Dr. Trout, RIP: Robert Behnke, 1929-2013

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


said on Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Benke will be missed.  He was instrumental in academic, management, and angling circles alike.  

said on Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

I just learned of Dr. Benke's passing.  The man was a key figure to western trout populations and watersheds, plus leading the "discovery" of the remaining greenback cutthroat locations and their eventual recovery.  While a freshman in Forestry at Colorado State I had the opportunity to hear his guest lectures several times and had the opportunity to speak with him on occasion.  He was a true leader and one of the earliest proponents of "follow the science".  --John Kies--   

said on Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

I just learned of Bob’s passing today (Nov. 6, 2013).   He and I knew each other professionally quite well, and we interacted personally on many occasions at scientific meetings.  He always appreciated my “holistic” biological perspectives because I was very much interested in the genetics behind the characters he used to distinguish populations, subspecies, and species, as opposed to simply assuming – like many of my genetics colleagues - that molecular genetic methods should trump everything else.  I distinctly remember one of his comments in print:  “Even a small child can tell the difference”, in response to a published paper that said there were no genetic differences between Yellowstone cutthroat trout and Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout (COPEIA 1979).  I read Bob’s Ph.D. thesis (UC Berkeley, 1965) when I was a first year grad student at UW in 1976 (working in Fred Utter's lab at NOAA Fisheries).  Bob's dissertation was my gateway to the fascinating natural history of western trouts.  We will all miss Bob Behnke, not just for his academic achievements, but for his keen insights, understandings, and – of course – his great wit and humor.  

Don Campton, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Portland, OR


said on Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Thanks Jack. It is a sad loss for the Fisheries profession, including here in Oregon where Dr. B did much good work on some of our desert fish species.

I was a Br. Behnke student at Colorado State U, and travelled with him down rivers of Dinosaur National Monument, Flaming Gorge tailwaters, throughout Yellowstone, and even small Puget Sound streams. I recall a Colorado pikeminnow trip on the Yampa/Green rivers where a huge lightning and rain storm came in at night. Dr. Behnke had no tent, and refused my offer of shelter. He wrapped himself in an old raft tarp, and I could see a glow of cigar sticking out from that blue bundle, as he puffed happily away under the cottonwoods while the trees shook with the intense thunder. He was a character. He was amazing. He will be missed.

Doug Young

Portland, Oregon

said on Sunday, December 29th, 2013

I'm sorry I never met Bob, but I always enjoyed what he wrote in regards to the McCloud River Rainbow, redband and steelhead that were first shipped to South American including dates and real hard to find information that's incredible. His book, About Trout, should be given to every teenager as required outdoor reading material. This guy had a passion that shined through his well thought words of wisdom. What a great guy who contributed so much in his lifetime, including educating me on U.S. Hatcheries and the transportation of trout, steelhead and salmon internationally.


Jack Trout

Mt Shasta, Ca


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