- By: Ted Williams
- Photography by: Louis Cahill
No doubt you’ve heard of the “Beamoc,” a giant trout that hangs around in the Junction Pool, unable to decide which branch to swim up. As an adaptation to its perpetual irresolution it has evolved two heads, one pointing up the Beaverkill, the other up the Willowemoc.
Now Beamocs are being widely cultured in state hatcheries. They’re a big hit because they have two mouths and are therefore twice as easy to catch.
Well, not really. But Beamoc production doesn’t seem that farfetched when you consider some of the other concoctions fish managers have whipped up, such as “brownbow” (rainbow/brown trout hybrid), “splake” (brook trout/lake trout), “tiger trout” (brook trout/brown trout), sambro (Atlantic salmon/brown trout), “bar” (brook trout/Arctic char), “rainchen” (rainbow trout/huchen), “meanmouth bass” (largemouth/smallmouth), “wiper” (white bass/striper), “saugeye (sauger/walleye), “tiger musky” (pike/muskellunge), albino rainbow trout, “palomino” and “golden” rainbows (not albinos, but pigment-impoverished mutants), and, of course, triploids (see “Freak Trout,” FR&R, Summer 2010).
I find these man-made designer fish fascinating more because of what their popularity says about American values and priorities and less because of their alleged attributes or even their proven physical and behavioral deficiencies and ecological dangers.
Designer fish can’t efficiently sustain themselves in the wild, a feature that is useful for limiting numbers and distribution, protecting related native fish from introgression, and, of course, keeping hatchery workers employed. Splake have been used successfully to control and prevent stunting of alien brook trout in the West. Tiger muskies have been used to consume unwanted aliens.
In several Western states rife with ecological illiteracy and loathing of federal intervention, tiger trout have been stocked after alien or mongrel trout have been removed to make way for imperiled natives.
The sterile tiger trout die out after a few years; but meanwhile they give anglers something to catch while the natives are reproducing. This strategy has reduced, but not eliminated, sabotage via bucket biology (as in, when the ill-informed stock non-native fish).
To protect pure strains of downstream salmonids, California stocks triploid trout (mostly sterile) in waters it used to stock with (normal) diploids. When the Idaho Department of Fish and Game decided to stop stocking sexually viable “cuttbows” (cutthroat/rainbow hybrids) in Henry’s Lake because it’s an important Yellowstone cutthroat sanctuary, anglers threw a hissy fit and prevailed on the legislature to hold hostage the department’s budget. “Yellowstone cutthroats are stupid and fight like slugs,” announced one prominent guide. So the department switched to triploid cuttbows.
My favorite hybrid, and the one most popular with my fellow anglers—stocked in 28 states—is the wiper. I am partial to it not because it can provide increased angling opportunity in artificial impoundments (although it can) and not because I want to catch it (believe me, I do not), but because it takes some of the heat off wild striped bass. It grows faster than either parent and, judging from the comparable prices, tastes as good as wild striper. Mass-produced by aquaculturists, it is marketed as “farm-raised striped bass.”
The unappetizing name “wiper” has been largely replaced with “sunshine bass” (male striper/female white bass) and “palmetto bass” (female striper/male white bass). But wipers, as I prefer to call them, are not without their ecological dangers. They have viable gonads, will migrate upstream with spawning white bass and striped bass and—on occasion—apparently backcross with both, polluting habitat with nasty intergrades.
Legitimate uses notwithsta-nding, what are we to make of the insatiable demand for designer fish? Google any one of them and about all you find are rave reviews in hook-and-bullet media about their alleged beauty and game qualities.
“Tiger trout,” reports UtahFishingInfo.com, “are rapidly becoming one of the most popular trout species in Utah. This is most likely in part due to their brilliant, beautifully colored skin and hard fighting abilities.” And the online store of the “Lip ’Em & Rip ’Em” television show keeps the public in tiger trout hoodies, T-shirts, coffee mugs and beer steins.
