8 Fly-Fishing’s Legacy for Conservation

God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling.

—Izaak Walton (1808)

Learning Objectives

  • Examine the history of fly-fishing and early influencers on conservation on cold-water fishes, with emphasis on the Rocky Mountain west.
  • Identify the four past eras of fly-fishing and describe their unique characteristics, and analyze change in fly-fishing over time.
  • Recognize fly-fishing as a specialized fishing endeavor that led to early development of an angling code of ethics.
  • Evaluate the historical significance of fly-fishing and cold-water conservation organizations in the development of conservation programs.
  • Identify issues and conflicts of stocking nonnative trout and preserving wild trout.
  • Understand future challenges for preserving cold-water fish in response to global change.

9.1 Introduction

Imagine the frustration of being surrounded by fish and casting to them, only to have them ignore or be spooked by all your offerings. Anglers learned long ago to imitate the same food that fish were eating and place the imitation fly without spooking the fish. While fishing can use a wide range of gears and baits, fly-fishing refers specifically to the sport of fishing using a long rod and an artificial fly. This form of fishing has been around for at least 1,800 years, based on writings from Eastern Europe, and may have been practiced earlier (Hoffman 2016). Fly-fishing initially focused on trout and salmon, but now it is widely used to catch other fresh- and saltwater fish.

Fly fishers targeting trout had an important influence in developing and sustaining conservation programs, although they were sometimes criticized for exclusive or single-interest advocacy. Here I review the history of trout fishing and fly-fishing with special focus on the Rocky Mountain West, where fly fishers first exerted their influence on conservation ethics and sportfishing policy. Although many individuals and organizations played roles, I concentrate on only two: Fly Fishers International (FFI) and Trout Unlimited (TU). These two organizations had similar interests in conservation, but important differences prevented them from working together on a unified goal of conservation. The legacy of fly-fishing demonstrates the importance of passion, persistence, and partnerships in fish conservation.

Trout and salmon are the only sport fish native to the Western states, and fly-fishing here became more than a leisure activity. Norman Maclean’s novel, A River Runs through It (1976), begins, “In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” Later Maclean writes that “Something within fishermen[1] tries to make fishing into a world perfect and apart.” The iconography of Western fly-fishing that Maclean and others wrote about was created by anglers, fisheries managers, tourists, guides, businesses, and region promoters. The history of Rocky Mountain fly-fishing parallels the history of the expansion of our Western frontier as well as fisheries management (Brown 2015). Although Henry David Thoreau (1862) maintained that “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” humans are part of the trout fishing system and helped create, destroy, maintain, and restore the trout fishing we have today.

The first trout fishers were Native Americans. Native Americans used a variety of fishing methods, including weirs, spears, nets, traps, baskets, hook-and-line methods, and baits. They also caught fish by hand via tickling. Tickling for trout involves rubbing the underbelly of a trout with fingers to get the trout to go into a trance, after which they can then easily be thrown onto the bank (Martindale 1901). Native Americans were more patient than others. This method is different from noodling for catfish, where the noodler uses fingers as bait and grabs the catfish by its mouth. Native Americans also caught fish by fly-fishing with deer-hair flies, according to the writings of early American naturalist William Bartram (1739–1823) (Monahan, no date).

The story of Rocky Mountain trout fishing begins with displacement of Native Americans from their historical fishing and hunting grounds. Uninhabited wilderness had to be created through the dispossession of Native people before it could be preserved (Spence 1999). Explorers, trappers, pioneers, soldiers, and homesteaders brought fishing gear to frontier outposts. The Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806) included a designated angler named Silas Goodrich. The expedition first described several new species of fish, including the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout and Westslope Cutthroat Trout, caught by Goodrich. Later military expeditions spent time trout fishing in addition to fighting Native Americans. Custer’s Last Stand at Little Bighorn might have been avoided if he’d joined a column of reinforcements under General George Crook. Crook’s soldiers were comfortably camped close by on Goose Creek near the Tongue River—fishing, not fighting (Monnett 1993; Owens 2002a; Lessner 2010).

The history of fly-fishing’s legacy in the American West is organized in four overlapping historical eras. The history highlights changing values as well as the changing scientific understanding of complex topics, such as phylogeny and competitive displacement of trout species. Deciding what are right or wrong actions involves consideration of values as well as scientific findings. We use “ought” to reflect ethical norms, whereas “is” refers descriptive statements. David Hume (1711–1776) articulated the “is-ought” fact-value gap, which maintains that one cannot make statements about what ought to be based on statements about what is. The NOFI (No-Ought-From-Is) idea that one cannot deduce an “ought” from an “is” means that we can make no logically valid arguments from the nonmoral to the moral.

These eras (with approximate dates) are reflective of the shifting value systems of fishers and fish managers (Snyder 2016):

  1. Era of Rugged Individualism 1730–1880
  2. Era of Hubris and Hatcheries 1880–1970
  3. Era of Wild Trout 1970–2000
  4. Era of Restoration of Native Trout 2000–present

Values shifted from resource exploitation for food to concerns for overharvest, followed by attempts to fix trout overharvest with hatchery production. While the legacy of fishing for stocked trout remains today, values shifted toward appreciation of native trout and recognition of the need for restoration. The era of restoration of native trout arose as important influencers began to engage in these value arguments as the world changed and scientific understanding expanded.

