Respect our Hatchery Steelhead

Show hatchery fish a little respect, please.

Yeah.  You heard it right.  Heard it from a wild fish nut.

I watched a short video recently, one of those delightful You-tube things, this one showing a fellow catching a summer steelhead on a fly.  Nice guy.  Nice river.  Nice fish.

Here is the part that troubled me.

I watched him make the cast, intently following his fly.  He wanted to catch a summer steelhead.  He worked at it diligently.  He cast and cast.  My guess is that this fellow really knows his water, is a skilled fly fisher, probably is a fly tyer too, and catches a whole lot more fish than I do.

Pretty soon, sure enough, he hooked a steelhead.  He was excited, genuinely thrilled.  The battle ensued, the fish went gadzooks, and jumped and ran and the reel screeched, and water sprayed up from his line, and there were droplets hanging in the air, and all that stuff that sends adrenaline flushing through our veins and keeps us addicted and spending our entire life savings on fishing tackle.

Eventually, this gentleman brought the steelhead close, slid it ashore, and grabbed it.  He waded ashore, all full of big smiles, and began a series of remarks about the steelhead being a hatchery fish and that is why he is killing it, and how harvesting the fish is good for the wild fish, and all the stuff we have been taught by the fish management agencies and the latest science, and the people we fish with, and the people we read about, and all that jazz.

I do not mean to single this gentleman out, because I absolutely know that the views he expresses are mainstream.  I have heard people I respect greatly, my good friends, make similar remarks about “ridding the gene pool of inferior hatchery fish,  weeding out the hatchery drones, bonking the cookie cutters, knocking the pellet heads, the snakes, the ….”


People, please cease and desist indulging in this sort of talk. The language we use and the way we describe the world around us defines who we are.  The language we use provides a template for others to copy and repeat.  The language we use sets the tone in our brain and affects the way we perceive everything, from the rivers to our fellow anglers.

I know plenty of people who love to fly fish for steelhead, and a few who are obsessed with fly fishing for Chinook salmon.  I have fished with these folks.  I have seen the excitement on their faces, their body vibes, when they hook a fish.  They are just plain addicted to the hook-up, the tug, the head-shake, and the fight.  They want to feel the connection with a big fish, and when it comes, it is unconditional.  They do not know, at this point, if the fish is wild or hatchery, they just feel the hormonal release of joy juice in their whole being, the climactic euphoria of making contact with an elusive living creature far off at the end of their line.

Why is it, then, if it becomes apparent that they are connected to a hatchery fish, their attitude, their demeanor shifts from one of respect to one of – almost – disdain?

This shift in attitude is, in my opinion, bad juju.

My young son is taking Ki Aikido training. The sensei was training young students and demonstrating the effects of negative or disrespectful thinking.  Without going into details, let me simply say that even thinking bad thoughts about someone or something else drains our strength, it weakens us, and it magnifies negative energy around us.

This might sound silly. It is not – and the concept is not trivial.

If we love fish, if we love rivers and fishing and wild creatures, then our passion for wild and healthy ecosystems will be best served by sending positive, respectful Ki to our surroundings – including hatchery fish and fellow anglers who might fish differently than we do and who might not even recognize or care a hoot about the origin of a fish, be it wild or hatchery.

I am disappointed when I see a hatchery fish that has stubbed off fins.  It makes me sad when I see a hatchery fish that is skinny, has a rounded off nose or that madly disorganized pattern of regenerated scales associated with handling in hatchery ponds.  I do not let my disappointment for the condition or origin of that hatchery fish cross the boundary into disrespect for a living creature.

When I catch a hatchery steelhead, no matter how it looks, I say, “thank you, for the opportunity to catch this fish.”  If I kill it to take home for my family or a friend’s family to eat, I say, “thank you for sharing your life energy to sustain our bodies and spirit.”

I have heard biologists tell us that we need to kill as many of these hatchery fish as we can, in order to “weed them out of the gene pool.”

That just doesn’t sit right with me.

The consequence of falling into this trap changes the entire frame of reference to one where I am now fishing, not for the fun of it, but to  protect wild fish from the nasty effects of hatchery fish.  Do you see the subtle difference?  If these hatchery fish are so damaging then why are so many being put out into the rivers anyway?

I know the science. I know that hatchery fish are not good for wild fish.  So what?  Don’t expect me to clean up after someone else’s mess.  If I choose to not kill a hatchery fish, I have the right to release it, I have the right to respect it, and enjoy the tug, and the battle, and the hunt, and the release.  I can go home feeling good that I caught a fish that day.  I can do all this and focus on positive energy, positive thinking, and feelings of goodwill and joy, because I know, in my heart, that such uplifting thoughts create more good energy.

The dark-side path that is being modeled by a dismaying number of good people, sends us all into the vortex of mean-spiritedness.  Speaking of hatchery fish in disrespectful terms or handling them in a disrespectful manner simply hastens the demise of everything we care deeply about.  Every fish we catch, wild or hatchery, should be spoken of, conversed with, and handled with the same respect we would a wild fish.  This honors us.  This honors the living universe.

Personally, I wish for more wild fish, healthier rivers, and a societal shift that will respect nature more.  Listen to BP’s before and after promises that an ecologically damaging oil spill was unlikely, even impossible to occur.  Now think about the real possibility that we could lose wild salmon and steelhead.  Think these two situations are not connected?

Wrong.  Meantime, speak of all rivers and all fish with respect, if with pragmatic respect.

Challenge me on this one if you wish.  I simply believe that if we love wild salmon we must speak and act with sincere respect and kindness towards hatchery fish.

No bull.

We can accurately recognize that a hatchery salmon is not the same creature as a wild salmon.  We can strive to protect our rivers from development that will strangle their ability to nurture wild salmon.  We can challenge harvest managers to reduce exploitation rates and increase escapements of wild fish.  We can financially support upgrades to hatcheries so they can be managed in ways that are less damaging to wild fish.

We should consider the number hatchery fish may appropriately  be released into our rivers.  We should be talking about reserving some of our best rivers for wild fish, an insurance policy to protect these most productive wild runs from the downsides of hatchery programs and hatchery fish.  We shold be talking about ensuring that spawning escapements for wild fish are being met.

There is much work that must be accomplished in order to ensure that our remaining rivers and wild salmon are not squandered by a continuing sequence of societal choices consistent with human-kind’s environmentally destructive history.

I intend to do what I can to support attitudes that are respectful towards wild rivers, wild and hatchery fish, because I believe that the future of wild fish will be more secure in a world where all creatures, wild and hatchery, are respected.


6 thoughts on “Respect our Hatchery Steelhead

  1. To be clear, when I say “swimming hot dog” or “wind sock,” the disrespect (or flat out anger) is directed at the Army Corps, ODFW and humanity in general (myself included) for intentionally destroying and/or mutilating all that is wild and beautiful in our sacred rivers. I don’t blame the fish. They are just the innocent and unfortunate–the pitiable targets of our blood sport.

  2. Hate to say I often fall into that trap. You have a good point. There is a book called Blood Ties. It is actually about hunting but the gest of it is the same sentiment. Kind of off the subject I know but its interesting how that take on life can be found in many corners of society. Thanks

    1. Andy, thank you. We are all human. No one is immune from the trap of negative thinking, speech, or behavior. The good news is that we can consciously strive to shape-up and resolve to focus on the positive.


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