October 17, 2021
By Chip O'Brien
This article was originally titled "Filling the Huge, Trout-Shaped Hole" in the Migrations column of the Feb-March 2017 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
“If you build it, he will come,” went the line from the 1989 Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams, and that is precisely what Colorado State University (CSU) is hoping to accomplish. When Professor Robert J. Behnke (affectionately known to the fly-fishing community as Dr. Trout) passed away in 2013, his death left a huge, trout-shaped hole precisely where wild trout lovers the world over can’t afford it. Despite all the great conservation work carried on by many dedicated individuals and organizations, prospects for wild trout in America are tenuous at best. Anglers are generally aware of threats to coldwater fisheries from pollution, disease, invasive species, unregulated logging, grazing, and displacing of native fish through the reckless stocking of hatchery fish, but other dangers are insidious and loom on a much grander scale.
To combat these threats, CSU is creating a new professorship honoring Dr. Behnke and “. . . to continue Dr. Behnke’s legacy of conserving and enhancing wild trout populations and their habitat for future generations.” CSU is looking for about $3 million to fund the new professorship in perpetuity.
“We want to bring in a national leader,” said Scott Webb, executive director of development of CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources, “to structure a program that looks at coldwater fisheries issues and education, water, habitat, and disease with an education component.”
I sat down with a few of his colleagues and friends to discuss the legacy of Dr. Bob Behnke and the professorship named after him.
Renowned Scientist of Ichthyology
“Dr. Behnke’s two greatest contributions were his early work, when he went across the West sorting out which trout were in which basins,” said Kevin Bestgen (CSU senior research scientist and director of the Larval Fish Laboratory). “His other was bringing science to the public so people could be better informed and promote trout conservation.”
After serving in the Korean War, Behnke returned home to complete his master’s degree and Ph.D. in ichthyology at the University of California, Berkeley. After moving to Colorado in the 1960s with his wife Sally, he worked for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service before becoming a professor at CSU, a job he kept for more than 30 years. Much of this time was spent traversing remote stretches of the vast American West (fly rod in hand) tracking down, classifying, and helping preserve numerous native trout species, several of which were teetering on the brink of extinction.
Esteemed Professor and Native-Trout Advocate
“When you came to CSU as a student,” said Ken Kehmeier (senior aquatic biologist, Colorado Parks and Wildlife), “you had no idea who Bob Behnke was, but just by being around and hearing other professors talking, all of a sudden you realized that we had a world-renowned scientist sitting in the basement of the Wagar Building. He was very approachable, willing to talk to anybody. You were kind of in awe there was somebody that special to fisheries at CSU.”
Behnke distinguished himself in numerous ways, but it took a keen mind to recognize the potential of reaching out to anglers around the world through his “About Trout” columns in Trout magazine, and his widely read books, including Trout and Salmon of North America. By sharing his native-trout fascination with the angling community, he found an enthusiastic audience as well as strong and influential allies in preserving native strains that, without his advocacy, might not exist today.
“You’d go down to his office and he’d be sitting smoking his pipe, thinking, and writing,” said CSU professor of fish biology Kurt Fausch. “He would start talking to you, and two hours later you’d walk out with this amazing amount of information. Where did he have two hours to spend with me? It was his passion, his love. He had so much to teach.”
“Doc got many awards throughout his career,” recalled Bestgen. “Sally and I found them all in a box after he died. The William E. Ricker Resource Conservation Award is one of the most prestigious awards the American Fisheries Society gives professionals. It was still in its original plastic wrapper.”
The Legacy of a Passionate Fly Fisher
“He was far better known across the globe,” said Bestgen, “than in his own department. He used to write his articles for Trout magazine on a yellow legal pad. He didn’t like computers for a lot of reasons. He was my major advisor for my master’s degree project. He told me, ‘Write clearly such that your mother could understand.’”
“He was probably the only person in the world who went into the military and brought his fly rod with him,” said Kehmeier with a grin. “He carried an M1 rifle and his fly rod. He probably did more for fly fishing and the quest to see all the varieties of cutthroat trout than anybody out there. He probably did more for fly fishing and trout around the world than anybody out there.”
“Bob was a classical ichthyologist,” said CSU professor of fish biology Brett Johnson. “He took anatomy and ecology to the highest levels as a way of discriminating species.
“His philosophy was a good one,” Johnson continued, “that genetics is not the final answer. He recognized the power of genetics, but he always advocated that classical ichthyology, behavior, ecology, and life history strategies are also part of the essence of a species. He was so far advanced in his thinking of what constitutes a species or subspecies. He was decades ahead of the field.”
Greenback Cutthroat Trout Controversy
To some, Dr. Behnke might always be remembered as the guy most responsible for stocking the wrong trout in parts of Colorado, but even his most ardent critics are rarely so severe.
“Dr. Behnke was the person who brought cutthroat trout to the forefront of thinking in the Intermountain West,” said Kehmeier, “and did all the initial work. He got all the agencies, biologists like myself, and his students thinking about the preservation not only of these types of cutthroats, but the preservation of this stream with these cutthroat.”
Greenback trout, specifically from the South Platte River, were thought to be extinct by about 1937, and this turned out to be almost true. A few pure populations were famously discovered in 1969, and Behnke was a leader in the massive effort to bring back Colorado’s state fish. The project became well known as an environmental success story . . . until DNA studies 30 years later revealed they were bringing back the wrong trout.
Behnke and others involved in greenback restoration had concluded the fish they were bringing back was the Platte River greenback trout from the eastern slope of the Continental Divide, but modern DNA studies later showed that they were really a mix of different fish, and were genetically much closer to Colorado River cutthroat trout from the other side of the Continental Divide.
Later, a pure population of Platte River greenbacks was discovered through DNA analysis in Bear Creek in the Arkansas drainage. Greenback trout restoration will continue using those fish, instead of those Dr. Behnke mistook for Platte River greenbacks.
“To blame Bob for that is really naïve,” noted Johnson. “It suggests you’re ignorant of science and genetics. Thirty years ago Bob was setting up this course of action, and the methods that were used were cutting edge. You don’t blame Galileo for mistakes he made based on available science. Science is always marching forward. We don’t know enough about fisheries management, but we still have to do it.”
We Are All Bob Benhke's Students
I never met Bob Behnke or attended CSU, but through his engagement with the fly-fishing community, we all became his unsuspecting students.
Dr. Behnke not only taught me most of what I know about wild trout, but he also inspired many expeditions into enchanted landscapes to catch species like McCloud River redbands, westslope and Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and golden trout. Behnke taught us to uphold the beauty and dignity of genetic diversity in the trout world.
Are we past the tipping point where we can hold onto America’s best wild trout fisheries? What new technologies are developing to tell us more about habitats and ecosystems? What does wild trout fishing look like in our country in 50 or 100 years?
The goal of the Behnke professorship is to keep asking these tough questions. No one can quite fill the huge trout-shaped hole he’s left behind, but perhaps we can at least honor him by symbolically picking up his fly rod and enlisting in the fight. For more information on Colorado State University’s Coldwater Conservation Program and the Dr. Robert J. Behnke Chair, go to: http://warnercnr.colostate.edu/behnke-chair.
Chip O’Brien is the author of California’s Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra (Headwater Books, 2010). He lives in Spokane, Washington.