9.2 Era of Rugged Individualism

A rugged individual is someone totally self-reliant and independent from outside assistance, including from government entities. “Rugged individualism” is a term closely associated with the Western expansion. Frontier settlers were disproportionately male, prime age, illiterate, and foreign born (Buzzi et al. 2017). A sense of Manifest Destiny, or the idea that settlers were destined by God to expand throughout the continent, led to widespread fishing for subsistence during westward expansion. Westward expansion was furthered by the Homestead Act of 1862, which provided adult citizens who had never borne arms against the U.S. government with 160 acres of surveyed government land.

Settlers did not want government interference with their freedom to follow the frontier road to riches. By the 1890s, loggers were removing timber, trappers were removing beavers, farmers were irrigating arid lands for agriculture, and some were buying land for fishing in remote areas of the Rocky Mountains. Miners and railroad workers introduced fishing with dynamite. The early settlers had little time for leisure activities nor the patience of tickling for trout.

When did rugged individualists become elitist fly fishers? The first fly fishers who visited the West wrote for outdoor magazines and popularized the notion of the Rocky Mountains as a paradise for fly-fishing. One of these was Thaddeus Norris, “Uncle Thad” (1811–1877), who published The American Angler’s Book in 1864 (Figure 9.1). The American Angler’s Book was the first comprehensive account of sportfishing at the time. Norris was racist and criticized indigenous fishing methods: “For the red man . . . was a destructive fisher; his weirs and traps at the time of their autumnal descent, the spear on the spawning beds, and his snare or loop, were murderous implements” (Norris 1864). Settlers also used nets, traps, seines, weirs, and dynamite to catch fish. Fly-fishing at the time was a luxury and a leisure pursuit of only the wealthy in the United States, whereas most other people fished for subsistence purposes. There was a social class, and “fly fishing in the USA retained a sense of masculine individualism . . .where the angling tourist exercised power over local land and people” (Mordue 2009).

The American Angler's Book by Thaddeus Norris
Figure 9.1: The American Angler’s Book: Embracing the Natural History of Sporting Fish, and the Art of Taking Them, by Thaddeus Norris.

Tourism led to a second wave of Western expansion by those who argued that fly-fishing was more ethical than either the spearfishing methods used by Native Americans or fishing with hook and line to feed the homesteader’s family. Whether real or imagined, fly-fishing in America developed a distinctive imagery, ethos, and subculture (Schullery 1987, 246). Boston physician and author of “The Fishes of Massachusetts” Jerome V. C. Smith described fly-fishing in 1833 as the “perfection of fishing” (Washabaugh and Washabaugh 2000, 56). However, I see a paradox of simplicity and complexity. Angling writer John Gierach wrote, “I love the simplicity and the surroundings. Fly fishing is a breath of fresh air amid your busy lives.” Yet, the zealous fly fisher seems to defy this simplicity. Cold-water streams are loaded with a variety of trout foods, such as different stages of insects, and fly fishers attempt to imitate natural insects with hand-tied artificial flies in order to fool fish. The technique of “matching the hatch” in different seasons and waters demands a mix of special knowledge on aquatic entomology, fish behavior, and fluid dynamics. It is much easier to fish with live bait. The use of artificial flies instead of mistreating worms or other live baits is one reason why fly fishers have perceived themselves as more ethical and, therefore, better people.

This second wave included many writers who waxed poetic when it came to fly-fishing. Some writers—who were also fly fishers—claimed that “fly fishers are better people all around” (Soos 1999). After the Civil War, fly-fishing grew in popularity, spurred by the writings of popular authors like Thaddeus Norris and others. Fly-fishing became distinctly American with creation of fishing retreats, fishing clubs, lodges, specialty magazines, and fly-fishing organizations (Washabaugh and Washabaugh 2000). And Western fly-fishing was “a shiny badge of regional authenticity—of a person’s westernness” (Schullery 2006). Fly fishers toward the end of this era were tied to particular places and environments that they would eventually protect. Fly-fishing, and by extension fishing tourism, enlisted and promoted certain codes of practice and being that connected fly-fishing tourists to places.

At some point, the frontier trout anglers began to notice widespread declines in the rich abundance of trout. Methods other than hook and line for catching trout were outlawed in most states and territories by late 19th century. Early ichthyologists Barton Evermann (1891, 1894) and David Starr Jordan (1890) surveyed fish in the Rocky Mountain streams. In his 1889 surveys, Jordan commented on the many trout entrained in irrigation ditches and “left to perish in the fields.” He also commented on the many surveyed waters where eastern Brook Trout were introduced and doing well. Declines in numbers of trout were inevitable and had many causes, including fishing, mining, overgrazing, water diversion, dams, logging, and removal of woody cover. The ironic move of rugged individuals asking for government assistance in building federal and state trout hatcheries led to the next era.

Question to ponder:

The 19th-century movement of settlers into the American West began with the Louisiana Purchase and was fueled by the Gold Rush, the Oregon Trail, and a belief in “Manifest Destiny.” In what ways was manifest destiny apparent among fly fishers during this period? 

9.3 Era of Hubris and Hatcheries

Trout populations were declining, while a new scientific technology was developing that might reverse the decline. Seth Green, the father of fish culture, developed the first private fish hatchery in North America in Caledonia, New York, primarily to provide Atlantic Salmon and Brook Trout for food fish markets (Figure 9.2). Green’s comprehensive work, Trout Culture (1870), was used by hatchery managers throughout the continent. Soon Green’s hatchery was also producing American Shad, Brown Trout, and Rainbow Trout for stocking. More than any other individual, he is credited with introducing Rainbow Trout east of the Continental Divide, Brook Trout to Western states, and Brown Trout from Eurasia throughout the United States (Karas 2002; Halverson 2010; Newton 2013).

