Catch-and-release rules for trout streams drum up debate
Some people insist on having their coffee one way and one way only, namely black and bracing. Others just can’t abide it.
So it is with catch-and-release-only rules on trout streams.
Some people love special regulations. And they have their place, said Kris Kuhn, chief of the fisheries management divisions for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. On waters that get lots of fishing pressure and, potentially, lots of harvest — think Penns Creek — they undoubtedly serve to conserve fisheries, he said.
But on waters with little pressure and less harvest, they actually can decrease opportunity without providing any biological benefit, he said.
“It’s a bad day for the particular fish that is harvested. But it doesn’t necessarily translate into population level effects,” Kuhn said.
Therefore, special regulations aren’t “always applicable to every water out there,” he said.
Until now, decisions on where to apply them were based more on fish than fishermen.
“We’ve never used special regulations as a way to manage people,” commission executive director John Arway said. “We’ve always used special regulations as a way to manage fish.”
One member of the agency board wonders if it’s time for that to change.
Commissioner Bill Brock of Elk County said anglers flock to places like Penns Creek, Pine Creek in Lycoming County and Keystone Select waters — those stocked with extraordinary numbers of trophy trout — around the state. The commission manages all under some sort of catch-and-release rules, he pointed out.
He doesn’t think that’s coincidence.
“I would argue the regulations are drawing people in because they think the fish are there. These special regulations are basically saying, ‘It’s going to fish like Montana,’ ” Brock said.
Commissioner Ed Mascharka of Erie County agreed, saying anglers increasingly associate special regulation areas with good fishing.
“People are starting to talk about Pennsylvania,” he said.
Perhaps, Brock said, the commission should take advantage of that by putting catch-and-release rules on more of its Class A wild trout streams.
Those are the “best of the best” wild trout waters in the state.
The trouble, Brock said, is many people don’t know about the Class A list of streams or what it signifies. He himself didn’t for a long time, he said, and he’s been fishing in Pennsylvania his entire life.
Renaming that list, putting special catch-and-release regulations on some — not all — of those waters, then highlighting them as destinations could lead to more people fishing, he believes.
“I think by marketing them and letting people know where they are and how to access them, that by itself almost creates a new fishery for people to experience,” he said.
Maybe. And maybe not, according to commission staff.
The “biggest variable,” and potentially the biggest obstacle among several, Arway said, is where most trout streams are located.
It’s easy to put special regulations on those flowing across public land, he said. But roughly 70 percent of those in the state cross private land.
“It’s very difficult to do unless the landowner is willing to do it,” he said.
There are other issues, too.
A lot of wild trout streams couldn’t handle much more pressure, Kuhn said. They’re too small or have too little access.
Catch-and-release rules wouldn’t change that, he said.
“The reality of it is, today’s anglers are not harvest-oriented like they were in the past. Voluntary catch and release is widely practiced,” Kuhn said.
“So a lot of times when we apply catch-and-release regulations to waters that are not high-use, or have potential for high harvest, we’re applying them for purely social reasons.”
Mascharka admitted his one concern is with law enforcement.
The commission is short waterways conservation officers now, he said. To ask them to patrol additional waters closed to harvest could be a burden.
All of that may be true, Brock said. Not every wild trout stream might be suitable for catch-and-release rules.
But it’s something that bears looking at, he believes. Because whether they’re conserving fish or just making anglers think they are, they’re drawing fishermen and women.
“It would just give us more opportunities to sell a customer fishing,” Brock said.
The commission already markets its top fisheries, said Andy Shiels, director of the bureau of fisheries. It maintains a list of Pennsylvania’s “best fishing waters,” broken down by species — including wild trout — that’s updated every few years to keep it current.
Maybe a tool like that is the way to sell fishing, he said.
Arway would like time to think about that and more before commissioners make any changes.
“There may be other ways to incentivize people to fish those streams besides special regulations,” he said.
Ideas, and additional discussion, are expected soon, if not at the board’s July meeting, then perhaps by September.