Splake and Other Frankenstein Fish

My friend Bob Mallard -- the passionate and tireless wild-brook-trout advocate from Maine (see link below) -- has it exactly right about splake -- Frankenstein fish produced in hatcheries by crossing female lake trout with male brook trout. Maine, the keeper of the nation’s best and wildest brook-trout resource, should know better. I see splake as a symptom of something modern sportsmen lack -- what George Bird Grinnell, 19th-century sportsman and outdoor writer, and founder of the first Audubon Society, called “a refined taste in natural objects.” Herewith, some points I’ve recently made in Audubon and FR&R: Managers create demand for these and other hybrids just by supplying them. In Lake Superior, restoration of coasters—a race of giant brook trout—is finally getting under way. Ontario is doing great work. So are the Chippewa Indians. Minnesota is making a reasonable effort, but Michigan and Wisconsin are endangering the program by stocking Lake Superior with splake. Not only do splake compete with coasters, the average angler can't tell them from coasters and winds up killing the latter. Splake were supposed to have been sterile; but, like the monsters of Jurassic Park, they’ve found a way to reproduce. And in some parts of Lake Superior they’re apparently mixing their tangled genes with those of lake trout and brook trout. Not only do they compete with brook trout, they eat them -- so voraciously, in fact, that managers actually use splake to control stunting when brookies become superabundant in western lakes. Finally, the average angler can’t tell the difference between a splake and a coaster. A confirmed Minnesota state record brook trout turned out to be a splake after someone decided to thaw it out and perform an autopsy. And in a recent court case a Michigan angler contested a citation he’d received for illegal possession of a coaster, contending that any reasonable person would have thought it was a splake. The judge agreed. Wisconsin DNR’s Stephen Schram submits that because lake trout spawning reefs are far off shore and splake haven’t have yet to be seen on them and because brook trout don’t appear to be utilizing nearshore areas, splake stocking is “a nonissue.” Other biologists disagree. Dr. Casey Huckins, who teaches biological sciences at Michigan Technological University, told me this: “I don’t believe it’s a good idea to stock a hybrid of two species you’re trying to rehabilitate. There’s the potential for interbreeding, and I also question it on ecological grounds. Splake could potentially compete and predate; and there’s angler confusion as to what they have when they catch one.” Henry Quinlan, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist working on coaster rehabilitation at Whittlesey Creek, and Ed Baker, a research biologist with the Michigan DNR, heartily agree with Huckins. Schram vows that if coaster recovery starts to happen in Wisconsin, his agency will abandon its splake program. But this is easier said than done. When I asked Baker why Michigan, which has three self-sustaining coaster populations, hasn’t been able to do this he said: “Because anglers want splake.” To me (and doubtless to Baker who used the word “unfortunately” when he told me splake stocking was still underway) that’s not an answer. Leading the public toward an ecological conscience is, after all, why state resource agencies have information-and-education sections. But if you start giving anglers something, even something as offensive as splake, you have to be a lot tougher than your average DNR director to take it away from them. Michigan’s internal review of its splake program has already spawned splake-defense groups. One, in Copper Harbor, is passing out caps bearing the shibboleth “I’d rather be splake fishing.” And Doug Miron, president of the Alger County Fish and Game Alliance, is quoted by the Associated Press as intoning: “Do whatever you want with your coasters, just don't take away our splake.” There are all sorts of other, equally obscene Frankenstein fish patched together by managers; and because they're hybrids of species unlikely to meet in the wild and because they're frequently sterile, they help perpetuate the hatchery bureaucracy. These include “tiger muskie” (a cross between a muskellunge and a northern pike), “tiger trout” (brown trout X brook trout), “wiper” (white bass X striper), “saugeye” (sauger X walleye), and “cuttbow” (cutthroat X rainbow). The more Frankenstein fish that hatcheries pump out, the more demand they create. Conditioned by such values and policy, anglers rebel when enlightened managers attempt to restore imperiled native fish by poisoning out introduced aliens and mongrels. One bright June morning, amid a blizzard of mayflies called pale morning duns, I worked my way up Utah's Logan River, catching and releasing brown trout. I'd been hoping to add to my life list a Bonneville cutthroat—a descendant of the massive predators, bigger than most salmon, that prowled ancient Lake Bonneville and had been considered extinct until the late 1950s, when they were rediscovered by Colorado State University fisheries professor Robert Behnke. But no Bonneville showed, and I was happy enough exercising the browns—strong, stream-bred fish with perfect fins, ocher spots, and buttercup-yellow bellies. I was reaching down to shake another brown from my barbless fly when I saw what looked like a large goldfish, but which, on closer examination, turned out to be an albino rainbow trout. Despite their extreme vulnerability to predators, the state breeds them and tosses them in with normal, less visible rainbows so the public spots them easily and doesn't complain that the stocking truck hasn't been around. More recently I found myself in the mountains of West Virginia, inspecting acid-mine damage to brook trout habitat. I came away encouraged, not only by the remarkable progress being made in bringing dead water back to life with innovative lime treatments, but by the many pristine streams that still teem with these gaudy little natives. West Virginia's brook trout are a national treasure that should be promoted like California's redwoods or Minnesota's timber wolves. But the official patch of the state's Department of Natural Resources features a white-tailed deer, a cardinal, and a rainbow trout—native to the Pacific Northwest. This fish—called a West Virginia Centennial Golden Trout—is a pigment-impoverished mutant that turned up in a hatchery in 1954 and has been cultured ever since. It's so popular that Pennsylvania borrowed the warped genes to concoct what it calls its “palomino trout.” www.kennebecriveroutfitters.com/mesports_306.html