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.


  1. chuck atkins

    Bucket biologists should be shot. I’m serious! Anyone who even jokes about this should be punched in the face! We have Seeforellon’s in Lake Michigan. I have caught as many huge browns as anybody. They make for great photos. The only time they are available to fly anglers is when they come into tributaries to spawn starting in November. Anyone who has caught one knows they generally don’t fight as well as a steelhead. They are more of a bull dog. The great lakes used to have one large troutthat was indigenous …the lake trout. Now we have Coho and King salmon….we have several kinds of steelhead…..we have splake and coaster brook trout……and we have those big brown trout. Do ya think there are consequences for having all these big fish where there is supposed to be only one? Do ya think man ever makes anything better doing this stupid shit? Have ya ever caught a lake trout in Yellowstone? It is not a good thing….anywhere!

    • Kirk Werner

      Chuck, for once I could not agree with you more! Bucket biologists, whatever their reasons for doing their thing, should do hard time for crimes against nature. The Lakers in Yellowstone are a fine example of that.

  2. John

    With the exception of temperature resilience didn’t you just describe a bull trout? Someone should start a stocking program for those.

    • Kirk Werner

      Very astute, John. Why don’t you take on the bull char stocking program?

  3. Patrick

    Started out like a “modest proposal” to my eyes. Browns present a conundrum here in California. One blue ribbon fishery – the East Walker River – is a brown trout haven, with a sprinkling of rainbows, but the watershed’s native species is the Lahontan Cutthroat. Occasionally the idea has been floated to kill off all non-natives and re-introduce the cutthroat. Personally, I’m all for natives but this will entail a huge impact, the difficulty of getting every stakeholder on board (tougher with the current drought impacting tourist dollars in the area) and, ultimately, no guarantee as to the outcome. That said, I have a personal conflict- in my experience brown trout offer a much better fight than Lahontans, even the 24-incher I pulled in a few years ago. Literally, pulled in, after only a couple minutes of fight. Maybe an exchange program? California browns for some feisty West Slope Cutthroat?

    • Chuck

      Believe it or not the fish do not exist on this planet just for your angling enjoyment. It’s too bad anglers are not really altruistic. All our motivations are really selfish. Having said that we are the only hope for conservation in most cases. Lets try to learn from the huge mistakes of the past and consider that maybe mother nature knew what was best. I love to catch these fish but in the Great Lakes the stocking has been a big mistake – motivated by gluttonous anglers. The brown trout should never have been stocked anywhere in this country! I would be just as happy to catch a little wild trout if they still existed where browns stockings and industry has wiped them out. Give me a tiny wild fish over a destructive hog any day!

      • Kirk Werner

        Wow, Chuck, once again I agree with you. Quick, let’s talk politics!

    • Kirk Werner

      Yeah, everyone likes a native fishery, just ask Ted Turner. I’m not a big fan of using rotenone. Just let the meat harvesters have at the non-natives. Next time I’m down your way I’ll bring a bucket of westslopes in exchange for some browns.

  4. Howard Levett

    The only thing I can think to say is take Roderick Hawg-Brown, dump him about 100 miles out and see if he makes it back inland.

    • Kirk Werner

      Roderick Hawg-Brown is an ass. I, along with many others, would hope he would get eaten by a sea lion but the reality of it all is that he would probably eat a few of those critters as he made his way back toward the rivers.

  5. Mark

    Dear Sir,
    all those mutants are not trouts, bucket biologist should be hang by the nerrest tree and by the next occasion. Tinkering with genetics or replacement spicies out of their origin areas should be prohibited, I hope it comes with time.
    Real mountain trout, no only on high elevation, is not bigger than 16” .
    Kirk I’m realy greatful with your recent delivery.
    Keep your line tide

    • Kirk Werner

      Thanks once again for your comment, Mark. It’s strange to think that in the grand scheme of things, it was almost like yesterday that rainbow trout were be shipped all across the United States beyond, released in places where they were far from a native species. Historically, foresight seems to not have existed and it didn’t take long before many decisions that seemed good at the time, turned out to be bad. I recommend a very good book on this very subject: An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World

  6. Mark

    Howdy Sir,
    however “variety is a spice of life” at all price we should keep local biodiversity and do not introduce forein spicies. History knows many cases of wrong introduction examples.
    Thats it.
    Keep the line tide

  7. Brian

    Gotta love the ‘steroidness’ of those Argy Browns!
    Species introduction never goes well. Look at the freakin mess the Atlantic salmon farms have caused in BC. Corrupt politicians did this. They should be treated worse than bucket biologists.

    • Kirk Werner

      Brian, no argument here. I’m not sure which is worse: fish farms or hatcheries. Neither are beneficial to wild fish or the natural ecosystem, that’s for sure. The salmon farms in BC are an atrocity. Canada has such vast natural resources and recreational opportunities, but as you noted their politicians seem hell bent on selling out. Look at the mining mess around Fernie and what that’s doing to the Elk River tribs and the Kootenay (can you say international boundary waters dispute?). Thanks for the comment.

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