I hear the following all the time: “Oh, that’s a great place to fish, but most of the fish are stocked.” Or, “I caught a 20-inch rainbow the other day, but I’m pretty sure it was a stocker.”
Of course it was a stocker! Most of the rivers and lakes in this country wouldn’t have rainbow trout at all if they weren’t stocked in the first place. There would be no brown trout anywhere in North America were it not for stocking (at least not stocking that happened years ago). Some anglers have landed on a kinder rationalization for certain trout, calling those that were presumably born in a river “wild,” just not “native.”
Since when did a “stocked” trout become a second-class river citizen?
I’ll admit to the snobbery of preferring wild fish over those with rubbed off fins and blunted noses (the results of having been raised in hatcheries). A native trout is best of all. There’s something to be said for catching a brook trout in an eastern pond, or a native cutthroat in the high country, though recent science has shown that the greenbacks we thought were native probably aren’t after all.
Let me be clear: When and where it’s feasible to protect and preserve native species in natural habitat, I think we should do that. I’m on board with that ideal 100 percent. And if that means nuking the brook trout out of a western stream where they were put years ago in order to reintroduce the species that was originally and rightfully there, so be it.
But let’s get real. Fly fishing–as we know it–wouldn’t exist without stocked trout. The genie is already out of the bottle. That’s why we have rainbow trout in places like New York (and Texas and Hawaii), and brown trout in Montana and Idaho. It’s why there are salmon and steelhead in the Great Lakes.
And perhaps most importantly, stocked trout is the reason many of us fly fish at all. I remember visiting the fish hatchery near my home in Pennsylvania when I was a boy, and staring for hours at the churning masses of trout, just admiring and hoping for a shot to catch them when they were put in the river. My young son helps me stock a river every summer, and he has as much fun putting them in the water as he does taking them out with rod and reel. The more people who catch fish, the more there are who ultimately care about wild rivers and native trout. In my mind, it’s not a stretch to assume that the stocked rainbows are ultimately as much allies of the native fish as they are foes.
Lake trout in Yellowstone Lake that have decimated the native cutthroats? Wrong fish in the wrong place. Kill ’em all. We apparently cannot have both species, so we have to choose. Tough deal.
But let’s keep everything in perspective. It’s not only okay to love stocked trout, the fishing world wouldn’t be the same without them.