Thanks to the generosity of one of our members, Rolf Marsh, our Library has come into possession of one of the most significant modern volumes ever written about North American Salmonids. Trout and Salmon of North America, published in 2002, is considered by many the Bible of North American Salmonid identification and research. It was written by Dr. Robert J. Behnke, the recognized authority on the topic. Behnke, who left us in 2013, was an ichthyologist of world renown. He wrote a column for Trout Magazine, then and still the magazine of Trout Unlimited (TU). He was a professor at Colorado State University. It should also be noted that he was an avid fly fisherman who fished and otherwise rubbed shoulders with other fly-fishing luminaries.
Among Behnke’s most notable achievements is the rediscovery of two cutthroat subspecies that were thought to be extinct. He found pure greenback cutthroats and helped restore them in their native drainages in Colorado (appropriately, the greenback is Colorado’s state fish). Perhaps even more remarkably, for a trophy trout angling perspective, he identified some small trout, caught in a tiny stream near Pilot Peak in Eastern Nevada, as pure, original Pyramid Lake strain Lahontan cutthroats (bless the bucket biologist, whoever he or she might have been, who pulled that one off!). This, in turn, led to the reestablishment of those fish in their original home, Pyramid Lake. That saga has been described in detail elsewhere and it won’t be dwelt on here. But, should you ever venture to Pyramid and catch a cutthroat the size of a chinook salmon (they are now again exceeding twenty pounds!), offer up momentary thanks to the spirit of Robert J. Behnke.
Others have pursued the entire range of salmon and trout in North America and published their efforts. Robert Smith authored Native Trout of North America which chronicled his pursuit of each subspecies, from the Northwest Territories to Mexico (and which I reviewed for this column in September 2012).
TROUT: An illustrated History, by James Prosek, follows his travels as he not only tracked all the North American species, as well as Brown Trout and Atlantic Salmon, but as he also painted wonderful watercolors of each. (See the April 2013 Barbless for a review of that work.)
Behnke’s work is set apart, though, by his own expertise and detailed yet concise natural histories. One might expect the work of one of such preeminence to be technical and difficult, but such is not the case at all. Behnke’s writing is clear and very easy to read. Just as importantly, the illustrations provided by Joe Tommeleri, perhaps the greatest detailed trout portraitist ever, further elevate this work. Indeed, one has to look closely at Tommeleri’s illustrations to be sure they aren’t photographs, until one realizes that each portrait is too perfect to be a photo! It’s as though he actually paints each individual scale…
Some of the subspecies descriptions are especially touching, even haunting. One of the extinct species of cutthroats is the Yellowfin, a trout unique to the Twin Lakes at the headwaters of the Arkansas River in Colorado. There it co-existed with the greenbacks that were also in the lake, which it probably preyed upon since it was markedly larger than its green backed cousins. Before much time had passed, both the yellowfins and the greenbacks had disappeared from the Twin Lakes. The yellowfins simply disappeared, in less than twenty years, at a time before enough knowledge of it could be obtained to protect it, and before such efforts were even thought to be important.