It's gotten to the point that even car dealers sell trout fishing. Their customers tool around the Rockies in four-wheel-drives named after a famous flyrod - the Jeep Cherokee special Orvis edition. Sticker price $33,000.
All the fishing shops, from Bozeman to Taos, offer the latest gear:
microporous miracle waders whose fibers somehow breathe underwater,
lines spun from bullet-proof Kevlar, graphite-fiber rods based on
aerospace technology, lures with hooks that are
The many ranches that put their
streams up for rent, the workforce that gets paid for everything
from guiding angler dudes to crafting magazine articles about the
nuances, are all busy cashing in on fish.
demand side, more than 2 million anglers chase fish around the
Lately the scene includes news crews
also wading around.
The cameras zoom in on trout
in torment: close-ups of a once-beautiful, streamlined creature
invaded by parasites, looking diseased and swimming in crazy
Tie a yellow ribbon around
your flyrod, it's the Whirling Disease Crisis of 1995. Just don't
be fooled into thinking it's a crisis of nature. The people most
alarmed and pointing fingers - they and their ancestors are really
to blame. The disease should be appreciated for the way it strips
It might seem that people fishing the
Rockies are like bears in waders. They seem to have little or no
impact. They seem at one with the ecosystem - especially those who
catch and release; if they don't model an outdoor ethic, who does?
Even the water itself, mostly flowing clear and cool and thrashing
with trout, seems to verify that recreational fishing is on the
soft path - a contrast to other uses of public land such as logging
The reality is, people fishing the
Rockies have had a heavy impact, which only lately includes
whirling disease. For a sense of it, or of any ecosystem, you have
to look behind today, at the continuum - the change over time. A
mere hundred years or so ago, hardly a tick-tock in evolution,
anglers began to pressure an ecosystem that had only two species of
trout: the cutthroat and the bull. And these native trout occupied
far less territory than trout do today.
evidence that the entire North Platte River drainage, where the
range slides into the plain in Colorado and Wyoming, had no trout.
Throughout the region, many high mountain lakes - isolated by steep
cascades and waterfalls - had no fish at all.
early as 1862, when the owner of a Denver fish pond imported a load
of sunfish all the way from Ohio by oxcart, the modern trend was
established. An alliance of anglers, fish breeders, tourism
businesses and state and federal agencies stocked the Rockies with
fish from all over the world. The timing was linked to the
transcontinental railroads, which opened the forests of the Rockies
to big-time industrial logging, the valleys to that scale of
agriculture, and the water to that scale of
Rumbling in from back East came
aquarium cars filled with baby brook trout, brown trout and lake
trout, or sometimes just the eggs packed on beds of cool moss. From
California, the trains brought rainbow trout. Pioneer hatcheries
processed the exotic trout and distributed them to streams, rivers
Or people just came to the train
stations with buckets in hand, gallon by gallon taking the trout
out to stock their favorite water. Cans of baby-trout slurry were
balanced on horses and mules, whole pack trains heading into the
mountains, bound for the highest
"It was a Johnny
Appleseed mentality," says Bob Behnke, a fisheries professor at
Colorado State University. "They scattered fish around, thinking
they'd end up with more (total) fish, but with no consideration (of
the ecosystem). They thought they could do better than nature. It
was a romantic thing, done without question for years and years."
William Abraham Bell, a physician and founder
of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, bought 10,000 acres
centering on a stream above Colorado Springs. He stocked the stream
with hundreds of thousands of brook trout, built a resort hotel,
and charged people for fishing vacations.
another typical scenario, Green Lake, high above Georgetown, Colo.,
was barren, with no inflow or outflow, before banker William H.
Cushman set his sights on it. Cushman had a stream diverted into
the lake, guaranteeing a constant water supply, and stocked the
lake with all sorts of exotic fish.
In 1879 he
was charging 25 cents per hour for boat rentals, and 50 cents for
each fish caught, running ads that exhorted, "Tourists should visit
Green Lake, the Gem of the Mountains! Highest Place in the World to
Get a Boat Ride, thousands of New Hampshire Trout! California
Salmon! Rocky Mountain Trout! (actually, they were California
rainbows) which will feed from your fingers."
