I cast a spinner into the deep, churning pools of the Lehigh River and retrieved it slowly, hoping for a trout to emerge from the depths and strike.
The river below the Francis Walter Dam is broad, swift and deep, filled with pools, pockets and runs that hold trout. It resembles some of the world-famous wild trout waters in the western states, with one difference: it’s stocked.
There are wild trout in the Lehigh River, and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has been augmenting the population by releasing thousands of fingerlings.
But the river below the dam is also stocked with adult trout, which out-compete their wild counterparts.
Since the river has so much in common with the wild trout waters of the west, shouldn’t it be managed like one?
Norm Gavlick, who is a commissioner on the PFBC board representing the northeast region, says yes. Right now, the agency is considering changing some sections of streams across the state to Class A waters, meaning they would be managed exclusively for wild trout and they would no longer be stocked.
Gavlick would like to see the same thing happen to the Lehigh, but that’s a catch. In order to sustain thriving populations of wild trout, a new tower needs to be built at the dam, one that would allow water from all levels of the pool to be released, ensuring that cold water flows for 28 miles downriver year round (visit lehighriver.org for more information).
“Out west they protect their wild trout populations and don’t stock. Here, we’ve done it for so long in the opposite direction,” Gavlick said. “Why should we stock trout in certain places knowing that it’s going to hurt the wild trout population?”
The path for a new tower on the dam won’t be an easy one. The support of politicians and the public is vital, and that could be tough. How do you convince anglers who turn out on the Lehigh in droves that no longer stocking trout in the river is a good thing?
For starters, Gavlick is hoping a study looking at the economic impact of making the Lehigh a wild trout fishery will help. The wild trout streams of the west are major fishing destinations, he said, and the Lehigh could be a similar draw.
“If we kept the water cold in the Lehigh, the wild trout would thrive and anglers would travel for that type of fishing experience,” Gavlick said. “We’re confident we can show a significant economic boost from this.”
So what happens to the trout allocations originally designated for the Lehigh and those other streams that would be switched to Class A?
Well, they certainly won’t disappear. Gavlick said shifting those trout to bolster stockings in lakes and streams with good access, but no wild trout, and improve the put-and-take fisheries in those places.
If that means taking all of the trout that were stocked annually into the Lehigh and shifting them to places like Moon Lake and Nescopeck Creek, then anglers would still benefit.
And so would the wild trout in the Lehigh River tailwaters.
Still, such a project will take time and patience. Getting the approvals and funding for a new tower will take years, as will establishing a viable wild trout fishery similar to those found in places like Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.
And yes, it is asking a lot from anglers to go along with removing their favorite trout spots from the stocking list. These are places that throngs of anglers flock to each year on opening day of trout season, and such traditions are hard to break.
But new ones can be born. A world-class wild trout fishery in the Lehigh River tailwaters just may be a new tradition waiting to happen.