Hatchery vs. Wild Trout

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Written By: Pete - Photos By: Pete, Jamie Keown     

What are the Biggest Differences?

The discussion of the differences between hatchery and wild trout is one we have been having for some time. While I have had my opinions on the differences that I have seen, it wasn’t until recently that I had the opportunity to speak with people who manage fisheries and hear about their experiences. I also recently found a podcast by Tom Rosenbauer on the topic and found his thoughts to be very much in line with what I have experienced over time. Now that I have enough information to put together a post I thought I would start the discussion on the topic.

Before we get into the differences I would like to make a few assumptions clear. The first is that the comparisons are for trout living in rivers or streams. I have yet to fish a still water managed fishing environment so I am unaware of the differences in that atmosphere. The second is that we will examine the comparison of hatchery fish that have been in the water for over a month. We all know freshly stocked fish can be very confused when they are seeking out new kinds of food and learning how to protect themselves from predators. I have been told that it generally takes about three weeks for them to start to fall into somewhat normal habits and acclimate to their environment. I am hoping to examine the differences once they have established residency within the stream.

The first thing I would like to cover is location in the water. One of the biggest differences is that wild trout are used to living in moving water and having to control energy expenditure while feeding and protecting themselves from predators. When reading a trout stream it seems that wild fish are more predictable than hatchery trout. They tend to stay close to faster water that provides food and oxygen while also managing to find a place that allows them to eat with very little movement or energy. Wild fish seem to have a clear exit plan from that location that allows them protection from birds and other predators. On the other hand, I have found that hatchery fish can be in many locations. Because they are less aware of natural predators and how to feed efficiently you often want to fish a much wider sections of water and will be surprised where you spook or catch fish. Hatchery fish are known to over extend energy when feeding so they can often be found in the middle of faster runs or in still water that is not as close to a natural supply of food. I have recently seen fish in one of the stocked streams I fish sitting in slow moving water and facing the bank instead of facing the current. While they are getting a supply of food that is adequate for survival they are clearly missing the opportunity to maximize their feeding with the smallest amount of energy.

The next thing I would like to discuss may be the most controversial. I believe that in many instances hatchery trout can be more selective in food choices. I know this sounds crazy but I have seen it time and time again. During the podcast that I listened to recently Tom Rosenbauer brought up a great point that I hadn’t previously considered that may help understand this phenomenon. Hatchery trout are used to one food source while wild trout are often looking at multiple sources of food. Because of this, once hatchery trout have learned how to survive in the stream I believe they tend to focus in on a singular source of food more often than wild fish. As I look through my fishing journal and recap what flies caught fish I notice that in most instances I have had success with very small natural flies in established stocked streams and some of the biggest ugliest attractor patterns in wild streams. This seems backwards I know, but after reviewing my notes it seems to be true. Some of the wildest streams I have fished provided amazing days with y2k’s, big stimulators, and rubber legs while I have had some great success on stocked trophy streams with small pheasant tails, soft hackles, and hare’s ears on light leaders and tippet. It seems with hatchery fish there are very specific flies they are looking for and the bite can turn on and off with the change of a fly. I have found in wild streams that I often catch fish on multiple flies in the same hole.

Another phenomenon I have noticed is how they spook. Wild fish tend to spook very easily and are not used to seeing a human presence around their environment. When wild fish spook they often run for cover and you don’t see them again. With hatchery fish they do run sometimes but return to their positions much quicker. What I see most often is hatchery fish will move over slightly but remain in the same general area. During this time you can still see them but it has been my experience that they will stop or slow feeding.

Lastly, I would like to cover the fishing experience. While I find the experience similar, I find the overall reward or satisfaction to be very different. From a fight perspective I have had a hard time differentiating the two categories of fish. I have seen both fish make great runs, jump and head shake with the best of them. I have also seen both put up less of a fight. I think the conditions and the individual fish play more of a factor in the fight then the place where they were raised. Once you have landed that fish I think most would agree that the color and overall “clean” look goes to the wild trout hands down. They tend to have better fins and much more color. Over time if there are carry over fish in a stocked stream I think the gap narrows but there really is nothing like a wild fish in terms of appearance. I have also noticed that my sense of accomplishment seems to be much higher when I catch a wild trout. Some of the happiest photos you will see of me are holding much smaller wild fish.

Overall I find hatchery fish to have less fear of humans but be more selective than wild fish. While I enjoy fishing for both hatchery and wild fish, interacting with fish in a natural environment where they have been for generations is truly a unique experience. Being from the south I do appreciate hatcheries that expand our options for cold water fisheries but there is nothing like catching a beautiful fish out of a wild stream.

What do you think? Share your thoughts below in the comments section…

Tight Lines,

Pete

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