As the hatcheries came to occupy many of the best natural springs,
the exotic trout flourished. Like most invader species, they proved
to be aggressive, taking over the habitat, displacing the
amphibians and invertebrates in the high lakes and outcompeting the
native cutthroats when given the chance (most of the natives were
cutthroats; the bull trout were and are found mainly in pockets in
the Northern Rockies).
Because they grew faster
and were more tolerant of the crowded, semi-sterile conditions in
the hatcheries, the exotics were judged a superior product. They
were also judged to be superior prey, presenting more challenge to
The stocking campaign was thorough and
as intense as a fever. In 1915, Colorado stocked 22 million trout,
almost all exotics - a typical annual total for the state since
Graylings, salmon, carp, sunfish, walleye
- the list of exotics put into the West's waters, year after year,
seems endless. Today Colorado has 79 species of exotic fish,
one-fourth of which came not merely from other regions in the
United States, but from overseas (the brown trout, for instance, is
native to Europe). Around the Rockies, the numbers are
Modern stocking is performed by
fleets of tanker trucks, airplanes and helicopters dumping out
designer trout slurry.
Most of the stocked
trout disappear quickly - either reeled in or gone belly-up in a
single season. They're a show passing through, attracting a crowd
Mere remnant populations of the
native cutthroats survive, typically isolated high in the
headwaters. A century of momentum continues to play out, as the
largest remnant population, in Yellowstone National Park, comes
under attack by lake trout, which are native to the Great Lakes in
the Midwest (HCN, 9/19/94).
Lake trout showed up
in Yellowstone Lake for the first time last summer - stocked
illegally by anglers. Already, in just a year, based on netting
surveys, the lake trout there have increased tenfold. The Rockies'
last big sanctuary for native trout, it's predicted, will soon be
dominated by the exotic trout.
The horror movie
whirling disease, the most telling fact is that, like almost all
the trout it preys upon, it is also thought to be an exotic,
stocked into the region.
The parasite that is
the disease, Myxobolus cerebralis, hails from Europe. It wasn't
found in the United States until 1957, when a shipment of dead,
frozen trout from Denmark was ground up and fed to a batch of
living trout in a Pennsylvania hatchery. The frozen trout had the
disease, and in short order so did the live trout. That was
The spread of the parasite has been
relentless, because its microscopic spores are virtually
indestructible. Cut off a piece of an infected trout, flush it down
the sink through the garbage disposal, through the sewer-plant
regime to an effluent pond where some of the spores float or blow
to a hostile shore and dry out - and if after 30 freezing winters
and blazing summers, a flood sweeps the old spores into a stream or
lake, they'll be viable and ready to infect more
The hatcheries and stocking campaigns
moving so many trout around the U.S. have also moved the disease,
but even without them, the spread would have occurred.
In the wild, the spores waft downstream. They
ride around inside birds and mammals that have eaten infected fish,
and re-emerge in droppings. They ride a trout from a stream into an
angler's creel, over to a campsite on another stream, where they
get distributed with the guts when the trout is cleaned; or it can
be as simple as some spore-rich mud stuck to a pair of waders or
clinging to a boat that's being towed at 60 miles an
The spores put young trout into a horror
movie. They burrow in and attack cartilage before it can harden
into bone, especially around the brain and nerve-carrying spine,
deforming the trout into little gargoyles that behave crazily: the
eat-your-tail swimming that gave the disease its name. Even though
older trout - say, four inches and longer - don't short-circuit or
mutate, they carry the spores.
most-telling fact about the disease is that its whirling,
tail-biting symptoms infect not merely trout but also the major
players in the industry.
The initial response,
as the disease spread westward, was draconian: In some places, all
the fish in infected streams were poisoned and tons of their
carcasses buried under six feet of dirt and lime; infected
hatcheries were razed and buried and limed. "They couldn't stop
it," says Behnke, the Colorado State University
All the while, the ongoing campaign
to stock every inch of available water with trout over and over
spread the spores with utmost efficiency.
took only a month from when the disease was first detected in the
Rockies - November 1987 in a Colorado hatchery - to produce a
grotesque above-water scene: A few days before Christmas, Colorado
Division of Wildlife agents raided the home of another prominent
Colorado State University fisheries professor.