Illustration of Seth Green in black ink. Signature at bottom reads "Yours. Seth Green."
Figure 9.2: The father of fish culture, Seth Green, from Trout Culture (1870).

Before scientists understood the evolutionary history of the native trout and char of North America (Fausch et al. 2019; Trotter et al. 2018), hatcheries were built, eggs were taken, and millions of fish were stocked to provide trout fishing. Before the end of the 19th century, Rainbow Trout were propagated and widely introduced outside their range by the Ornithological and Piscatorial Acclimatizing Society of California. Seth Green was shipping eggs and fry of salmon and Rainbow Trout across the continent (Halverson 2010). Fish culturists and the New York Fish Commission promoted the superiority of the Rainbow Trout for their hardiness, ease of hatching, game qualities, ease of capture, and fighting qualities. Soon U.S. Fisheries Commissioner Spencer Fullerton Baird instructed Livingston Stone to build another hatchery devoted to Rainbow Trout on the McCloud River, California. The eastern Brook Trout, no longer thriving in their native range due to logging, sedimentation, and warming, were deemed superior for streams of Colorado and were widely planted on top of native Cutthroat Trout. Since that time, the National Fish Strain Register has described 64 strains and even more broodstocks of Rainbow Trout (Kincaid et al. 2001). Despite lessons learned from unrestrained carp plantings as a food-fish-turned-pest species (Bartlett 1910), all reports on nonnative trout were positive, until many decades later.

Trout hatcheries were a distinctly American invention that led to the formation of the American Fish Culturists’ Association in 1870 (now recognized as the American Fisheries Society). The first federal fish hatchery, known as the Baird Hatchery, was established in 1872 on the McCloud River in California (Figure 9.3). Soon it was shipping eggs of trout and salmon throughout the United States and the world (Stone 1897). Other federal hatcheries were soon built in Leadville, Colorado (1889), Bozeman, Montana (1892), and Spearfish, South Dakota (1896), to stock Cutthroat Trout, Brook Trout, Rainbow Trout, and Brown Trout.

Historic photo of Baird fish hatchery
Figure 9.3: Baird Hatchery Station on McCloud River, California, with Mount Persephone in background (1897).

Many millions of trout were produced and stocked each year to meet the demand for trout fishing. Stocking catchable-sized trout provided higher returns and angler satisfaction than fry stocking (Wiley et al. 1993). But it is an expensive undertaking, and biosecurity and fish health concerns require substantial infrastructure improvements as well as feed and personnel costs. While fly fishers brought notions of fishing for sport, not subsistence, and concern for angler ethics, they also lobbied for regulation changes that set aside more waters for fly-fishing only.

Scientists investigating trout waters soon revealed the fallacy of hatchery solutions over a long period of reckoning with hatchery plantings and their effect on aquatic ecosystems and fishing culture. I call it the “reckoning” because indirect effects of hatchery plantings (Table 9.1) and narrow emphasis on game species ignored needed efforts at ecosystem protection. The actions of the hatchery era are irreversible, eliminating options and choice for future generations.

Indirect effects of stocking nonnative trout
Hatchery effluents
Competition with native fish
Predation on native fish
Hybridization with native trout

Table 9.1: Indirect effects of stocking nonnative trout. Hatchery effluents refers to waste discharged from fish hatchery.

Since the beginnings of hatchery plantings of trout and salmon, scientists and anglers have debated both the harms and triumphs of planted trout and salmon. Native trout that were replaced with nonnative trout and any fish that was not a trout were automatically viewed as trash fish (Hoffman 2016). This derogatory term was unfortunate, as it influenced the actions of many anglers toward “trash fish.”

During the postwar era, most states developed wide-scale fisheries by planting catchable-size Rainbow Trout, which were quickly removed by anglers. Rainbow Trout were selected because at the time they were considered to be easier to raise in hatcheries, they fought and jumped better, and they were well known by anglers. Spinning fishing gear began to be mass-produced at this time and made trout fishing with spinners and bait widely available. The postwar era also saw the emergence of fishing tackle manufacturers, such as Garcia Mitchell, Zebco, and others. And trout stamps—an actual stamp sold by fish and wildlife agencies in addition to a fishing license—contributed to commodifying trout fishing, as all revenues went to raising trout for stocking. In response to intense and widespread angler demand, nonnative stocked trout overpowered any concern for wild trout, or any other wild fish, at the time.

Fish and game laws defined fish as game fish or coarse fish. One by one, the coarse fish species were labeled as enemies because of presumed deleterious effects on game fish, in this case trout and salmon. Numerous species of chub, minnows, sculpins, suckers, and whitefish were labeled as “trash fish” and killed when inadvertently captured. Sculpins are often abundant in riffles where salmon and trout are spawning and in areas where salmonid fry are abundant. Early fisheries managers expressed concern that sculpins might decimate trout and salmon populations via predation on the eggs and fry and through competition for benthic invertebrates. Research suggests that only under exceptional or artificial conditions can sculpins severely limit salmonid populations (Moyle 1977).

