THE QUEST FOR THE GOLDEN TROUT: a book review

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THE QUEST FOR THE GOLDEN TROUT: a book review

“A river advocate and environmentalist questions some of the unsound methods of conservation and restoration imposed on North America’s rivers and streams.”

This blurb leading off the dust jacket comments of Douglas Thompson’s book, “The Quest for the Golden Trout” doesn’t begin to describe the depth of the research, information and the careful thought that is contained between the book’s covers. Yet, as an old fly fisherman, and a trout aficionado of the most degenerate sort, I found “The Quest for the Golden Trout” to be one of the most unsettling books that I’ve ever read. And, if Doug Thompson were just another environmentalist crackpot from the far out fringe of the movement, I would dismiss his core contention that the “religion” of trout fishing is to blame for many of the environmental ills suffered by our rivers and streams – but Doug is far from being a crackpot, and by the time I finished his book I was wondering just who the real crackpots might be.

It is important to note here that Doug Thompson is eminently qualified to write about the history of stream restoration, a subject that his book covers in detail. Douglas Thompson is a professor of geomorphology at Connecticut College where he is the director of the Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment. Doug’s specialty is fluvial geomorphology, which in the vernacular translates as the study of how rivers and streams function.

I had the pleasure of meeting Doug Thompson, recently, at a meeting of the Sea-Run Brook Trout Coalition where he gave a talk on the history of various structures and devices that have been used in stream restoration projects that date from the 1930’s to the present time. As he does in his book, Thompson pointed out during his talk that the bulk of the stream improvement devices used in the past, and today were invented to improve or restore habitat for trout. And then he went on to illustrate through a number of slides how these stream improvement efforts had failed, often making stream conditions worse than they had been before the restoration projects had been undertaken.

In his book, Thompson carefully examines the lack of adequate science to support many commonly accepted approaches to stream restoration, including EPA endorsed models, like Natural Channel Design; and he explains to the reader why our obsession with engineering solutions for our problem rivers and streams so often seem to fail.

Here I’ll state that if Thompson’s book were solely a treatise on the ills of certain types of stream restoration, I wouldn’t find it to be the least unsettling. In fact, our experience at Red Brook, and elsewhere, support his claims. What I found difficult to read was the evidence Thompson has accumulated that point to America’s long obsession with trout fishing as the root of an environmental disaster. As evidence, Thompson details the various aspects of trout production in the United States, including the complex economic ties between the trout hatchery movement, the recreational fishing industry, and the coffers of fish and game agencies, all of which has led to the environmental consequences of dumping millions of manufactured trout into our streams every year, and the habitat “improvements” that support those trout, often at the expense of native species. Worse yet, when Douglas Thompson points his finger at the guilty party in this fiasco, I find that he’s pointing directly at me.

“The Quest for the Golden Trout” is not an easy read for anyone who loves fly fishing, but I feel strongly that every one of us who is passionate about trout and trout fishing should read this book, if only to view our passion through the critical lens of one who deeply understands rivers and their ecosystems. While I’m not about to give up fishing, or my support of wildlife agencies through license fees because of having read “The Quest for the Golden Trout,” I will vow to (even) more stridently advocate for wild rivers, and healthy ecosystems over convenient, artificial trout fishing. It is time for us to discard the conceits of the past and approach our watersheds and their fisheries in a sustainable and science based way.