Harold Hagen watched in shock as the agents with a warrant and
holstered guns searched his Fort Collins home.
A professor for more than 30 years, Hagen had trained many of the
division's biologists, including the chief of fisheries. But it was
Hagen's side business - he operated hatcheries in Colorado and
Montana - that the agents focused on. They confiscated Hagen's
hatchery records and ultimately he had to fight criminal charges in
both state and federal court. His fingerprints and mug shot were
taken. He faced a $400,000 fine and four years in prison. What was
he accused of? Spreading whirling
"It was part of the
hysteria," Hagen says now. "They wanted somebody to blame."
Wildlife detectives tried to track the Colorado
spores. Hagen was suspected of importing diseased trout from an
Idaho hatchery to his Montana and Colorado hatcheries. He and his
trout were also suspected of spreading the disease around Colorado,
as well as to some dude ranches and ponds in Wyoming, and to
private fishing clubs in northern New Mexico. It took four years
for Hagen to beat the rap: A judge dismissed the state case, saying
there wasn't enough evidence, and the federal case was
By then, more hatcheries in Colorado,
including at least eight operated by the state, were infected.
After the initial discovery and a brief quarantine on the infected
hatcheries, a century of momentum prevailed: The hatcheries needed
a place to send their annual production of trout (the alternative
was to kill and bury the hatchery trout, which might deposit spores
in the soil). Anglers and the dependent businesses needed the trout
in the field - over 80 percent of the fish caught in Colorado come
fairly immediately from a hatchery.
So the state
decided to stock the diseased trout into the wild, in drainages
that were already infected. Which had some anglers just about
burning their licenses, including Trout Unlimited's Colorado
chapter, formerly a reliable ally of the state's trout managers. In
effect, the state added to the number of whirling disease spores in
circulation. Leo Gomolchak, vice president of Trout Unlimited's
Southern Rockies region, says, "It's become a question of ethics."
But the stocking of diseased trout continued.
Last year, by official state action, some 7 million trout from
infected hatcheries were stocked into Colorado waters.
By mistake, since the spores can be missed when
hatcheries are tested, the state also stocked diseased trout into
hundreds of previously unexposed ponds and streams in the Flat Tops
Wilderness, Grand Mesa and elsewhere in Colorado. At the moment,
the state has declared another moratorium on stocking diseased
Big money calls the
Arguably, recreational fishing has become
more important in the Rockies than in any other region. About one
in seven adult Americans fish freshwater; in Utah, one in six; in
Colorado, one in five; in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, better than
one in four. Crowding the locals, add 1 million adults who come in
from other regions each year to fish the Rockies. Already leaders
in the local rate of fishing, Montana and Wyoming are also the only
states where, in terms of who's buying the licenses, the locals are
outnumbered by outsiders.
The industry watches
over its habitat, paying for projects that benefit fish. A lot of
jobs and businesses have also been created by all these people
having fun. Anglers in the Rockies spend $1 billion to $2 billion a
year on everything from airfare to ersatz caddis flies to Trout
The money flows beyond
the private sector, into some agencies that are as responsive as
their ancestors were - primarily the state fish and game
departments, whose budgets depend on license sales and the excise
tax (10 percent) on almost every piece of fishing gear
The industry image concentrates on one
product: trout. Easterners don't shell out $5,000 each for a week
of Montana fishing to drop worms in front of
So the high-intensity alarm is
understandable. When whirling disease showed up in the Fremont
River drainage in Utah, in 1991, the state poisoned the entire
population of trout there.
Utah poisoned the
cold-water portion of the drainage again in 1992, 1993 and 1994. A
hatchery owned by the brother of Gov. Mike Leavitt was quarantined.
Still, the disease has spread to other drainages in
It's expected that eventually the disease
will occupy every drainage in the West.
headlines spin out of Colorado: "Disaster," says The Denver Post.
