Catching a “native species” trout is a big deal these days because, frankly, it’s easier to find non-natives in most waters. Of course, most of that is our own, intentional, doing. Brown trout were planted in Michigan in the 1870s, and now most of us can’t imagine fly fishing in a context that doesn’t include browns. A wild brook trout is a precious thing in the Smoky Mountains, but in the Rockies, we can’t eat them fast enough. Same too for the historic lake trout in the Great Lakes. That’s a Pacific salmon and steelhead fishery now. But scientists are able to use lake trout from Lewis Lake in Yellowstone National Park (where there were no lake trout originally) to supplement stocks in the Great Lakes.
Keeping tabs on any of this is enough to make your head swim. Some wonder aloud if it’s worth fighting the upstream battle to keep native fish populations around at all, or if we should assume that genie is out of the bottle.
I think it is not only worth fighting to keep native species around, I think we are obligated to future generations to do so. Last week I was on Yellowstone Lake, where an infestation of lake trout has decimated the native Yellowstone cutthroat trout population. There’s a massive netting operation underway to eliminate as many of the estimated 400,000 or so lake trout from the lake (because they feed on small cutthroats). Fishermen use gill nets to catch the lakers in deep water, and trap nets to catch both lakers and cutthroats in shallower water (the cutthroats, like these, many of which are 24 inches or longer, are released back into the lake). It’s a massive challenge, but the frightening thought is that all of this likely started when someone decided to dump one or two fish in the lake.
We, as anglers, must be much more conscious of so-called “bucket biology.” Don’t ever move a fish you caught in one lake or river into another lake or river, period. Whether it happens as a result of ignorance or intentional disregard for the law, it can have a devastating effect. Just because that was the norm years ago, doesn’t make it okay now. We should be smarter than that.
In fact, I think that anyone who knowingly and willfully transplants a species around a fish barrier in a native species conservation area should go to prison. Probably for as long as it takes to bring the native fish back. It’s no different than poaching trophy animals, or intentionally setting a match to a national forest. It’s river arson. Intentional destruction of a public resource. And in many ways, it’s worse than poaching or arson, because in those cases, there’s a carcass or a column of smoke to highlight the threat. In the case of bucket biology, the threat is often invisible until its impact is felt.