Do the Right Thing

By ROB BREEDING for the Flathead Beacon

I was chatting with a young friend, an avid fly fisher, who asked me to explain my obsession with native fish. Obsession is a fair description. I don’t have anything against non-natives, but native fish tug on my soul.

The truth is that I stumbled through my reply to the kid and I never really answered him. I’m still searching for the right words. So for now, I’ll let a man better versed in appreciating the sacred provide some words of wisdom instead.

“Let us be protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.” – Pope Francis, 2013

For purposes of full disclosure I should point out that I started life as a Catholic, though I’m not sure my folks were fully vested in the family religion. I know Dad wasn’t, as it was just fine with him if I went late to Saturday Catechism School, smelling of sweat and with eye black still smeared on my cheekbones. Not playing in my Saturday morning football game, however, was never a consideration.

While I’m no longer a member of the flock, I have a growing respect for this Pope. My definition of God may be different from his, but the appreciation of what the creator, however defined, has bestowed on us is something anyone with a soul should share.

Cutthorat trout by Curtis Fry

Cutthorat trout by Curtis Fry

The kid isn’t oblivious to this. He’s just young. For him, job No. 1 is having a healthy toad tugging on the business end of his line. The purity of a fish’s genetic lineage isn’t as important as the fight it puts up. I remember feeling the same way when I first moved to Montana, and wasn’t too much older than the kid.

It’s worth noting that trout changed my life. Without them I’m not sure I ever would have come to Montana. I remember my epiphany. I was listening to a presentation at the Deep Creek Fly Casters monthly club meeting. The speaker was talking about restoration efforts on the San Gabriel River near Los Angeles. Fires had ravaged the watershed, but following habitat work, small trout captured in nearby streams had been reintroduced and the fishery would soon be back.

Then the dude started talking about Montana. He explained that they no longer stocked trout in the rivers of the state. All the trout were wild, he explained. Understand, for a Southern California boy such as me for whom interacting with nature meant a float on the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland, the idea that trout could just exist all on their own, without the aid of a stocking truck, was transformational. I became obsessed with this idea of wild trout and decided I had to go live among them.

It took a few years, but I finally made it. Along the way I learned that rainbows and browns, the wild trout of my dreams, were not native to Montana. I overlooked that minor detail, happily catching the non-natives. But my work as a journalist writing about native fish led to further evolution in my appreciation of trout. I began to think of cutthroat and bulls as something different and special, maybe even better, in much the same way I had once begun to appreciate wild fish as better than stockers.

I’ve no plans to stop chasing non-natives. Catching sea-run browns in Patagonia ranks near the top of my bucket list, and since brown trout are not native to either the western hemisphere or south of the Equator, that’s a nonnative twofer.

Still, the fish that were in Montana first are worthy of our best conservation efforts. Why? Words may still fail me, so I’ll end by quoting another smart guy, Chris Clancy, an FWP fisheries biologist in the Bitterroot Valley. Years ago, soon after I first came to Montana, Clancy took the time to walk me through the challenges of restoring native trout.

Then I asked him “Why bother, there are plenty of trout?” and Chris’ reply was as eloquent as any I’ve heard when it comes to the native fish restoration: “We know in our gut it’s the right thing to do.”