Guest Blogger: Mike Vorhis, Fly Fisher & Author, FreeFlight Publishing

We motor great distances in search of wild trout, and we boast when we fool one as big around as our thumb. Yet like with so many other ballyhooed truths, at some point I began to wonder whether the preference for “wild” was all it was cracked up to be.

What’s the draw of wild trout? Well, certainly their environs…and maybe it’s that aspect we’re really burning all the gasoline for. And of course we call them cagier, if only because they got to their current size by applying some natural savvy. In that regard we don’t tend to distinguish as much between wilds and holdovers, since the latter too managed to beat enough odds to get some stream cred.

Wild trout taste better, which I’m going to disqualify as irrelevant in a catch-and-release world (I know now and then we’ll release one into the frying pan, especially if we’d walked in at 12,000 feet and night is falling, but I think we’d fry up a large slug at that point, so taste probably isn’t our driving force).

What else? Wild trout can be far prettier. Blood-and-guts fishermen are all about prettiness.

A big one is that wilds are harder to fool, so it’s a heftier brag to win that particular predation game. I think we’re basically challenge-driven (or else we’d be tossing department store power doughballs on treble hooks while calling ourselves fishermen), so the knowledge and precision required to fool a wild trout has to be the main reason we’re all so entranced.

Figure-1__Wild_TroutNow, what’s the downside of wild trout? Let’s see…harder to fool? Yep. Even as one’s greatest strength is always one’s greatest weakness, a wild trout’s key sparkle is at the same time its lumpiest wart.

So many of us have to drive hours–maybe days–to get beyond the reach of other anglers. Otherwise we’ve got nothing but well-fished water to flog. Fishing pressure makes wild fish and holdovers cagey…and they can get so good at being that way that they virtually shut us down. They lurk below undercuts where no fly could get in or out again; they feed only at night. They listen for boot-fall tremors. They glue themselves to logs and wrap themselves in dense branch tangles. Like fabled golf balls designed to seek out sand or to veer sharply when they roll, wilds just won’t cooperate at all.

Out in the great open yonder, wild trout aren’t always so clever. They haven’t seen more than a fly line or three their whole lives. They focus on feeding, or at most on avoiding the odd bear, rather than on consternating humans. A decent angler may have a snowball’s chance. In short, the guy I’m about to mention is still far more experienced than I am, but even so I wish I lived where Mike Cline lives.

Enter the Great Equalizer: Stupidity. Yes, I’m talking stockers. They grow fat in the hatchery not by hiding from humans but by racing to get to them first. They love dogfood-like pellets and slurp down whatever hits the surface. Their pampered selves are even protected from above by hawk-proof nets. Sure, they’ve got a million years of latent instinct somewhere in their frontal lobes, but in a tank even the idiots survive.

And then they get dumped into the stream. Halleluja, natural bugs for food, last one to get a bellyful is a carp! And they eat, and explore, and little by little get acclimated to their new world. Some end up on a plate by evening, others make it almost long enough to see the fish truck squirt out the next graduating class. A few wise up in time, and become inhabitants of the stream.

And while all that is happening, you and I are able to connect with some who exhibit their share of trout instinct without having quite become the uncooperative impossible dream. It’s almost like we’ve found a river as yet unfished by man. I wouldn’t scoff at finding that, would you?

Figure-2__Stocked_TroutStocked trout…I do not despise them. They return things to a reasonable shade of challenge we can address. They’re like the fans bussed into away games to boost cheering for the visiting team…or the carloads of girls that teenage boys always try to invite to parties. They leap and wiggle and liven up the place. (There’s that prettiness again….)

Far from squelching challenge, stocked trout can be seen as noble creatures who, in a world of unnatural fishing pressure and irrationally spooky fish, bring odds back a little closer to normal. They may be domestic morons, but they’re wild at heart. Let’s salute them; if not for their heroism, where would most of us be?



  1. What does “Wild” mean anyway and is “Wild” better than “Not Wild”. I think Mike’s poetic points about the lure of wild trout are indeed biased by his geography. Although not quite a wasteland, Central California is hardly a poster child for wild trout management. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “Wild” as: “living or growing in the natural environment; not domesticated or cultivated”. What that definition fails to capture is that it means the entire life cycle of the species is unencumbered by any intervention of man (cultivation) and will sustain a population of the species in the natural environment long term. The key component of any “Wild” population of species was rightly mentioned by Mike, “What’s the draw of wild trout? Well, certainly their environs…” “Wild” things need healthy ecosystems that provide “all” the right conditions for the “Wild” thing to reproduce, grow and survive whatever depredation and competition pressures are put on them. Comparisons between California and Montana trout are unfair to California which hasn’t done well with “Wild” things over the last century. Montana has had its moments and this story highlights what wild trout really mean.

    “Wild at Heart” however is a truism. Most of the world class wild trout fisheries in the lower 48 states and even around the world have their genesis in “cultivated” trout deliberately or inadvertently introduced at one time in the past into our lakes and rivers. Although many a native “wild” trout or other species was displaced or extirpated, introduced species have thrived in healthy ecosystems for over a century on their own, creating wild populations that eliminate the need for their hatchery bred kin.

  2. > Although not quite a wasteland, Central California is
    > hardly a poster child for wild trout management.

    Painfully true. As you know, Mike, I’ve spent ALL of this thoroughly dismal fishing year poring over maps and justifying 3am alarm clocks & five or six road hours just to try to get two hours on a stretch of ANYTHING that still has a trout in it. Guess what? No matter how far into the “wild” I go, it proves to be put-and-take, over-fished, depleted water, and there’s still a warm, spillway dam somewhere above it! Hard anymore to even find real headwaters, what with all the altered flow infrastructure that has accumulated over the decades.

    Yosemite is an exception, but a long way from me…and in “normal” years when snow pack feeds streams, there are a couple more options…but for now, it’s tough.

    Wish I lived in Montana. But I’ll continue to believe. I remain:

    Wild at heart,
    – Mike

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