One day in a drift boat along Henry’s Fork in eastern Idaho, Kyle Smith ’07 felt the lure of the trout, fly fishing for a signature fish of the West.
“The Henry’s Fork is just about as legendary as it gets among trout fishermen,” says Smith. “I remember casting Renegades, my favorite dry fly for trout, and catching five or six rainbows in a row.”
Smith’s trip cemented itself in his memory and led him to a career in trout conservation with Trout Unlimited. It’s his unique experience, but it matches the stories of many anglers, stories of steelhead and brook trout, cutthroat and browns, mackinaw and rainbows. From swift gravelly rivers to broad lakes to dark, silent pools in forest creeks, trout live throughout the region and in the fishing imagination of all ages.
Trout are also intertwined in the work of Washington State University, where researchers help understand trout genetics and monitor health of the fish. And one shouldn’t forget that the beautiful fish tastes pretty good.
“I’ve always been captivated by the appearance of trout with the iridescent sheen,” says Smith. He speaks fondly of that Henry’s Fork fishing trip as a WSU junior with some older guys, including Dwight Hagihara ’89 MS, his boss and director of WSU environmental health and safety. Smith, an environmental studies student and leader (eventually a student regent), recalls the journey as a coming of age.
Tony Poston ’08, a Pullman entrepreneur and owner of College Hill Custom Threads, grew up fishing at Cocolalla Lake near Sandpoint, Idaho, with his grandfather. His first trout came at an annual ice fishing derby.
“Most people caught perch, but I got something and thought, ‘This is not a perch.’ I ended up pulling in a rainbow and winning in the children’s division in the derby,” he says. Poston now loves to fly fish for cutthroat along the North Couer d’Alene River with his wife Emily ’14.
Fly fishing defines many anglers’ hunt for trout. Mentions of fly fishing go back to third century Rome, through Izaak Walton’s 1653 The Compleat Angler, to the modern hobby with its devoted fans like Poston and Smith. Fly fishermen swear by their oddly-named favorite flies, like the Parachute Adams, Woolly Bugger, Bunny Leech, or Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear.
The fish themselves have an ancient history in the Northwest. Salmonids, the trout cousins of Pacific salmon, have long provided a source of food for Native Americans. Even when salmon was scarce in rivers, steelhead—the ocean-going rainbow trout—could often be found.
Even further back, the second oldest salmonid fish fossil was uncovered in 1980 at the site of a Miocene era lake near Clarkia, Idaho, just 60 miles from Pullman. That fish, related to a Eurasian trout called Huchen, snacked on bugs over 20 million years ago.
That primeval fish is not related to the trout we find in the Northwest now. Today we have a combination of native and introduced trout species, including the steelhead, bull, Eastern brook, brown, cutthroat, and mackinaw lake trout. The Dolly Varden (named after a Charles Dickens character and a hat) is not really a trout, but it looks like one. Predominant among all trout in the region is the rainbow.
Rainbow trout, a versatile and hardy fish, are often raised in hatcheries and found in lakes, rivers, and streams just about everywhere. Millions of rainbow trout are released into Washington lakes each spring, and hundreds of thousands of people head out to catch them. Raising rainbow trout is a $2 billion global industry with sales in the United States around $100 million.
Maintaining a healthy population of rainbows is crucial. Tissue samples are sent to WSU’s Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory to screen for viruses, bacteria, and parasites that might affect the large number of trout.
One such malady is coldwater disease, which has a probiotic treatment thanks to researchers Kenneth Cain ’97 PhD of the University of Idaho and Douglas Call ’87, ’97 PhD of WSU’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health.
On a fundamental level, WSU biologist Gary Thorgaard played a key part in the management of rainbow trout when he identified their sex chromosomes. He found a sterile rainbow trout with three sets of chromosomes, so it can be released without affecting native fish.
Conservation of trout, especially steelhead, also motivates Kyle Smith. After graduating, he volunteered in western Oregon with Trout Unlimited, a freshwater conservation organization, which led to a job. It’s tough and satisfying work.
“We’re getting our waders wet and our hands dirty doing stream work, working with farmers and irrigators on habitat restoration,” says Smith. As he speaks, Long fishes on the North Santiam River in the Willamette Valley on a chilly spring day, a dedicated angler searching for steelhead.
Writer and fly fisherman Steve Raymond summed up that dedication in his book The Year of the Trout: “What magic quality does the trout possess that compels men to search for it in such dark and desperate weather? What virtue does it offer to command such unwavering devotion? I can answer only for myself: I love trout because they are among the most beautiful and graceful of all creatures and because they dwell in some of the most beautiful and graceful of all places.”
While fishing for trout is often catch and release in rivers, they can provide a delicious meal. They’re usually sustainable, too, getting a “best choice” rating on Seafood Watch.
Smith’s favorite preparation is smoked trout. “I have a cheap smoker and some alder chips—a couple of hours doing something else around the house while the fish smokes is my favorite way to cook trout and steelhead,” he says. He likes to make pasta with a smoked trout alfredo, a recipe he got from working at Pete’s Bar and Grill in Pullman.
A smoked trout chowder can also rival clam or smoked salmon chowder.
Poston loves pan fried trout for breakfast, a favorite from his grandpa Carey, made with Johnny’s spice mix, egg, and panko breading.
Trout can be nuanced and light, and thus goes well with olive oil and lemon. Treat it simply, perhaps with thyme and dill, and trout can satisfy any fish connoisseur.
Gallery: Trout places in Washington (Pinterest)