Having written for and about trout anglers for 33 years, I’ve repeatedly admonished them for their lack of what Aldo Leopold, sire of wildlife management, called an "ecological conscience." Too often a "trout is a trout," and where it came from and what it’s displacing doesn’t matter. So I am astonished and delighted to see so many people who fish backing a trout-reduction project on the Colorado River aimed at saving the humpback chub, an endangered fish.
compete with trout. They are what our elders taught us to toss in
the bushes. They were "trash fish." No longer. Could it be that
American anglers are showing early symptoms of an ecological
Forty years ago, in an effort to eliminate
humpbacks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dumped 20,000 gallons
of emulsified rotenone into 445 miles of the Green River system,
which feeds the Colorado.
"Everybody was tickled to
death," effused one local angler. "There was so much chub and trash
fish, (but) there was no trout." That’s because trout
can’t live in warm, silty, wildly fluctuating streams. Desert
fish, however, evolved adaptations. The humpback’s small eyes
protect against swirling sand. Huge fins enable it to negotiate
fierce currents. So sensitive is it to vibrations that it can feed
on floating insects when water visibility is under one inch. It has
silver flanks tinged with subtle shades of violet, a pencil-thin
"wrist" before the tail, and, as its name suggests, a
Giant dams on the Green and Colorado
created trout habitat by trapping silt and belching cold water, but
they were death on humpbacks. Now, when humpback fry sweep out of
the Little Colorado River into the main Colorado, they go into cold
shock and are picked off by alien trout. Only about 2,000 humpbacks
survive in the entire system below Glen Canyon Dam.
the 15 miles below the dam known as the Lees Ferry reach, the U.S.
Geological Survey's Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center and
the Bureau of Reclamation are curtailing rainbow trout reproduction
by fluctuating flows from the dam. In a 9.4-mile stretch above and
below the mouth of the Little Colorado, 76 miles downstream from
the dam, they’re electro-shocking browns and rainbows and
giving them to local Indians for fertilizer. At Bright Angel Creek,
103 miles below the dam, they’re using a weir to block
spawning brown trout.
University of British Columbia
fisheries professor Carl Walters, a consultant to the Grand Canyon
Monitoring and Research Center, expects the cessation of the
regular flows that have been in place since 1991, to improve the
"At Lees Ferry, we went from a trophy
fishery to your standard jillions of 12-inch rainbows," he
declares. "I've worked on rainbow trout for 50 years, and I've
never seen densities this high. For 12 miles they're lined up like
cordwood…. Even if there weren't a native-fish issue, I think
we'd recommend fluctuating flows to kill some of the eggs and try
to get better sizes on trout."
How are anglers reacting
to the idea of killing alien trout on the Colorado and elsewhere?
Since I’ve been advocating it in Fly Rod & Reel magazine,
we’ve been getting some predictable responses. The editor of
Outdoors Magazine, James Ehlers, is scandalized by the concept.
"It is notable that Mr. Williams has aligned himself with
individuals that believe frogs have the same intrinsic value as
African Americans and Holocaust victims," he writes on his internet
list-serve. "It is also interesting that Mr. Williams, while
claiming to be an environmentalist, advocates the poisoning of
streams to kill rainbow trout." But the vast majority of readers
we’re hearing from are supportive, some passionately so.
The nation’s pre-eminent trout defender, Trout
Unlimited president Charles Gauvin, scolds anglers who oppose the
project: "If we fight this, what will we say to Walleyes Unlimited
when they complain about some coho salmon recovery program in
Oregon? Let's grow up….If the science is good, what business
have we to be complaining about efforts to save a native species?"
The effort to save this native species will be a test for
anglers, and, while they’re doing well on this one, there
will be many more. "I have no illusions about the speed…with
which an ecological conscience can become functional," Aldo Leopold
said 56 years ago. "It has required 19 centuries to define decent
man-to-man conduct and the process is only half done; it may take
as long to evolve a code of decency for man-to-land conduct."