Penns Creek is home to a “robust” population of wild brown trout.
Bob Frye/Everybody Adventures
What constitutes success when it comes to wild brown trout and fishing on Penns Creek?
That’s the question.
Penns Creek is the longest limestone stream in Pennsylvania. On section 3 of the stream, from the confluence of Elk Creek downstream seven miles to just 0.4 miles below Swift Run, it’s home to a Class A wild brown trout fishery.
Class A waters are the best of the best for trout.
For nearly two decades, through the end of 2013, fishing on section 3 was allowed under all-tackle trophy trout rules.
Then the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission made a change. It instituted a harvest slot limit.
Currently, anglers can fish Penns Creek year round, with any kind of tackle. All fishing is catch and release from the day after Labor Day through opening day the following spring.
In between those times, they’re allowed to harvest two trout per day.
The fish, though, have to be between 7 and 12 inches.
“Basically, the small fish under seven inches are protected. And the large fish over 12 inches are protected,” said Jason Detar, chief of the commission’s fisheries management division.
That rule was put in place with two objectives in mind, Detar said.
One was to maximize the abundance of wild brown trout 14 inches and larger. The other was to improve relations with private landowners along that section of water.
“Many of our best access points to this section are on private land,” Detar said.
Examining the stream
So how’s it working?
Biologists took a look this summer.
They sampled two sites within section 3, at Coburn and Ingelby, and another downstream, as a control, to examine overall brown trout populations and size distribution.
Detar was expecting bad news.
But not because of the regulation change.
“To be honest, when we went in there to do the sampling, I really expected to see a substantial drop off in the population because of the drought conditions we had in that watershed last summer,” Detar said.
“The Penns Creek drainage really took it on the chin as compared to a lot of our other drainages in the state. It seemed like every rain storm either went north or south of there throughout the summer.”
Instead, Detar said, crews found a “robust” brown trout population.
Last year, and over the past three years, the total number of brown trout, brown trout between 14 and 15.9 inches and brown trout 16 inches and longer were fairly consistent.
“I think the number of fish we saw there really speaks to the resiliency of that system,” Detar said.
One commissioner wondered, though, about the fact there aren’t more big fish now that harvest of them is prohibited.
That might mean that harvest was never an issue, another suggested.
Commissioner Eric Hussar of Union County – who has a cabin on the stream and has fished Penns Creek hard for 20 years now – said he doesn’t think many people keep trout.
“My view, after spending a lot of hours out there, is no. Just based on what I’ve seen,” he said.
Detar said biologists would like to confirm that. The commission did a creel survey in 2013, to document angler harvest. He’d like to repeat that in 2018 if the money is available.
“That would really help to tell us if angler harvest has changed. For $10,000, that’s a heck of a deal to get that level of information,” he said.
Commissioners also asked if biologists saw any exceptionally large trout.
Hussar said anglers have traditionally caught trout up to 14 inches there. Significantly larger ones were rare, though.
Detar said crews did find 20- and 21-inch trout this year, though.
“Now, is that a fluke? It could be,” he said. “But if we see them showing up with a lot more regularity, that might say something.”
The commission isn’t ready to pass judgment on the regulations just yet, Detar said. That’s especially true in biological terms.
It’s going to continue monitoring Penns Creek through 2020.
He did say they’ve already succeeded in another sense, though.
There was a time when the commission’s relationship with private landowners along the stream – who control access – was “tenuous.” Those landowners seem to like these new rules, though.
“I would say on the social front these regulations have been quite popular,” Detar said.