Similarly, suckers were thought to be harmful to trout because of predation on eggs and fry and from competition for food. This influenced fisheries management programs in many states. Wisconsin passed a state law in 1973 requiring that “All rough fish taken in nets or on set lines shall be brought to shore and buried, sold, or otherwise lawfully disposed of, but no rough fish shall be returned to any waters.” While evidence exists demonstrating that many species of suckers do prey on eggs when they have an opportunity, the evidence does not support the notion that sucker removals benefit trout population (Holey et al. 1979).

Mountain Whitefish (Figure 9.4) represent one of the most abundant native salmonid species in the Rocky Mountain West, yet they remain an “afterthought for most fisheries research and management programs in western North America” (Meyer et al. 2009). Mountain Whitefish were harvested by indigenous people and the non-elite during the 19th and 20th centuries. They survived the long period of mistreatment by anglers who considered them trash fish. Yet, Mountain Whitefish also declined, as did trout, salmon, and char in response to dams, excessive irrigation withdrawals, and other insults. Mountain Whitefish provided fishing opportunities in the past and will in the future without investment in hatcheries. The prejudice against any fish that was not trout or salmon influenced investments in hatcheries and fishing regulations. Consequently, conflicts still remain on the values of coarse or rough fish. The primacy of trout in the minds of fly fishers led to trout fisheries in unusual places and unjustified removals of native fish (Brown and Moyle 1981) and planting of nonnative trout.

Mountain Whitefish laid out on rocks next to a fly rod for comparison; silver skin/scales and yellow fins
Figure 9.4: Mountain Whitefish (Prosopium williamsi) (16 inches) was caught and released in the McKenzie River near the town of Blue River, Oregon.

The hatchery era also coincided with the development of major dams built by the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Tennessee Valley Authority, which created additional opportunities for planting nonnative trout in tailwaters below dams. Deepwater releases of cold, oxygenated, nutrient-rich, and sediment-free water from dams displaced native fish and created opportunities for supporting “large numbers of trout that generally grow far faster, bigger, and fatter than trout in western freestone rivers without high dams” (Owens 2002b). The Bighorn River and Beaverhead River in Montana, Green River in Wyoming and Utah, Fryingpan River in Colorado, and South Platte River in Colorado are just a few of these unique tailwaters that produce exceptional growth rates for trout (Gebhards 1971;Wiley and Mullan 1975). Many new trout fisheries were established in cold tailwaters via stocking fingerling trout (Pfitzer 1975). Wild trout were often limited in tailwaters from lack of spawning habitat, high fishing pressure, fluctuating water levels due to hydropower generation, presumed competition with native species, and in some cases water temperature. Fly fishers adapted to fishing these special waters by mimicking the unique fauna. Simple, tiny black midges and amber scuds mimicked the dominant prey and resulted in catches of lunker trout by many fly fishers.

The hubris of the hatcheries era coincided with massive ecosystem change, dam construction with hatchery supplementation, environmental degradation, haphazard transplanting of nonnative trout, and lack of regard for any fish that was not a trout. The legacies of the hatchery era remain, and a broader ecosystem perspective would be needed for successful cold-water fish conservation.

Questions to ponder:

Can you recall your parents or grandparents talking about trout fishing in the past? How did they view trout fishing at the time? 

9.4 Era of Wild Trout

The fundamental salvation of trout fishing in the west, or anywhere, lies in the maintenance of environment.

—Arthur Carhart (1950)

Hatchery stocking masked a long legacy of detrimental effects of mining, dewatering, overgrazing, and other forms of stream degradation on wild trout populations. Yet, it took many years to convince fisheries managers to quit heavy stocking in Western rivers. Roderick Haig-Brown preached earlier to “just protect the habitat, the rest will take care of itself” (Sloan and Prosek 2003). Two organizations, Trout Unlimited and Federation of Fly Fishers (Brown 2015), played key roles in advocating policies emphasizing wild trout, ethical fishing, and healthy habitat. Although its members included many fly fishers, Trout Unlimited did not consistently advocate for policies that favored fly-fishing–only regulations.

Trout Unlimited is the largest and certainly most prominent cold‐water fishery conservation association in the United States. This nonprofit organization has 300,000 members and supporters dedicated to conserving, protecting, and restoring North America’s cold-water fisheries and their watersheds. The philosophy of Trout Unlimited includes the following beliefs:

  • Trout Unlimited believes that trout fishing isn’t just fishing for trout.
  • It’s fishing for sport rather than food, where the true enjoyment of the sport lies in the challenge, the love and the battle of wits, not necessarily the full creel.
  • It’s the feeling of satisfaction that comes from limiting your kill instead of killing your limit.
  • It’s communing with nature where the chief reward is a refreshed body and a contented soul, where a license is a permit to use—not abuse, to enjoy—not destroy our trout waters.
  • It’s subscribing to the proposition that what’s good for trout is good for trout fishermen and that managing trout for the trout rather than for the fisherman is fundamental to the solution of our trout problems.
  • It’s appreciating our trout, respecting fellow anglers, and giving serious thought to tomorrow.

