery.  In this way our understanding of the Brown Trout is Boxed and Concrete, unchanging and unyielding.   In all but our most fertile limestone streams it takes movement, the most important thing, to achieve both age and food.  Most trout that move or migrate grow larger than the average, even Brook Trout.  And angler that understands this, who has picked up the rhythms of the trout and the stream in their movements is the angler that consistently catches the largest Wild Brown Trout in that area and more than likely has that reputation.

To understand this as a trout, these movements are calculated risks or a gamble of hard-earned energy.   The gamble is that the movement will achieve a greater acquisition of energy stores or food as a result. If they make a poor move they don’t grow and if they make a bad move they don’t make babies.  Movement is precisely what is honed and polished through natural selection.  Where I fish most often, one hundred percent of the fish will die, if they don’t move, .

In the natural environment only success is rewarded.  These calculated precise movements are exactly what is honed through natural selection.  Evidence for how well adapted they are, is their size.  A large trout is a well adapted and superior genetic example with larger eggs that have a greater chance of survival or greater Fecundity.  It is widely accepted and understood as a rule that a fish grows by taking in more energy than it expends to capture its food, while being protected from predators.  There are very few stable standards of thought or laws (for me), around brown trout to which I don’t question regularly.  This rule of their existence, by accepting it as such, gives our fishing purpose to understand where, when and most importantly why, to making their capture repeatable.  The hunt is necessary to find and capture large wild migratory Loch Leven Characteristic strain brown trout in our waterways.

No-one understands an animals will to live like the hunter.

Rules or laws of existence are the foundation of our understanding because they don’t change.  Un-answerable questions are where we have made assumptions to make it easier or more simple for us to end a discussion before it begins, of something so complex as the Brown Trout.  The Precautionary Principle of Conservation states that anywhere we are left to make an assumption about something we care about, we are to error to the side of caution.



2 thoughts on “The Forgotten Trout of Pennsylvania

  1. You have done a great job through this article to back a position I have long wished could be adopted in Pa, when it comes to trout fishing. I believe the state should change their current stocking habits, by reversing the “catch release” designation to include the entire state and replace the current designated areas to large lengthed areas of put and take. For example, if a stream today were 20 miles long, has a habitat that could support a trout’s
    natural reproduction, then make 12 – 15 miles catch release. The rest of the stream stocked as a keeper stream, for those who wish to take fish home. I could elaborate, but for now, hopefully, you get my overall point. – ThecreekCreature


  2. Pingback: Breaking the code | Truttablog

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