By Justin Bubenik
June 25th, 2020

Under the Surface:
Rainbow trout conservation and pride in the outdoors

Rainbow trout were plentiful while I was growing up in Oregon. They often were the target of my fly fishing pursuits. My first sizeable Deschutes River Redside made it clear that there was something different about some trout, but it wasn’t until I started nerding-out in the world of O. mykiss that I discovered the diversity of what I thought was just “rainbow trout.”

Though debated, there are at least 15 distinct subspecies of rainbow trout with unique distributions. The subspecies of rainbows differ drastically in coloration; the Golden Trout, native to only a couple streams in the Southern Sierra, is a stunning example. Rainbows prefer and are adapted to specific habitats, ranging from the high desert to the Pacific rainforest. They have different diets, too, whether it’s krill and fish or the tiniest of insects. Some even exhibit several life histories – with the iconic “steelhead” being the most drastic example – spending a portion of their lives in the Pacific.

As a species, the rainbow trout is flourishing. Robust hatchery programs churn out catchable trout by the millions that are stocked in lakes and streams across the country. The rainbow trout’s range has expanded because of human intervention to every continent aside from Antarctica, and “wild” populations exist in over 40 countries. In an attempt to elicit some hate-mail, it is often the case that those transplanted specimens are a far cry from their ancestors raised in their native waters out West.

That being said, unique, specifically-adapted subspecies of the rainbow trout are under threat of extinction. Whether it’s urban development, grazing, disease, deforestation, hybridization, climate change, invasive species or any other number of causes, rainbow subspecies such as the Little Kern Golden, Beardslee trout, Kern River Rainbow, and a number of distinct steelhead populations are threatened or endangered under state or federal law.

Groups such as Trout Unlimited and the Fly Fishers International are putting in the finances and work to help protect these unique trout, but the more attention to the value and awesomeness of these fish is vital – and fishing for them (in a responsible manner and pending the extent of the population) is a great way to increase personal value for any angler.

I view the rainbow trout as a great fishy symbol for the LGBTQ+ community. Aside from the obvious perfection of the “rainbow” long being a symbol of the community, I drew a loftier connection to my own struggle as a gay man and the struggles I’ve seen so often repeated in and out of the angling and hunting community for LGBTQ+ individuals. Each struggle is unique and often stays internalized.

I’ve been fortunate to have had few barriers to the outdoors with a family where hunting and fishing was hardly an option. I have rarely faced situations where I was tossed into hostile waters without my choosing. But, being raised in an environment where gay men were labeled fag, flamer, or queer (in a negative sense), I’ve long fought feelings of inferiority and needing to prove myself. Since childhood and before as of recent, those feelings were accompanied by fear, pain, and a desire for acceptance.

It took a community to get me to come out of the closet. It took an even stronger one to give me the “habitat” where I’m emboldened to write something like this. But, as I’ve spoken up about my own unique experiences, continued to pursue the activities I love, and shared each of those things with others, I hold onto the hope that I’m positively impacting one person’s perspectives towards the communities of which I’m a part. At the very least, I hope I give another human some comfort in knowing they’re not alone.

Though both have seen their wins in recent years, there’s no easy answer to the struggles of LGBTQ+ folks or rainbow trout. Each would benefit from more voices speaking up for them whether that’s through education, personal outreach and action, or simply changing some of your behaviors to help a single life or small population.

There are a number of resources to educate yourself, both on the coldwater conservation and LGBTQ+ inclusivity fronts, and an internet search and some personal interactions will go a long way in that effort.

In the case of trout, I’d encourage you to check out the Western Native Trout Initiative and their native trout challenge aimed at raising awareness and funds to protect the threatened trout of the West – rainbows included.

As for fostering community like the one I was so fortunate to fall into, one that is welcoming not only to the LGBTQ+ community but to anyone who may be “different” from someone you’re used to seeing on the water or in the field, I’d encourage you to first and foremost not make presumptions. Whether it’s angling expertise or who they may be dating, the answer is not determined by a person’s gender, race, or what they’re wearing. Speaking from personal experience, it’s not easy to “come out” by correcting a person who asks “who is the lucky lady?” – but it’s not any easier having to play along and hide that part of myself.

I hate asking someone to change their behavior because it feels like I’m asking someone to “inconvenience” themselves strictly on my behalf. But the reason I’ve found the strength to speak up and I make these asks today is for the next LGBTQ+ angler or hunter. For those who still live in fear and just want to be able to take pride in being themselves as they take to the outdoors. For the next generation of anglers, hoping to pursue wild native trout in their ancestral stream.

Make your next outdoor adventure a win-win – take a new person fishing or hunting, and sign them up for a conservation organization while you’re at it. The more voices and dollars for conservation – no matter what they look like or who they love – the better.

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