Trout Unlimited (TU) was started in 1959 by 16 fly fishermen who met on the banks of the famous AuSable River in Michigan. The organization was the brainchild of George Mason, president of American Motors, and George A. Griffith, a commissioner with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (Griffith 1993; Ross 2016). Trout Unlimited did not claim to be a flies-only club, though they advocated flies-only regulations in Michigan the year before they incorporated. Trout Unlimited members had two common interests: the love of trout and a desire to improve trout stream habitat. They saw weaknesses of bureaucratic systems in most fisheries departments and failures to consult with fisheries scientists. Trout Unlimited was guided by the principle that if we “take care of the fish, then the fishing will take care of itself.” TU’s first president, Dr. Casey E. Westell Jr., said, “In all matters of trout management, we want to know that we are substantially correct, both morally and biologically.” TU relied on the best available science and included scientists on its Board of Directors. Membership grew from a local organization into many local chapters, state councils, and a national presence. Through the efforts of local chapters, TU focused on sustaining rural quality of life in watersheds, promoted economic activities compatible with local watersheds, protected and advocated for water rights or instream flows for trout, and promoted habitat restoration (Munday 2002; Owens 2002b). Today, the National Conservation Strategy of Trout Unlimited is set by its leadership council, a body of volunteers and grassroots leaders (Trout Unlimited 2016).

Fly Fishers International (formerly Federation of Fly Fishers) was founded in 1965 with a dual mission to educate fly fishers and promote conservation through advocacy. Its founding was motivated by concern for a decline in fishing quality in many well-known trout and salmon rivers. Founding members, Bill Nelson and Gene Anderegg, were driving forces behind recruiting members and developing a national meeting. Fly Fishers International (FFI) was organized as a federation of local fly-fishing clubs, loosely tied to a national office. FFI has over 11,000 members in 37 countries organized into over 200 clubs. The vision of FFI was to develop in fly fishers a conservation conscience and promote activism (Williams 2016). Early leaders included Ted Trueblood, editor of Field and Stream, and Lee Wulff. Lee Wulff and Roderick Haig-Brown were early advocates for the concept of catch and release in North American fisheries. Wulff wrote the aphorism, “gamefish are too valuable to be caught only once” (Wulff 1939). Catch-and-release regulations, first implemented in 1970, have become widespread in managing game fish. TU and FFI played key advocacy and advisory roles in supporting national conservation legislation, including the Clean Water Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1970), and the Wild and Scenic River Act (1968), as well as policies restoring native fish (Williams et al. 2011).

The first code of fly-fishing ethics was written in 1939 by Roderick Haig-Brown (1939), in “Limits and ethics” in The Western Angler. Haig-Brown and other FFI members were instrumental in educating and promoting fly-fishing ethics and ethical codes. The Fly Fishers International Code of Angling Ethics (Fly Fishers International 2002) asserts the following:

  • Fly anglers understand and obey laws and regulations associated with the fishery.
  • Fly anglers believe fly-fishing is a privilege and a responsibility.
  • Fly anglers conserve fisheries by limiting their catch.
  • Fly anglers do not judge fellow anglers and treat them as they would expect to be treated.
  • Fly anglers respect the waters occupied by other anglers so that fish are not disturbed.
  • When fishing from a watercraft, fly anglers do not crowd other anglers or craft or unnecessarily disturb the water.
  • Fly anglers respect other angling methods and promote this Code of Angling Ethics to all anglers.

Beginning in 1974, Trout Unlimited and others sponsored a series of symposia on Wild Trout to exchange technical information on wild trout management. Held every three years, the Wild Trout Symposium brings together anglers, writers, students, and professionals from every trout region in the United States and Canada. The issue of stocking trout on top of wild trout populations was the hot topic at the first symposium. Willis King proposed that “wild trout are members of a naturally produced and maintained population, in a natural setting” (King 1975, 99). Based on studies by Dick Vincent, the Montana Fish and Game Department stopped stocking trout in streams and rivers that supported wild trout populations (Zachheim 2006). The new strategy was based on a concept of self-propagating fisheries, catch and release, fly only, barbless hooks, fly-fishing only, special regulations, and limited hatchery supplementation.

Westslope Cutthroat Trout laid out on rocks, has black polka dots, large gray splotches of color, and pink striping
Figure 9.5: Westslope Cutthroat Trout (Onchorhynchus clarkii lewisi).

TU’s National Leadership Council (NLC) passed a resolution in 2011 that states, “Resolved, that the NLC is opposed to Chapters or Councils stocking of non-native hatchery trout on top of native trout populations” (Trout Unlimited 2011). Other states began to debate the meaning of “wild” and to initiate restoration projects to focus on habitat protection and restoration to restore wild trout. Numerous restoration methods are needed for trout stream restoration, including enhancing instream flows in trout-rearing areas, preventing fish loss in irrigation canals, reconstructing altered streams to naturalize channel form and function, and fencing livestock from riparian areas (Pierce et al. 2019). To avoid the polarizing native-nonnative debates, TU often emphasized that “We just focus on the habitat.”

The future of wild trout and wild trout fishing is threatened by a legacy of nonnative fish introductions, beaver extirpation, logging, wood removal, dams, irrigation withdrawals, and climate change. Popular game fish, such as Walleye and Northern Pike (McMahon and Bennett 1996) and nonnative trout (Dunham et al. 2002; Dunham et al. 2004; Quist and Hubert 2004; Budy and Gaeta 2018) displace native trout in the Rocky Mountain region. Whirling disease introduced from infected trout has the potential to reduce wild trout populations. But the threat of climate change on wild trout, especially Bull Trout and Cutthroat Trout, may be most difficult to mitigate because these species are already constrained to high elevations and latitudes, limiting their ability to adapt (Figure 9.5; Isaak et al. 2015; Hansen et al. 2019). The management with wild trout restoration and nonnative trout suppression will dominate the actions of fisheries and land managers for the next generation.

