Conservationist Bobby Hughes, executive director for the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation (EPCAMR) and executive vice president for Pennsylvania Trout Unlimited, doesn’t consider himself much of an angler.

However, that didn’t stop him from escaping the stressors of the pandemic via a native trout fishing expedition along a few “honey holes” of Bowman’s Creek last year.

“I had such a great time,” he said. “I caught seven native brookies, and a few got away, but the ones we did pull in were just so beautiful. As you get off the beaten path, there are some really breathtaking places that make for great trout fishing destinations.”

Through his work with EPCAMR, and assessing various watersheds throughout the region, Hughes spends quite a bit of time on creeks and streams.

“We’ve seen a number of fish. You hear about them being there anecdotally in stories, but as we have gone out and done more fishery surveys, we’re definitely seeing more fish,” he said.

Due to the pandemic last year, the fish are also seeing more anglers, including those who became reacquainted with the activity and a number of first-timers.

“People were just glad to be able to go out trout fishing,” said Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission Executive Director Tim Schaeffer. “Sports and other events were being canceled, and it felt like everything was collapsing around us. For people to have that outlet to be on a stream or a lake while the rest of their lives was being turned upside-down — it brought a sense of solace, peace and normalcy to be out fishing.”

Getting to that point required some far-from-normal measures, including an impromptu, unannounced season opener at 8 a.m. on April 7, 2020.

“I was on multiple calls with the state’s department of health, the governor’s office, DCNR and consulting with a network of similar directors from states such as New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. There were so many variables to consider, and we wanted to make a decision that would keep people safe,” he said. “I never would have expected when I first took this role that I’d be talking on the phone with a state epidemiologist about trout season.”

Combined opener set

This spring, the fish and boat commission recently announced a statewide trout season opener on Saturday, April 3.

“We have no intention of doing what we did last year. Our goal is to bring some predictability to anglers,” said Schaeffer. “At this point, who knows what March or April is going to look like. We wanted to make the decision of an opener in a public and transparent way — and give anglers an opportunity to plan ahead.”

Typically, the state offers a staggered trout season opener, with a separate opening date in the southeastern portion of the county two weeks prior to the statewide opener.

“The idea of doing a combined opener is to spread the fishing pressure out, minimizing crowding and travel,” said Schaeffer. “What we see when we have two openers is that there are people who will crowd into areas in the southeast, and then a few weeks later, crowd into other areas of the state. This will allow us to minimize the crowding and add two weeks to the statewide season.”

Unexpected consequence

Unfortunately, the combined opener has the potential of increasing crowding into bait and tackle shops, according to Matt Pierce, of Blue Heron Sports in Milton.

“The early opener and mentored youth days spread people out for purchases of tackle, bait and other supplies,” he said. “Now, everything will be condensed into one statewide mentored youth day on March 27, and the statewide opener on April 3.”

Considering increased interest in fishing last year and the combined opener this spring, Pierce strongly recommends that anglers shop ahead of time.

“Last year was such a weird phenomenon. Everything was suddenly canceled and closed, but you could fish. People were laid off work, off school and there were checks coming in with an additional $600 — and yet they couldn’t do anything except fish,” he said. “Bait and tackle shops got hammered with new customers. What stores had in stock was quickly gone, and then what the distributors had was gone and then the manufacturers followed suit. This was a huge hit to the culture, and caused a ripple effect that will impact supply for at least a couple years.”

Ken Maurer, owner of Southside Bait Shop in Sunbury, struggled to keep up, as well.

“The supply chain was definitely disrupted, and it is carrying over to this season,” he said. “We are getting stuff, but it isn’t as smooth as it used to be. We are getting whatever we can get rather than being as brand- or model-conscious.”

Pierce added: “If you head into your favorite shop and you see something you’d like for the season, it’s a matter of buying now, because you won’t likely be able to buy it later.”

Stocking changes

To make the April 3 opener, preseason trout stocking schedules started two weeks earlier this year. Unlike last season, stocking will continue beyond the season opener.

“We annually stock about 3.2 million trout in 700 streams and 128 lakes,” said Schaeffer. “We’ll be stocking the same number of fish, but able to spread it out much better than last year, when we were rushing to do it all in the preseason ahead of the pandemic restrictions.”

One thing anglers should notice, Schaeffer added, is an increased number of bigger fish.

