As hatcheries became commonplace in America, trout fishermen came to depend on them for their sport. For starters, non-native trout were simply filling ecological vacuums created by progress. In the east, urbanization and pollution had pushed the eastern brook trout toward the abyss while overgrazing, logging, hard rock mining, and flood irrigation had done the same to western bull trout and cutthroats.
Proving to be adequate replacements for the natives, brown trout and rainbows also hurried their demise, which was of concern to no one. What mattered was that fishermen were happy. Furthermore, stocked fish generated license revenue for state fish and game agencies, which were loathe to terminate such an arrangement for existential reasons. Besides the State of Montana, which hasn’t stocked a stream since the 1970s and only has the earth’s lamest trout fishing to show for it, no lower 48 state has had the temerity to challenge this orthodoxy.
Most hatchery trout are ugly and compete fiercely with resident trout for food and space. They don’t survive well and have dubious value outside of a dinner plate, where their being little more than reconstituted fish feces can be a problem if neither salt nor ketchup is at hand. To intentionally fish for stockers is to act in a cartoon in which whiskey and weed aren’t adventure-enhancing luxuries, but rather prescriptions for keeping your lunch down. In many cases, stocker trout are like terminal meth addicts, deserving of sympathy yet utterly ill-equipped to redeem themselves.
Sure I’m piling on, because we know all this, and have for some time. I suppose a search for mitigating factors might be more constructive.
If planted at an early age, stockers mature according to the law of the jungle. Survivors of catchable size, therefore, are essentially wild in nature and often in appearance. Where executed judiciously, and in streams without wild or native populations, stocking fingerlings has created exciting fisheries – I’m thinking of certain tailwaters and Great Lakes tributaries – where none existed before. The Guadalupe Chapter of Trout Unlimited boasts the organization’s largest membership and is one of the its most effective and generous chapters. Thanks to strategic stocking on its namesake River, the chapter has created a catch and release fishery that promotes its exemplary conservation ethic. In Texas.
To the degree that it resembles a fish, a stocker is fun to catch for the novice angler. In urban centers where outdoor opportunities are limited, stockers provide underadvantaged people, children especially, with a way to interact with nature. A hatchery owner I know delivers to Kansas City and Kingman, Arizona. Imagine the positive difference trout fishing might make in such places.
Speaking of kids, let’s not underestimate the impact soccer parenting may someday have on the relationship – or lack thereof – between children and nature. Say at a birthday picnic, a couple kids sneak away during the 3:15 piñata slot, dig their own worms and bait their own hooks (without disinfecting their hands afterwards), and soon they’re feeling nibbles from some leadheads. In this fashion they discover the joy of spontaneity and begin to imagine other mysteries in other worlds. If humankind is going to make it, I firmly believe that kids will need to achieve such intimacy with nature, on their own terms instead of through their parents’ iSphincters.
Above all its other attributes, the stocker trout is a cipher of unqualifiable cautionary value, and we must view this animal with the utmost seriousness. At the same time, we must never accept it, for in doing so we allow the bar to be lowered from where it was lowered after it was lowered by the construction of hatcheries in the first place (Editor’s note: Truchacabra’s 20/20 hindsight meter is redlining).
There is always the risk that – while we might always recognize the hatchery trout’s nub of a dorsal fin – we might someday lose sight of its almost complete artificiality, at which point the unraveling of Mother Earth will accelerate – by unfallen inches of rain and snow, by acre feet, board feet, feet of barbed wire stretched across previously accessible streams, by miles of high fences, pipelines, and user-created ATV trails, by acres of grass becoming dirt with every animal unit month. Today’s chopped off mountaintop becomes tomorrow’s pit at the Bristol Bay headwaters. Billion becomes million in our groundwater, as in “parts per”.
The stocker trout, bless its heart, is but the messenger. May it never die in vain.