Our curiosity definitely gets the best of us at times.  And this is one topic that seems to do just that.  Look on some of the fly fishing forums or on social media and it's common to see posts with an image and the question:  "Wild or Stocked?"  

I'm always amazed at how quick folks are to respond one way or the other.  I get the feeling that  many fly-fishers seem to believe it's easy to identify a trout as stream-bred (wild) or hatchery-originated (stocked).   Is it really that easy?  Can we take not much more than a glance at a trout, or image thereof, and with a high level of confidence make a definitive declaration one way or the other?  

Let's consider brown trout first.  I'll concede the fact that there are plenty of times it's easy to look at a trout and know that it's a stocked fish.  Fin rub, deformed fins - pectoral and dorsal primarily - and an opaque appearance to the fins, as well as spotting patterns can be dead give-aways.  It's downright sad that a lot of our brown trout originating in state hatcheries don't really have spots anymore.  They have dark smudges!  Too, freshly stocked browns have that greenish-grayish color on the back with their sides appearing silvery and a white belly.      

While some of the give-away traits will not change (those having to do with fins and spots) over time if the stocked brown trout survives it will experience some changes in it's appearance.  Back of olive-brown with a sides of slightly yellow-silver (but not always) and a bit of yellow in the belly along with a translucent appearance to the fins is what I see.  Oh, and let's not forget those orangish-yellow spots on the fresh stocked specimen turning to reddish-orange over time.  In fact, some browns, after having survived for months in a stream environment can take on fairly bright golden-brown colors.

And here is where it gets a bit complicated.  After all, not all hatcheries use the same brown trout stocks nor do they all raise their trout in concrete raceways.  Add to this the varieties in diet and you get a real diversity of results.  There's a surprising variation in brown trout appearance even within our own PFBC fish  Now, add to this the brown trout raised in private hatcheries that produce fish without fin rub or fin deformities and which posses all of the physical characteristics that, except for knowing their origins, would fool even the most scrutinizing angler.

Oh, wait.  There's more!  Mother Nature can throw a curve ball in the works just as well.  Not all wild brown trout look the same.  Years ago I photographed a number of browns from Fishing Creek in Clinton County, PA, that pretty much covered the entire spectrum when it comes to physical appearance.  Some specimens may have very few large dark spots while others have many small dark spots.  Some will have many reddish-orange spots while others have none.  Then, too, there's the dark spot behind the eye.  Based on my having observed scores and scores of browns over the years not all stream-bred brown trout have a dark spot behind the eye!

One of the factors I see cropping up time and again is folks calling brown trout either Loch Leven or Von Behr (German).  According to the late Bob Behnke who, when he was alive was considered a foremost authority on salmonids at least in the U.S.,  stated we don't have either strain here.  That's attributed to the fact that they were almost immediately put together in hatcheries and we can all guess what happened as a result:  We now have what Bob labeled the American brown trout.  This position is even held by some of my European friends who have a very close relationship with browns.  Now, I'll admit that there may be a slight possibility that a private hatchery has a pure strain with which they work;  however, the odds of those fish surviving and propagating in a manner that the strain remains pure...well, I believe they would be miniscule, at best.  So, if you know/know of someone who holds to the pure strain belief both history and the science don't appear to be on their side and that's just the brutal reality of the story.

Brook trout are a bit different.  Are they, I ask?  When it comes to ease of identifying one as hatchery-originated or stream-bred it is, again, sometimes yes, sometimes, no.  The differences between brook trout and brown trout are obvious:  brook trout have light spots on a dark background while brown trout have dark spots on a lighter background.  In addition to small red spots surrounded by a blue halo brookies also have those squiggly lines on the top of their backs known as vermiculations.

Common among many hatchery-raised brook trout are the tell-tale fin rub, pectoral fin deformities or nubs for pectorals, deformed dorsal fins and short gill plates which leave a bit of the gills exposed.  And now we're starting to see pics of what anglers are referring to as a "Patriot" brook trout.  They are different, that's for sure.

And then there's what I call the flip side.  I've seen brook trout taken form tanks in a hatchery truck that have no fin issues and posses the physical appearance of a colorful wild fish.  Downright pleasing to the eye, they were.  What makes the call easier?  No natural reproduction of the species in the stream we're fishing or encountering a specimen that's a bit larger than we'd expect to find:  a 13" or 14" brookie for example.   

When a stream harbors a population of stream-bred fish I'd venture to say that there are more times I'd be reluctant to declare a brook trout one or the other than I would for a brown trout for specimens which fall into the size range of what we'd expect to see within the wild population.  


We're told by PFBC staff that they're working to eliminate the stocking of brook trout in some regions and greatly reducing the stocking of brook trout overall.  A primary issue driving this change is the potential for hatchery brook trout to carry and transmit gill lice to the wild population.  Unfortunately, I've seen some "bumps in the road" with regard to this.  Some clubs have chosen to go against PFBC wishes and stock brookies in some of their area streams.  Naughty, naughty.  When stocking ceases calling out a wild brook trout will certainly become a no-brainer!

So, why post the question and the accompanying the picture?  I believe it goes beyond just curiosity.  There's flat-out something special about a naturally propagated trout.  A wild fish is highly valued and a most worthy challenge to the angler.  But here's where I encourage those who respond to the query to do so carefully.  There are times when it's clear that a particular specimen is one or the other;  however, there are times when - and here I speak only for myself - I really can't say for sure.  No matter how long I study the image I can't arrive at a definitive decision.  Don't fear admitting you're at a stalemate.  It's not like we've played the game and lost.  I look at it as neither a win nor a loss:  it's a draw.  And that's o.k..  And, with that, we can move on.  


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