An­gling for clues on the na­ture of wild­ness

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - An­drew Furhmann

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

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