Dear Stocked Trout, Thanks for Everything
You can make fun of these fish all you want, but I, for one, will be forever grateful to them
I THOUGHT OF all the pursuits over on Penns Creek waiting for Hendrickson mayflies to bring wild brown trout to the surface as I jammed a clip of my stringer through the gills of my fourth stocked rainbow.
There are far more famous trout streams in Pennsylvania than Loyalsock Creek. Penns, for one, and Spring Creek as well are less than a couple hours away, their green drake hatches and big, slurping browns the stuff of legend. The Loyalsock rivals these destination limestoners for natural beauty in early spring, when there’s enough water. But by late June, this freestone stream will run too low, too hot, and too low on oxygen for wild trout.
Most of the stockers dumped into the Loyalsock every March and April will wind up on a chain stringer long before they suffocate in the summer heat, which is where they truly belong. Dumb, dull, and tasteless, these nubby-finned fish are the butt of jokes in most trout-fishing circles. But not on the Loyalsock, or with me. Two more stockers would make my limit, and considering I’d been programmed to kill these fish at a very young age, I was going to get them.
I hadn’t been to my best friend Mark Wizeman’s family hunting cabin in 20 years. It was a tradition there that any newcomer had to write an entry in the diligently kept journal during their first visit. I found the page dated June 9, 2000, and marveled at how atrocious my handwriting was at 17. The entry was short, sweet, and laced with the bravado of a teenager convinced he was a trout god.
“Went out behind the cabin to fish. Joe caught 3 browns and 1 rainbow. Dick [Mark’s dad] got 2 12-inchers, Mark got 0.”
The entry went on to note that Mark and I woke up at 5 a.m. and were out the door in full fishing regalia by 5:15, something I’d never do at 40 for a stocked trout. But back then, the Loyalsock was a destination fishery to us—three full hours from our Jersey homes and in a wilderness setting that made our local suburban stocker streams feel like they were flowing through Midtown Manhattan. It was serious trout fishing. It was our Montana before either of us had fished west of Harrisburg.
Tax and Spend
I think trout—both wild and stocked—aren’t worth a damn on the table. They’re not bad so much as boring compared to perch, walleye, or any of the inshore saltwater fish I catch routinely. Still, I have a hard time releasing a “truck trout,” and the reason why is because I bought them.
I have my dad to thank for this notion. He made sure that 7-year-old me understood that the trout stamps we paid for helped fund the hatchery, and that every one of those state-raised stockers was released to be caught and killed.
He didn’t take any more pleasure in eating them than I do now, but every limit came home, because, in his mind, letting one stocker go was like paying your taxes and giving the refund check back to the government. What trout we didn’t give away, we cooked out of obligation, or smoked because enough salt, sugar, and hickory can make anything taste good. On the banks of the Loyalsock, I would cook my limit over charcoal embers and try to convince myself to enjoy it for nostalgia’s sake.
I’ll be the first to admit that stocked trout are laughable as game fish. Whereas I might spend an hour and change flies five times getting a wild brown to rise in a tricky lane, my only goal with stockers is to figure out which color Trout Magnet or spinner or variety of live worm they’re in the mood to hit, and once that’s dialed in, I’m not happy unless I catch a bunch of them. I’m not going to work my ass off for one or two stockers. But reading subsequent journal entries reminded me that I didn’t always feel that way. In one, Mark and I stayed up half the night tying flies at the 1950s art deco kitchen table for nothing more than a shot at some rubbery rainbows in the morning.
In others, written during our late high school and early college years, you can see our priorities change. Suddenly, it was fly or die. We began making side trips to other streams near the cabin that supposedly held bigger fish. Finally, we did make it west of Harrisburg—just.
