They're the white-tailed deer of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's world.
Trout, that is.
They typically generate more discussion than any other species when agency staff and board members meet to talk about rules, regulations, license sales and angler opinions. The commission meeting last week was no different.
A couple of trout-related issues — one involved stocked fish, another wild trout — accounted for much debate.
On the stocked trout front, mentored youth fishing days dominated.
The commission offered two such days: on the Saturday before the regional opening day of trout season in 18 southcentral and southeast Pennsylvania counties, and on the Saturday before opening day across the rest of the state.
On those days, children aged 15 and younger could fish any stocked trout water and keep two fish. Their adult mentor could do the same.
The days are meant to get kids on the water and spark interest in fishing.
“It's hard to imagine there are any downsides to it,” commission executive director John Arway said.
In 2013, when the commission first piloted mentored trout fishing in only a portion of the state, about 5,000 kids registered. This year, that number was about 25,000, said Laurel Anders, head of the commission's bureau of boating and outreach.
Indications are most people support the program, she said.
Surveys of anglers conducted on the mentored days and comments received by phone, email and social media before and after largely were positive, she said. People most liked the exclusive nature of a day as well as that all stocked waters were open to fishing.
Problems were few, said Corey Brichter, head of the commission's bureau of law enforcement.
Waterways conservation officers encountered few people abusing the program, he said. In fact, many officers reported that adult mentors who could have fished legally weren't; they instead were helping kids, he said.
Still, there were complaints.
Some anglers suggested adult mentors shouldn't be allowed to keep fish. Others went further.
Commissioner Glade Squires of Chester County said he heard from a handful of anglers who run cooperative nurseries, raising commission-supplied trout — at their own expense — and stocking them in public waters. They told him they weren't going to stock fish before opening day because they didn't want kids catching them all, Squires said.
The commission shouldn't stand for that, he said.
“This program is an investment in our future. That's how it should be viewed,” he said.
The number of trout creeled statewide by kids and their mentors on those two days “don't make a dent” in what's available for everyone later, he said. If a few cooperative nurseries can't see that and refuse to stock fish for children, the commission should move them to the bottom of the list when it comes to deciding who gets nursery grants, Squires said.
Commissioner Rocco Ali of North Apollo, who said he heard from a handful of co-ops threatening the same thing, said he supports that idea.
“Because that's not the norm,” Ali said.
Commissioner Ed Mascharka of Erie County even suggested the commission might want to reduce the number of trout those clubs get in the future.
The commission will look at all of that and decide what changes, if any, need to be made to the mentored youth program after having internal meetings in the coming weeks, Arway said.
On the wild trout side, the pace at which the agency is protecting fish came under scrutiny.
Prior to 2010, the commission performed surveys on about only 3,000 of the 45,000 streams statewide. Partnering with universities, the commission has been working to get to waters never before sampled through what's known as the unassessed waters initiative.
The result has been a boom in the number of streams classified as wild trout waters.
At last week's meeting, for example, commissioners added 45 new waters to that list. Another 50 or more likely are to go before the board at its July meeting, roughly two dozen of them having been found to be Class A wild trout streams. That means they're the best of the best, said Leroy Young, director of the commission's bureau of fisheries.
The problem is keeping up with those kinds of discoveries.
There are another 600-plus eligible streams awaiting action, Young said. They've been sampled, but reports on the findings haven't been written, and so they've yet to get the additional protection listing carries.
“At this rate, it's going to take us four more years just to clear out what's already done, not even counting what's yet to come,” commissioner Len Lichvar of Somerset County said. “There's got to be a better way.”
Katy Dunlap, eastern water project director for Trout Unlimited, said new circumstances highlight the need for speed.
In the beginning, the unassessed waters initiative focused largely on streams in areas where Marcellus shale gas development was occurring. Now, though, the massive pipelines needed to carry that gas are in the works. Each one can involve dozens, if not hundreds, of stream crossings, she added.
The commission needs to identify and prioritize those streams and get them listed before construction gets rolling, she said.
Arway agreed and said the commission is going to have to factor in the “pipeline dynamic.”
“We've got to take a better look at how we move these forward,” Arway said.
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