As a boy fishing Big Tesuque Creek, I dapped Reverend Lang dry flies over many a sighted brown trout. I hooked and landed them with one stroke, and dispatched my fish quickly before threading them onto sticks. I felt like a hero bringing my prey home to Mom, until I realized that she – having practically subsisted on bass, perch, and bream during the bare cupboard years of World War II – was less than enthusiastic about reintroducing fish into the family diet. I also came to realize that I enjoyed eating trout less than she liked cooking them.
Another thing I discovered was that I simply loved to look at trout. When lying on a sunny patch of grass, a fresh-caught trout took me places I didn’t yet know existed. Every scale consisted of an infinite array of colors. Upon close scrutiny, I could see green or even purple on a rainbow trout’s belly, which at arm’s length might appear merely white. I stared at trout alive, on my stringer, even gutted in the kitchen sink. I remeasured them as though they might possibly have grown since I’d killed them. At night, I pulled them from the freezer as though to discuss my day at school.
Eventually I noticed the stark difference between a living trout and a dead one. I came to feel life’s instant departure after I broke a trout’s neck. I didn’t like how the colors drained away, how it happened in blotches like a disease. The stiffening body made me sad, as did the centered pupil staring out at nothing. There was something buoyant about a living trout. Much like one feels about a beloved dog, a living trout’s eyes seemed to tell me things. “Maybe you should let me go,” they seemed to say.
Over a lifetime devoted to trout, I developed many preferences. Decades ago, I decided that I hated stockers, probably when I realized that they didn’t seem to care what kind of toilet they lived in, that they’d as soon eat old underwear as a bare hook, or that, speaking of old underwear, they were saggy and gray, abraded and torn at their functional parts. They had a strange, almost industrial odor to them. Hatchery trout were gross.
Streamborn trout, in contrast, were perfect in every way. Over time, this sentiment of mine evolved to the point where certain wild trout – native trout to be exact – were more perfect to me than others. In New Mexico, we are blessed with two native trouts, the Gila from the rugged mountain mass of the same name, and the Rio Grande subspecies of the cutthroat, prehistorically present from Colorado to southwest Texas. Now that each occupies such a small fraction of its former range, seeing one in habitat it has occupied for tens of millions of years is nothing short of a transcendent experience.
Like pretty much all of North America, New Mexico still bears scars from over a century ago, when resource extraction and its associated infrastructures crippled ecosystems that had spent eons evolving. By the turn of the 20th century, decades of heavy mining, logging, grazing, as well as consumptive and commercial wildlife harvesting had left many native species hanging by a thread.
Registering the expanding absence of trout, we filled the void with brown trout from Europe and rainbows from the west coast. The browns and rainbows ate and otherwise dominated the natives. In an almost diabolic twist, rainbows were genetically close enough to cutthroats and Gilas to be able to breed with them and create viable, if taxonomically diluted, offspring.
Even in these more progressive times when people of conflicting ideologies can and often do agree on the value of unpolluted water and healthy habitat, New Mexico’s native trout continue to slide. The greatest threat to the continued existence of Gilas and cutthroats – equalizing for climate change – is competition from non-natives. Browns, rainbows, and often brook trout colonize more native habitat each year; every day, it seems, natives are harder to come by.
But is that really so bad? So what if catching a Gila or cutthroat depends on going deeper into the backcountry? Shouldn’t we just load up our backpacks or horses and hit the trail? More exact, shouldn’t we accept that native trout simply can’t cut it in our modern world? It’s a hard pill to swallow, but we might do well to admit what’s been obvious for years. Many fishers I know have made peace with this. I, for better or worse, have not.
But at least I’m right.