One of Pennsylvania’s signature spring events involves spending time out in the creek, river, or on the lake trying one’s luck at catching a trophy trout. With the opening day of trout season tomorrow, we wanted to give you a peek into the origins of trout season and how this slippery fellow came to be one of Pennsylvania’s most prized native fish.
In the early-to-mid 1800s, over-fishing and heavy pollution of the state’s waterways became such a problem that fish populations were in rapid decline. A convention was held in Harrisburg in 1866 to investigate the problems and the first Pennsylvania Fish Commission, with James Worrall as the first Commissioner of Fisheries, was created. The goal was to clean up the waterways, rein in pollution, and help Pennsylvania fishermen become successful again.
By the beginning of the 1870s, private citizens began seeking out fish in other areas to transport and stock in Pennsylvania rivers and lakes. Fish were transported from place to place in milk cans via the railroad. Both Fish Commission employees and everyday train passengers stayed with the cans to cool the water with ice and aerate the water with ladles to make sure the fish survived the ride.
In 1875, Pennsylvania bought nine acres in Corry for the first hatchery in Western Pennsylvania and only the second in the entire state. A few years later, Forest and Stream magazine called Pennsylvania the best natural trout region in the United States. Trout fishing was finally making a comeback!
Until 1886, there were no brown trout in Pennsylvania. Why? The first brown trout eggs were received by the Fish Commission from Germany that year to be hatched at Corry and stocked in state waterways.
Pennsylvania anglers had to endure some tough weather in the 1890s, hallmarked by a blizzard wiping out the opening day of trout season in 1893. But, you can’t keep a hardy fisherman down and people braved the weather in search of a big catch.
As the century turned, the 1900s brought a diverse range of new fish into Pennsylvania waters. In 1904, 10.2 million chain pickerel, also known as southern pike, and over 90,000 frogs were distributed throughout the state. By 1909, pollution was again beginning to rise, so the state passed a law making it illegal to dump waste harmful to fish in any waters.
Other changes were also on the horizon for the state’s anglers. For the first time in 1921, Pennsylvania residents had to buy a fishing license which cost one dollar. The legal age to fish was set at twenty-one years old. Thankfully for all our youth fishermen, the age was quickly lowered. Over the next few years, the first creel limits were set and each angler could harvest up to twenty-five trout per day! Some outdoorsmen did not enjoy all these new rules and violence broke out on August 25, 1921.
While patrolling in Bradford County, Warden William Shoemaker and his son came across two men illegally spearfishing. In an attempt to apprehend them, one of the suspects broke loose, took the warden’s gun and shot him in the neck, paralyzing him. Shoemaker later died from his wound. His son was able to apprehend one suspect and the other turned himself in shortly after. They were convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Shoemaker’s son never returned to his position with the Commission.
By 1932, the state trout stock topped one million legal-size fish for the first time, and Pennsylvanians were settled into the new laws regarding fishing. In 1938, the Fish Commission began producing their own brown trout and rainbow trout eggs instead of importing them from elsewhere and the opening day of trout season was established in 1950. In 1966, albino brook trout and palomino brook trout were introduced for the first time and four years later the beautiful, uniquely speckled brook trout was named the Pennsylvania State Fish.
On any given day in Pennsylvania waters you could encounter a trout, pike, muskie, or even a mudpuppy! Mudpuppies are an interesting Eastern U.S. species you are likely to encounter on a trout expedition. Mudpuppies are a type of salamander that can live up to twenty years and are an indication of a healthy water habitat. If you see a mudpuppy, throw it back (they aren’t poisonous or as scary as they look!) to maintain a healthy ecosystem.
Pennsylvania features some of the best trout waters in the United States. We have access to more than 16,000 miles of wild trout streams and over 5,000 miles of stocked trout streams (see slideshow below – natural trout streams in blue, stocked trout streams in orange). In addition, there are 125 lakes stocked with trout in the state. Our special native brook trout thrive in clean, cold waters and are in heavy competition with the much hardier brown trout for habitat.
Much has changed over the course of trout fishing history in Pennsylvania. Fishing licenses now clock in at over twenty dollars a piece (plus the cost of a trout stamp) and the creel limit has been reduced to a more conservationist-friendly five trout per day. When you go out in search of your trophy trout this season, keep our long history of nature stewardship in mind and good luck!