'Trout and Salmon' a worthy catch

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'Trout and Salmon' a worthy catch

Author blends joy, knowledge of fish

By Charlie Meyers, Denver Post Outdoor Editor

December 22, 2002

As a small boy in Connecticut, Bob Behnke caught a 6-inch brook trout he quickly brought home and placed in a pan of water.

"I thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world," Behnke said. "I was fascinated."

Sixty-two years and six continents later, that enthrallment for members of the broad family of fishes that encompasses salmon and trout has diminished not a whit.

Robert J. Behnke, now retired as professor emeritus at Colorado State University, ranks as the world's leading authority on salmonids and is a crusader for the well-being of species most of us never knew existed.

In a career that has compelled him to the dark corners of the globe, Behnke serves as arbiter for the identification of numerous obscure fish and has been granted extended passports to places no other American could go. Closer to home, he served as catalyst in the restoration of endangered native trout, most notably Colorado's state fish, the greenback cutthroat.

All this has given the 72-year-old Behnke an unrivaled knowledge and perspective he condensed into a masterwork every cold-water angler can love.

"Trout and Salmon of North America," published in October by The Free Press division of Simon and Schuster Inc., $40, is the sort of large-format book that typically stakes out a permanent resting place on a tabletop - provided anyone can put it down.

With dazzling color illustrations from Joseph Tomelleri, the book offers an intriguing blend of Behnke the consummate scientist and the angling enthusiast who once carried a fly rod to the Korean War.

Those who enjoyed 20 years of his columns in "Trout," the magazine of Trout Unlimited, will recognize the style: dazzlingly informative yet always with the kind of practical hook that makes one want to grab a rod and explore all the places these fish exist, except, perhaps, North Korea.

Behnke, who recently was named angler of the year by Fly Rod & Reel magazine, has visited many of the wild places of the globe in a quest to catalog little-known species. An early highlight was a 10-month tour of the Soviet Union in 1964 at the peak of the Cold War.

He since has returned to Russia four times while also visiting some of the more obscure places where salmonidae exist, a scientific Marco Polo whose travels perhaps never will be duplicated.

"Bob has gained even more respect overseas than in Colorado and the U.S.," said Don Proebstel, a biologist and Boulder County resident who wrote the introduction to the book and perhaps ranks as Behnke's most devoted disciple.

All of which sounds peculiar against the backdrop of his remarkable discoveries among the trout of North America. While pursuing his doctorate at the University of California Berkeley, Behnke discovered a pure population of the Lahontan cutthroat trout believed extinct.

More recent, he has been included in the scientific name of the Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat, Oncorhynchus clarki behnkei.

Close to home, Behnke was central to the recovery of the greenback cutthroat, an event he joined after coming to CSU in 1966. The rediscovery of this native trout of eastern Colorado, believed extinct, centered around a tiny unnamed tributary of North Boulder Creek, subsequently christened Como Creek for a nearby mine.

"People at the University of Colorado knew about the population, but had no taxonomist or fisheries program with which to investigate," Behnke said. "I received the correspondence on this and went up to look into it. I discovered they were true greenbacks."

An eventual recovery program, conducted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Colorado Division of Wildlife, resulted in the greenback's recent removal from the endangered species list.

Behnke stands as a staunch defender of the principle of wild trout, a stance that causes him to speak for a broader investigation of the potential of a strain of European-based rainbow trout that now offer a management alternative in American waters infested with whirling disease.

Transplanted to Germany and England some 125 years ago, these North American natives evolved with a profound resistance to WD. Many biologists now see them as an important tool in re-establishing rainbows in Rocky Mountain rivers where existing populations have been depleted or eliminated.

What puzzles Behnke is why an international conference on whirling disease held in Denver in February concentrated solely on a resistant rainbow strain held in a German hatchery without any mention of the potential of fish that exist in the European wilds.

"I see no indication that anyone is interested in wild European rainbows, which might offer several genetic advantages over hatchery varieties," Behnke said.

While Behnke has no quarrel with using this proposed hatchery import, the so-called Hofer strain, to satisfy put-and-take needs, he said he believes a wild variety would provide more lasting benefits - much like the Colorado River strain employed in the DOW in its previously successful program to propagate wild rainbows.

Behnke's devotion to fish that are both native and wild represents something of an irony when one considers a brook trout from a Connecticut millpond, the one that inspired the life direction of a 10-year-old boy, was a hatchery product.

"If someone had told me that this lovely trout had been made by a machine and dropped out of a truck, it wouldn't have mattered to me," Behnke said.

That it now matters quite a lot in the twilight of a remarkable career containing so much knowledge should not be lost on those who now manage the nation's fishery resources.
 


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