Guest Blogger: Phil Rispin, fly fisher, photographer & more, find Phil’s photography here

I was on Dutch Creek in southwest Alberta watching an Elk Hair Caddis float downstream hoping that a nice fat colorful Cutthroat Trout would be fooled and I wasn’t disappointed. From the depths of the hole came a flash and a splashy take on the surface and just like that I had one on the line. The trout gave me a good tug of war and after a minute or two allowed me to release it back into its watery world. This repeated itself over and over again during what was a very pleasant day’s fishing on the east slopes of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta.

Being on the stream and fishing Cutthroats made me wonder about the nature of these small jewels. Not so long ago we used to argue over the existence of Cutbows. Now, with the ability to map genetics in individual organisms, we know that a substantial percentage of the Cutthroat population in both the USA and Canada has MacLeod River Rainbow genes present in them. (Anders Halverson, “The Entirely Synthetic Fish”) Right into the 60’s and 70’s of the last century fish management involved stocking every body of water that was cold enough with Rainbow Trout, Brown Trout and Brook Trout. Fish were even dropped into high mountain lakes from the air establishing new populations of trout. In some cases, the indigenous populations of fish were killed off using Rotenone, a piscicide, and replaced by what was regarded at the time as more desirable sport fish.  I remember my Dad when unintentionally hooking a Bull trout, a native in the ranges we fished, throwing the hapless trout into the bush behind him claiming that they killed the Rainbows he preferred to catch which of course had been introduced.

In addition to the direct intervention of the fishy residents of many streams, rivers and lakes physical barriers have been erected to provide water and electricity to various communities. Happily, for fly fishermen who target trout this often had the effect of creating whole new cold water fisheries downstream of the dams. However, dams on some rivers made it impossible for the migration of some fish species making it difficult for them to procreate. Examples of new cold water fisheries are found all over the American south, the San Juan River, Lower Mountain Fork River and the White River just to name a few. The Bow River in Alberta Canada downstream of Calgary is considered a blue ribbon stream for the large strong Rainbows it produces. The Ghost dam upstream of Calgary provides the cold water and there is just enough pollution from the city of Calgary to make the stream rich in bug life providing abundant food for the hungry trout. What the average fisherman doesn’t know or perhaps he doesn’t care is that these trout too were planted there at some time in the past.

The arrival of man, particularly the white man has changed the ecology and environment for a wide variety of game species all over the North American continent. If one looks at the worldwide distribution of trout species we could say that there was a period beginning with the European colonization of the rest of the world when a variety of trout species were introduced to many different places and habitats successfully.

There is of course a modern day industry that depends upon these fisheries. Many fishermen find a great deal of pleasure in practicing their skills on the various streams and lakes that hold these fish. Who wouldn’t want to hunt large Browns or Rainbows in places like New Zealand or Chili? I wonder how many people who travel to these places worry about whether or not the 30” Brown on their line actually has its genetic roots in that stream? Richard Louv, the writer of “Fly Fishing for Sharks,” states that the recreational fishing industry produces more revenue than all other sports, recreational and professional, combined.

The fish management ethic has changed since the 1970’s. As an example there were apparently 14 separate subspecies of Cutthroat in the cold water streams and lakes of North America in 1800 but now two of those are considered extinct and a few of the other subspecies are heading in that direction. Part of the problem has been the introduction of non-indigenous species that out compete the Cutthroat for the available resources. In response to this, organizations like Trout Unlimited are trying to reverse the management practices of the last century with the goal of returning cold water fisheries to the condition the white man found them in when he arrived in the 1600’s and beyond. Some of the methods used include again poisoning the current resident fish species and replacing them with the species that were believed to be there in earlier centuries.

The arguments for this ideal are good ones. I believe that everyone who is concerned about this resource would like to see the genetic diversity maintained. It’s also a lot of fun for some of us to be able to say that we were catching native wild trout in their home range. However, we also need to ask some questions before we go very far into this kind of restoration, here are a few that I for one would like the answer to:

  1. Do we in fact know enough about the original condition of a stream to return it to its previous condition? This would include having a thorough knowledge of the plant life, invertebrates, bait fish and predators as well as the physical aspects of the stream itself.
  2. Do we know enough about how the indigenous peoples of North America interacted with the streams, rivers and lakes that often provided much of their food for a year? Is it possible that their management of the resource changed it significantly from the original?
  3. Should tail waters below dams be interfered with as they are entirely synthetic habitats anyway?
  4. Should a resource that is a strong economic engine for some communities be changed? I can just imagine the uproar if someone decided to remove all the Rainbows from the Bow River downstream of Calgary and replace them with species that would have been there before the city and the dams were established.
  5. In cases like the Cutthroat trout where there has already been some significant genetic mixing is it reasonable to expect that some past original condition is obtainable?

Part of me would like to see us take good care of what the resource has become, working hard to maintain the genetic diversity that is there and to maintain the ecology of the streams and lakes as we find them now or improving them as necessary. The other part of me would like to return to a time when you could catch a 39” Lahontan Cutthroat on Pyramid Lake or an Apache Trout in the White Mountains of Arizona.

Each of us as users of the resource need to think about these things and how we might become involved in the efforts to maintain the various trout populations and the habitat they come from not only for ourselves but for those who come after us.


  1. I also struggle with this issue. On my home river. I watched a once outstanding Brown Trout and Rainbow stream decline in quality and numbers of fish as biologist attempt to restore Cutthroat trout. And this is in a stream heavily impacted by other types of water recreation, increasing numbers of Small mouth bass and Walleye that spill over an upstream dam. Power generation also makes for irregular flows. True a few sterile Rainbows are still stocked, but no plans for a self sustaining fishery which includes Browns and Rainbows. Why?

