Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Three Kinds of Trout

To most fly anglers who pursue trout (and their brethren) there are three kinds of fish: hatchery, wild and native.

At the low end of the fish chain are hatchery fish. These are as close as we get to "man-made fish." Raised in stainless steel tanks these trout often develop deformed body shapes, die prematurely and generally not very sophisticated consumers. As Aldo Leopold observed, the value of a game fish (or animal) is inverse to the artificiality of its origin. Therefore, hatchery fish are not valued very highly. However, as someone who spends most of his "passion" time pursuing hatchery fish (Ohio steelhead are hatchery fish), I have developed an elaborate rationalization as to why I value hatchery fish.

The rationalization goes like this: Even hatchery fish require quality environments to thrive. As John Voelker/Robert Traver so accurately wrote: "I fish because I love to. Because I love the environs where trout are found, which are invariably beautiful, and hate the environs where crowds of people are found, which are invariably ugly."And even hatchery trout -- at least the ones I care to chase -- are found in invariably beautiful environs. And these environs remind us of both the value and fragility of our natural assets. Even hatchery trout cannot survive poor land use policies and weak environmental regulations. Tragically our ancestors wiped out most of the native fish long before I picked up a fly rod. Hatchery fish are a weak, but important reminder of man's ability to distort the environment for good or ill.

Wild fish were born in a river or lake, but are not native to the environs where they hang out. In short, they can trace their lineage back to a stainless steel tank somewhere. Wild fish are preferred to hatchery fish because they symbolize the higher quality of their environment. That a river can sustain a trout population without an infusion of hatchery fish tells us that the river is clean, cold and (likely) even more beautiful than the environ that is home to the hatchery fish. I spent several seasons on the Brule River in Wisconsin and the Knife in Minnesota and was fortunate to catch a few wild steelhead mixed in among the hatchery fish. Michigan's rivers are home to plentiful runs of wild steelhead and perhaps next spring I'll drive north to sample that run. The brown trout and rainbows that I love to chase in Central Pennsylvania are wild fish, but they are not native. I regret that the brook trout have been squeezed out by the imports, but that fact doesn't make the spring creeks around State College any less beautiful or any less in need of our vigilant protection.

Nearly every trout I've caught on a fly rod has been either a hatchery or a wild fish.

The highest level of trout is the native, wild trout. This rare fish is a testament to man's inability to completely destroy the natural world God gave us; more accurately it's verification of the amazing resiliency of Mother Nature. I've caught wild brook trout in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. Each brookie is a living, glistening example of God's existence and his skills as a painter. I've caught a few native cut throat in Yellowstone and some native rainbows in California. But that's it.

My lack of "native experience" is just one of the reason why I'm looking forward to my initial visit to Alaska next month. I have only one wish for the trip: to catch as many different kinds of native, wild fish as I can. I want to see and hold as wide a variety of God's handiwork as possible. There is a risk that the experience will diminish my passion for the hatchery fish I chase in Steelhead Alley. It's a risk I'm looking forward to taking.

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