Pennsylvania’s trout season officially kicked off April 3, two weeks earlier than normal, and consolidated into one statewide opening day that the state’s Fish and Boat Commission hoped will reduce travel and the potential spread of COVID-19.
“That should minimize the crowds somewhat, having the one opener,” said Don Anderson, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission District 4 commissioner, whose area encompasses Cambria, Bedford, Somerset, Blair, Fulton, Mifflin, Juniata and Huntingdon counties.
He hopes the decision will keep anglers near home.
“We would not have many people traveling all over the state,” for multiple openers, he explained.
But anglers trying to catch their limit of five brook, brown, rainbow or golden rainbow trout species may encounter competition, as the pandemic has caused more people to recreate outdoors.
“People that, normally, maybe took a trip somewhere, they traveled out West, they went to Bermuda, they flew somewhere, went on a cruise ship,” Anderson said. “They didn’t do that in the past year. They were staying at home because of COVID-19, and they wanted to recreate and be outdoors more than they had been for a number of years.”
Last year, trout season suddenly began 11 days early with an unannounced “soft opening” on Tuesday, April 7, with the intention of avoiding traditional opening day crowds. This year’s early opener gives anglers two additional weeks on lakes and streams.
“We’re giving people something to do and people greatly need that right now to maintain their mental health and physical health,” Anderson said.
“It’s safe. People can get out, spread out and fish. So we did it for those reasons — both for public safety and pubic health.”
Trout stockings have been sped up to meet the early start.
“To my knowledge, all of our waters that were scheduled for preseason stocking will be stocked before opening day,” said Anderson. “We had to hustle the last couple of weeks to get stocking done.”
A veteran at trout nursery management, Anderson said that he’s been pleased with the stocked trout he has seen, and that District 4’s waterways are loaded with potential.
“All of the loads have had a lot of nice 2- and 3-year-old fish mixed in,” Anderson said. “I’ve seen a few trout that have been in the seven- and eight-pound range, that are probably in the neighborhood of 25 to 27 inches in length. So there are some real trophies that have been put out there.”
Anderson explained that with last year’s early opener, stockings were put into overdrive, finishing several weeks ahead of schedule and leaving nurseries wide open for the next generation of fish to grow for 2021.
“They were able to spread those out in the hatcheries sooner and get them off to a very good start,” he said. “And that has resulted in us having somewhat nicer trout this spring than what we had last year.”
Whether anglers wish to send a fly down a wild mountain trout stream, cast a baited hook into a stocked lake or wade into slow moving limestone water, District 4 offers anglers great variety.
“There’s a little bit of something for everybody, depending on what kind of waters you like to fish,” said Anderson.
Long-time angler Allen Berkey, of Jennerstown, agrees. He said that anglers can fish approved trout waters in Somerset County, such as Higgins Run, Beaverdam Creek, Shaffer Run, Laurel Hill Creek, Kimberly Run and Kooser Run.
“We have the most streams and lakes of any county in Pennsylvania,” Berkey said.
He said only a third of the fishable areas in the county are approved trout waters.
“We have so many of these mountain streams that you can get up into, walk back in and they contain native Brookies,” he said.
Berkey said to not overlook dams such as Quemahoning Reservoir.
“People overlook that,” he claimed.
“That’s big water, but you’ve got huge trout in there, too. We’re talking up to 30-inch trout. Rainbows and browns.”
Its feeder stream, Quemahoning, or “Que” Creek, is not an approved trout waterway, but Berkey said that it too is a great option for anglers as it will be stocked between Ferrellton and Boswell thanks to donations from Jenner Township businesses and individuals, but not until Monday.
As a Boswell area native who witnessed the creek go from a lifeless waterway full of acid mine drainage and raw sewage, to its present healthier state of pH 7, Berkey said, “It’s remarkable how far that creek has come back.”
He claimed that at one point, brown trout had begun reproducing in it.
Avid fly fisherman Randy Buchanan, of Richland Township, who is on area streams year-round, concurs that there’s no shortage of local trout fishing spots.
“For opening day anglers, there’s lots of stocked ponds like Lake Rowena, Duman’s (Dam), and there’s stocked streams like Bens Creek and the upper end of the Stonycreek and Shade Creek.”
Buchanan recommends that with creeks being low and clear, bait fishermen will benefit by using small wax, meal or garden worms, or small minnows on a free drift.
“Anything that hits the water too hard in this low, clear water conditions is going to spook fish, so a soft, gentle presentation is going to be the way to go,” Buchanan said.
For lure lovers, he advises small spinners that can be cast with minimal water disturbance.
“If you can stick with smaller diameter 4- and 6-pound test lines for bait or spinners, you’re going to be better off than trying to fish heavier stuff,” Buchanan said.
Since Buchanan is a seasoned fly fisherman, he offers solid advice for those who take angling to its highest level.
“Always on opening day, if you’re a guy who wants to catch some stuff on flies, the old reliable Wooly Bugger in size 8 and fish on maybe a four times or three times tippet will be the way to go,” he said.
He also advises to be in your favorite spot when the water temperatures warm with the morning sun, stating, “The fish early in the morning will be willing to chase things a little more.”
Without snowmelt, Buchanan explained that creeks are running warmer than normal, but anglers still need to be privy to the sudden increases in temperatures that fill creels.
“The key to trout fishing is, no matter what the temperature is, it has to go up two or three degrees and that triggers a bite,” he said. “Because fish are cold-blooded, just two or three degrees gets them to be more active.”
Although he fishes year-round, Buchanan says opening day is special for many, especially kids.
“Opening day is a memory-maker for a lot of people,” he said. “For some kids, probably for some adults, too, they’re going to be sleepless the night before the opening day of trout season with anticipation.”
Buchanan said he hopes Pennsylvania never loses its opening day, the way states such as West Virginia have.
“When I used to take kids, they would be excited because it was opening day, and because those kids were excited, so was I,” Buchanan said.
John Rucosky is a photographer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @JohnRucosky.