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Taking a fresh look at the history, politics and ecology of the rainbow trout fishing industry


This morning, I scanned the headlines of Arts and Letters Daily, and was jolted by this:

Behold the regal rainbow trout, dappled denizen of deep lake and rushing river, fierce hunter of fish and fly—and prize of pork-barrel politics, invigorator of men, eradicator of native species, payload of numerous bombing missions.

Intrigued, I followed links to the webpage of Anders Halverson, the author of these words, whose book, An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How One Fish Beguiled American and Overran the World, has recently been published by Yale University Press.

I have accepted rainbow trout fishing as simply a part of the world as I know it. I live a couple of blocks from Lake Taneycomo, where almost every day of the year I wake to the sounds of motors on the boats of trout anglers. While the Branson entertainment business ebbs and flows, the trout-fishing business in Branson seems to be evergreen, though it requires that tax and permit revenues be spent for propagating the trout, enforcing regulatons, and protecting the quality of the fishery. My own fishing license bears a trout stamp.

cover of An Entirely Synthetic Fish

As a child, I read Bill Potter’s annual accounts of the trout season’s March 1 opening day in the Joplin Globe, and the Missouri Conservationist’s articles about the Missouri Department of Conservation’s hatcheries and stocking programs for rainbow trout and the need to buy a trout stamp in addition to a fishing license to support these activities. School children in my home county were taken to the Neosho National Fish Hatchery, America’s oldest federal fish hatchery, it was said, for educational tours. The Missouri Department of Conservation stocked rainbows in Capps Creek, a short spring-fed tributary of Shoal Creek near my childhood home in eastern Newton County, Missouri.

Opening day at trout parks around the Ozarks, notably at Roaring River, Bennett Spring, Montauk and Meramec state parks in Missouri is a ritual for thousands. Shoulder to shoulder, in all kinds of weather, stouthearted anglers line the banks and tangle lines to catch newly-stocked rainbows and browns. Trout are stocked and pursued in various other cool rivers in the Ozarks, such as the White River below Beaver and Bull Shoals dams, the North Fork of of the White River, and the Current River. There are numerous private “trout farms” where trout are raised for sale to restaurants, some of which allow fishing. Trout fishing is economically important in the Ozarks.

Lately, I was aware that the Neosho fish hatchery was the beneficiary of a $1 million appropriation for a new visitors center and a solar water heater (to aid in the propagation of the pallid sturgeon) contained in the the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. A visitors center itself doesn’t hatch fish, but the construction of it helps the Neosho economy, creates a few permanent government jobs, and builds support for the program. The Neosho hatchery obtains rainbow trout eggs from the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery in Branson and raises fingerlings which are transported back to Lake Taneycomo and other Missouri trout fisheries.

I guess I’ll read An Entirely Synthetic Fish and begin the uncomfortable process of reexamining something that I had accepted without much thought. I wonder where I’ll end up.

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