The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission wants to make the churning water that spills out of several of the state's large reservoirs a bit more wild.
Last month, the PFBC board voted to draft a policy that would develop tailwaters into wild trout fisheries, rivaling those found in the western United States.
Right now, Pennsylvania has plenty of dams but not many world class wild trout tailwater fisheries. Six dams in the state are under consideration, including the Francis E. Walter Dam on the Lehigh River.
The key to transforming their tailwaters into wild trout fisheries is cold water, something that has long been an issue with the Lehigh River.
Because the Walter Dam can only release water from the bottom of the pool, much of the coldwater is used up by mid-summer, according to Dean Druckenmiller, president of the Lehigh Coldwater Fishery Alliance.
"Our goal is to get water releases that are conducive for trout survival, and right now you can't do that," he said. "Water needs to be discharged from the surface in the spring, and that coldwater at the bottom needs to held for later in the summer, but the tower can't discharge from multiple levels."
Despite the challenge, Druckenmiller was enthusiastic about the agency's new focus on tailwater fisheries. The policy shows that the PFBC is serious about enhancing trout fishing in the tailwaters, he said.
"As a group we can only do so much. We need to have the PFBC on board," Druckenmiller said. "This isn't only for the Lehigh River, it's for trout fishing in Pennsylvania."
Commissioner Norm Gavlick, who represents the northeast region, said installing additional release points on the existing dam at Francis E. Walter is impossible. Constructing a new tower is a long-range, expensive proposal, he said.
Still, the idea is being studied by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the dam, and Gavlick said some of the findings are encouraging.
"According to early model projections, by releasing water from different levels, we can keep the temperature at less than 68 degrees for almost 30 miles downriver," Gavlick said.
Even without a new tower, the PFBC is still considering the tailwaters of the dam for improvement under the new policy. The agency also works with the USACE to monitor and adjust water releases to maintain colder temperatures as long into the summer, and as far down river, as possible.
"We also have to work with the rafting interest as well and keep everybody happy with the release schedule," Gavlick said.
The new focus on tailwaters could also bring about some changes in regards to stocking trout. Because the shift would now be on wild trout, Gavlick said stocking points could be moved downriver away from the tailwaters.
He didn't think anglers would mind the change as long as the wild trout fishery was viable.
"When you talk with anglers, they understand that mixing stocked trout with wild trout isn't a good idea," Gavlick said. "If we can make the Lehigh River tailwaters similar to the wild trout fishery on the Delaware River, I think it would be advantageous for anglers and the local economy."
Druckenmiller said the economic impact of a wild trout fishery could be significant to the area. He referred to a Trout Unlimited estimate that states tailwater wild trout fisheries generate $1 million per river mile to the local economy each year.
Anglers may not travel as far to fish for stocked trout, Druckenmiller said, but they don't mind venturing a ways for the wild variety.
"The rivers out west are thriving wild trout fisheries and they are huge economic machines," he said. "People will travel a long ways to fish for wild trout."
Druckenmiller hoped the PFBC would continue its strong push toward enhancing the tailwater fisheries in the state and added his group will help whenever it's needed.
"The PFBC needs to take the lead on this, but at the same time it has to be a collaborative effort," Druckenmiller said. "It's hard for the agency staff to know all the intricate details of every trout fishery in the state. There's just too many."
Although the tailwater plan is still in the beginning stages and could cost quite a bit to implement, Gavlick is optimistic.
"It's a big project to take on, but if it succeeds it will set the standard for creating wild trout fisheries," he said.
Dams being considered by the PFBC as candidates for creating tailwater trout fisheries:
• Francis E. Walter Dam on the Lehigh River – Luzerne and Carbon counties
• Quemahoning Reservoir – Somerset County
• Lake Wallenpaupack – Pike and Wayne counties
• Raystown Dam – Huntingdon County
• Cannonsville Reservoir – Delaware County, New York (on the Delaware River which flows into Pennsylvania)
• Beltzville Dam – Carbon County