Andrew Wagner popped open the lid of a plastic tray last week and peered inside at hundreds of tiny, round, pale trout eggs.
“In about two more weeks, you’ll start to see a tiny little eye emerge” from each egg, said Wagner, manager at Huntsdale State Fish Hatchery near Carlisle, Pa.
Within a few years, those eggs will grow into trophy trout — big adult fish prized by many anglers. The state already stocks waterways with trout. But a relatively small program will be expanded starting in the spring to introduce trophy trout to more state waterways.
The most notable: Golden rainbow trout, an orange-yellow fish some might mistake for koi, a species of carp. Those colorful trout could be swimming in the Wissahickon, Neshaminy, and other Philadelphia-area creeks, streams, ponds, and lakes next year.
Faced with a national decline in fishing, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is breeding ever more golden rainbow and other prized trout in the hope of luring more anglers to the sport. More anglers paying for licenses brings in more revenue to feed conservation programs.
But not all anglers are happy about the new program. Trout Unlimited, one of the biggest fishing-related conservation organizations in the country, believes the increase in nonnative species will compete with native brook trout for food and space. Brook trout tend to grow much smaller than trophy-size trout such as brown or golden rainbow.
Regardless, state officials are pressing ahead.
“What we’re trying to do as an agency is recruit, retain, and reactivate anglers so that more people are out there fishing,” said Brian Wisner, director of the commission’s Bureau of Hatcheries. “I think that increasing the number of trophy trout that we are stocking will be a good way for us to help get more people interested in angling here in Pennsylvania.”
In 2019, the bureau stocked 9,500 golden rainbow trout statewide. In 2020, it plans on stocking 13,000, nearly a 40% increase. The fish will be released in 486 segments of streams, creeks, lakes, and ponds.
Fish stocked in the Philadelphia area come from the Huntsdale hatchery, about 140 miles from the city. Yellow Breeches Creek gurgles alongside the 167-acre Huntsdale, which is one of 13 hatcheries operated by the Fish and Boat Commission. The hatcheries collectively produce up to 900,000 rainbow, golden rainbow, brook, and brown trout a year, as well as other fish species.
Trophy trout are raised for two or three years until they grow to 14 to 20 inches and up to half a pound or more in weight. By comparison, native brook trout usually are up to about a foot long.
The trophy fish are not stocked in Class A waters, the state’s highest-quality, protected waters where trout naturally thrive. Pennsylvania has 1,500 miles of Class A trout waters.
Rather, the big fish are stocked in designated wild trout streams, just a notch below Class A. They are also stocked in bodies of water that are too polluted or warm to support year-round trout populations, such as streams, creeks, and lakes in the Philadelphia area.
Under the Keystone Select program, state officials stocked 22 waterways with more fish, and also bigger trophy fish. Wisner said the program will be expanded to an additional 61 sections of waterways next year.
“In 2020, we’ll be stocking twice as many trophy trout,” Wisner said, because the Keystone Select program has become so popular. “That means there will be about 60,000 trophy trout stocked in the waters around Pennsylvania.”
This year, only one waterway in the Philadelphia region, White Clay Creek in Chester County, got stocked with trophy fish under the Keystone Select program. Next year, stocked waterways in the region should see more trophy fish on opening day in the spring, though locations won’t be announced until February.
Rob Shane, mid-Atlantic organizer for Trout Unlimited, believes expanding the use of trophy trout is a bad idea, though he praises the Fish and Boat Commission for helping protect 16,000 miles of wild trout streams in Pennsylvania.
Shane said stocking trout in waterways where they might not otherwise thrive, like the Wissahickon, is fine, as is stocking golden rainbows in some ponds and lakes.
“I don’t want to sound like we think all trout stocking is bad. I think of warm-water creeks like Ridley and Wissahickon that would never support fish populations,” Shane said. “People can’t always make the trip to Williamsport or somewhere else, and want to be able to catch trout close to home.”
But introducing nonnative species into streams with healthy trout populations causes unneeded competition for resources. Shane, who refers to the golden rainbow as “banana trout,” said that can lead to declines in wild fish.
“The fish don’t say, ‘Uh-oh, I’m outside a Keystone Select area,’” Shane said. “They are going to follow food and cold water.”
For example, he said, brown trout are now as numerous as native brook trout after so many years of stocking.
“Brown trout are voracious feeders, and they’ve taken over brook trout areas,” Shane said. “So Trout Unlimited’s focus is to restore brook trout.... If left to their own devices, wild trout, we believe, will repopulate and establish themselves.”