Trout Talk

On native trout, wild browns, and common sense

It’s always good to chat with my old friend Tom Rosenbauer, host of the Orvis Fly Fishing Podcast. Apparently, the episode we did together last week caused a few folks some concern because they couldn’t understand how I could like fishing for brown trout and other wild, though non-native fish, and at the same time advocate for native species. Well, here’s a little context:

I grew up fishing along the shores of Lake Michigan. Many mornings in the late spring and early fall, I’d wake up early and pedal my bike to the pier to throw Johnson spoons with a baitcaster before school … and sometimes I’d hook a Coho or even a Chinook salmon, string it up through my bike lock cable, sling it over my back and ride home.

Some years later, I took up fly fishing on the Baldwin River in Michigan, on the same stretch of water where the first brown trout, a strain from Germany, were planted in America. I admit that my motivation was purely to impress a girl I was dating—and more specifically, her father. It turned out okay, I guess. She and I have been married for 32 years now.

My first published story on fly fishing was about Lees Ferry in Arizona, a manmade rainbow trout tailwater that meanders under marble cliffs in the high desert. I still consider it among the most beautiful places I’ve seen anywhere in the world.

I was lucky, and eventually, I found myself travelling all over the world to write about fly fishing as an editor-at-large for Field & Stream magazine, ironically, often to chase that same brown trout species that started me off in the first place. I’ve caught sea-run browns in Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, ridden in helicopters to find salmo trutta in the majestic Fjordland rivers of New Zealand’s South Island, watched wallabies bound along creek banks in Tasmania (the Australian island state where the first brown trout were successfully introduced from England; James Arndell Youl was knighted for that).

So when Rosenbauer, with whom I’ve fished for browns on the Delaware River, in Chile, and elsewhere, asked if it was a step too far to argue that streams and rivers cannot be considered truly healthy until their native species are restored and non-native species eradicated, what in the heck do you think I’d say?

I said that I never favor stocking any fish over “native” populations. I said we should restore natives where it makes common sense. I also said we should consider the value of wild fish. And most importantly, I implied that the fly-fishing community should focus, foremost, on key issues like clean water, and climate change, and habitat degradation that impact all trout.

I can’t imagine the fly-angling world without brown trout. Just like I cannot imagine Lees Ferry without rainbow trout, Patagonia or New Zealand minus trout at all, the Delaware River without non-natives that eat dry flies, or the Great Lakes without salmon or steelhead. I think those are mainstream ideas.

The thinking on these questions at Trout Unlimited goes like this: “native fish are paramount, wild fish come second, and stocked fish don’t belong where they impede the others.”

Others are welcome to disagree. What can’t be refuted is Trout Unlimited’s commitment to native trout and salmon in America. Fact: TU has done more to protect and sustain and restore native trout species than any other organization, and it’s not close.

I came to know this, first as a “neutral” observer, who, while writing for Field & Stream and Angling Trade magazines, covered how TU and others protected the Wyoming Range and three distinct native cutthroat trout species there. I covered TU’s efforts to protect Gila Trout and Apache Trout in New Mexico and Arizona, respectively. I hiked and fished the Roan Plateau in Colorado to learn about a rare strain of cutthroats there. I went to Bristol Bay, Alaska, and wrote about saving the most prolific wild salmon fishery in the word … over and over again. 

When I became editor of TROUT magazine 10 years ago, I made it a mainstay to feature stories about native fish recovery and protection efforts spearheaded by TU. There are hundreds.

In the West, we are protecting fragile populations of Lahontan cutthroats.

In the East, we are restoring native brook trout in places like Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cherokee National Forest.

In Colorado, we rediscovered a species that was thought to be lost, and we’re bringing back the upper Animas River in the name of native cutthroats.  

In Maine, we are fighting for native “salter” brook trout

The list goes on and on and on. 

One of the first stories I commissioned as editor of TROUT, was written by the great conservation writer and Field & Stream colleague, Hal Herring, titled “Rotenone Reality,” (Summer 2014) which described how piscicides were effectively used reintroduce native species. For the record, I’m still not 100 percent behind “poisoning” rivers in all cases, but that probably comes from years and years of seeing the stream out the back porch of my cabin in Michigan turned green every five years with lamprey poison.

Another major story involved the removal of lake trout from Yellowstone Lake to help preserve Yellowstone cutthroat trout. I actually rode on the boats with the gill netters. That was another hot button, where I found myself in philosophical disagreement with some very dear friends, mentors and colleagues who advocated for leaving the lake trout and “what is” well enough alone.

You see, we don’t all always agree on everything, even within the TU community. That’s one of the beauties of TU—that we involve various opinions, and we don’t vilify others when we don’t see eye to eye. 

But the bigger picture is that we get stuff done. And nobody, but nobody, has been hauling the load with the same enthusiasm and tangible effect than Trout Unlimited has, and it’s been that way for generations.

If you want to make a real difference for native fish … and wild fish … join the cause and help us. You will always be welcome and respected.