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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Browns in P.A

The Browns are coming to Erie.

Not those Browns, who played the Steelers at Heinz Field.

In the spring, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission will begin resurrecting the Lake Erie brown trout fishery by planting the lake with 42,000 browns that should reach legal creel size by 2010. Another 57,000 will be stocked in 2011.

They call it a "put-grow-and-take" fishery.

"This isn't instead of steelhead, it's in addition to," said commission biologist Chuck Murray. "We'll continue to stock 1 million steelhead every year, but our goal is to also stock 100,000 browns and to have brown trout be 10 percent of our annual Erie stocking program."

Like steelhead, the browns will be 7 to 9 inches when planted to minimize predation by walleyes and northern pike, and to prevent angler harvest. Minimum size in the Erie watershed is 9 inches April 12 through September 1. Stockings will occur in the open lake and near shore.

The commission has stocked browns both for "put and take" and "put-grow-and-take" since 1987, but cut back on numbers as the steelhead program took off. The fish have been German browns, although the commission also stocked the Seeforellen trophy strain in the early 1990s. The 19-pound, 10-ounce state record brown landed on Walnut Creek in April of 2000 most likely represents the peak brown stockings of the mid-1990s, Murray said.

The brown trout fishery is being developed at the urging of the Erie Pennsylvania Sport Fishing Association, which wanted to expand open-lake angling opportunities April through October. Wesleyville Conservation Club and 3-C-U Trout Association are partnering in the initiative, with support from Pittsburgh Downriggers and the Pennsylvania Steelhead Association.

"We want to create more of a year-round recreational fishery," said association president and charter captain Pete Alex. "There's a lot of interest in browns because you target them in open water just like steelhead, by downrigging or with Dipsy Divers, lead core line and planer boards."

Browns are also expected to add new interest to Presque Isle Bay -- where Murray said future stockings could occur -- and to enhance shoreline fishing in early fall. Brown trout are fall spawners, but will come in a little earlier than steelhead and probably won't travel quite as far up the tribs, Murray said.

"We expect they'll give anglers early-season action around the near-shore waters of Godfrey and Trout runs. Those are some of the areas where the browns will be stocked."

Murray said there's little chance browns will out-compete steelhead for habitat or food. Although they grow at the same rate as steelhead, browns tend to live in cooler parts of the open lake.

"We expect they'll congregate a little east of Erie, since temperatures are lower there," he said. "Steelhead tend to be more in the west. Of course, this is a pilot program, a work in progress, so we'll have to wait to see where they'll actually go."

Fry are being raised now at the Linesville hatchery with disease-free fertilized eggs from New York State, which maintains a popular brown trout fishery in lakes Erie and Ontario.

"New York's Lake Ontario fishery is really great and has been for years," Murray said. "We're looking to create something like it here, but on a smaller scale."

Steelhead guide and author John Nagy applauds the idea.

"It's very exciting when you unexpectedly hook up with one of those [browns] when fishing for steel," he said. "Fisherman specifically targeting browns in the fall should look for them in faster runs and shallow pocket water areas, which they prefer over slower moving pools and runs."

Anglers old enough to have fished Erie more than 30 years ago will remember when Coho salmon were the big draw. Cohos were introduced in 1968 -- seven years after the first steelhead were planted -- and they dominated the fishery until 1992 when poor egg survival and low angler returns prompted the agency to shift its focus to steelhead. The Coho program ended in 2003.

"The old timers remember the salmon runs," Murray said, "and some anglers have been asking us for a little more diversity again."

Avid Pittsburgh steelheader Bob Bukk is keeping an open mind.

"Friends of mine have caught the occasional wayward brown trout in the Erie tribs, and the variety would be interesting," he said. "My concern is their impact on the food chain and the watershed itself. As long as the fish commission studies it thoroughly, it would be great."