“We are stocking double the number of brood fish that we did in 2019. These are the 14- to 20-inch fish,” he said. “Last year, we shifted to a social distancing message opposed to a stocking focus. This year, we really will be promoting the quality, quantity and size of the trout we stock.”

The commission will also return to using targeted volunteers to help assist in stocking.

“We’re not opening this to the general public because we don’t want a deluge of people, but we are reaching out ahead of time with groups of volunteers identified ahead of time from sportsman clubs and other groups,” said Schaeffer.

Licensing platform

Another change for the 2021 season will come in the form of a new licensing platform developed in partnership with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Fishing licenses can be purchased at Fishandboat.com or via the new app, fishboatpa.

“It is really easy to use, very intuitive,” said Schaeffer. “Our old system was first-generation technology with a carbon paper system, and that was replaced by the yellow licenses, and they’ve been around for about 15 years and have become antiquated.”

The new license is paired with the decision to do away with the display requirement where anglers had to visibly display their printed license on a hat or vest.

“We wanted to make this as easy as possible. We have a younger generation that only has known a cell phone world, and we also have research that shows that the more steps you add into a process, the more likely you are to lose someone,” said Schaeffer. “This new process makes it super easy to get a license online and save it to your mobile device.”

In addition, Schaeffer added, other purchases can be bundled in at the same time, including kayak launch permits.

Cold water safety

For those who plan to use their kayaks during trout season, Schaeffer warned about the cold water lifejacket policy.

“Everyone using a canoe or kayak from Nov. 1 through April 30 must wear a life jacket,” said Schaeffer. “We could get to April 3 on opening day, and it could be a wonderful 60-degree day, but the water will still be bone-chillingly cold. Most boating accidents happen in the summer months, but most of the boating fatalities happen in the winter and early spring. This policy is helping to change that trend.”

Tips for success

Those looking to enjoy trout season this year who may not have a lot of experience are encouraged to check out the resources on the Fish and Boat Commission website (fishandboat.com).

“There are a number of family fishing programs and tips online, and we also have the full stocking schedule so you can track where they will be released,” he said. “There are also recommended trout waters and helpful graphics to improve your success while keeping you safe.”

Another resource for those learning the ropes is to get involved with a local Trout Unlimited chapter.

“Becoming a member is relatively cheap, and there are so many ways to get involved,” said Hughes. “It gives you access to a wealth of fishing knowledge, and many of the people who are involved actively want to see improvements in the waterways they use the most. It’s a great way to give back.”

Live bait availability may be impacted by shipping and mail delays, and Maurer added that butterworms — a very popular live bait — are not available at all this year because of COVID import restrictions.

“I haven’t seen anything too earthshattering in terms of new rods and reels this year,” he said. “One thing that took off last year that will likely continue to be popular are dynamic trout lures. I helped develop a redfin color that we sold a pile of last year that caught a lot of fish.”

While there are always new items on the market, Pierce admitted that many anglers stick with what they know best.

“Yeah, there are new rods, new reels and the constant search for a better mousetrap, so to speak, but for many, trout fishing involves a lot of tradition,” he said. “People will come in and purchase the same thing every year — which helps me in terms of ordering stock — but they also then dabble a little in the new stuff. It’s a matter of determining what we think will sell in our market.”

Regardless of what you buy, Pierce encouraged to do so at smaller regional shops.

“Fishing is local, and shopping can also be local,” he said. “Keep in mind that everyone is struggling financially — we’re all trying to keep our heads above water. Hopefully this spring and summer we see some relief. In the meantime, support local business.”

Environmental impact

While fishing interest has exploded in the past year, so too has the opportunity to set a positive example, Schaeffer said.

“Fishing is an inherently self-policing activity, and anglers have historically been among the truest of conservationists,” he said. “Be courteous and set a good example. One of the leading reasons a private landowner cuts off access to anglers is because of littering. We want to preserve our resources.”

The concept mirrors the basics of the nationwide Leave No Trace movement.

“All conservationists want to see stream banks cleaned up,” said Hughes. “Who wants to look across a 20-foot stretch of meandering stream and see garbage bags and trash where you want to cast in? For me, it’s become second nature to walk across and grab the litter to carry out. We need to instill this into our youth and together keep our waters clean.”

Since the pandemic is still impacting life heading into this season, Schaeffer encourages everyone to mindfully practice social distancing while fishing.

“Last year we received national attention for a graphic showing how using an outstretched fishing pole as a good gauge of not getting to close to anyone,” he said. “It can be that simple, and it helps protect you and others from getting sick.”

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