Native and Wild: Rules of the River

Trout and Salmon allow us broad discretion to "play in the fields of the Lord" when it comes to conservation. Gravity works cheap, and never takes a day off. Everything we do on the land is ultimately reflected by the health of our waters, and so we engage as advocates in issues as varied as hydropower to agriculture, forestry to climate change.

At first glance, Trout Unlimited's vision of ensuring that "robust populations of native and wild cold water fish once again thrive within their North American range, so that our children can enjoy healthy fisheries in their home waters" seems to provide similar latitude. 

Not exactly. Nat all native fish are where they belong, and not all wild fish are beneficial. A few years ago, I had a public disagreement with Douglas Thompson, a professor at Connecticut College, over an opinion piece he ran in The New York Times describing how poor hatchery and stocking practices led him to give up trout fishing. In a snarky response, I wrote that Doug "waded in over his head" and that he should stop "carping at anglers" because the real problem facing native trout were habitat loss and climate change.

I was wrong. TU's scientists pointed to introduced trout (whether recently stocked or a legacy of early stocking) as well as climate change and habitat loss in our seminal "State of the Trout" report as major problems for native trout. 

I am getting ready for the fan mail as I write this, but if you are fishing out West in bull trout habitat and catch a beautiful broke, whack the broke where regulations permit. Brook trout are native to the East and interbreed with threatened bull trout and outcompete cutthroat. If you are fishing in the Gila Trout wilderness, and come across a rainbow trout in a recovery area for Gila trout, eat the rainbow for dinner. Introduced rainbows compete and hybridize with native Gila.

Similarly, we should leverage the great relationships we have with state fish and wildlife agencies and help them reconsider stocking non-native fish on top of native trout (and dealing with legacies of trout stocked long ago). The place for stocked fish is generally not in the same waters occupied by reproducing populations of native fish.

Here are a few rules of the river for conservation minded anglers.

1. Know and celebrate your native trout and salmon. Take the opportunity to learn what fish are native to the waters you love to fish and how to identify them accurately.

2. Carefully and quickly release native fish such as brookies in the East; or cutthroat and many other trout species in the West; or rainbows along the Pacific Rim. 

3. If you want to take a picture of a fish that you don't plan to eat, do so quickly, and without taking it out of the water.

4. Discourage your state agencies from stocking non-native fish in waters that posses native trout.

5. Carefully release wild fish form rivers where wild fish persist in the absence of natives or don't pose a threat to natives such as the Henry's Fork, Madison, Beaverkill, and the Savage. 

6. Enjoy an occasional non-native wild or stocked trout or salmon for the table if you catch it in waters occupied by native trout such as rainbows in the South Fork of the Snake or salmon from the Great Lakes (regulations permitting of course!).

7. Don't be sanctimonious. Conservation is a long game. Patiently educating people about ways to protect wild and native trout fisheries creates a lot more converts than showing everyone else that you are pure and smart.

From the President Chris Wood - Trout Magazine Summer 2017