Having Your Lake

Having your Lake and Fishing It Too 071410

Not a LCT, but a fish you can actually catch and eat.

The Good News is the Lahonton Cutthroat trout is making an amazing comeback in Independence Lake.

The Bad News is the Lahonton Cutthroat Trout is barely hanging on in Independence Lake. That’s bad, because it means eventually the trout will either be gone or become trout in a trout museum.

They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half just to see 'em

Big Yellow Taxi; Joni Mitchell

That’s the second part of the bad news: Independence Lake will be that trout museum.

The Lahonton Cutthroat trout is the perfect symbol for the crushing dilemma that faces us in the Sierra, and the planet. The trout, which was down to 17 spawning fish, has been counted at 223 this year. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? The trout is established in several streams along the upper Truckee, and Independence, with an estimate being 10,000 fish. It remains protected because of excess taking.

There seem to be a couple of reasons the LCT and other native species are heading extinction-ward, but the best seem to be over fishing, degradation of habitat and competition from non-native trout who are better qualified to live. Degradation includes pollution from cities, acid rain from cities, water depletion by cities and too much streamside activity by people, mostly from cities. People are clearly the big problem for trout. The non-native trout species people have brought in include the brown and rainbow which have filled the streams of the Sierra, as well as the game fish imported to Lake Tahoe and associated watersheds.

To be sure, there are more trout in the Sierra, especially above 6000 feet, than there ever were historically. California has 10 native trout species; most are specialists for specific microenvironments, and are either easily fished out or easily polluted out. Those niche species are always the first to go, because they are marginal, highly dependent on their isolation and microenvironment. The California Golden trout is highly hybridized by non-native trout, as are other native species.

So, there are more trout, but they are not necessarily real trout. Many of the fish we catch are plants; some come from fish farms of real trout clones, but many others have been genetically enhanced for color and growth. These semi-real fish are just fine with most people. I can remember the days a person wouldn’t fish some places because the fish were planted. We caught fish to eat, and we wanted fish who grew up in the water, not in a fish tank being fed pellets. Those fish were easy to find in the little streams and lakes of the Sierra.

Now, people log on to see when their favorite lake will be planted. They don’t care where the fish was raised, they want a big fish that will fight hard and look nice in their on line photos; that’s why trout are being genetically altered to be more brightly red.

Planted fish, unlike fish that were merely introduced and did well, swamp native and wild trout. They bring in diseases, many die after planting and raise the nutrient levels of the lake, and they hybridize wild and native fish sometimes with modified genes (the Cutbow is a Rainbow-Cutthroat hybrid often found in the Sierra). Hatchery salmon have been a driving force behind the decline of wild salmon. The Center for Biological Diversity is currently suing, and has been for about 4 years now, the California Department of Fish and Game, for planting non-wild trout in important watersheds, and for planting non-native species which (might) contribute to the demise of some native amphibians (what is a Mountain Yellow Legged Frog?). 

So, why not plant trout with appropriate native genetics? Too hard, too expensive. Truth be told, native trout aren’t that robust, particularly compared to Frankenfish, which are cheaper to raise because they are medicated and grow more quickly, and because fewer die on planting. Even genetically straight rainbow trout are more hardy than some native populations. Native fish are fine machines, perfectly matched to their ecology. Plants are Hummers, robust and hungry. It simply isn’t cost effective to tailor fish for the watershed. If that is going to happen, someone is going to have to pay (see "hillbilly subsistence fishing," below).

The truth is, there are simply too many people, and too many fishermen in California. If we don’t stock then the wild and native populations will be fished to extinction. One answer would be to reduce the number of people who fish: reduce limits, reduce fishing seasons, reducing access, increasing the cost of fishing licenses and the number of stamps required. That would be hard on hillbillies who fish as a way of setting the table and augmenting the income. A fishing license costs 41 bucks this year. If you’re fishing for the table, you’d better be able to fish often, otherwise, take the money to Reno or Grass Valley and buy hamburger. Don’t try fishing without it, either; the local fish cops and even the bear in the boat will collect a nice fee if they catch you (and probably take Daddy’s fishing pole).

Instead of those strategies to reduce the number of fishermen, the DFG seems to be taking a different tactic. They seem to designate specific locations as public fishing places, often lakes but stretches of river, too. They stock the hell out of the location, and advertise the fact and even encourage kids under 16 to have a fishing day for free. They make planting information available so people will swarm to the designated areas.

This is not a bad strategy, particularly when paired with "conservation hatcheries" like Independence Lake. That’s part of the bad news.

Will Independence Lake ever produce enough LCT that fishermen can happily catch and eat them, because, if not, to hell with them. Somewhere between the ecofreakos who want to protect, for example, the fish museum of Independence Lake, and the fish-story-bloggers who want to harvest farmed GMO fish from their favorite lake, are fishermen who are serious about catching and eating wild fish. They don’t have to be California Golden trout or Lahonton Cutthroat trout, they just have to be real fish, born and bred in the fresh waters of the Sierra.

That means, instead of spending $15 million to keep the drinking water in Reno’s cistern clean you spend a few million to produce quality LCT fry and plant them everywhere they used to live. For that kind of money, you could keep several different genetic strains going. (There is a reference in a DFG information booklet that stated the LCT or Tahoe trout actually used to be planted, which extended its range; but it was fished out as a market fish by 1940).

They don’t have to be Rainbows (also native to the area; several important native trout are Rainbow subspecies), they can be LCT, just so they are wild, and we can fish for them. That’s a hell of a lot better than a fish musuem.

Then, maybe we could take a boat to the lake, catch some fish and bring them to the table without having to deal with well meaning Muirish managers.



A FINAL WORD Stop catch and release now. It’s a terrible solution to the problem of too many fishermen and not enough fish. It’s simply cruel to take sport by tormenting food critters you aren’t going to eat. If you aren’t going to flip them in a pan of butter and trickle white wine over it, don’t mess with them at all. You spread mold and bacteria and worst of all give the fish PTSD.

A FINAL FINAL WORD If the DFG was actually interested in the numbers of native fish, they’d give them to every pond owner with appropriate habitat. Instead, they make it absolutely impossible to informally stock private waters. Go DFG Go!




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