The Case for Protecting Pennsylvania's Spruce Creek

If you aren’t an angler in Pennsylvania or the surrounding area, you’ve probably never heard of Spruce Creek. The limestone spring creek is a tributary of the Little Juniata River and flows through a scenic valley in the heart of the state. Primarily, it is known for two things: beautiful wild brown trout and very limited public access. To the dismay of many, the majority of the creek flows through private property.

Unless you’re a member of one of the angling clubs that operates on the creek or are willing to pay a vig, your access options are somewhat limited. 3 pay-to-play access points are available along the 13-mile creek, but the only free public option is on land owned by Penn State University. The college uses their stretch of creek to study wild brown trout, but also provide access to anglers. As you could imagine, this area is extremely popular.

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Let’s look at the factors that place so much pressure on the creek.

  1. Spruce Creek is located right down the road from Penn State University - anglers can be on the water and fishing in less than an hour.

  2. Not every angler has the desire or means to fish pay-to-play waters. Which means the majority are funneled into the only free access available.

  3. Spruce Creek is open year-round and the access is easy.

  4. Section 3 has a wild trout biomass of 4oo lbs. per acre and is home to more than 10X the number of trout required to designate the stretch as a Class A fishery.

Considering these factors, it seems logical that the public section of the stream be protected by special regulations. Luckily, there are special regulations in place on Section 4; anglers must practice catch & release and are only permitted to use artificial lures. So when the state acquired Section 3, an 800-foot stretch of Spruce Creek that was formerly private property, continuity of management practices, again, seemed logical.

But not to everyone. The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission released a bulletin on May 25th, 2019, proposing the new regulations and requesting public comment. Input from the public had been requested earlier in the Spring, but the request seemed to fly under the radar. The second request, however, did not.

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The second request received 212 public comments. While the C&R regs didn’t seem to bother anyone, the choice of lure did. 125 supported the use of bait on Section 3 and only 48 opposed it. Case closed, right?

Wrong. On July 16th, 2019, the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission Board voted 8-2 in favor of implementing catch and release, artificial lure only regulations on the newly acquired Section 3.

How could this stand? The people had spoken, right?

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The state had to stomach the public scrutiny to protect the fishery. No one made a better argument for the stream’s protection than Greg Malaska, president of the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited. His opinion article in the Centre Daily Times does a great job articulating the position of those in favor of the new rules.

Malaska’s case for more stringent regulation is in not one for keeping bait fishermen out of Spruce Creek, but for keeping the robust wild brown trout population in it.

My organization does not oppose fishing with natural bait. But we recognize that there are circumstances where its use does not justify the risk. On Spruce Creek, it’s not a close call. This is a short stretch of a highly pressured small stream. Its wild trout are likely to be caught multiple times over the course of a fishing season, amplifying the risk of deep hooking.
— Greg Malaska

Malaska furthers his argument by drawing attention to the state’s ratio of special regulation streams compared to general regulations.

Just 80 miles of Pennsylvania’s wild trout streams — that’s half of one percent — are governed by regulations restricting the use of bait. It is permitted on the other 15,925 miles.
— Greg Malaska
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The point: This is not as much “regulation” as it is “protection”. With 15,925 of Pennsylvania’s 16,005 miles of wild trout water open to general regulation, the options for fishermen in the state are endless. The state designates a stream “Class A” when biologists identify a naturally reoccurring population of wild trout that have both the numbers and size to create a sustainable sport fishery. Class A streams are the best of the best and Spruce Creek is more than qualified to reside in that upper echelon. Any fishery of this caliber must be protected with alacrity.