    My ancestors came from England, Switzerland, Ireland, Scotland, Sweden and a host of other places. They came in the 1800’s to America. But I am a native American as most of us are nowadays. Even our original American natives came from other places or so we are told.

    Rainbow trout and Brown Trout came to this land with these early pioneers. In a sense these species were pioneers also. As mentioned, the Rainbows have mixed with some local Cutthroat populations, and their genes show up in some Cutthroat strains. And now doubt the aggressive feeding habits of Browns have influenced the make up of lakes, rivers, and streams. But the fact is they are here and today play a significant role in scheme of things. So why is it we feel they are not now native fish?

    What if some scientists decided it wise to restore the pure genetic make up of we the people. None of us would exist, and a dumb idea to boot. Restoring Cutthroat trout at the expensive of Rainbows and Browns, where they are already well established as native and an important part of local fisheries, might be worthy of scholarly debate – but is just dumb – it makes no sense.

    That said, I strongly support keeping our current Cutthroat fisheries strong and healthy where they exist, and restoring a few watersheds for just Cutthroat where success is a real possibility. We have no good reason to introduce other fish species into such waters and we certainly have good reason to restore habitat and maintain habitat where pure strains still exist.

    Dave B.

  2. The restoration of species to “native” habitats is just another human folly that flows out of a liberal “feel good about myself” ethic that has overtaken this generation. Fueled by science biased by targeted grants, advocacy groups and the ever present “Donate Here” button the restoration of native species will prove to be just another human error. The introduction of non-native species into suitable waters which started in the 1880s was praised as the right thing to do at the time. The fact that it had the adverse impacts derided today was beyond comprehension of sportsmen, government officials and scientists of the time. No matter what they thought would happen, they would have been wrong. Mother Nature has a strong and capricious will and never listens to man.

    Wolf reintroduction into Yellowstone is a good example. Compare what scientists predicted what would happen (used to justify government actions and placate advocates) and what has happened 20 years hence (reality) and there is great disparity (much of it negative). Of course scientists and advocates with agendas rarely accede to reality and continue to babble their view of the world to keep the grants and donations flowing. Restoration of “native” species and “native” habitats taken to it logic conclusion in North America would have devastating impacts on humans (another native species). Dam removal alone would reduce energy output by 10% and unleash devastating seasonal flooding that was routine throughout most of the U.S. prior to the building of dams for hydro power and flood control.

    Scientists estimate the 99% of all species that once roamed the earth are extinct. Going extinct is an inevitability with Mother Nature and generally when humans try to muck with Mother Nature, they usually come up short. For those who might like to see evidence of the inevitability of extinction, I would commend the following PBS NOVA Program:

  3. Great article Phil, and very thought-provoking. I think my initial reactions are similar to Dave’s. As I see it, maintaining a fishery in the state it’s in now is an inherently preservation-minded goal–existing balances are protected. Attempting to return a fishery to some earlier state is inherently destructive of a current ecosystem. Now that a current ecological state exists, why is a previous state better? How far back in time is considered “good”?

    Strains of a given genus of organism are always changing–there is never a steady state, never some locked-in ideal degree of “purity.” If it’s deemed desirable to re-establish a given strain, why is it desirable? And why is it worth destroying another strain there now which has proven itself equally adaptable to a given stream? And if those questions can be satisfactorily answered, then what is the point in time to which we need to return?

    Yes, Man played a part in relatively recent species migration. Habitat creation (such as tailwaters) aside, we accelerated a process that was occurring anyway. Mule trains of the U.S. Cavalry carried coffee cans of trout into waters of the Yosemite high country because Captain Benson and Sergeant Fernandez were avid fly fishermen. Eagles would have done it eventually, but it would have taken eons. Man too is a force of nature.

    My own first instinct is that we should focus on eliminating low head dams and other obstructions that prevent spawning runs and natural migration, but leave existing populations alone. If older strains are at risk, sure, re-introduce them in their birthright waters…while leaving the species there today in as well. Killing a stream in a zeal to purify it is still killing it.

    It somehow feels like arrogant meddling (and related to social engineering too) to presume we know all about the complex state of a stream before humanity found it, and that we’re going to “put it back.” We simply don’t know all about it…and there was never a steady state anyway.

    And if I catch a beautiful fish, being able to claim that it has some kind of “pure” DNA does me little good except for bragging contests–which is a poor reason to meddle with today’s life, as I see it.

    So if a habitat is currently occupied by an “original” strain, let’s leave it that way and not further accelerate change. If a habitat carries multiple species, leave it alone from now on. If a given species needs a boost to avoid extinction, re-introduce it and let it fend with other species in that water…and perhaps do our biological version of a “nation building” exercise by establishing it alone in the next tailwater we happen to build…or in some water that’s been recently cleaned up and is in need of a population of salmonids.

    Maybe I’m missing something, but those are my initial reactions. I don’t like the idea of destroying what exists today in some indefensible bid for an earlier “ideal” we cannot define, justify or even understand. What’s done is done, and would have been at some point anyway. Life is life, and destroying it is a travesty. We should get out of nature’s way, yes, but not by using heavy-handed methods. That’s just failing to learn our lesson yet again.

    I could be wrong. Every attitude has exceptions but that’s my general take on the topic so far. Again, thanks Phil for a terrific article.

    – Mike

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