Because tiger trout are the product of different genera, only about five percent survive unless eggs are shocked by chemicals or heat and thereby converted to triploids, in which case the figure is more like 85 percent. Fortunately, these triploid half-breeds are sterile. But they are extremely aggressive, running up tributaries and raising hell with wild brook trout. For this reason West Virginia has wisely discontinued production.
On the other hand, it was West Virginia that concocted the “golden rainbow” or “West Virginia centennial golden trout,” now de rigueur in states and provinces from North Carolina to Quebec to California. In 1955 a mutant female rainbow deficient in pigmentation turned up in one of the wildlife division’s hatcheries—to the delight of West Virginia fish managers who, one can easily imagine, rubbed their hands together and cackled, “It’s aliiiiive! It’s aliiiiive!”
They carefully reared her in a separate raceway, then fertilized her eggs with milt from normal hatchery stock. About 300 of her offspring turned as yellow as ripe bananas. The first of these freaks were stocked in 1963, in celebration of West Virginia’s centennial. The state has 500 miles of brook-trout streams. But it’s the mutant alien, not the native brookie, that appears on the wildlife division’s logo.
“Goldens account for about 10 percent of our total rainbow production,” West Virginia’s assistant chief of coldwater fisheries, Mike Shingleton, told me. “They’re more difficult to catch. I think a lot of that is because you can see them better, and everyone casts to them.”
“Everybody likes them because they’re such an unusual fish,” declared Brian Wisner, hatchery director for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, which fashioned what it called “palomino trout” out of golden stock acquired from West Virginia. “Our goal is to provide them for variety and so that people can experience the golden rainbows [as palominos are now called.]” “Everybody” includes herons, otters, ospreys, pike and bass. “They’re very visible to predators,” Wisner continued. “If you were trying to maintain a population in a stream, it wouldn’t be very successful because every predator out there sees them.”
Wisner has it right about the popularity of pigment-impoverished rainbows. As the Daily Progress (Charlottesville, VA) newspaper accurately reports: “Golden [rainbow] trout are among the most sought-after species of trout that are stocked today. An angler will spot a clearly visible ‘golden’ finning in the current and spend the rest of the day trying to catch the finicky fish.” According to Northamericatrout.com, “The golden rainbow may be the most beautiful of all trout.” The Web site of California’s Santa Ana River Lakes trout park explains that the reason for their “desirability” is that they “look like neon lights shooting through the water.” And this effusion from the “Outdoor Passion” (TV show) team, which devoted a program to the pursuit of these mutants in Quebec’s Lanaudière region: “This glowing fish with its bright colors is so beautiful that you have to tangle with a golden [rainbow] at least once in your lifetime. They look like a cross between rainbow trout and gold, making it a super fish. They are so visible near the surface it’s almost sight fishing.”
Despite frequent reports to the contrary, golden rainbows are not albinos. But albino rainbows are being produced and stocked, too. One June morning, amid a blizzard of Pale Morning Duns, I worked my way up Utah’s Logan River, hoping to encounter a Bonneville cutthroat—a descendant of the salmon-size predators that patrolled ancient Lake Bonneville and were presumed extinct until the late 1950s, when they were rediscovered by Colorado State University fisheries professor Dr. Robert Behnke.
I was reaching down to shake another wild brown off my hook when I spied a bright orange fish hanging around my feet. “Hey, a goldfish,” I yelled to my fishing partner, Tom Wharton. “No,” he corrected, “it’s an albino rainbow.” The Division of Wildlife Resources sprinkles them among its pigmented rainbows to convince anglers who have trouble catching trout that the hatchery truck hasn’t passed the stream by. And the division cites an added benefit: “Kids love to see the yellow fish flash through the water.”
Widespread stocking of black bass species outside their historic range has rendered hybrid bass common in the wild. But for a while they were being manufactured in the lab. In the 1960s and ’70s the bass-angling fraternity got excited about “meanmouths,” concocted with largemouth eggs and smallmouth milt by Dr. William Childers and colleagues of the Illinois Natural History Survey. So aggressive were the hybrids they attacked swimming dogs and humans, in some cases drawing blood.
