Conservation Trout & Char

Ecological Purity: In Praise of Wild Native Fish

Article by Bob Mallard

While I have admittedly not tried tenkara fishing yet, I get it. Tenkara removes all the bells and whistles, gadgets, gimmicks, aids and automation found in much of today’s fishing. It is the ultimate in simplicity and purity. Tenkara takes angling back to where it started, like a kid fishing with a sapling-and-line, only with the finesse, skill and refinement of fly fishing.   

Author fishing Great Smoky Mountains National Park; Photo: Diana Mallard

In a way, tenkara is the antithesis of modern fishing. It is defiantly bucking the big-fish, big-fly, long-cast, technical technique and success-at-any-cost trends. There are no over-built reels, complex compound taper fly lines and leaders or rods that cast better than they fish. The competition is between angler and fish, not angler against angler.

Wild native trout are to fish what tenkara is to fishing. They are pure, and simple in that they belong where they are found. And like tenkara anglers, wild fish are defiantly bucking the trend. There is nothing to debate about wild native fish: There is no rational environmental, economic, ethical, sporting or social arguments against them. 

I believe there is great synergy between tenkara and wild native fish. Both are small stream centric, the former due to technical limitations, the latter due to environmental limitations. Like tenkara and wild native fish, small streams are pure and simple. And as some of the last waters in the country that haven’t been dammed, straightened, rip-rapped, dewatered or infected with invasive fish, they too are bucking the trend.

Today’s angler has become dangerously accepting of stocked and nonnative fish, as well as hybrids, triploids and other hatchery mistakes. Anglers boast of having caught a “tiger trout”, “palomino” or “splake.” They are not offended by rounded tails and clipped, shredded or deformed fins. Hideous looking fish with tiny heads and grotesquely large bodies, nad-zapped triploids, are viewed as “trophies.”   

Fishing and even “conservation” groups assist state fish and game agencies with fin-clipping and stocking. Some buy and stock their own fish, and pay to reclaim stocked ponds while wild trout ponds wait for the same treatment. They bring in hatchery-centric biologists and fishing-centric guides as guest speakers. Many seem more concerned with “fishing” than “fish.” 

Sea-run brook trout

Today all fish are good fish, and all fish should be accepted, encouraged and pursued with a rod and reel regardless of their origin or impact on the environment. Terms like “heavily stocked” and “just stocked” are stated as if this was good news. State fish and game agencies advertise “See Where We Stocked Yesterday.” And anglers follow stocking trucks like sea gulls following commercial trawlers.

In Maine, the “General Law” associated with nonnative fish in both fresh and salt water are more restrictive than that associated with native fish. There is a 2-fish daily limit on nonnative rainbows, browns and bass and a 5-fish limit on native brookies. The length limit on rainbows and browns is 12” and 14” respectively, and just 6” for brookies. Stocked brookies in lakes and ponds have a 2-fish limit while the limit on wild brookies is 5-fish. And the situation is no better in nearby New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. 

The nations wild native fish have suffered greatly. Their history is a trail-of-tears with no end in sight. Most of the news is bad and it has been for years. For every good news story, there are two bad news stories. In many cases we are losing more ground than we are gaining. Between developers, extractors, government agencies, extreme and changing weather and anglers, the future of our wild native fish does not look good.

While it is taboo to tag anglers as being part of the problem regarding wild native fish, we are. We encourage — or don’t discourage – stocking, exploit the resource as if it were inexhaustible, use high-impact tackle and techniques, move fish around deliberately and accidentally, and demonstrate poor fish-handling out of laziness, ignorance or a lack of concern.

Southern Appalachian brook trout; Photo: Diana Mallard

In my home state of Maine, eating wild native brook trout is common and has been for as long as I can remember. Anglers bristle and deny it vehemently when you suggest their actions are having a negative impact on our wild native fish. Yet we use the term “fished out” to refer to compromised fisheries, and have for decades. We all know what “fished out” means, but we refuse to acknowledge it when challenged.         

State fish and game agencies manage for things like “maximum sustainable harvest” or “maximum opportunity.” When anglers push the resource too far, these agencies attempt to mitigate the damage with what is called “supplemental stocking.” Supplemental means “in addition to what is already present”, and what is already present is wild native trout in many cases. While this provides some immediate relief, it is temporary and at the long-term expense of wild native fish.

Not wanting to be saddled with the negative baggage that comes with confronting the angling community regarding their behavior, conservation organizations have shifted their focus almost entirely to habitat work which results in far less blowback. While we protect the places fish live, we fail to provide the same protection for the fish themselves.  Often, the net result is less than what it could be, or worse, negligible. 

Then we have the “Naturalized Natives” crowd who sees man as part of the evolutionary process and anything we do as an acceptable and inevitable function of “evolution.” Under this logic, nonnative fish put there by man should be allowed to live on no differently than animals expanding their native range due to climate change. Attempts to eradicate these nonnative fish are likened to “ethnic cleansing.”     

I am not sure how we got where we are regarding wild native fish, or how we drifted so far off course. It is also not clear as to what can be done to turn things around. But things need to be turned around or we will find ourselves relegated to fishing for stocked and nonnative fish. We need to get back to basics and allow Mother Nature, not Fish & Game, to manage our wild native fish resources. 

Maybe tenkara is trying to tell us something?

Author with wild native brook trout from Downeast Maine

Bob Mallard has fly fished for forty years. He is a former fly shop owner and Registered Maine Fishing Guide. Bob is a blogger, writer, author, fly designer and native fish advocate. He is the Publisher and Northeast Regional Editor for Fly Fish America magazine. Look for his books Squaretail, 50 Best Places Fly Fishing the Northeast, and 25 Best Towns Fly Fishing for Trout. He can be reached at www.bobmallard.com or info@bobmallard.com.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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