Think you can tell a wild trout from a stockie? And is there a reason to differentiate between the two?
Most of us fly-fishers have at least considered the differences between trout born and bred in the stream and those brought to the stream in a truck for our catching pleasure.
For some people, the difference is important. They consider wild trout more challenging and satisfying to catch, believing that wild trout have more acute survival instincts than trout reared by
humans in hatcheries. And they find the pristine places where trout can reproduce to be the most beautiful and authentic settings for trout fishing.
I share their enthusiasm for wild fish, and I believe that restoring and protecting self-sustaining trout populations should be job
No. 1 for local, state and federal conservation authorities.
Some streams are managed as wild-trout water, such as the Vermont side of the Battenkill River or the West Branch of the Delaware in New York. Others are just so far off the beaten path that no one has ever bothered stocking them, and they harbor only native brookies.
Generally, if you catch a trout in one of those places, you can be confident it was born there.
But my favorite rivers tend to be the ones where wild trout and holdover hatchery fish live side-by-side, such as the New York side of the Battenkill or the Beaverkill in the Catskills. Anglers fishing such streams often venture guesses about whether the trout they’ve caught are wild or stockies,
usually based on appearance.
They believe that if their trout’s adipose and pectoral fins are intact and its colors are nice and vivid, their trout is wild. But the man who runs the Department of Environmental Conservation’s 12 hatcheries says that’s not necessarily true.
“In my view, there is no 100 percent, reliably certain way to distinguish between wild and hatchery- reared trout based on appearance,” said Phil Hulbert, superintendent of fish culture for the DEC. “Clipped fins removed for studies or population estimates would be quite reliable, but, of course, not all hatchery-reared fish are marked in this manner. Color is far from consistently reliable. We add a pigment-enhancing ingredient to several of our pelleted diets, so it is not unusual to see colorful spring yearling stocked fish that look very much like wild fish.”
Yes, it’s common for hatchery fish’s fins to be worn down, but “the degree of fin erosion [and fin regeneration] is certainly variable,” Hulbert said. “So, again, you do not have a foolproof technique, but one that will allow some level of discrimination.
“I know that back in my field work days, I handled enough hatchery fish at our hatcheries to know there are always some that would fool you into thinking they were wild fish based on appearance.”
Maybe the bigger question is, as long as you enjoyed catching your trout, does its origin make a difference?
It’s true that wild trout can put an angler to the ultimate test — ask anyone who has been skunked by feeding-but-fussy fish on the West Branch’s glassy pools. But given a little time to acclimate to their surroundings, hatchery trout can mount a respectable defense, too.
And remember, every “wild” brown and rainbow trout you will ever catch in New York state is a descendant of a stockie. The only trout that occur naturally in New York are brookies, and while we all love them for their beauty, their feistiness and their resilience, let’s face it, they can be pretty easy to catch.
I don’t know if we would want to turn back the clock 500 years to a time when you could walk on six-inch brookies from Montauk to Massena.
For me, the ideal would be an improved version of what we have now: a generous selection of rivers that are never stocked, and fishing and ecological regulations on the rest of the rivers that would make it possible for today’s stocked rainbows and browns to become the parents of tomorrow’s “wild” trout.