Without fish there is no fly fishing. Without conservation there are no fish. The quiet sport is maintained through continued exertion of the angling public, state fish & game agencies, landowners (private and public), and the broad American public often sneered at as "environmentalists". We're all in this together--and our sport, the fish, the habitat, and all of us are better for it.
This month The Conservation Angler is returning to its roots to speak to the many aspects of conservation in the sport of fly fishing. This week's post will kick off our February conservation focus by looking at wild trout conservation. Next week we will explore native trout conservation.
Catch-and-release has become ingrained in the very fabric of fly fishing culture. Today it's hard to realize that this is actually a fairly recent advance in the fly fishing ethos. But, in fact, the harvest of trout for consumption rather than sport is what, in part, initially gave rise to the term "wild trout". Wild trout, often non-native, are the polar opposite of hatchery raised trout, and more specifically, hatchery raised catchable-sized trout. The latter are raised specifically to be dumped into waters with the expectation that they will be caught in the same season as their release rather than holding over and breeding to produce--wait for it-- wild trout.
The rise of aquaculture and hatchery raised fish has been both a blessing and a curse. On one hand hatcheries and other aquaculture facilities arose to meet the demand of a growing fishing public. On the other-hand hatcheries and stocked fish were a reflection of lax to non-existent catch regulations along with habitat destruction on a landscape level.
Hatcheries fed the demand of a growing fishing public in the 19th and 20th centuries. They also allowed for the stocking of species well beyond their native waters (for a full telling of this story I recommend An Entirely Synthetic Fish by Anders Halverson). But over time the reliance of agencies on catchable sized trout and calling it fisheries "management" led to the rise of Trout Unlimited along with its emphasis on wild trout and protection and restoration of the habitat necessary to sustain wild trout populations.
Along with the promotion of wild trout and habitat conservation was the promotion of fishing regulations like catch-and-release and artificial only waters. The intertwining of these quite disparate, but related issues has, in my opinion, been one of the drivers of the "elitist" tag applied to fly fishers. It's worth noting that today that tag is generally applied to anyone labelled as an environmentalist.
While early on science wasn't necessarily supportive of wild trout management at the behest of hatchery raised trout (see Dr. Robert Behke's We're Putting Them Back Alive (Fall 1989) and Limit Your Kill (Summer 1999), both written for Trout magazine and assembled together in the book About Trout, to get a sense of the debate), the work of both scientists and natural resource management agencies began to produce results that clearly demonstrated the benefits of managing for wild trout and their habitat.
While undeniably there have been growing pains in the relationship between environmental conservation and the sport of fly fishing (for instance see Dr. Behnke's From Hatcheries to Habitat? Think Again (Fall 1991) in About Trout), nevertheless the relationship has been a boon for all.
At the heart of the relationship between fly fishing and conservation is the understanding that the country was on a trajectory such that if trout and their habitat were not protected then all the hatchery-raised fish wouldn't matter for any angler as waters would be too decimated to support them or angling in any fashion that would make either recognizable in the modern era. Thus, in the 21st century fly fishing and environmental conservation are inseparable.
Interested in learning more about wild trout and the conservation of their habitat? Look no further than Wyoming Mountains & Home-waters: Family, Fly Fishing and Conservation!
Until next time,
Author- Wyoming Mountains & Home-waters: Family, Fly Fishing, and Conservation