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Greg French: scientific angler

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By Doug Hare EBS Staff

In his latest book, “The Imperiled Cutthroat,” Greg French has written an eminently readable travelogue about fishing in and around Yellowstone National Park. French, an accomplished Australian angler and longtime fly-fishing journal contributor, offers a refreshing, if contrary, perspective on his favorite species of trout and its habitat.

Yellowstone cutthroat are the state fish of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Today the Yellowstone River is most likely the only stream outside of primitive areas that supports a strong population.

French’s investigation into the history, current state, and future of trout species in the Yellowstone region is both technical and impassioned. The author blends history, geology, biology and ecology, and documents his encounters with fellow anglers and wildlife. His passion for Yellowstone’s native trout is never far from the surface.

At times, “The Imperiled Cutthroat” reads like an informative memoir about exploits from the Snake River in Jackson Hole up to fishing holes near Bozeman and fly shops in Livingston. At other moments, French makes a point of wading into deeper water. He’s not shy about questioning some of our environmental policies and the oversimplified stories that are taken for granted and which seem to miss the complexity of the natural world.

The combination works. His travels, conversations, and experiences dovetail nicely into passages that point out the arbitrariness and sometimes absurdity of our good intentions and quick fixes. Sure, this book centers on the mysterious and illegal introduction of lake trout into Yellowstone Lake in 1989, which decimated the cutthroat population. But it also explores the various conflicting theories surrounding what has happened since then and how to fix the problem.

There is, however, much more to chew on. French debunks myths about hatcheries being a panacea for the conservation of native fish species. He questions commonly held assumptions about brucellosis in elk and buffalo. He makes fascinating comparisons between the sustainability of places like Mongolia and Tasmania to that of the Lamar Valley. And he makes palatable a discussion of various fishing policies on different stretches of water.

French likes to think of fly fishing as a science. He talks about the importance of observation, of the proper use of doubt, about the trial-and-error methodology, of testing hypotheses and finding out what works and what makes sense.

The author does not sound boastful when he claims that those who spend hours on lakes and streams and rivers are the ones who have the best understanding of the health of our waterways and the best instincts for protecting them. Many of French’s hypotheses don’t float the mainstream, but most of his arguments seem to hold water.

This book should interest not only avid fly fishers, but also anyone interested in the ecology of the Yellowstone region or concerned about conservation of public lands and waterways.

Yellowstone has been a testing ground for ideas about how to protect native species, and we are still making progress figuring out the proper role of human agency in and around a massive supervolcano. If there is any recent publication that will challenge your preconceived notions about preservation in Yellowstone National Park, this is it.

Doug Hare is the Distribution Coordinator for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.

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