I don’t think I'd appreciate wild trout so much if I didn’t spend so many years chasing stocked trout. For me, growing up in New Jersey, it wasn't that wild fish weren’t available, it just took effort and time to get to them.
Meanwhile, there were four stocked streams within 5 miles of my house. Some of them even ran through woodsy settings that made young me feel like he was a thousand miles from home, fishing “real” trout water.
The bottom line, however, is that for many people across the country, chasing stockers is real trout fishing. There is a culture tied to it that some will stay involved in forever, while others will use it as a springboard to get out and explore places with wild fish.
I fall into the latter camp. I’ve never thumbed my nose at stocked trout or talked trash about them, but by the time I turned 20 I’d moved on from childhood haunts like Stony Brook and Neshanic Creek to famed Pennsylvania wild trout waters like Penns Creek and the Upper Delaware. Then a funny thing eventually happened—I had my own kids.
My daughter is about to turn 7 and my son will be 4 in a few months. Both of them have been fishing with me since they were 2. Simply by being exposed to photos and videos of trout, both of them became interested in the species, which gave me an excuse to revisit local streams I hadn’t fished in years. My kids made the old new again, and completely reignited the anticipation and excitement I felt during spring trout season when I was little.
But making that leap from sitting on a bucket at the pond to fishing and navigating around moving water with a little one taught me some lessons, a few of which I’d thought I’d share with all the moms and dads in stocker territory (and wild trout territory, for that matter).
Overgun Your Terminal Tackle As a kid, I held trout in higher regard than all the bluegills I’d catch. The trout season was short. You knew you’d only get out so many times before the summer heat dashed your trout opportunities. To that end, I never got upset if a bluegill or little bass got off my line, but losing a trout was heartbreaking.
No matter how or where you trout fish, you eventually learn the benefits of light line and tippet, gentle presentations, small flies, and being stealthy as you approach a spot. You also develop the ability to play fish on that lighter, more delicate gear.
I prefer to spool the reel on my ultra-light stream rod with 2-pound test, but I also know that if I hand that rod to my 3-year-old son, he’s going to overcrank and likely snap off any half-decent trout I hook-and be devastated. That’s why I switch to reels spooled with 8-pound fluorocarbon when the kids are in tow.
They may not be able to send a spinner as far or as accurately. A worm may not drift quite as naturally as it would on lighter line, but I’m willing to sacrifice a few bites to increase the odds that the trout hits the net-when one of them cranks like a maniac until the fish lips are coming through the first guide. They have years to refine their fighting skills, but when they’re little, a fish in the net matters.
Wait For Waders A little kid in tiny chest waders is adorable, isn’t it? I thought so. I couldn’t buy them fast enough for my daughter when she was 4. The photos are super cute, but I quickly realized that in her brain, she interpreted waders as “swimming pants.” Shame on me, really. Why I ever thought she would understand that they allowed her to walk into the water only so far was silly.
Also, the cheap-o kiddie waders that you can buy on Amazon come with cheap-o rubber boots that don’t have quality soles, so while she instantly waded in too far, she also slipped and slid all over the stream. The lesson learned was that at that age, don’t even suggest getting in the water to fish until it’s warm enough for wet wading. Where I live, that’s usually by mid-Ma and there are still plenty of stockers in the streams.
By the time my daughter was 6, she could fit in a pair of proper waders with proper youth wading boots and also understood that wading too deep in April would lead to us going home sooner than intended with the heat blasting in the truck.
Make Them Walk It’s no secret that the folks who stock trout are generally not going out of their way to put them in hard-to-access areas. This, of course, is why anglers crowd around the bridge on opening day or huddle around the boat ramp at the lake early in the season. When I was young, however, it wasn’t uncommon to see Fish & Wildlife volunteers taking a net full of trout through the woods or over the tracks to put them in sections of stream that might require you to wade to reach or to access via a lesser-known pull-off.
Sadly, I don’t think this happens much where I live anymore, but the fun of trout fishing for me as a kid was walking, exploring, and finding fish away from popular release points. For that reason, I don’t take my kids out on opening day. I wait a few weeks for crowds to thin a bit and for more plants to occur. This gives the fish that haven’t been hammered at the bridge more time to move around.
When I finally show up with my kids, even though I know the easy-access hole is loaded, we never start there. We’ll always take a short hike up or down stream. In my mind, catching a fish after a bit of exploration not only makes the victory more gratifying for the kids, it reinforces the idea that fishing should require some work and time. Getting out of the truck, walking 20 feet, and catching a fish on the first cast isn’t how I want my kids to think fishing works—which leads to my final recommendation.
Avoid Trophy Trout Clubs I understand that in many parts of the country, trout parks are a big part of fishing culture. Similarly, privately stocked trout clubs exist in many regions, particularly in the Northeast. I belonged to one for years. At any time, I could show up, drift a salmon egg pattern, and lay into 5-plus-pound rainbows and browns. Other than fighting and landing them, there was very little skill involved.
Truthfully, I rarely visited the club in prime seasons, but it was a great place to test fly gear that needed reviewing in magazines, and in the dead of winter when I was racked with cabin fever, it was a sanity saver. Eventually, though, I just got bored with it. The only reason I kept up my membership was because I thought it would be a great place to teach my kids how to fly fish some day.
Then a good friend and veteran fly guide gave me some advice. He said that nothing burned him more than putting a kid on a 20-plus-inch wild brown only to have the kid remark that he catches bigger trout at his dad’s club. I took that to heart, and realized that clubs are fine for the seasoned guy looking to bend some rods without as much work, but they can easily make a young kid spoiled. I decided right then and there not to re-up my membership.
I was 15 when I stuck my first trout over 20 inches on a fly, and it was so special that my dad paid for a replica mount for my birthday. If I start my own kids off with trophy-class trout on demand, I don’t think I’d ever have that same experience with them.