PF&BC may nix bait, buy access on Penns

Weichert, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission is considering eliminating bait fishing on Penns Creek – one of the state’s best Class A wild trout streams – while launching a campaign to ensure angler access.

Through direct mail and a recent public meeting, the commission is trying to gauge landowner support for changing a seven-mile stretch of the big limestoner below Coburn from all-tackle trophy trout to catch- and-release, artificial-lures-only.

It also is trying to drum up landowner interest in selling easements to the commission. Easements allow property owners to retain control of their land, while guaranteeing it remains open to the public.

A possible change in regulations intended to further protect and enhance the fishery, and the easement push aren’t necessarily related, said the commission’s statewide public access program coordinator Jackie Kramer.

The commission received $500,000 in federal funds explicitly to buy easements on waterways, with orders to spend the money quickly, said Kramer. “We chose Penns because it is one of our best streams.”

The grant is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for lands enrolled in the CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) program, and came with a Sept. 30 deadline.

“We were told that if we don’t have the money at least obligated by then, we’re going to lose it,” Kramer said. “It has a short life because of legislative issues in D.C. that we have no control of.”

She and the commission’s fisheries bureau director Leroy Young insist there is no imminent threat of postings on Penns Creek, where many property owners have kept their land open to public fishing for years.  But long-time Penns Creek anglers aren’t so sure.

“You used to be able to fish lower Elk below Coburn, and then someone bought the entire mountain and you can’t fish there anymore,” said Paul Weamer, manager of the TCO Fly Shop in State College.

“A big portion of Elk and Pine [creeks] is now locked up by the Spring Ridge Club, and a gentleman on Penns inherited some land and posted it briefly.”

“The commission may be seeing the writing on the wall.”

Weamer attended the commission’s June 21 meeting on Penns and said some landowners threatened to post if the commission eliminates the use of bait. Currently, anglers can harvest two trout at least 14 inches.

Although he’s a dedicated fly- angler, Weamer said he would rather see bait fishing continue on Penns than to lose access because of landowner unhappiness with how the fishery is being managed.

He suggested that instead of focusing on tackle restrictions, the commission should push catch and release.

“Trout mortality isn’t massive from bait fishing on Penns, so I’m okay with having it continue, especially if banning bait would upset landowners to the point they’d post,” Weamer said.

“But I do think the commission should focus on catch and release. Penns is probably Pennsylvania’s best stream. If it were in Montana, it would be a blue-ribbon trout stream, and no harvest would be allowed.”

At one time Penns was stocked with brown trout, but that practice ended 20 years ago, and natural reproduction has been high enough for the stream to merit Class A status. The Green Drake hatch on Penns is famous.

“It’s a great stream, a wonderful stream, and the question is, could we make it even better?” said Young, in explaining the impetus behind a possible change in regulations.

“Mortality is higher when fish are caught with live bait, and lower with artificials and flies.”

The change in regulations would cover the stretch from just below the mouth of Elk Creek, where the stream becomes wider, to Swift Run.

“The temperatures improve a lot below Elk and the stream has more flow,” Young said. “Elk is a limestoner, so it adds a good bit of cold water.”

Banning the use of live bait would be an experiment, and it would take four to six years to gauge its impact, Young said. “So far, opinion seems to be pretty evenly divided over a change in trout management. But it’s way too early to tell. And we haven’t even formally proposed it yet.”

If the commission decides to move forward with an actual proposal, the soonest it would be on the commissioners’ agenda is October, said Young.

In the meantime, there is some urgency to buying easements on Penns, given the USDA deadline.

It is the first time Pennsylvania has received Farm Assistance Agency dollars for fisheries access. The funds are usually intended for expanding hunting opportunities on CREP-enrolled land.

The commission has purchased easements on other key waterways, including Erie steelhead streams and the Little Juniata River, with funding from other sources.

A settlement agreement over dam issues with American Hydro helped fund the Little Juniata acquisitions that run for 1½ miles from Barree through the Green Hills Campground almost to Route 305, Kramer said. 

In Erie, easements were purchased with revenues from the sale of trout and Lake Erie stamps.

The commission is negotiating easements on Yellow Creek in Indiana County, Kramer said. Loss of access has been a threat both on the Little Juniata and Yellow Creek in the past, and groups such as the Little Juniata

River Association and Yellow Creek Coalition have played a pivotal role in the commission’s success in acquiring easements, Kramer said.

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