The name Greg French resonates loudly among anglers Down Under for his guidebook, Trout Waters of Tasmania, and for lyrical non-fiction and many articles. North American anglers might be more likely to recognize him from a pair of video documentaries he co-wrote with Nick Reygaert: “Hatch” and “Predator,” which won best DVD at the 2013 IFTD Show, in Las Vegas.
Comes now a chance to meet French first person, in print, writing about waters familiar to North American anglers. Imperiled Cutthroat: Tracing the Fate of Yellowstone’s Native Trout is an examination of land, waters, fish and fishing in Yellowstone National Park—the observations of a worried outsider about a uniquely American place. As a former wilderness guide, ranger and hatchery officer, French has witnessed, up close and painfully, mistakes made in his homeland—ghosts of a future he dreads may happen in Yellowstone because of the broad influence of our fisheries management from Europe to Mongolia. This includes Tasmania, of course, where French grew up fascinated by the American West—Indians, buffalo, Montana—and fishing waters stocked, wisely or not, by imported species. He has participated in some of the best and worst, working both in hatcheries and for conservation organizations.
French offers sketches of these projects along with his history of Yellowstone, entertaining observations of culture and vignettes of people, inserted into a travelogue describing a whistle-stop tour of the park taken with his wife in 2012. It’s a long-anticipated visit to well-known fly-fishing destinations guided often by Yellowstone guides Craig Matthews and Clayton Molinero.
Whistle-stop it is. And until it’s clear French has spent time researching place—before he has established ethos and clarified motives—this approach lifted an eyebrow. Wild as Yellowstone remains in parts, the park is not exactly Papua, New Guinea. Hundreds of experts, scores of dedicated agencies and countless passionate devotees have studied its land, waters, animals and fish for more than a hundred years. So when French, 25 pages into Imperiled, begins to challenge theories and practices—questioning origins and management of Yellowstone Lake’s mackinaw population—readers may be inclined to google deep archives of white papers and studies or go directly to people like Bob Behnke, Paul Schullery and Ted Williams.
French eventually does cite the first two along with many other sources. He even arranges to interview Behnke, as he reports near the book’s end, but not until he has politely, courageously and vigorously wondered how (or if) mackinaws were illegally introduced to the system in 1989. If this did happen, he concludes “an amateur fisherman” cum bucket biologist would have had to catch—“hundreds or thousands of fish to create a viable population” and “keep them alive and transfer them nine miles by road from Lewis Lake to Yellowstone Lake . . . . How did he avoid suspicion . . . ? Why have none of the dozens of journalists who have reported on the problem for regional newspapers, fishing magazines, national broadsheets and scientific journals alluded to this riddle?”
French’s doubts rise from his experience in Tasmania researching “unsanctioned releases of trout” by various methods—investigations that “usually got to the roots of things within a few weeks or months.”
Relevant? Possibly, though he might not credit enough devious American ingenuity. But what is obvious, as French considers this and other Yellowstone dilemmas, is how sincerely the author hopes his outlier perspective might save Yellowstone fisheries from sins he has seen or at least prompt us to test assumptions.
However well intentioned, Imperiled will raise hackles in some quarters. But the author’s arguments are informed (how well informed I can’t judge), and he is certainly an admirer of many American efforts. Beyond that, his wife is a saintly fishing traveling companion—their interactions with fish and people often insightful and humorous and their whistling at stops tuneful. Even better, French begins Imperiled “With gratitude to Joe Brooks and Bob Behnke,” a great way to start his and any reader’s journey.