Later Childers would caution against hybrid creation, warning of the dangers of backcrossing with wild parent stock and resultant spread of maladaptive genes. But the lure of freak bass persevered. Crosses between northern and Florida largemouth species (some taxonomists say subspecies) are much in demand. American Sport Fish of Alabama, one of the largest private hatcheries in the Southeast, pumps out hybrids it calls “gorilla bass,” which it truthfully claims are “easier to catch than the Florida bass.”
Making fish “easier to catch” is one of the main motivations for creating designer fish. “Splake are very catchable, especially in the winter,” notes Tim Obrey, fisheries biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (DIF&W). “This means faster fishing for the angler and overall a better return on the sportsman’s dollar.”
True enough, if you measure “return” by weight. But there’s no evidence that Maine anglers use such a measuring system, and good evidence that they don’t. For example, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine has a long history of deploring splake. As George Smith put it shortly before he retired as executive director in December 2010: “SAM opposes the use of splake in Maine waters and has tried every way possible to eliminate them, including advocating for their elimination in the deliberations of the Hatchery Commission. Our motion to eliminate splake failed, but the Commission did vote to reduce splake stocking by 50 percent. Unfortunately DIF&W has ignored the Commission’s recommendation.” In 1999, after the DIF&W had been stocking splake for almost 14 years, its angler-preference survey ranked them behind all other salmonids, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, and even white perch.
Maine is the trustee for almost all of America’s large native brook trout. But the state has not taken this responsibility as seriously as it should. Dr. Jack Williams, Trout Unlimited’s senior scientist, offers this: “You look at the diversity of brook trout in Maine—all these pond forms, lake forms, stream forms. Do we really even know what we have? I don’t think we do. It’s easy to develop these hybrids and stock them without understanding what the impacts are. As we do this we tend to homogenize the fish fauna.”
“Splake reproduction has never been documented outside of the hatchery environment,” asserts DIF&W. This is untrue. There is abundant, irrefutable evidence of splake reproduction in the wild, and splake hybridization with wild brook trout and other chars. In a study funded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Dr. Wendy Stott, a geneticist at the Ann Arbor office of the University of Michigan, sampled 15 splake from Lake Superior. The purpose of the study was to demonstrate to the Lake Superior Technical Committee that stocking of splake in Lake Superior (ongoing by both Michigan and Wisconsin as I write) is foolhardy, especially when Canada and the US are working to restore lake trout and coaster brook trout. Two of the 15 splake sampled turned out to be splake/lake trout hybrids; two were splake/brook trout hybrids; and one was the result of a splake reproducing with a splake.
Splake are regularly seen with spawning lake trout, apparently infecting them with their twisted genes. In Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, in Michigan, biologists have long been observing splake hybridization with brook and lake trout. And splake have been reproducing for years in the Province of Ontario.
In Maine, splake are moving down from stillwater stocking sites into some of the state’s top brookie and landlocked salmon rivers, including the Magalloway, Rapid, Kennebec, Seboeis, Dead and West Branch of the Penobscot. A splake even showed up in the state’s premier trophy brook trout lake, Pierce Pond.
When I talked to Michigan DNR research biologist Ed Baker in 2006 he allowed that his state was “unfortunately” stocking splake in Lake Michigan. “We have evidence that splake are spawning with lake trout,” he said. “We’ve caught ripe and spent splake when we’ve surveyed for lake trout just outside Marquette Harbor. We know they have run up tribs on the north shore of Lake Michigan; and there’s no reason to expect they wouldn’t do the same thing in Lake Superior. My concern is genetic, competition and predation.” When I asked him why the state continued to stock splake he said: “Because anglers want them. My sense is that they don’t want to restore coaster brook trout if it means they might lose their splake fishery.”
But what came first—the “want” or the splake? One lesson I learned while at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife 38 years ago is that you can create a demand for anything by giving it to sportsmen. To some of our hatchery trout we attached bright pink tags that could be exchanged for prizes. The Tags ’N Trout program—useful in dispelling even the fantasy that what you catch in Massachusetts streams is a product of nature—proved so popular that it continues to this day.