Questions to ponder:

Why do you suppose there are still two large conservation organizations, Fly Fishers International and Trout Unlimited? Would it make more sense for the two organizations to merge into one larger, influential organization? What were the most significant influences these organizations had on conservation?

9.5 Era of Restoration of Native Trout

I know that neither hatcheries, nor biologists, nor all the thought and ingenuity of man can put them back when once they’ve gone.

—Roderick Haig-Brown, Fisherman’s Spring (1951)

Many thought they were doing the right thing for the world at the time of indiscriminate and inconsiderate stocking of nonnative trout. Stockings supported a subsistence fishery, diversified fishing opportunities, and engaged more anglers. Yet, these decisions were irreversible, eliminating choice and options for future generations. Stocking nonnative fish outside their native range is passing through a door that goes in one direction—there’s no going back. Once introduced, the consequences are uncertain and cannot be reversed except in the most special circumstances.

We understand values of fish for fishing and food. Trout provided for the well-being of trout anglers were of cultural importance to settlers of the frontier and provided direct financial gains for trout guides and private hatcheries. All of these were instrumental values, but other values of trout may be intrinsic or relational. The more we study trout in a variety of settings, the more diverse the set of values held will be. Conflicts over values affect decision making, and the stocking of nonnative trout only considered a narrow set of instrumental values. Nature’s gifts (or nature’s contributions) to well-being broaden the values perspectives (Pascual et al. 2017). Is stocking nonnatives right or wrong? What values are harmed with stocking? The answers to such questions depend on the value argument (Zablocki 2019). Consider the intrinsic values of protecting unique and irreplaceable evolutionary lineages of native trout. Instrumental values arguments would focus on the value of encouraging a vibrant economy based on abundant, catchable trout. Relational values arguments would focus on a unique way of life harmed by introduction of nonnatives.

Three voices—Aldo Leopold, James A. Henshall, and Edwin “Phil” Pister—were influential in early critiques of indiscriminate trout stocking. They advocated for recognizing values of native fish at a time when state and U.S. governments were investing heavily in trout hatcheries. It’s taken a century of scientific investigations into indiscriminate, inconsiderate, and often planned trout plantings to develop a scientific basis for conservation actions to restore native fish.

Aldo Leopold on rocky terrain looking over Sierra Madre
Figure 9.6: Leopold’s trips to the Rio Gavilan region of the northern Sierra Madre in 1936 and 1937 helped to shape his thinking about land health.

Aldo Leopold, after completing a master of forestry at Yale University, worked at the Apache National Forest in the Arizona Territory, Carson National Forest in New Mexico, and regional headquarters in Albuquerque, New Mexico (Figure 9.6). In this region, Leopold would be familiar with the endemic Apache Trout (Oncorhyncus gilae apache), Gila Trout (Oncorhynchus gilae gilae), and Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarkia virginalis). Based on his observations on trout in these waters, Leopold presented a paper on “Mixing Trout” (Leopold 1918; Warren 2010). He wrote that “Nature, in stocking trout waters, sticks to one species.” And Leopold recommended that to “Restock with the best adapted species, the native species [is] always preferred” (Leopold 1918, 102). Furthermore, in restocking empty waters, “ordinarily native and indigenous species are preferable.” It would be years later that he reconstituted these ideas in these famous words:

The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of eons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering. (Leopold 1993, 145–146)

Illustration of James Henshall. Signature at bottom reads "Yours truly. J. A. Henshall"
Figure 9.7: Illustration of James A. Henshall, author of Book of the Black Bass (1881).

James A. Henshall, while best known for his Book of the Black Bass, was the first superintendent of the Bozeman National Fish Hatchery from 1897 until 1909 (Figure 9.7). The Bozeman Hatchery produced Brook Trout and Rainbow Trout for Colorado and Montana. Henshall described the accidental release of Brook Trout and Rainbow Trout into Bridger Creek. Noting pristine conditions prior to this, he wrote, “If depleted waters had been stocked with native fish, this happy and natural condition of affairs might have continued for many years to come” (Henshall 1919).

Edwin “Phil” Pister read the works of Aldo Leopold while in graduate school. He worked as fisheries biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game during the height of the hatchery era. Hatchery trout and trophy fishing fueled a tourist economy in the High Sierra mountains of California. License buyers who funded most agency programs also overwhelmingly viewed trout as a commodity. Only one game species managed for fishing was native and that was the California Golden Trout (Onchorhynchus mykiss aguabonita), which is the State Freshwater Fish of California. Other species that were not managed were on the verge of extinction. In fact, one of the desert fish, the Ash Meadows Poolfish (Empetrichthys merriami), went extinct before the Ash Meadows Wildlife Refuge was established. On a visit to speak to Virginia Tech students after his retirement in 1991, Pister told the story of how in 1969 he scooped rare Owens Pupfish (Cyprinodon radiosus) out of a shoe-deep slough sure to dry (Figure 9.8). That day he literally saved the last population of Owens Pupfish—moving 800 fish in two buckets—away from certain destruction. The Owens Pupfish persists today and is classified as an endangered species.

Owens Pupfish is small with metallic blue and green scales
Figure 9.8: Owens Pupfish (Cyprinodon radiosus), Fish Slough Ecological Reserve.

