Though it’s revered by modern anglers, the brown trout wasn’t well received when introduced to American waters.
[by Will Ryan]
Anglers of the 1870s were no different from today, in the sense that come spring, they were ready to do some trout fishing—and often scratched that itch by scouring their favorite sporting publications for the latest word on the new season. So you can imagine the surprise that greeted some readers when they read the headline of a letter published in the April 4, 1878, issue of Forest & Stream, which proclaimed “No More Trout Fishing in the Upper Beaverkill.” The writer was George Van Siclen of the newly formed Beaverkill Club, and he was putting the word out that the water in question was posted.
The reason was because of the perilous status of its brook trout population in that water. We like to think of the late 19th century as the glory days of brook trout fishing, but unless you were floating on an Adirondack pond or a Maine lake, angling for speckled trout had fallen into serious decline, and the Beaverkill was a good example. Lumbering and tanning operations together with increased fishing pressure sent native brook trout populations dropping like stock prices during the panic of ’73.
Average size plummeted, too, and anglers “fished for count,” in the saying of the day, meaning they kept everything. Ed Van Put in his rich history, Trout Fishing in the Catskills, reports on “Two fishermen from Saugerties who caught 1,473 weighing a total of 120 pounds from the Beaverkill and Balsam Lake.” (You can do the math on the average weight.) He also tells the story of the proverbial last straw for above mentioned George Van Siclen. The summer before he had encountered “three men on a buckboard who boasted of catching ‘over 400 trout’ which they kept in a ‘twelve-quart butter firkin.’” None, apparently, reached the vaunted six-inch mark.
The response of wealthy sports like Van Siclen was to post waters. Meanwhile, the angling response on public streams, as reflected by the boys on the buckboard, was to “git ’em while you still can.” Such a tension suggests that American fly fishing could have gone the way of England, with the best fly fishing waters inaccessible to the ordinary citizen. But it didn’t, for reasons that have to do with history, culture, and social class—and also to a certain immigrant from Germany—the brown trout.
Nascent state fish commissions had tried to buttress populations by stocking brook trout, rainbows (or California trout, as they were called), smallmouth bass, and other species. But no fish moved in and made itself at home like the brown. And certainly no trout has had a comparable impact on the development and practice of American fly fishing.
The browns arrived by ship, like other immigrants. Through friendships in Germany, American author and fish culturist Fred Mather ended up with multiple shipments of brown trout eggs in 1883 and ’84, which he distributed to the right people, and before long, brown trout were swimming in waters around the state and the country. Their capacity for avoiding capture, as a 19th-century angler might have put it, proved their (and our) salvation. They were here to stay.
In the Headlines
By the mid 1890s, the brown trout were making headlines, mostly having to do with their size, which is basically what editors of any century are looking for in a fishing story. “Big Trout In The Catskills” exclaimed the New York Times in an article about two brothers who landed 10 trout of an aggregate 17 pounds. (That these are “headline big” does give a sense of the size of the brookies anglers were used to catching.)
Not all anglers were so lucky, of course, and not all anglers were enthralled with newcomers. Then, as now, brown trout often became fish-eaters at around a foot, which fit the larger cultural fear about immigrants at the turn of the century. “The European variety is piscivorous, and it preys on the American trout,” is how one newspaper article put it.
Articles also trashed their aesthetics— even taking to what some might today call “body shaming.” A good example comes from the Hartford Courant, “Of course all trout are beautiful but the English fish [the brown] is chunkier and blunter. The curve of the back, which in the American [the brookie] is said by artists to be the most beautiful line in animate nature, is flattened slightly by the increased size of the head.”