Stocked vs Wild: What’s the Difference?

When I was a kid a trout was a trout was a trout. I paid attention to which species of trout they were, but that’s about it. I was aware that there were stream born trout and hatchery trout. I didn’t think of differentiating wild from stocked trout in my catch though. All trout held an equal value.

Early on, each trout was a prized catch. Later, each trout was a source of incremental pride. It was part of a running tally to be compared with my peers, and forgotten by the end of June. How many do you have? I have 97. Did you hear so-and-so has 114?

A turn of century wild brown from my trout dabbling years.

Salmonids took a back seat for many years. Not that I was a hardcore trout fisherman that gave it up cold turkey. It was more that I was a serious seasonal trout hunter as a kid, who gradually became a year round trout dabbler as an adult.

A native brook trout from a small, cold stream poses for a quick pic before release.

For the past few years I’ve been more into trout than ever. I’ve been especially bitten by the small stream/wild fish bug. That’s where this question and comparison idea hatched. If you asked me today what I prefer; wild fish or stocked fish? I would answer, wild, without hesitation. Now if you asked, why? My answer would be, er uh umm, I’m not sure.

A nice ‘bow from a holdover lake with an IRT200 spinning reel.

Let’s get the asterisks out of the way first. I pursue salmonids in holdover lakes where there is little if any natural reproduction. I love catching and releasing those fish. I don’t care if they came off a truck yesterday or two years ago; they are fun.

A stocked trout in my Northkill Tackle Scout net, caught in a “put and take” pond.

To go even further; several ponds within a short drive of my home are stocked with trout on a “put & take” basis. They are stocked with trout to provide angling opportunities in the spring and in some cases the fall or winter. There is a slim chance that any of those fish survive the warm water of summer. Like the McRib, I enjoy them for a limited time (see Stock-A-Palooza 2017).

A perfect mountain stream for wild trout.

To get back on track, we are talking about trout in streams that remain cold all year that may or may not be stocked by a state hatchery. That’s where my preference or prejudice shows up. What’s the difference between wild fish and hatchery fish, and why would I prefer the wild ones?

A good sized stocked trout from a pond.

It can’t be the size. The wild ones I catch are typically in the 6-8 inch range. A 12 incher makes my day. Stocked fish in these parts start at about 10 inches and range into the pounds.

A standard issue wild rainbow with proportionally diminutive 2 weight rod and NorthKill Native net.

Way back when, I would have said wild fish are more colorful. I can’t say that any more. In recent years, my local stocked rainbows have become the most colorful fish I catch – of any species. Their wild counterparts can’t hold a candle to those made by the state.

The wild rainbows I catch are mainly silver with muted pink and blue tones.

I don’t know if it’s the strain of trout currently being raised or some sort of high quality feed the trout grow up on, but the stocked trout I now know are heavily spotted fish with deep red cheeks and matching side panels.

The full spotting and deep reds typical of the local stocked rainbows.

I’ve been intentionally alternating between stocked streams and wild trout streams for over a month now. I’ve made a number of observations and comparisons. Some results I expected. Some I didn’t.

I have found that stocked fish are no more likely to take gaudy attractor patterns or junk flies than wild fish. If anything, wild fish are more impulsive and hit them at a higher rate. Wild fish will sometimes race across a pool to eat a fly like a dog chasing a tennis ball; even if it’s the same color as a tennis ball. Meanwhile, stocked fish tend to stay in their lane and feed on what comes to them.

Aggressive wild trout sometimes come to my Northkill net two at a time.

Wild fish are more skittish. One misstep can spook a whole pool. Stocked fish will let you fish quietly along side them. Similarly, catching one fish on a wild stream can put down every other fish in the pool. Whereas, you can often pluck one stocked fish after another from the same pool.

Perhaps the most interesting observation I made in my alternating comparison was the quality of fight. I have to say that a wild fish, on average, pulls more than a stocked fish of the same size. Now, we are talking about small stream fish, so this may be splitting hairs. 

A stocked trout about to be released after a head-shaking fight.

The wild fish seem to get their nose down more and pull. Freshly stocked fish thrash more and pull less. I do most of my stream fishing with a fiberglass 2 weight flyrod. A ten inch wild brown or rainbow puts up a nice little fight on this flimsy outfit. A ten inch stocked rainbow very often just head-shakes his way to the net. 

It’s a subtle difference, but it holds up more often than not. This instance is what made me take notice. I was fishing a heavily stocked stream. I had already caught and released five or six stocked fish. The next fish felt different. It pulled harder, and ran side to side. It didn’t touch its nose to its tail in convulsions. Sure enough, it was a wild brown of slightly less mass than the stocked fish that preceded it. Before ever seeing the fish, I knew something was different.

This wild brown fought significantly harder than his stocked neighbors.

My conclusion: wild fish behave more like predators and stocked fish behave more like livestock. Stocked fish are not dumb. They are just inexperienced. They are more accustomed to human presence and “unnatural” disruptions.  They haven’t had to work hard for their food or to avoid predators. They’ve been taken care of.

That’s really the difference in my book. Wild fish don’t offer more to me than stocked fish do. I just admire the work that a wild fish has put in before we ever crossed paths. The wild fish has been dodging herons, mink, and other dangers his whole life. The stocked fish is just getting started in the real world. That’s it. Wild trout inspire an admiration that stocked trout do not.

I can’t imagine this one would have survived long if hatched in the wild.