Angling for clues on the nature of wildness
For the benefit and enjoyment of the people. So reads the motto inscribed over the stone arch at the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park. And, according to Tasmanian-born conservationist and fly-fishing expert Greg French, it should be the credo of all who care for the life of the woods and fields, the rivers and the oceans.
The primary justification of biodiversity conservation, he reckons, and the reason we bother to have national parks at all, is to meet the spiritual needs of wilderness lovers. And for French, trout fishing is very much a spiritual need.
This is why he is so upset by reports that Yellowstone’s most famous fishy resident, the cutthroat trout, is in trouble. Catch rates are in steep decline and the spawning runs in Yellowstone Lake are getting smaller and smaller.
Yellowstone, largely in Wyoming, was the world’s first national park. It has unparalleled significance for anglers and for conservationists. For a man with French’s romantic feeling for nature, the loss of the cutthroat would be tantamount to a desecration. And so we have The Imperiled Cutthroat, part holiday travelogue and part crime scene investigation.
Who or what is killing the cutthroat? Suspect No 1 is the lake trout, also known as the mackinaw, an introduced species that preys on the cutthroat and is blamed for all but eliminating it from nearby Lake Jackson. But is the mackinaw just a convenient scapegoat? French thinks the story of the cutthroat’s decline may be more involved than most people are willing to admit.
“Conservation,” he warns, “is more complex than most of us are able to comprehend, certainly more complex than most of us want to comprehend.”
French is best known for Trout Waters of Tasmania, an indispensable guidebook for anyone angling in the Apple Isle, but he has also written a couple of novels and a collection of short stories.
He likes a good yarn, and his Yellowstone adventure is full of colourful details. There are close encounters with grizzly bears, lightning strikes and oddball Americans, as well as page after page devoted to hymning one of the world’s most dramatic landscapes.
And, of course, there’s also a load of information about the cutthroat, its biology and connection to Yellowstone, as well as handy descriptions of fishing conditions at sites all across the park and surrounding areas. French is never more engaging than when his eyes are on the water and the fish are rising.
A recurring theme in The Imperiled Cutthroat is what French sees as the modern obsession with fish hatcheries. He firmly believes that put- ting hatchery-reared fish in healthy wild fisheries does more harm than good.
“It depresses me that hatchery managers on mainland Australia produce countless numbers of native fish — Murray cod, Australian bass, golden perch, you name it — and distribute them willy-nilly all over the place.”
He believes Australia should be following a more cautious approach to fishery management, one which preserves, above all, an atmospheric of wildness. The lust for wildness is also central to French’s The Last Wild Trout, a guide to 20 of the most famous trout fisheries around world. For a truly great trout fishery, he says, you need wild fish in wild environments.
But what does wild actually mean? For French, a wild fish is one that comes from natural spawning rather than a hatchery. It’s his devotion to wildness that underpins his sympathy for the much maligned mackinaw. Although the mackinaw is not native to Yellowstone Lake, it’s arguably wilder than the native-but-hatcheryreared cutthroats with which the lake is regularly stocked as part of a restoration program.
He never questions the value of biodiversity — which, after all, makes for a more varied fishing experience — but French says he is increasingly ambivalent about distinctions between the native and the introduced.
The Last Wild Trout has a more straightforward documentary format than The Imperiled Cutthroat, with careful travel notes from trips to New Zealand, Patagonia, Mongolia, Slovenia and, of course, Yellowstone.
There’s also an account of his tour of the British Isles, the home of all modern fly-fishing. His run in with a testy Irish gillie makes for a charming comic vignette.
And he’s surely right that the best conservation strategies necessarily encourage participation. Ultimately, environmental protection depends on the support of politicians, and the only way to secure that is to encourage a firsthand appreciation of wild places in the broader community.
Both of French’s books are wonderfully earnest. He’s always passionate, whether sermonising about park management practices or describing the catch of the day. He’s no Henry David Thoreau exactly, but you get the feeling he might be a distant relation. And when it comes to fishing for trout, he has an authority few can match. is a writer and critic.
Greg French in Tasmania’s Jordan River