‘The first liar doesn’t stand a chance,’ or questions and answers about trout stocking

By JIM MATTHEWS www.OutdoorNewsService.com

Apparently I made a grievous mistake in the weekly fishing report recently. I reported that one of the local winter trout lakes would be planted 1,000 pounds of rainbows per week for a two week period, and some anglers read that as “only” 1,000 pounds per week for the whole fishing season. That report blew up on social media and pretty soon the lake was being ridiculed for stocking so few trout compared to what was being planted at other local trout lakes.

I corrected the “error” on the one social media site I frequent after I spoke to the lake spokesperson, but I couldn’t get that person to tell me how many trout they were planting each week, how many for the season, or even how many the two previous weeks. There were hints at the size of the ballpark: It was definitely more than 1,000 pounds, maybe twice that, maybe even three times that or even more, but it wasn’t 5,000 pounds, like they once planted. So I guessed it was between 2,000 and 4,000 pounds.

But who really knows?

A few years ago, I was told by a lake manager that “the first liar doesn’t stand a chance” with regard to information on how many trout they -- and all the other facilities -- put in their respective waters each week. All the lake staff lied about their plants, according to this person -- except for them of course. For a while, even the Department of Fish and Wildlife refused to tell how many pounds of trout they planted, and it is still information they provide a little reluctantly, frequently and only during or after the plant is made. But they say that is because schedules and amounts planted can change suddenly, and the agency wants to deliver accurate information.

A few years ago I contacted the hatchery managers who deliver all of the trout to Southern California fishing lakes and asked them if they would tell me how many pounds they provided to the different facilities. Even though some of these people are long-time friends, they mostly laughed hysterically at the question. Even after I convinced them I wasn’t joking, they wouldn’t do it. They didn’t and wouldn’t a) disclose private business information and b) didn’t want to dispute any of their customer’s claims. This has been a bit of a controversy for years.

Yet, almost all of the lakes today do share some information with the public on how much they plant:

Only a few don’t publish actual amounts today. Santa Ana River Lakes and Corona Lake, which are operated by the same people, claim to plant both the largest and most fish, but offer no numbers to back up that claim. There must honor among thieves because none of the other facilities have challenged that claim. This sort of suggests that what the SARL and Corona staff says can be backed up. Since there are only a few hatcheries that provide fish, it’s a pretty good bet the hatchery managers and truck drivers talk to the lake operators with the admonition, “I didn’t tell you this, but....” They all know how much the other guy is putting in and how much they cost. SARL and Corona stocks are also video-taped and the videos posted on The Lakes websites and YouTube or other social media sites. Seeing is believing, even if you and I don’t have any idea if the video is showing 2,000 pounds or 5,000 pounds of rainbow trout streaming down a hatchery truck chute. It sure looks like a lot of fish. Several other lakes are going the video route now, too. And a lot of angler videos are also posted on social sites.

Many lakes are going the full disclosure route. You can count on the fact that waters run by city or county entities are going to tell you exactly how many pounds of trout they purchase each year and how many are going in each week. These are local tax dollars and those fish are purchased through bid and the information is public. I run that information in the weekly fishing report.

Even some privately run waters, most notably Laguna Niguel Lake in Orange County, is going that route. They say they are planting 2,000 pounds a week and are posting the receipts they receive when the hatchery truck dumps its load. You can also see how much the load of fish cost the facility and how much they’re paying per pound for trout and delivery.

Assuming the government facilities aren’t lying and hiding data, and assuming that the private lakes aren’t forging their videos or stocking receipts, the plants size and receipts yield a wealth of information.

If we assume that $3.25 to $3.50 or more per pound is about what most of the facilities are paying for trout, we can deduce some things. On the private lakes, the average size of trout being caught is about two pounds or a little bigger. It’s pretty easy to figure out that if you catch a limit of five fish at any of these private lakes, you are taking home more trout than your entrance and fishing fee have purchased. If you happen to catch one of the eight or 10-pounders that many of these lakes plant, you are getting a bonus beyond what you paid. If you catch two or three of these giant fish, well you’ve just ripped the owners off big time. Oh, they might take pictures of you and send them to Western Outdoor News and splash your picture up on Instagram or Facebook, you have effectively kept one or two other anglers from getting that fish and going away a happy customer.

Think about how many trout are in a 3,000-pound plant. Most facilities want anywhere from half to three-quarters of the fish planted to be smaller fish. So if 60 percent are one pounders, that’s 1,800 fish. That means there are 1,200 pounds of bigger fish. So if 20 percent are three pounds, that’s about 210 fish. If another 10 percent are five pounders, that’s another 60 fish or so. And if the last 10 percent are 10 pounders, that is just 30 more fish. The plant consists of about 1,500 trout. Many of the private lakes have several hundred anglers a day fish their lakes. The operators are counting on the guys who catch nothing or only a trout or two and pay the $23 to $28 fishing fees coming back. They rely on photos and stories about those big trout to do that. Kind of like casinos touting how many jackpots they pay per day: You too might get hit by lightning.

