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Anglers jumping on chance to catch trout early

Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Martha Martino of Jimmy’s Bait Shop in South Greensburg is getting ready for the opening day of the trout season crush when anglers rush in to buy bait, hooks, line and other tackle.  

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Time to wear that life jacket

If you're going to fish for trout from a boat in the weeks leading up to opening day, on opening day itself or at any point during April, buckle up.

Because the Fish and Boat Commission may be cracking down.

Prior to opening day last year, the commission enacted regulations that require anyone in a boat less than 16 feet in length and in all canoes and kayaks to wear a life jacket between Nov. 1 and April 30. That applies whether the boat is moving or at anchor.

The rule is based on safety. While fatal boat accidents are most common in summer — when most boats are on the water — the relationship of fatalities to overall accidents is greatest in the coldest months, simply because water temperatures are dangerously low.

Last year, because the rule was so new, waterways conservation officers often gave boaters who weren't wearing a life jacket a warning. This year, fines are more likely.

“The first year we enact any rules change, we generally use as an opportunity to educate people,” said Larry Furlong, assistant supervisor in the commission's southwest region office. “Basically now, we believe everyone should have been educated. Everyone should be aware of the new rule.”

Details about it have been printed in the digest every anglers gets with his fishing license, he noted. People registering boats have gotten the information that way, too. This year, for the first time, signs detailing the rule have been put up at commission-owned lakes as well.

Still, not everyone's gotten the message.

“So far this year, on every boat I've checked, which hasn't been many, they haven't been wearing their life jackets like they're supposed to. They've had them on board, but they haven't been wearing them,” said Scott Opfer, the commission's conservation officer in Fayette County.

Saturday, March 30, 2013, 11:47 p.m.

Two weeks minus a day. Then the mayhem can begin.

Opening day of trout season is set for April 13 across Western Pennsylvania, with anglers able to cast their first line into the water at 8 a.m. That's long been tradition.

But things are changing.

This year, for the first time, anglers can fish over freshly stocked trout right up to opening day on approved trout waters open to year-round fishing under catch-and-release rules. At those sites — mostly lakes, with a couple of tailwaters, like the one on the Yough River, thrown in — there's no harvest of trout allowed from March 1 to opening day, but anglers can catch and release all they want.

The change is meant primarily to allow anglers to fish for other warmwater and coolwater species besides trout “during a time when these fish are active and when a time that these waters were typically closed,” said Dave Miko, chief of fisheries management for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

Allowing anglers to catch stocked trout was a “secondary benefit” of the new rules, he added. But it's one that is being used by anglers.

“I had three guys in here the other day, guys I know and who aren't just talking, and they said that between them, they'd caught and released 105 trout at Upper Twin Lake,” said Martha Martino of Jimmy's Sporting Goods in South Greensburg.

“And the fish seem to be hitting just about anything, maggots, wax worms, meals worms, Powerbait. Everybody's been doing well. I haven't heard any complaints.”

Things likewise have been good at North Park Lake. It wouldn't be fair to say that there have been a lot of fishermen out. The count might be in the dozens on a busy day, said Dwight Yingling of North Park Sports Shop.

But those fishing have been doing very well, both in terms of numbers of fish and big ones. One angler this week caught and released a 24-inch rainbow trout, he said.

“A couple of guys have actually talked about their arms getting sore from catching so many fish. I've never heard that one before,” Yingling said.

Things have been a bit trickier elsewhere, with the up-and-down weather a factor.

At Raccoon Creek State Park in Beaver County, the main lake has been ice free since about March 1. And there have been people fishing, including two boats this past weekend.

But things have been a little slower than might be expected.

“The folks I talked to, they weren't complaining about not catching any fish or anything. But the weather's been keeping people away much of the time,” park manager Al Wasilewski said. “Pretty much every day it's been either raining or snowing or blowing or something.”

The fishing pressure likewise has been slow to moderate at a couple of other lakes in the program, such as Mammoth Dam and Donegal and Keystone lakes, said Tom Crist, waterways conservation officer in Westmoreland County for the Fish and Boat Commission.

There's been some confusion over the new rules, too.

In the past, anglers were allowed to keep three fish per day on many of these waters during March. Fishing was then off limits until the opener.

Not everyone's aware things have changed.

Scott Opfer, the Fish and Boat Commission's waterways conservation officer in Fayette County, said he put up signs around a couple of lakes, Dunlap Creek and Virgin Run to alert people to the new rules.

“But those first couple of weeks of March, when the weather was decent, there were a lot of people out fishing who didn't know anything about the new regulations,” Opfer said.

He's been giving out just warnings for now. But that will change April 1, because it was illegal to keep trout after that under the old rules, he said.

Whether those new rules will prove popular over time is to be determined. Crist said most of those he's talked to like the change.

But whether the fact that people can fish for trout all spring will dampen their desire to go out opening day is an unknown, said Al Packan of Cap'n Al's bait and tackle shop near Uniontown. That will still be their first chance to harvest trout. But will that bring them out?

“That's exactly what I'm wondering,” Packan said. “The first day, there was always so much excitement and anticipation. It was such a big deal. I don't know how this is all going to go.”

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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