Over the last two weeks I’ve spent a few days fishing for trout in Western Pennsylvania. Since state regulations keep many of the area’s best trout streams closed until the opener in mid-April, that means I’ve been limited to fishing a few wild brook trout waters and Delayed Harvest Artificial Lures Only (DHALO) special regulation areas.
Whenever DHALO areas come up in conversation, it often leads to discussion of the actual meaning of the regulations, which are vague enough to warrant speculation. Spend a few minutes searching online and you’ll find numerous discussions of the issue, often revolving around the question of whether or not things like trout worms can be used in these areas.
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The original DHALO regulations left no question as to whether or not soft plastic worms could be used:
Fishing may be done with artificial lures only construct-ed of metal, plastic, rubber, or wood or with flies or stream-ers constructed of natural or synthetic materials. All such lures may be used with spinning or fly fishing gear. Use of gear not described in this section is prohibited. Specifically prohibited are the use of molded facsimiles or replicas of insects, earthworms, fish eggs, fish, or any invertebrate or vertebrate either singly or in combination with the other materials.
The use or possession of any natural bait, baitfish or fish-bait and the use of any other fishing device other than artificial lures, flies or streamers is prohibited.
Open to fishing year-round (no closed season).
Fishing hours – One hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset.
Minimum size – Nine (9) inches, caught on, or in possession on, the waters under these regulations from one hour before sunrise on June 15 to one hour after sunset on Labor Day.
Daily creel limit – Three combined species from one hour before sunrise on June 15 to one hour after sunset on Labor Day, caught on or in possession on the waters under regulation. From the day after Labor Day until one hour before sunrise on June 15, the daily creel limit is zero.
Taking of baitfish or fishbait is prohibited.
A current trout/salmon permit is required.
It was clearly spelled out that “molded facsimiles or replicas of insects, earthworms, fish eggs, fish, or any invertebrate or vertebrate either singly or in combination with the other materials” were prohibited. That included everything from Berkley trout worms to Northland Mimic Minnows.
But things changed a few years ago when the rules were revised. The current version of the regulations reads:
Open to fishing year-round (no closed season).
Minimum size – 9 inches, caught on, or in possession on, the waters under these regulations from one hour before sunrise on June 15 to one hour after sunset on Labor Day.
The daily creel limit is three combined species from one hour before sunrise on June 15 to one hour after sunset on Labor Day, caught on or in possession on the waters under these regulations. From the day after Labor Day until one hour before sunrise on June 15, the daily creel limit is zero.
Fishing may be done with artificial lures only constructed of metal, plastic, rubber or wood, or with flies and streamers constructed of natural or synthetic materials. All such lures may be used with spinning or fly fishing gear.
The use or possession of any natural bait, baitfish, fishbait, bait paste and similar substances, fish eggs (natural or molded) or any other edible substance is prohibited.
Taking baitfish or fishbait is prohibited.
A current trout/salmon permit (or Combination Trout/Salmon/Lake Erie permit) is required.
The main argument for the use of trout worms and the like in DHALO areas is that specific mention of “molded facsimiles or replicas of insects, earthworms,” etc., was taken out, while paste baits and fish eggs remain clearly prohibited. Why would the wording be changed in that way unless the folks who wrote it now intended to allow things like trout worms and plastic minnow baits?
The question that remains is what exactly constitutes an “edible substance.” Those arguing against the use of things like trout worms in DHALO areas say that the advertised “added scent” on versions of trout worms by companies like Berkley means they are edible and thus violate the spirit of the law.
In reality, the “spirit of the law” is to provide some catch and release opportunity for stocked trout while at the same time keeping some trout around to be harvested after many of the fish in regular stocked waters have been taken. This is evidenced by the regulation changes under consideration last year that would have allowed the use of all tackle (including live bait) in current DHALO areas once harvest was allowed. Trout worms catch fish. And they usually do so with a hook set in the outer mouth that can be easily removed. They certainly don’t pose any more of a threat to fish mortality than the use of flies.
According to Meriam-Webster, the definition of edible is “fit to be eaten.” While trout have certainly been known to eat soft plastic baits (scented or not), the things are hardly “fit to be eaten.” I’d challenge anyone who wants to argue otherwise to gobble a few down and let me know how it goes. Surely the politician who recently introduced legislation to ban the use of soft plastic lures in Maine doesn’t think they make good snacks.
The real problem is that the vagaries of the law leave it up to interpretation, even by those employed to enforce it. I’ve emailed the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) a few times with this question but have never received a reply. Visit any DHALO area and you’re sure to see plenty of soft plastic worms laying around, though that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s allowed. Several people participating in online discussions say they were told it’s up to the PFBC officer who sees you fishing to decide whether or not it’s okay. At least one person says their local officer told them it’s not okay. I ran into an officer patrolling a DHALO I was fly fishing recently and took the opportunity to raise the question in person. He told me that he was from an area without DHALO areas so he wasn’t sure, but that he “guessed” things like Berkley trout worms would be okay while the biodegradable GULP! worms the company makes would not be. He suggested I ask the local officer who was usually in charge of patrolling the area.
I would imagine that if you were given a citation for fishing a trout worm in a DHALO you could successfully challenge it in court, but who wants to go through that kind of hassle to catch a few stocked trout? Until things are definitively cleared up, the only options seem to be to face up to the possibility of getting a ticket and fighting it or simply not using trout worms or other scented soft plastics in DHALO areas. The latter isn’t that bad of a choice. There are plenty of unscented trout worms and things like small soft plastics, microjigs and San Juan worms that would be just as effective in many scenarios. Still, it’s ridiculous that anglers have to try to figure out what is and isn’t allowed when the PFBC’s own field officers seem unsure.
So, can you use trout worms in DHALO areas?