“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.


7 thoughts on “THE QUEST FOR THE GOLDEN TROUT: a book review

  1. Thanks for the nice review Warren. I am certainly not trying to blame individual anglers in the book (I have my own history of fishing). However, it is important for all of us to understand that we are part of an economical system that often puts the health of rivers at a lower value than other considerations.

    • Thank you for making that distinction. I agree with you Doug.And by looking around (somewhat off subject) we can see the evidence of that failure to value rivers and a healthy environment in many of the commonly accepted aspects of our lives. For example: the automobile may be one of the most environmentally destructive inventions to have ever been foisted on the planet, and not just because of the carbon problem.The impervious surfaces that cars require are a major source of pollution and a threat to the aquifers that give us drinking water and feed our rivers.Yet, if I were to announce that automobiles are unsustainable, which I just did, people would dismiss me as being a nut, which they also do, because they can’t imagine a future economic system functioning without cars and paved roads.But if you don’t bring up the subject, change will never come. So I think that you are right. Anglers do need to see how they have become part of the problem.But, unlike the practice of hurtling along paved roads in a car, angling has its roots in a time when much of the world was still wild, and I’m certain that for many of us the lost wildness is what we are longing for when we go fishing – and when we find wildness in any of its manifestations, whether it’s flushing wood ducks, or Cardinal Flowers, or a small brookie scooting for the cover of an undercut bank, we’ve found what we were fishing for. I suspect that the longing for wildness is, to some extent, even true of our misguided brethren who chase hatchery trucks.They’ve just been misled by an economic system. I continue to believe that anglers working through non profits like TU, and the Sea-run Brook Trout Coalition, or wild trout advocates like Protect Rhode Island’s Brook Trout, can achieve good outcomes for the complex system that is our environment – that is we can learn to be environmentalists as well as conservationists.And I believe that the Quest for the Golden Trout is helping us get there.

    • I believe that you can find Douglas Thompson’s “The Quest for the Golden Trout” on E Bay and Amazon. I wouldn’t base any opinions about fly fishing on “The Quest for the Golden Trout”, other than that fly fishing should not be regarded as a religion. Fly fishing just happens to be a very deadly way of catching fish that dates as far back as the Roman Empire. It has obviously also served as a literary device for numerous authors. Done properly, the demands of fly fishing can help us to better understand the complex web of life, and in that way fly fishing has contributed to the insights of environmentalists like Aldo Leopold and scientists like Robert Behnke. Thompson has chosen to condemn the “cult” aspect of trout fishing that we see in the media and promoted by the industry because he sees it as a source of environmental ills. Unfortunately, he is reluctant to distinguish the personal act of fishing from the promotional hype and political machinations of the recreational fishing industry. We anglers are not all the same.

  2. RI’s Wood River is a case study of the destruction of a formerly wild stream for the pleasure of the trout fishing community. It has literally been stomped to death by wader clad fly fishers and is now merely a hatchery pen.

    • That is what Doug Thompson’s book is about. Rivers deserve better, and anglers have to grow up. According to Thompson, this situation began with the Robber Barons who manipulated, not only the economy, but nature to suit their whims. As their money making ventures destroyed rivers, they bought up prime trout streams (Hewitt’s Neversink) and began manipulating the streams to improve fishing on their properties. Of course, their economic manipulation ended with a massive crash that literally killed working class people, while their manipulation of nature killed off wild trout and wild rivers. The Wood is a clear example of a state agency catering to anglers. Sorry, but that is no way to treat a river and its native occupants. While I’m not in complete agreement with Thompson’s premise, because I do think that organizations like TU have made progress in educating anglers, and because I believe that fishing is a natural predatory activity of humans – one that demands an outlet – I do agree that the process of raising and stocking millions of GMO trout to meet that demand is environmentally destructive and an absurd waste of resources. It would be better to expend the money and energy on protecting watersheds and removing dams.

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