Spring is a magical time of year for fly fishing. May will bring may fly blooms, drawing millions to the West’s rivers and streams to match their wits against the cunning trout. In this edition of Conversations, we sat down with Jen Corrinne Brown and asked her a little about her book Trout Culture: How Fly Fishing Forever Changed the Rocky Mountain West, and how she “overturns the biggest fish story ever told.”
BlogWest: How did you come to write about trout fishing in the Rocky Mountain West?
Jen Corrinne Brown: The book stems from a love of fly fishing and a passion for history. I grew up in Montana and learned to fly fish on the Beaverhead and Big Hole rivers in college, falling in love with the sport. Once I started studying history in graduate school, it seemed natural to combine the two.
BW: You open your book by stating that it overturns the biggest fish story ever told. That the trout fisheries of the Rocky Mountain West are environmentally and socially complicated. What is this story, and how do you retell it?
JCB: In western iconography, advertising, and imaginations, fly fishing has loomed larger than life, portraying a timeless, natural West ready to be enjoyed by residents and tourists. Dating back to railroad advertisements and nineteenth-century boosterism, westerners have sold the region as a place for play, a place to restore oneself in nature. Using the skills of a historian, I retell this story by examining the environmental changes that created western trout fisheries, from the introductions of nonnative trout to dumping toxins into rivers to kill off millions of native fish.
BW: You play with the idea of what is, and conversely what is not, natural throughout the book. Specifically, that there is a romanticized ideal of trout fishing in these mountain streams, yet many of the fish desired by anglers are non-native to the region. How does this complicate our understanding of nature, recreation, or just fishing?
JCB: The question over what people think is “natural” or “unnatural” originally drew me to environmental history. The central irony of the book is that, despite these very romantic notions, industrialization and fish stocking created trout fisheries in the West. In explaining this history, I hope Trout Culture will provide context to current conversations over native fish and conservation in the region. Currently, we are experiencing an interesting in shift in fisheries management, where the focus is continued nonnative trout opportunities but also more of an emphasis on native fish management. Dozens of recent native trout restoration projects have sought to save trout rather than native suckers, chubs, or other endangered fish. Privileging nativeness over biodiversity, these efforts involve the heavy use of fish toxicants to remove nonnative trout—and anything else that swims in the river—then the planting of native cutthroat trout, in most cases, taken from brood stocks maintained by state agencies. Fisheries managers have extremely hard jobs in which they are constantly faced with tough decisions along with the small budgets and incessant demands of any state agency. Yet, the history reveals that fish managers are often quick to the draw with fish toxicant use, now viewing it as a panacea for native fish ills. My book helps to explain historical actions and current dilemmas over fishing and the environment.
BW: One of my favorite essays on fly-fishing is John Gierach’s “I’d Fish Anyone’s St. Vrain,” in his book Sex, Death, and Fly-Fishing. In it he describes how all dedicated fly-fishermen have a deep connection to their local fishing spot. You make a similar point that fly-fishing connects people to the rivers and creeks in a deeply personal way. How is this important to our broader understanding of environmental, American West, or history in general?
JCB: Roderick Haig-Brown once said one of the charms of fly fishing is getting to know a river. The connections that fly fishers have with their favorite home waters, I think, illustrates the power of place. In spending time on the water, observing wildlife, birds, and nature, anglers have developed a deep understanding of their local waters, just like John Gierach’s love of St. Vrain Creek. Historically, the local knowledge and appreciation of nature often translated into environmental stewardship. The role of sport in conservation, therefore, represents a central theme of the book. For all the complicated and strange ways that anglers and fisheries managers manipulated trout streams, the same people held views on conservation remarkably ahead of their times. For instance, the first superintendent of the federal fish hatchery in Bozeman, Montana, wrote about water pollution and environmental degradation by the 1880s and 1890s, long before habitat concerns became central to natural resource management.
BW: And finally, where is your favorite fishing spot?
JCB: I love many rivers in the West, but I’d have to say that one of my favorite fishing spots is a high mountain lake in southwestern Montana, nestled below a tall peak. You can only reach it by a strenuous hike or horseback almost five miles up a steep trail to a small lake at 9,000 feet. It’s worth the effort. Just at the tree line, the view opens up and sometimes mountain goats hang out in the rocks above. Most importantly, large cutthroat trout live in the lake. A bit of history exists there as well; fish did not originally inhabit the lake and the particular subspecies of cutthroat trout found there today is more of a hatchery strain not native to the area. I’m just going to call this place “Golden Pond” for the sake of saving my favorite fishing spot, but it is out in the high country for you and your readers to explore.