Pennsylvania is home to 16,005 miles of wild trout waters. On 99 percent of them, the usual fishing regulations apply.
But a few waters are exceptional. They might be home to important trout populations. They might have unique histories or face significant pressure from anglers. On these waters, the state puts in place sensible special regulations to protect fisheries by requiring the use of artificial lures.
Somehow, this basic, longstanding wild trout management idea has become controversial this summer.
Not long ago, the state took ownership of an 800-foot stretch on one of Pennsylvania’s most well-known but largely private trout waters, Spruce Creek in Huntingdon County. To provide the greatest protections for this now public stretch of water, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is proposing that it be regulated as catch-and-release and that angling be restricted to the use of artificial lures and flies.
This is a wise approach. We’re talking about a famous stream fished by Eisenhower and Carter. It is only a 30-minute drive from State College and Altoona. As if that weren’t enough to drive fishing pressure, recent surveys indicated an off-the-charts wild trout biomass of 400 pounds per acre, qualifying it as one of the best of the best in Pennsylvania.
There is no doubt that this stretch of Spruce Creek deserves special protections.
Decades of peer-reviewed research has demonstrated that by using artificial lures and flies, anglers are far less likely to cause fish to die after their release. Colorado State University researchers found higher mortality rates when natural bait was used in a study of rainbow trout in 1996; University of Washington researchers documented this with coastal cutthroat trout in 1993; I could go on and on.
The reason? Where the fish is hooked plays a major role in whether it survives. Fish are more likely to ingest a natural bait than a lure or a fly. Hook a fish in a critical location like the gills or the esophagus, and its prospects are grim.
Those who oppose artificial lures regulations point to studies suggesting low mortality despite the use of bait. In Maryland and Wisconsin, researchers recently reported just 2 to 7 percent mortality, for example.
What those studies demonstrate is that skilled anglers using natural bait can catch fish without causing harm. In Wisconsin, anglers used worms on tight lines and set the hook immediately.
The problem is that not every angler is so skilled. We are left with the fact that the surest way to avoid harm is by using artificial lures or flies.
My organization does not oppose fishing with natural bait. But we recognize that there are circumstances where its use does not justify the risk. On Spruce Creek, it’s not a close call. This is a short stretch of a highly pressured small stream. Its wild trout are likely to be caught multiple times over the course of a fishing season, amplifying the risk of deep hooking.
Just 80 miles of Pennsylvania’s wild trout streams — that’s half of one percent — are governed by regulations restricting the use of bait. It is permitted on the other 15,925 miles.
Our trout waters face multiple challenges in a time of development pressures and a changing climate. We should not pass up this easy opportunity to keep the fishing great on a special piece of trout water.