During my sophomore year of college, Mark and I took a road trip to famed Penns Creek. Because we’d focused so much energy on fly fishing for those stockers in the Loyalsock and many other streams in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, we had an advantage on the legendary limestone creek. We knew how to nymph, and we knew how to present a dry fly, and we knew the second we put those first wild browns—with their hooked jaws and pristine fins—in the net, trout fishing would never be the same. Then came graduation and marriage and a career…and before I knew it, I’d stopped going to the cabin.
Now that I’m here again, having fished all over the country in the meantime, it’s a little like going all the way back to the beginning. As a little kid, opening day of trout season was as big a deal to me as Christmas. If the forecast called for rain, I was riddled with anxiety. If it was too nasty for my fair-weather dad to go, I cried for hours. Even if the weather was perfect, I could barely sleep the night before. It was always me, dad, and my grandfather on opening day. We’d break for lunch at my grandparents’ house, and hopefully I’d drop a stringer of stockers in their old farm sink, where my grandfather would gut them, and my grandmother would go on and on about how proud and impressed she was, while she made baloney sandwiches that we’d wash down with glasses of flat Pepsi from a two-liter bottle that had been sitting unrefrigerated on Grammy’s counter for weeks. My dad would usually fall asleep in the living room, and I’d wake him rudely, eager for round two in the afternoon.
During most of my 20s and early 30s, I had little interest in stocked trout or opening day. I got a beater of a boat that was nonetheless big enough to get me and dad out for stripers. I owned a raft too, so instead of opening-day stockers, I’d float dad down the Delaware for American shad. Mark and I found time to fish together less and less as the years pushed on, but when we did, we wanted to drift for wild trout on a big river, not wade the streams we fished as teens.
When he floated the idea of going to his cabin for a long weekend this past April, I think he expected me to balk and throw out 10 other ideas. But I didn’t. I bit immediately and couldn’t wait for departure day.
Twenty years is a long gap. A lot of things had changed, not the least of which was the cabin itself. The one I remembered so fondly was gone, pushed off its cinder blocks in a 100-year flood in 2011. Not much was saved, though miraculously the journal survived after some major TLC.
The new joint was modern and gorgeous, but even Mark admitted it had little character. The place I remember looked like five little houses cut into pieces and glued back together. There was an outhouse. The orange shag carpet was musty, and there were so many holes in the screens you worried about inhaling moths while you slept. Dust puffed from the ancient floral-patterned couches when you sat down. Everything was immaculate now by comparison.
Despite the flood altering the course of the stream, it fished far better than I remembered, which I’d later learn was because the Loyalsock receives loads more trout now than it did 20 years ago. There were also far more people fishing it than I’d ever seen, but that’s everywhere now—a sign of the times. What hadn’t changed was my opinion of the taste of stocked trout. As much as I tried to choke down the fish we’d caught for the sake of completing the entire trout-camp experience, I struggled. Thank goodness we had plenty of beer and spirits to wash it down with. The only problem is that too much beer and spirits around a nice campfire make me all introspective.
I felt selfish, suddenly, because what has revived my affinity for stocked trout is my children, 100 percent. My 5-year-old son, Jamie, is tore up with fishing and as excited about stocked trout as I was when I was his age. Because of him, I’ve fallen back in love with the local brooks and lakes I grew up fishing and had written off for years.
The first thing I said to Mark when I arrived at camp was, “I should have brought Jamie.” The kid loves a dude’s hang. He’d get such a bang out of seeing his tiny waders hanging next to ours on the cabin porch, and the stockers were so easy to catch at times that he would have been able to cast, reel, and make the play on his own. Mark and I made a deal to bring him up the following spring, and then we quickly got tipsier and agreed that not having to suffer through bath and bedtime for a few nights was glorious.
We spent the next several hours that night reminiscing about our fishing trips to western rivers, Alaska, Canada, and countless other trouty places that we appreciated so much more because our fires were lit with stockers.
“Stocked trout are for paying it forward,” Mark said in the glow of the fire. “They’re here so our kids fall in love with trout. Places like this are their Montana now.”
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