City and County facilities generally stock more smaller trout than the private lakes. Until the last few years, the city and county-run facilities never planted bigger fish. They were all catchable-sized trout that were about a half-pound each. You do the math. Plant 1,000 pounds, and in a worst case scenario, that’s 400 anglers getting limits of half-pounders. In a best-case scenario, it is at least 1,000 anglers catching a fish or two or three. Even if there is only a $5 fishing charge, the total monies collected from 1,000 anglers is more than the cost of the fish. It actually makes money for a city or county facility that would mostly likely have been empty for the weekend without the plant, helping cover staff and maintenance costs, and keeping anglers coming back.

San Bernardino County Parks pioneered the era of government park agencies competing with the private lakes by planting more and bigger trout. Yes, they raised their fishing fees a little (there is an $8 fishing fee, $10 parking fee on weekends today), but the county fees were still a lot less money for anglers than private lakes. Many of these lakes are also smaller lakes, which concentrates the fish in a smaller space making them easier to catch.

Now, just about all city and county waters are receiving trout at least a pound in size, and many are “averaging” the same as the private lakes. They still might not get as many bigger fish (those topping five pounds), but many city and county waters are very competitive with the private lakes today.

Two tips on how to get the most bang

from your hatchery trout fishing dollar

So how can you get the most for your fishing dollar?

First, try to fish the day closest to the day plants were delivered to any given lake. The fish usually don’t come out of the truck ready to start eating. If the plants are from Jess Ranch in Hesperia, that is a short ride to most lakes in this region and those fish will generally be ready to bite after a couple of hours in the lake. But if they come from northern California or Nebraska, like most of the plants here, it’s usually at least 10 to 24 hours before the fish really go on a good feed.

All trout will snap at a bright-colored lure, sometimes right out of the truck, but the fishing will be better the next day.

The longer you wait after the plant, the fewer trout there are in the lake. That might seem to contradictory, but many lakes get 95 percent of their trout caught within the first two or three days after a plant. And it can happen faster. In small lakes, if there is a plant on Thursday and a big crowd on Friday, the weekend anglers will mostly be fishing in empty water.

Two, take the time and effort to learn how to fish for planted trout. I know a lot of good micro jig anglers who can fish just about any lake the day after a plant and catch and release 30 to 50 rainbows while fishermen around them are lucky to get a trout or two on PowerBait. Take a seminar, take a class, watch on-line videos, read stories on the tactics, or pigeonhole that guy you see hammering the fish and ask questions.

If you follow tip number one and you’re not catching fish (when some folks around you are), you need to learn how to fish for trout. Don’t blame the facility managers for not planting enough trout.

If you don’t follow these two tips -- and you want trout for dinner -- you’re better off saving the gas and fishing fees and going to the market to buy one of those nice packages of fresh rainbow trout.

DFW trout plants: When and where

Most of the private lakes, and even facilities run by city and county entities, happily tell you the day their plants are going to arrive. They count on the big crowds to fill the till.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife hides trout like Easter eggs.

All the state tells you is what week any given water is going to be planted. They won’t tell you what day or time that day. Even on waters planted every week or two or three, the state agency doesn’t always plant the fish on the same day as the previous plant. They mix it up.

Why? Well, unlike other planted waters managed by the city, county, or private entities, the DFW doesn’t want a mob of people showing up or waiting for the hatchery truck when it arrives. Since most of hatchery employees work during the week, they are usually delivering fish from Monday through Friday. Most anglers work that same schedule and only get to fish on weekends. As a matter of fairness, the DFW is hoping at least a good percentage of the trout they stock will stay off stringers until the weekend when the majority of anglers have a shot at them.

That’s fair. Right?

On major waters, the word gets out pretty quickly if the marina has a Facebook page or Tweets out the news, but on smaller waters the DFW fish are frequently left pretty much alone until the weekend. That’s by design.

One complaint, however: The DFW needs to plant massively before holiday weekends. That is when the most folks will get out, but instead of trying to accommodate this constituency, trout plants are usually minimal the week just before any holiday (like this Thanksgiving weekend). I get that is when DFW staff take vacation days, but the agency needs to figure out a way to work around that and serve the public. Even if it is means paying a little OT or giving seasonal aides a few extra hours, there should be massive plants before holiday weekends.

END

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