Native Trout Are Returning to America’s Rivers

Native trout are returning to America’s rivers and streams, thanks to new thinking by scientists and conservationists

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

The immigrants, crowded into the damp hold of the German steamship Werra, were not particularly welcome when they made landfall in the United States on February 24, 1883. Xenophobic feelings were running high, with many Americans worried that the Europeans would displace residents already struggling to stay afloat.

The critics were quite nasty about the newcomers, variously described as scaly, voracious, monstrous and homely. They stole food from natives. They had sharp teeth. They ate their young. They were greenish yellow with red spots. They were fish.

Specifically, the fish disembarking the Werra that February were trout-to-be in the form of 80,000 fertilized eggs from a hard-fighting strain of Salmo trutta, the European brown trout, which makes its first appearance in Roman literature about a.d. 200, swims through Izaak Walton's Compleat Angler and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, inspires Franz Schubert's "Trout" quintet of 1819 and establishes a beachhead in North America with this 1883 shipment.

The consequences of its arrival are felt—on the riverbank, in public hearing rooms and in courthouses—to this day. Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that the continuing story of trout in America—native and introduced, threatened and thriving—is a fair reflection of our own restless history, with its marathon migrations, its paroxysms of prejudice, its well-intentioned blunders and its reassuring urge to set those blunders right again. Before we get into that, let us return to the invasive species that launched this fish story.

It began, suitably, with a fishing trip. Fred Mather, a United States delegate to the Berlin Fish Cultural Exposition of 1880, visited the Black Forest, where he was delighted to catch a few brown trout with his host, the Baron Friedrich Felix von Behr, president of the German Fish Culturists Association. Mather, a founding father of fish propagation in the New World, was determined to import brown trout to America.

The baron obliged him a few years later, providing the first eggs for shipment, which were stowed in the Werra's icehouse. When the fish arrived, Mather took them to a fish nursery at Long Island's Cold Spring Harbor. Some were allowed to develop into fry, others were dispatched to hatcheries in Caledonia, New York, and still others to the U.S. Fish Commission station in Northville, Michigan. They and their progeny, reinforced with shipments from Germany, England and Scotland, would be released into the rivers of their adoptive homeland and soon were thriving in streams from New England to the Rockies. They spawned; they grew fat; they ate their young; and, yes, they did exactly as the xenophobes predicted—they muscled aside the native brook trout of the East, beloved of Winslow Homer and Daniel Webster. Brown trout grew bigger than brookies, could withstand warmer water and were fiercely territorial, sending their homegrown cousins scooting upstream in search of new quarters.

Not that there were many brook trout left to harass by the 1880s. This was thanks not to Salmo trutta but to Homo sapiens. As cities and towns spread in the years following the Civil War, forests were felled for timber, rivers made into logging runs, towering hemlocks axed for tanneries and hardwoods ground up for distilling in acid factories. Brook trout, scientifically known as Salvelinus fontinalis—the "little salmon of the fountain"—had lost their fountains, the clear, cool, richly oxygenated waters they need to survive. By 1879, Forest and Stream magazine reported little hope: "This is probably the last generation of trout fishers."

The requiem proved premature. Before the 20th century ran its course, brown trout had taken control of the Beaverkill River of New York, the Letort of Pennsylvania, the Pere Marquette of Michigan, the Madison of Montana and other waters soon to become legendary in the chronicles of American angling. "Many of us can remember how poor our sport was before the first of the brown trout came in," wrote Theodore Gordon, a pioneer of American fly-fishing, in 1913. In the years since, fishermen and fisherwomen have flourished with the brown trout. At last count, there were 34 million anglers flailing away with fly rods and spinning gear in the United States, where they spend $36 billion on their sport each year.

Today, although marginalized and reduced in number, the beleaguered brook trout hangs on in the East. The fish find refuge in the high, thin tributaries of the Catskills; in the secluded ponds of Maine and Michigan; and in the little rivers of the Blue Ridge and the Alleghenies. Thousands were scooped up and saved for hatcheries in the 19th century; these helped replenish Eastern streams and provided stock in places where brook trout had never lived before—where today they are cast, ironically, in the role of invaders, driving the natives before them.

Whether a trout is a nuisance or a valued member of the community depends upon where you stand on the map. Of the four major trout species in the United States—rainbow, brook, cutthroat and brown—only the brown trout was introduced from abroad, but any of the four might be considered invasive when introduced into a new watershed. Thus, a rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) transplanted from its native California to Virginia is regarded as a nonnative in its new home; by the same reasoning, an Eastern brook trout becomes a pest in Western streams. It has displaced resident trout from the small rivers and lakes of Montana, Colorado, New Mexico and other mountain states. The brook trout's main victim is the cutthroat, so called for the bright slash of crimson under its jaw. Squeezed on one side by invasive brook trout, native cutthroats are also under challenge from rainbow trout, a cousin introduced from the Pacific Coast. Cutthroats comprise at least 13 separate subspecies, each one fine-tuned by centuries of evolution for a particular nook or cranny of rugged mountain and desert living. Of these subspecies, two are extinct, two endangered and many others in trouble.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus