4.2 million fish ready: Pennsylvania trout season set to open

Rachael Frazier stood on the banks of the Wissahickon Creek with her toddler son Logan, both ready to take part in a military-scale operation few outside the fishing community know about: stocking waterways for the April 1 start of trout season in Pennsylvania.

The Roxborough mother and son were among volunteers in an effort that spans the state's 283-mile breadth of the state.  As they looked on, another volunteer overturned a bucket into the creek and out flopped about seven wriggling trout – one a foot-long golden rainbow trout.  Most anglers call them orange Palominos. 

“We’re looking for a white Palomino – they’re the rarest,” Frazier said, squinting toward the water. “This is Logan’s third year stocking," she said of her 2½-year-old. "The first time, he was in my belly.”

The effort is eye-popping: About 4.2 million adult trout from 14 state hatcheries and nursery cooperatives are placed in 720 streams and lakes by tens of thousands of volunteers.  Thousands more participate in cleanups in advance.

It's all done to get ready for some 600,000 anglers expected to put on waders as the season opens April 1 in 18 southeastern Pennsylvania counties, and April 15 in the rest of the state. Some streams will be so crowded the anglers will be shoulder-to-shoulder. Saturday is a special day locally when young anglers with mentors get early access.

The effort is coordinated through the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.  Most of the 25 volunteers Thursday at the Wissahickon, such as Frazier, were avid anglers who see their work as part of a larger conservation effort.

“I like that people get their children involved this way,” Frazier said. “And it’s a good excuse to get outdoors."

The volunteers gathered at Wissahickon Environmental Center, wedged in a stretch of gorge in Philadelphia near the Montgomery County line. Some were first-time stockers, but many return yearly.

Erin Czech, a waterway conservation officer with the fish and boat commission, stood on a bench and raised her voice to be heard over the din of two trucks carrying live fish.

“Stocking this creek has its challenges,” she told the volunteers, who faced steep descents down rocky slopes while carrying heavy buckets of trout. “Some of those locations, instead of carrying the bucket all the way down individually, we make a line down the stream and pass the buckets down.”

For the next few hours, the two trucks would roll along the Wissahickon, stopping roughly every half mile between Chestnut Hill College and continuing past the Valley Green Inn at Forbidden Drive.

Bob O’Donnell, 73, who served as speaker of the state House in the early 1990s, was out with his grandson, Kieran, 10.  “Fishing is new for me," said O'Donnell, a first-time volunteer. "And this is really terrific.”  

It was also the first time for Marc Snyder, 37, of Germantown, who slowly picked his way down a snow-covered embankment, taking care not to slip with his precious cargo.  

“I just wanted to come and check it out,” said Snyder, a volunteer with Friends of the Wissahickon, a nonprofit that helps care for the 1,800-acre Wissahickon Valley Park.

In addition to providing free labor, anglers' fishing license fees and donations help support wildlife and conservation efforts, said John Arway, executive director of the Fish and Boat Commission.

“We don’t get a nickel in state tax dollars,” Arway said. “We’ve been living off of license sales since  1866. As we grew, we built hatcheries to restore fish to waters.”

The commission also polices waterways, supporting conservation and recreation, and oversees hatcheries comprised of rectangular, 100-yard long concrete “raceways” where the trout grow. 

The state hatcheries produce about 3.2 million fish a year, Arway said.  But they have limited capacity, so fingerling trout are given to a network of cooperative nurseries that raise and release another one million trout.

One such local nursery is run by the Stony Creek Anglers, a cooperative run by volunteers, said nursery manager Mike Sherman.  Stony Creek organized about 250 people for a cleanup at the Norristown creek Saturday to spruce up for the season.  Sherman fears that fewer young people are getting involved in fishing these days, but hopes the cleanups and the youth day help draw them to the sport. 

The Wissahickon's fish delivered Thursday came from the 167-acre Huntsdale State Fish Hatchery in Carlisle, which produces about 461,000 pounds of trout a year.

The Wissahickon, as it runs through Philadelphia, is classified as a stocked waterway, not a Class A stream. That's a key distinction in the trout world, as Class A streams are pristine enough to support wild trout, and get certain levels of state environmental protection.

The only Class A streams in the immediate Philadelphia region are about 6 miles of Cooks Creek and Hollow Run in Bucks County and about 10 miles of Valley Creek in Chester County.

Jake Lemon, a coordinator with Trout Unlimited, a conservation nonprofit with 150,000 members across the U.S., said his group works with the Fish and Game Commission to identify Class A streams.  Lemon trains volunteers to monitor streams crossed by natural gas pipelines, such as the PennEast pipeline as it runs through Luzerne, Carbon, Northampton and Bucks counties.

It's really ramping up,” Lemon says of the effort, which includes detecting the amount of fish in a waterway. If it’s a Class A-level stream, the group will assist with the process to have it protected.

Back at the Wissahickon, one member of the group stocking the creek just beyond Bells Mill Road made a rookie mistake: placing trout too close to the bank in a shallow spot where they quickly became trapped in low water. Other volunteers, including children, rushed to scoop the fish by hand, prodding them into deeper water.

Most anglers will catch and release the fish, said Joe Perillo, a fish biologist with the Philadelphia Water Department. 

The Roxborough resident was at the Wissahickon Thursday volunteering with his wife, Meg, and sons Luca, 8, and Lorenzo, 6. Despite the perils of urban runoff and other pollutants, he said, it's safe to eat fish from the creek — but two is the limit for personal consumption.

“The water quality in the Wissahickon is good.  The fish are edible,” says Perillo.