One tough little Pennsylvanian

Those of us who live here, who grew up here, who have spent any time here, know.

Pennsylvania is a special place. 

I’m sure many states would lay claim to that sentence. And many states would be right. I guess I’m a bit biased. As I’m learning more and more about our woods and waters, that bias only grows.

Look at the brook trout habitat map of the state and you won’t be jumping up and down. It’s a pretty bleak picture. Statistics will tell you that 1 percent of Pennsylvania’s historical subwatersheds remain intact – that is, watersheds where more than 90 percent of the habitat is occupied by naturally reproducing brookies. One-third of those historical watersheds are now completely devoid of the state fish.

But as the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission – and cooperating partners like TU – get around to sampling more of the 64,000 miles of unassessed streams in this state, we’re finding just how resilient these little (and sometimes not-so-little) fish can be.

We’re finding wild and native fish all across the state.

In streams no wider than your dining room table, in headwaters to some of our largest rivers, in trickles that don’t even hold water all year ‘round. These little gems – I’ve heard brookies described as “fireworks you can hold in your hand" – are finding a way to survive in the state’s waters. Despite what we have done to the surrounding terrain; despite our rush to development; despite our best efforts at “progress.” They are tough little Keystone Staters.

To be sure, we have to make the distinction between a native fish and a wild fish. Of course, only the brookie is native to Pa. Its cousins, the brown and rainbow trout, once they survive and reproduce in a stream, are considered wild fish. According to the science, if we have two or more year classes – think different sizes – then we have a naturally reproducing trout population. That’s a good thing.

In 2010, the PFBC looked at the state’s 86,000 miles of streams (second only to Alaska, by the way) and realized that it could only account for aquatic life in less than 22,000 miles of them. The commission began the process of visiting the other 64,000 or so other stream miles. TU joined in the effort in 2011, sending its science-based assessment teams into the field. 

On average, in just under half the streams, there have been browns, rainbows and/or brookies turning up with naturally reproducing populations. 

But finding the fish is only half the battle. Now that we know those streams hold wild trout, we have to get them on The List.

The PFBC maintains a list of streams awaiting Wild Trout Stream designation and regularly – at least for the past five months – have been pulling streams from around the state to take before the board of commissioners for approval. So far this year, we’ve seen 99 streams added to the Wild Trout Stream list and another 29 receive the Class A Wild Trout Water designation.

That’s great news, of course. It had been several years since any of the awaiting waters were brought before commissioners and now, with the momentum of this year building, Pennsylvania is poised to make great strides in protecting our fish and wildlife habitat.

But it’s not automatic. Before each quarterly meeting, the commission releases the proposed list and then opens it for public comment. That’s where the sportsmen of the state come in. Unfortunately, we don’t often get asked for our opinion. Even though there are hundreds of thousands of us, it’s a struggle sometimes to make our voice heard.

In this case, they are asking for it. It’s not that difficult to chime in. Go to Streams Being Considered for Wild Trout Designation on the PFBC page and click on the comment link. Make your comments and hit “Send.” 

It will take you less time than it would to hike to one of these beautiful wild trout streams and fish. But then, you should do that, too.


said on Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

I've pulled these marvelous fish from tiny headwater springs.  It is a miracle that they exist at all after Pennsylvania's mass deforestation in the 19th century. They ARE tough, but they sorely need a break from habitat fragmentation.

said on Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

Paul, its a little late to comment on this article.   But its great to hear that native & wild (there's a difference) Brookies are still surviving in PA and need to be protected.

.I have also notified PA Fish Commision many year ago that there are areas like lower Spring Creek outside Bellefonte that have wild Rainbows reproducing.   I hate to say this because it is one of the last few areas that don't have tremendous pressue.  But this summer, I have caught numerous 3-4" wild rainbows that have been streamborn.   I wish that PA FIsh Commission would go Catch & Release with Flyfishing Only or Lures Only (single hook) only rules.   I have seen too many trophy trout that I have caught and released in same places over the years "float" down the river when I saw a bait fisherman come along in same spot, catch the same trophy fish I had caught before, plop the fish on the bank, yank the hook out of mouth or gills, plop fish back intro stream, and was amazed that fish just floated down the creek. 

And along the lines of the article, I have caught wild brownies and native brookies in many areas of this creek (again 3-4") that were streamborn.   Again, not trying to create a mass exodus of fisherman to Spring Creek.   I have learned that the quickest death to a river, stream (or section) is overfishing like the Benner Springs section of Spring Creek since one shop starting guiding there.   But I am saying this is a stream worth protecting and maybe worthy of some more special regulations due to nature of strembred Brookies, Browns and (very rare in PA) Rainbows....

- Rob K


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