Dr. Trout at one of the Desert Fishes Council meetings in Mexico (photo courtesy Phil Pister).
By Jack Williams
I first met Bob Behnke at a Desert Fishes Council meeting in Death Valley. It might seem an unlikely place for a world renowned trout taxonomist to hang out, but he was a regular at these meetings. Many native trout call the desert Southwest home, and we had frequent and passionate discussions in those days—the-1970s—about how to recover Apache trout, Gila trout, Lahontan cutthroat, Rio Grande cutthroat and the trout of the San Pedro Martir. Ironically, these discussions continue today, perhaps at a more frantic pace as increasing drought and wildfire threaten these desert trout with escalating frequency.
Bob was always front and center in these discussions. His mind was of infinite capacity for all things trout, and he never failed to regale the assembled audience with one fine, and pertinent, story after another, told in his distinctive high nasal tone.
Bob was best known for his interests in native trout conservation and taxonomy. He was a traditional taxonomist and depended heavily on body morphology, color and spotting patterns, and the like to differentiate species and subspecies. On this, he was a great authority. Most of us depend on his seminal books: Native Trout of Western North America and Trout and Salmon of North America as the bibles of taxonomic and distributional studies for trout and salmon. These are highly recommended for any trout enthusiast.
For years, Bob was a regular contributor for Trout magazine, and many of his best columns were compiled and published in a 2007 book entitled About Trout: The Best of Robert Behnke from Trout Magazine. He gave a lot for fish and fish habitat over his long career.
The field of trout taxonomy has its lumpers and splitters. In my view, the Willow and Whitehorse cutthroat in Southeast Oregon are worthy of a distinct subspecies name and, in fact, at one time they were bestowed with Bob’s name, although these days they are more commonly lumped with their Lahontan relatives to the south. This is the kind of scientific debate that Bob loved to the end. He passed away on September 13, 2013, at the age of 83.
Bob’s wish was to fund future scientists, so any memorial contributions can be sent to the Robert J. Behnke Rocky Mountain Flycaster Research Fellowship, Department of Fish and Wildlife and Conservation Biology at CSU Foundation, PO Box 1870, Fort Collins, CO 80522.
Bob was our Dr. Trout, and he will be missed. His presence will continue to be felt by many generations of future scientists and anglers alike through his students and written contributions.
Jack Williams, Ph.D., is Senior Scientist for Trout Unlimited