Pister worked tirelessly to establish and maintain the Desert Fishes Council. This group’s mission is to “preserve the biological integrity of desert aquatic ecosystems and their associated life forms, to hold symposia to report related research and management endeavors, and to effect rapid dissemination of information concerning activities of the Council and its members.” His work on Golden Trout began in 1959 when it was apparent the state fish was at risk of extinction (Figure 9.9). In the 1970s, he sided with the National Park Service against his agency directive. Park Service policy directed that since “Trout are not indigenous to the lakes of the High Sierra, they would no longer be planted in park waters.” Nonnative trout stocking in fishless lakes led to near extinction of the Sierra Nevada Yellow-Legged Frog (Rana sierrae). Since the practice was eliminated in 1991, frog abundances have increased to levels similar to those in never-stocked lakes (Knapp et al. 2016).

Drawing of California Golden trout, black polka dots across body with gray splotches of color and pink striping
Figure 9.9: California Golden Trout.

Phil Pister also worked to reduce threats to the rare and threatened subspecies of Golden Trout in high-elevation streams of California. Pister liked to quote Stephen Jay Gould: “We are trapped in the ignorance of our own generation.” The move from wild trout to native trout has been underway for nearly 100 years. Paul Schullery, in Cowboy Trout, explained it as follows:

Most recently, it wasn’t all that big a step from preferring wild fish to preferring wild native fish, which are now seen by many as providing a more authentic angling experience in nature. A fish that actually evolved over many millennia in the water has certain aesthetic advantages over a fish that only arrived a few decades ago. (Schullery 2006)

Today, many Western states have a “native trout challenge” that encourages anglers to seek out various species/subspecies of (mostly native) trout and the places they inhabit as a way to get the public to appreciate the value of natives.

My role as a scientist is not to make a choice for all people about which trout to stock where. We all have many differences in attitude and outlook regarding restoration of trout. These are mostly cultural, not scientific differences. As a scientist, I can advocate for application of best science available, while recognizing that value arguments about nonnative trout stocking matter. The “No Ought From Is” idea should remind us to take time and slow down decision making so that the public develops trust and feels engaged in the process of fish conservation and management. Hatcheries have adapted over time because of public input, and today many hatcheries raise rare fish for introduction into their native habitats.

Conservationists are notorious for their dissensions. . . . In each field one group (A) regards the land as soil. And its function as commodity-production; another group (B) regards the land as a biota, and its function as something broader.

—Aldo Leopold (1947)

Questions to ponder:

In the 21st century, do you consider stocking nonnative trout as right or wrong? What values are harmed with stocking? When you think about fishing in cold-water streams, do you value wild more than native fish? Can you distinguish between native and naturalized fish?

9.6 Closing

The legacy of fly-fishing is important and has multiple dimensions. The popularity of fly-fishing for trout led to extensive planting of nonnative trout outside their range, including the continents of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and South America. Consequently, throughout the world managers deal with native trout restoration and nonnative trout suppression. The first code of fly-fishing ethics was traced to early writings of “Limits and Ethics” (The Western Angler), and fly-fishing organizations educate their members in the code of fly-fishing ethics (Ross 2008). Fly fishers were responsible for many of the first efforts at habitat restoration and protection, including the proposals of Native Fish Conservation Areas designed to protect entire watersheds and aquatic communities. Special fishing regulations, such as flies only and catch and release, were advocated by fly fishers, which led to declines in fishing by bait anglers who were displaced from local trout fisheries (Traver 2017). Importantly, fly fishers were some of the first anglers to support evidence-based fishery management programs. The fly-fishing literature is rich with stories as well as evidence to support the notion of sense of place influenced by trout and trout fishing. Robert Traver, in Trout Magic, wrote, “I fish because I love to. Because I love the environs in which trout are found, which are invariably beautiful, and hate the environs where crowds of people are found, which are invariably ugly” (Traver 1974). And David Quammen wrote, in Wild Thoughts from Wild Places, that “Trout were the indicator species for a place and a life I was seeking” (Quammen 1998). Strong conservation initiatives often start from grassroots action that taps into people’s sense of place (Brown et al. 2019).

Exceptional (perhaps oversold) trout fisheries of the Western United States are neither totally wild nor natural; instead, they exist because of drastic and complicated environmental and social changes. The history of fly-fishing reveals the change in anglers’ values from utilitarian self-interest toward biocentric, ecosystem-based conservation (Hoffman 2016). None of these changes were without conflict, and the political battles among anglers with differing values and different notions of how trout should be managed continue today. Having strong grassroots support from users, as well as a strong organizational structure, allows Trout Unlimited and the International Federation of Fly Fishers to lead conservation efforts. Climate change is the greatest threat to the viability of fisheries, and cold-water fish in streams are particularly at risk (Kunkel et al. 2013; Isaak et al. 2015). Restoration efforts can work toward mitigating expected effects of climate change (Williams et al. 2015).

Perhaps fishing is, for me, only an excuse to be near rivers. If so, I’m glad I thought of it.

—Roderick Haig-Brown (1974)

Profile in Fish Conservation: Daniel C. Dauwalter, PhD

Daniel Dauwalter holding a trout
Figure 9.10: Daniel C. Dauwalter, PhD.

Daniel C. Dauwalter is the Fisheries Research Director for Trout Unlimited in Boise, Idaho, and a Certified Fisheries Professional. He was born in Minnesota and earned a BA in biology and environmental studies from Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, Minnesota), an MS in fisheries and aquaculture from the University of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and a PhD in fisheries and wildlife ecology from Oklahoma State University.