When I reconnected with Michigan DNR’s Baker in August 2013 I was pleased to hear that his state had ceased polluting Lake Michigan with splake, but disappointed to learn that it still dumps them into Superior and Huron, where they’ve also been seen on lake-trout spawning shoals.
“It’s really tough to tell the difference [between splake and brook trout] unless you’ve got them side by side,” Maine’s Tim Obrey told the Bangor Daily News. “People misidentify them all the time.” So brook trout are frequently killed because they’re mistaken for splake. A Michigan judge tossed out a ticket received by an angler apprehended with an illegally retained coaster, on the grounds that any reasonable person would have thought it was a splake.
Because they are underpaid and have to pump out lots of copy, outdoor writers tend to imbibe everything the management establishment pours out. Perhaps that’s why so many are enamored of designer fish. But there are notable exceptions. One such is wild-trout activist Bob Mallard, who runs Kennebec River Outfitters, in Madison, Maine. “The hair in a $100 meal,” is how Mallard aptly describes splake. “A Frankenstein fish that is stocked solely because it grows fast and is easy to catch, splake show just how little some sportsmen have come to expect from their prey,” he writes. “Can you imagine a bunch of deer biologists sitting around saying, ‘I bet if we got some deer together with some nice moose, we could grow some 500-pound bucks?’ Of course not. It’s absurd. When we have a problem with our deer herd, we address habitat and harvest issues. We don’t just go out and create a new species.”
I got similar responses when I asked professional fish conservationists to comment on what designer fish say about public values and priorities. Charles Gauvin, past president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, offered this: “Angler support for producing these freakish fish hybrids and releasing them into the wild speaks volumes about the disconnect between some anglers’ values and the principles of sound fishery management. Angler acceptance of this living junk represents a step beyond mitigation narcosis—what happens when the availability of hatchery fish diverts the angling public’s attention from the habitat values associated with wild fish.”
This from Chris Wood, TU’s current president and CEO: “I love bait fishing, spin-fishing, fly-fishing and ice-fishing . . . . What I don’t like to do is to catch fish that are made in a lab and then let loose in the wild. It doesn’t really matter how you fish, but what you catch does matter, and anglers should push for naturally reproducing wild and native fish.”
TU’s Dr. Jack Williams noted that lab concoctions “separate fish from the habitat and the real world. If people had a real appreciation for the native stock and the diversity we have, there’d be no demand for these fish that become almost management toys.”
“This is fish management gone wild,” said Bill Bakke, director of science and conservation for the Native Fish Society. “We have enough problems with hybrid invasions under natural conditions, spawning with wild fish, without purposely creating new varieties, some of which can propagate. When you lose your native fish you rely on hatchery cultivation; and then you start creating hybrids that you can sell to the public. It’s a corporate mentality, good for license sales. Instead of trying to preserve what is natural and wild and beautiful they alter it so they can sell a product.”
“What is it about man-constructed fish that attracts anglers more than the beauty of native fish that evolved in these streams?” inquired Kurt Beardslee, director of the Wild Fish Conservancy. “We have to make up our minds. Do we want a circus environment with bizarre creatures to amuse us? Or do we want to restore healthy ecosystems?”
I fear the angling public, and those who presume to educate it, are leaning heavily toward the circus.
Part of the reason is that Americans, not just anglers, have never accepted fish as wildlife. This is why environmental groups that don’t like rotenone (because they haven’t bothered to learn about it), such as Wilderness Watch, the Adirondack Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, Pacific Rivers Council, California Watershed Alliance, Friends of Silver King Creek, the Western Environmental Law Center and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, can dedicate themselves to protecting all other forms of wildlife and at the same time sabotage recovery of imperiled trout.
The other part of the reason is that these days our society is lacking in what George Bird Grinnell, 19th-century sportsman, famed outdoor writer and founder of the first Audubon Society, called “a refined taste in natural objects.” Until we acquire more of that valuable commodity, look for continued and accelerated erosion of wild fish and the beautiful places they abide.