by Dana Sturn
Here’s the thing: I never wanted to get too excited about hatchery fish. For me hatcheries represent a special kind of evil—like middle-aged despots, and commercial lagers—that helped bring about the virtual extinction of a fish that I love. Dump truckloads of hatchery salmon into an ecosystem designed by Gaia to support small stream wild fish and all sorts of devilry follows. In the end, wild fish lose.
But that’s a different story. A river story of a shadowed past where I’m only interested in wild fish. Where I avoid hatchery rivers, and the anglers who fish them.
“Why do they do it?” I wonder aloud, swirling ice cubes around a glass of single malt. My Scots friend, Mike, cocks an eyebrow. “Probably for the same reason you put ice in your whiskey—which I don’t understand,” he says.
Because they like it.
And why do they like it?
Simple: it’s fun.
Really fun. Hatchery fish bend your rod just like the wild ones do, and jump and splash around in very convincing ways. When they come to hand they’re all shiny just like the real ones. For a minute, they might make you forget about their origins. Or not really care.
When my wild steelhead waters went all to hell thanks to government mismanagement and the angling community’s willingness to simply move on to other waters, I was left with a choice. And it’s amazing how malleable our convictions get when we run out of options. For me it was pretty straight forward: somehow embrace hatcheries, or take up golf.
So I turned to lake fishing. Where I fish in British Columbia, most of the well-known lakes are stocked. Several strains of trout are raised in BC’s fish hatcheries and released into hundreds of lakes, creating everything from fast, family friendly fishing for smallish ‘bows, to difficult, technical fishing for trophy rainbows that sometimes exceed 10 pounds.
While I tend to think that hatchery fish are all pretty much the same, some may tell you they’re not. When it comes to the fabled Kamloops rainbow trout, they argue that Pennask rainbows are about as close to wild fish as you can get.
Brood stock from Pennask Lake, on the high Thompson Plateau near the town of Merritt, are used in rearing the impressive, perhaps iconic, triploid Pennask rainbows that are found in so many of BC’s trophy lakes. These are the Rolex-bright lake fish that look and fight like steelhead and dangerously elevate the heart rates of middle-aged men across the province.
Next in line to the Pennasks are Blackwater rainbows, from brood stock collected out of BC’s famous Dragon Lake near the town of Quesnel. Blackwaters are aggressive fish that do well in environments where coarse fish, like red-sided shiners, have taken hold. Blackwaters love to visit the Shiner Diner, and as a result grow to impressive sizes. The good news is they also sample the usual assortment of insect appetizers commonly found in lakes, so these giants can be taken on chironomid, scud and dragonfly patterns throughout the season.
Last fall I had a memorable day with Arie Nakagawa and the “Stillwater Ninja” Carlo Ng hooking fish after fish during a rare fall chironomid hatch on a small lake south of Kamloops. These Blackwater rainbows averaged four-to six pounds and took our flies like I would inhale fast food after a month of dieting. I remember a lot of hollering and laughter as we reeled in dozens of nice fish. No one mentioned their hatchery origins.
And then there’s the lowly Fraser Valley domesticated rainbow trout. Or “carp” as a friend calls them. Because, in his view, like carp, they’ve been introduced in places they shouldn’t be, places where wild or the nearly wild Pennask rainbows should swim. But Fraser Valleys grow big and fat, and often live in pretty places. So of course no serious fly fisher would take them seriously.
But last fall on a Kamloops lake known for “hawgs,” I was drifting a chironomid pattern beneath a bobber when the cork went under. I lifted and spent a few enjoyable minutes wrestling with what turned out to be a very fat 3.5 pound Fraser Valley rainbow. It pulled hard and stayed deep, and I laughed and joked with friends in the boat because it had been a really tough day and none of us were catching. At that moment it didn’t much matter where this fish came from. All that mattered was it was attached to my line.
Alice, in her wanderings through Wonderland, came across reference to something called a Mome Rath. A helpful Humpty Dumpty explained what it was:
“‘Well, a ‘rath’ is a sort of green pig: but ‘mome’ I’m not certain about. I think it’s short for ‘from home’—meaning that they’d lost their way, you know.”
And you know, it occurred to me, while I admired the fat little trout in my hands, that I was in the presence of one of those creatures. This silver and greenish hued “pig” is seen by some as a trough gobbler that’s a long way from what a wild fish should be. But damn, they’re sure fun to catch. And as I grinned and posed for a few silly pics, I wondered what—or who—exactly was the kind of pig who had lost their way.
No one goes on their first fishing trip expecting it to be like writing the MCAT; they want to escape from all that crap. There’s enough stress in a life without worrying about whether the fish you’re after is “worthy.” Besides, it’s hard to keep your nose in the air when you remember that it’s a pretty raw thing that we do. Despite it’s entertainment value, eliciting the fight or flight response purely for our pleasure is not exactly high-minded.
Fishing for Mome Raths is tough for a recovering purist like me. I still feel a bit anxious—embarrassed perhaps—when my throat tightens a little as a hatchery fish rips line off my reel. I’m not supposed to love something like this. And I’m certainly not supposed to take it seriously.
But I do love it, you know. I really do. And I’m spending a lot of time and money doing it. So I’ll squeeze my eyes shut and wrestle with the moments of self-loathing and doubt. And if the blues overtake me, I’ll remind myself that this is supposed to be fun. And try to accept that, really, it really is.
My old Hardys, though, they’re above all this nonsense. They don’t give a shit if the fish they’re bellowing about were raised in a clear mountain stream or an aquarium in Abbotsford. A fish is a fish, and they react the same way to a tightening line every time.
There’s wisdom in that. —Dana Sturn