I was pleasantly surprised when I attended The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission Fisheries Committee meeting on April 29 in Harrisburg.
Business was proceeding as usual at the meeting. The committee was updated about the restoration of Chapman Dam Reservoir in Warren County’s Chapman State Park and they followed staff recommendation, as they usually do — approving catch-and-release/no-harvest regulations for all species except trout. This will allow for the warm-water fishery to develop as the reservoir refills.
Proposed additions to the Class A Wild Trout Waters and 99 new Wild Trout Streams were also presented and discussed.
But it stopped being business as usual when a small section of Huntingdon County’s Spruce Creek was brought up. Staff had proposed that the management of an 800-foot segment of the famous limestoner be changed from the current Inland Waters regulations, to Catch and Release Artificial-Lures-Only.
As most trout anglers know, almost all of Spruce Creek is privately controlled by clubs and pay-to-fish groups. The section in question, Section 3, had been part of the Indian Caverns property. After years of negotiations, the property was sold to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in December 2017 for use as a bat restoration and public fishing access.
Since then, the stream there has been open to the public, using any kind of terminal tackle. The Conservancy put up signs asking anglers to practice catch and release.
It is expected that the stream frontage will be transferred from the Conservancy to the Fish & Boat Commission in the near future. The Commission also recently purchased a property adjacent to the Indian Caverns/Conservancy property.
A notice requesting public comment on this proposed regulation change was published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin on March 16. Only two comments were received by the Commission, both supporting the change. However, Huntingdon County angler Mark Jackson presented testimony at the beginning of the meeting requesting that the commissioners consider All-Tackle regulations instead of the more restrictive Artificial-Lures-Only.
“All-Tackle regulations on Pennsylvania streams such as Spring Creek, Penns Creek, Pine Creek and the Little Juniata River have been very successful,” Jackson said. “And recent bait-fishing mortality studies in several states clearly document a low mortality with bait-hooked trout. Understanding this, I ask each of you what reasonable basis is there for excluding the largest segment of the trout fishing public — bait anglers — from fishing with the tackle method of their choice in this section of Spruce Creek or any special regulation water in the Commonwealth?
“Artificial-Lures-Only regulations have become a form of angler discrimination, rather than a management tool,” Jackson added.
Before a vote could be taken, Commissioner Ed Mascharka said, “Wait a minute. What are we doing here? Is this stream section open to all anglers now? Why would we want to limit them?”
This sparked a lively discussion between commissioners and staff, with Deputy Director of Field Operations Andy Shiels defending the staff’s recommendation. Shiels noted that making this section Catch and Release Artificial-Lures-Only would provide consistent management with the only other section of Spruce Creek that is open to the public — the Penn State University-owned George Harvey section. He stated that it would also protect the stream from over-harvest and that there would likely be a positive fishery response.
“All-Tackle Catch and Release doesn’t degrade the resource,” Mascharka said. “Recent science shows that if the fish are released properly, bait fishing doesn’t cause degradation.”
Commissioner Rocco Ali added, “This section has over 10 times a Class A wild trout biomass. I don’t think that we should allow anglers to keep five trout there, but are we really going to hurt the trout population by making it All-Tackle Catch and Release? ... Several studies have been made that show about the same hooking mortality for bait-caught trout as with artificial lures. How can you argue that we should exclude bait anglers? They buy licenses, too.”
Newly appointed Commissioner Don Anderson responded, “I think that we should let it open to all anglers like it is now, but change the regulation to All-Tackle Catch and Release. I like to see angler groups getting along and not on opposing sides. Artificial-Lures-Only can create contention between angling groups.”
When the discussion ended, Ali motioned to table the Artificial-Lures-Only proposal and publish a new Catch and Release All-Tackle proposal in the Pennsylvania Bulletin. Anderson seconded the motion, and the vote in favor was unanimous.
“I don’t think that we should make a knee-jerk decision, Ali said. “What does it hurt to put it out for public comment again — this time with All-Tackle?”
According to Mike Parker, the agency’s Communications Director, the newly proposed All-Tackle regulations will likely be published in the Pa. Bulletin on May 25, and a request for comments will also be placed on the Commission’s website.
As Shiels sees it, comments will be collected and will be very important.
“It is likely that both proposals — Catch and Release Artificial-Lures-Only and Catch and Release All-Tackle will be put before the Fisheries Committee when they again meet in July, but that decision has not been made yet,” Shiels said.
Following the meeting, Mascharka explained his reason for questioning the staff recommendation.
“I believe that we should make all streams accessible to all people,” Mascharka said. “All-Tackle gives kids, fathers, mothers — everybody -- a chance to fish and catch trout.
“Artificial-Lures-Only or fly-fishing-only creates a bias against 80 percent of the anglers and creates animosity between different groups of anglers. If we have to create problems, I would rather err on the side of the majority of license buyers — the bait anglers.”
I fish for trout with lures about 99.9 percent of the time. If I wanted to be selfish, I could lobby for more Artificial-Lures-Only regulations, but I do not. Knowing that properly-handled bait-hooked have nearly as good a chance at surviving (about 95 percent) as those caught on lures and flies, I wonder why we have any artificials-only areas.
I also think about fairness. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stocks many big trout in their Keystone Select stream sections. Every license buyer helps to pay for them, but you are only allowed to fish there with lures and flies. Is this fair?
Jackson recently started the PA All-Tackle Initiative with a new website: PaAllTackle.com. Its purpose is to inform anglers about Pennsylvania’s decades long All-Tackle success, share recent science-based mortality study results, educate anglers on best practices regarding catch-and-release trout fishing and to eliminate special regulations that discriminate against any angling method including bait.
Check it out and see if you agree.
Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com