After investigating aquatic monitoring protocols during his postdoctoral research at the University of Wyoming, he began his current position. His current work is focused mostly on aquatic conservation planning at the scale of large landscapes. In addition, he studies stream restoration science, effectiveness monitoring, habitat selection, and population viability of rare fish. His work directly benefits many species of trout and char, which are some of the more culturally, economically, and ecologically important taxa of freshwater fish worldwide. Nearly half of the world’s trout and char are imperiled or at risk of global extinction, and conservation of native trout depends on progressive solutions focused on the root causes of imperilment. For Trout Unlimited, he helps identify where conservation programs may have the greatest influence on persistence of at-risk species of trout and supports management of trout fisheries.

Dauwalter has researched fish conservation and management across the country, ranging from broad-scale, spatial conservation assessments for native aquatic species to inform conservation programs, understanding the impacts of land management on and habitat requirements of fish at multiple spatial scales, and implementation of angler-based water quality programs using mobile applications in the Midwest. His wide-ranging work on fish communities and habitat selection has demonstrated that many recognizable stream features have direct ties to active and passive instream habitat restoration techniques. Consequently, restoration efforts that enhance habitat complexity may benefit many more species beyond trout.

He provides leadership in advocating for improved long-term monitoring programs for trout. In addition, he supports the profession as President of the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society and as Associate Editor of the North American Journal of Fisheries Management.

Dauwalter believes that trout are sentinels that depend on healthy watersheds that support clean and cold-water lakes and streams. Consequently, they are useful indicators of effects of global climate change, and the long-term prognosis for cold-water specialists is not good. Further, trout attract a large number of vocal advocates for new regulations that may squeeze out non–fly fishers. These advocates may also support large-scale efforts to build climate resilience. Many people are familiar with trout in artificial hatchery environments where they become domesticated and associate people with food. However, in the wild, trout quickly adapt to changes and human conditions and learn to avoid what anglers repeatedly throw at them. Through long time periods, unique locally adapted trout develop, and new species evolved over many millennia. Many unique trout species teach us important lessons of persistence and local adaptation to harsh environments. These include the Redband Trout, Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, Apache Trout, Gila Trout, Mexican Golden Trout, and several undescribed species of trout in Mexico. These species will become even more valuable under changing climate conditions.

Key Takeaways

  • Fly-fishing is a highly specialized form of fishing.
  • Nonnative trout were transplanted throughout North America in the 19th century, often threatening viability of native trout.
  • Fly fishers played an important role in the 19th and 20th centuries in introducing trout on other continents, advocating for catch and release, and promoting a fly-fishing code of ethics.
  • The history of fly-fishing reveals the change in anglers’ values from utilitarian self-interest toward biocentric, ecosystem-based conservation.
  • Fly Fishers International and Trout Unlimited are two organizations committed to conserving favored species and habitats.
  • The folly of transplanting trout has shifted to “just protect the habitat, the rest will take care of itself.”
  • Furthermore, the legacy of exceptional (perhaps oversold) trout fisheries of the Western United States is neither wild nor natural, but rather they exist because of drastic and complicated environmental and social changes.

This chapter was reviewed by Daniel C. Dauwalter and Shannon L. White.


Trout Unlimited: https://www.tu.org/about/

Figure References

Figure 9.1: The American Angler’s Book: Embracing the Natural History of Sporting Fish, and the Art of Taking Them, by Thaddeus Norris. Valerie F. Orth. Unknown date. CC BY 4.0.

Figure 9.2: The father of fish culture, Seth Green, from Trout Culture (1870). Seth Green, 1870. Public domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Seth_Green_from_Trout_Culture_(1870).JPG.

Figure 9.3: Baird Hatchery Station on McCloud River, California, with Mount Persephone in background (1897). Livingston Stone, 1897. Public domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FMIB_39938_Baird_Station_The_McCloud_River_in_the_foreground;_in_the_background_the_limestone_rocks_of_Mount_Persephone_Engine_house_and.jpeg.

Figure 9.4: Mountain Whitefish (Prosopium williamsi) (16 inches) was caught and released in the McKenzie River near the town of Blue River, Oregon. Woostermike, 2007. Public domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Prosopium_williamsoni.jpg.

Figure 9.5: Westslope Cutthroat Trout (Onchorhynchus clarkii lewisi). USFWS Mountain-Prairie, 2011. CC BY 2.0. https://flic.kr/p/9Mfg9G.

Figure 9.6: Leopold’s trips to the Rio Gavilan region of the northern Sierra Madre in 1936 and 1937 helped to shape his thinking about land health. Pacific Southwest Forest Service, USDA, 2010. CC BY 2.0. https://flic.kr/p/9hS1XD.

Figure 9.7: Illustration of James A. Henshall, author of Book of the Black Bass (1881). J. A. Henshall, 1881. Public domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Book_of_the_black_bass_(Frontispiece-_J._A._Henshall)_BHL8568061.jpg.

Figure 9.8: Owens Pupfish (Cyprinodon radiosus), Fish Slough Ecological Reserve. California Department of Fish and Wildlife, 2011. CC BY 2.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Owens_pupfish_(Cyprinodon_radiosus).jpg.

Figure 9.9: California Golden Trout. Jordan, David Starr, 1907. Public domain. https://jenikirbyhistory.getarchive.net/amp/media/fmib-51959-golden-trout-of-soda-creek-f7d177.

Figure 9.10: Daniel C. Dauwalter, PhD. Used with permission from Daniel Dauwalter. CC BY 4.0.

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  1. Although Maclean and other writers use the term fishermen, women are active anglers and contribute significantly to the sport.


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