Washington: Green with Envy over Browns?

A sea-run brown in Argentina

In the past I’ve half-jokingly asserted that what our Pacific Northwest rivers need are brown trouts: sea-run brown trouts (also known as sea trout in Europe). You know, the kind that were introduced in the southern parts of South America such as Chile and Argentina, in the region commonly known as Patagonia, where they also make some pretty swanky fly fishing gear.

Sadly, our Northwest native steelhead runs are greatly depleted, and while the fish are clinging to existence, it seems we may never get all groups concerned to the table to agree to make all the changes needed to restore the runs to their historic greatness (or at least to give the fish a chance). Gear fishermen and fly fishermen are often at odds over the issue. Tribes continue their gill netting ways, and the government seems to still think hatcheries are a good thing. The divide over wild steelhead is maddening.

Perhaps it’s time to move on, close the hatcheries that are a drain on the natural and financial resources, and quit holding onto the past. Rather than wasting seemingly endless time, resources and money in an attempt to bring back the steelhead, I’d like to pose the question:

“What can Brown do for you?”

First, a strain of sea-going browns would go a long way toward ridding the rivers of hatchery steelhead by eating their way up and down the watersheds (wild steelhead would survive because, well, that’s what they do, given half a chance). Secondly, an established population of sea-going Salmo trutta would also provide a worthy recreational replacement for the lost runs of anadromous rainbow trouts by offering all anglers a quarry that’s big, strong, and nasty. Browns are also amazingly resilient to warmer water temps, which we’ll see as the climate continues to change. This winter, for example, has been very mild in the Pacific Northwest. Our snowpack was bleak. It’s easy to see that this summer could get very interesting with regard to dramatically lower than normal flows due to a greatly diminished spring runoff. Rainbows and cutthroat trout are not going to be pleased with the results. Browns are never happy, but they wouldn’t be quite as unhappy as the other trout species who prefer very cold water.

Mucho gusto, or not?

For anglers of both camps Operation Brown would be a win-win: catch and release anglers could continue to catch and release these fish, while meat harvesters could catch and kill their fair share because, being a non-native species, there would certainly be a harvestable limit. It wouldn’t take long before former steelhead anglers would be saying, “Steel what?”

From green to brown.

Washington might eventually change the state fish from Oncorhynchus mykiss to Salmo trutta, and become known as the Everbrown State (which is really a better description of the central and eastern parts of our state, anyway). I’ve always imagined what first time visitors to WA must think when they approach the state from the east. Once west of Spokane they undoubtedly experience shock and disbelief: “Holy criminy—I thought Washington was supposed to be the Evergreen State?!” Classic bait and switch…

Eastern WA: 50 shades of brown

Obviously Operation Brown is just a maniacal pipe dream as it would never happen in this day and age where the introduction of non-native anything is severely frowned upon. And honestly I don’t seriously want to give up on the recovery chances for wild steelhead, a Northwest icon. The vast majority of anglers are passionate about the plight of the wild steelhead: for example, Shane Anderson of Wild Reverence fame wouldn’t likely support the introduction of browns into our Washington rivers.

But what if browns found their way into our rivers by some means other than a formal, federal or state-sanctioned program?

Things could then get very interesting.

Stay tuned.

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