On a prime stretch of the Upper Colorado River, the disease is
linked to the disappearance of the last four years of young
rainbows. The Upper Colorado is turning into an old-age home for
Whirling disease in Montana also made
the national news. On the prime stretch of Montana's Madison River
- crowned by the Washington Post as "an almost holy place, a shrine
to the delicate sport of fly-fishing' - the disease was detected
only last summer and is already killing nine out of 10
On the Madison and the Colorado, the
trout hit hardest are precisely the trout that the industry has put
the most energy into - rainbows.
the rainbows have been redesigned for the angler experience, their
genetic material harvested worldwide, their strains crossbred too
many times to count, so that the latest batch of brood stock might
be improved over the previous batch by, say, a pinch of Mount
Shasta rainbow plus a dash of Tasmanian rainbow.
Generation after generation of rainbows were "bred to come to the
feed in the hatchery," says Dick Vincent, a biologist for the
Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. "Fish that were
secretive," hiding, avoiding people - behavior suited for the wild
- -died off in the hatcheries."
No turning back
rainbows were stocked into the neighborhoods of the native
cutthroats, the species interbred on their own, producing offspring
that tend to be poor survivors. "Rainbow trout are amazingly
adaptable, and they amount to genetic pollution," says Colorado's
state fish pathologist, Pete Walker. "You end up with (offspring
that are) generic trout."
Sometimes the generic
trout are sterile, or they reproduce for a few years only to die
off suddenly when habitat conditions shift - a shift that pure
cutthroats could have survived. Long term, the interbreeding
"causes a lesser fish," says Vincent, "because the pure cutthroat
was very well adapted for here."
"People have manufactured
these fish Frankensteins that they have no control over," says
Barrett McInerney, a Trout Unlimited attorney in California. "They
still don't have any grasp of what the ultimate impact of all these
hatcheries and the fish they plant will be on the environment."
It seems clear now that the redesigning of
trout was aimed at maximizing hatchery output, or catchability,
rather than survival in the "wild." Even that word, you can't trust
anymore. The victims on the Madison are referred to as "wild"
rainbows, which turns out to mean they're descendants of trout
stocked into the river before the mid-1970s, when the state decided
to let its rivers go their own way for a while.
By any definition, it's thought that the rainbows on the Madison
got whirling disease the way many other trout have - by having it
stocked into their habitat.
On the Madison,
unidentified sneaky anglers get the blame, for stocking infected
trout that originated in some out-of-state hatchery. (You can spot
hatchery trout by their fins, worn down from rubbing on the
Despite the hard lessons
about stocking fish willy-nilly, "There is still a body of people
who think they know more about fish management than we do," says
Thurston Dotson, hatchery bureau chief for the state. "Bucket
biology is alive and well in Montana."
Montana alone in the past 20 years there have been 200 incidents of
illegal stocking, and the trend seems to be accelerating, says
"More people are
coming to Montana, packing the fish they like. The technology is
better - it's easier to transport live fish. So we have exotic fish
packed in on top of exotic fish," says Vincent. "Whirling disease
is not the last alien invader we're going to have. There are other
parasites and viruses and exotics just waiting to be packed here. I
see disasters (coming), one after the other, because man is capable
of packing stuff everywhere
"Truthfully, it would
have been better to leave the cutthroats here, and not bring in the
rainbows and browns, but that decision was made for us in the
1800s," says Vincent. "Once you bring in exotics, you're hung."
Yellowstone's native cutthroats, in the river
near the lake, show that it's too late to turn back. So many people
come to fish that stretch of river now, seeking the ambience of
clear water and native trout, that during the brief six-week
season, the average cutthroat gets caught and released 10
Brown trout, over the millennia, have
evolved into the wiliest trout through angler pressure. According
to fisheries professor Behnke, rainbow trout are three times easier
to catch than brown trout. Brook trout, easier still. The easiest
take is the native
dumb fish," continues Behnke. "You just about have to have
catch-and-release (fishing), or all the cutthroats would be wiped
out in a very short time."
If the waters of the
Rockies were suddenly stripped of all the exotic trout and if the
pure native cutthroats magically retook their traditional range,
the industrial recreation centered on fishing for trout would have
to convert entirely to catch-and-release. Or would the whole thing
pollution and goldfish
Prolonged Western drought
until this spring, dams and irrigation diversions and other
tinkering with watersheds, increased fishing pressure, and a
witches' brew of diseases all stress the modern trout. Whirling
disease lurked in the Rockies a decade or so before the trout
started to succumb - likely the trout have to be stressed from
other directions before they fall to the disease in sweeping
carrying cold germs in your system right now," says the targeted
hatchery owner and professor, Hagen. "But do you have a cold?
Probably not, unless you're under stress."
Hagen focuses on habitat. "It's easy to point the finger at the
hatcheries. But let's pay attention to how our (trout) habitats
have deteriorated," he says. "Aside from the Chamber of Commerce
attitude, there is hardly a stream in Colorado that is the same as
it was four decades ago.
situation in the wild is increasingly polluted and degraded. It's
caused by a thousand things - more people, more houses along
streams, more sewage, more organic matter, more chemicals and
agricultural pesticides going into the water. They're using a lot
more pesticides now in the attack on exotic weeds," Hagen says.
"But when things deteriorate slowly, it's just like aging - you get
used to looking at yourself in the mirror and you don't notice it."
Specifically, Hagen points to the tiny tubifex
worm - the other primary carrier of whirling disease spores.
Pollution favors the bottom-dwelling worms, and around the West,
the worms are booming. The worms are also raw material for a cousin
industry: Entire colonies are harvested, crumbled up and packaged
as tropical fish food, transported across state lines and sprinkled
studying (the aquarium industry), nobody cares," Hagen says. "Many
of the worms carry spores, and anybody who has an aquarium
eventually dumps them down the drain."
Rockies as the new "Hot
Karl Johnson is now the gray eminence of
the Whirling Disease Foundation Inc., a spinoff of the
75,000-member Trout Unlimited.
When he isn't
fly-fishing, Johnson has a day job, doing epidemiology and virology
on a world scale. He headed the team at the Centers for Disease
Control that first isolated and named the Ebola virus, chronicled
in Richard Preston's bestselling book, The Hot Zone. The
foundation, which hopes for $20 million in endowments, gathered
experts in a conference last May in Bozeman.
Johnson pronounced about the only certainty: "Here's a situation
where man is the culprit again."
tackles the paradox: While deteriorating habitat might be a factor
on other rivers, the Madison is about as pristine as a modern river
can be. No abnormally low flows. No change in fishing pressures. No
chemical problems. It should be a trout paradise, yet it has become
a trout hell. It could be, Johnson says, the good conditions are to
Before the disease hit, the Madison River
was so rich with trout - more than 3,000 per mile in the stretch in
question - that the trout themselves provided great habitat for the
Ten percent of the trout in the
Madison are surviving the disease so far. It could be that
something in their behavior or genes makes them resistant. The
evidence is somewhat contradictory, but brown trout, which evolved
and coexisted in Europe with the disease, show some
Maybe all that's going on is another
round of survival of the fittest. In the meantime, anglers have to
pass some years or decades chasing fewer trout.
Yet Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., wants to take a couple hundred
thousand dollars of federal funding away from the effort to
reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park, and apply it to
solving whirling disease.
senator, Democrat Max Baucus, introduced the "Whirling Disease
Response Act of 1995," declaring a national emergency. Baucus is
frank about motives: "Fishing is big business. It is the engine
that drives the economies of many communities throughout Montana."
There are places in the United States where
trout and diseases have stabilized and coexist - though the
cease-fire zones don't support the richness of trout that the
Madison River in 1993 did. Maybe the Madison and other celebrity
waters will never entirely recover to their heyday, even if there
is a surge of resistant trout.
As usual, the
reflex is toward management. The study of whirling disease has
become a new spinoff industry. Biologists test different strains of
trout, putting trout in little cages and exposing them in currents
that carry the disease.
It must tweak some
consciences that some studies show the most promising resistance is
among the remnants of native trout, the
Biologists and others in the
industry talk of a whole new stocking campaign, which would depend
on chasing down the last of the natives, stripping their eggs and
sperm, putting that raw material into the hatcheries to produce a
disease-resistant designer trout.
The goal would
be a trout that's about identical to what was here before we began
to improve things.
Ring, former senior editor of High Country News, recently moved to