What Happened to the Trout?

By James Owen

If your canary in the mineshaft sprouts an extra head, you might think there’s a problem. But not, apparently, if you’re the J. R. Simplot Company.

The canary in its case was the brown trout, and its mineshaft, the Smoky Canyon phosphate mine in southern Idaho. As revealed last month in The New York Times, a study commissioned by the company into selenium pollution in nearby streams noted some local trout were being born with two heads.

“The trout were the offspring of local fish caught in the wild that had been spawned in the laboratory,” the Times’ Leslie Kaufman reported. “Some had two heads; others had facial, fin and egg deformities. Yet the company’s report concluded that it would be safe to allow selenium – a metal byproduct of mining that is toxic to fish and birds – to remain in area creeks at higher levels than are now permitted under regulatory guidelines.”

So, two-headed trout are nothing much to worry about. Well, not if you’re the J. R. Simplot Company.

It’s a story that could have graced the pages of Richard Brautigan’s strange but brilliant novel Trout Fishing in America (1967), which goes in search of trout and their pristine waters in trying to rediscover an America that’s been lost to the greed and materialism of  modern society.

The narrator’s endlessly frustrated quest leads to a trout stream in a wrecking yard, where it is broken up and sold by the foot, or to an encounter with a trout that’s so deformed he initially mistakes it for a frog. In another chapter, “Trout Death by Port Wine,” he witnesses the demise of a trout at the hands of a drunk who pours port down its mouth: “The trout went into a spasm. Its body shook very rapidly like a telescope during an earthquake. The mouth was wide open and chattering almost as if it had human teeth.”

Stories about trout as victims of man’s unnatural acts are nothing new. Some date back centuries, to a time when trout were kept in wells and springs as indicators of water purity. Often considered sacred, these fish gave rise to various legends. One from Ireland, the White Trout of Cong, concerns a fish in a holy spring that was totally white but for a red mark on its side – the legacy of a godless soldier who stole the hallowed creature for his dinner. When the soldier began cutting the fish up, it transformed into “a lovely lady – the beautifullest young crathur that eyes ever seen, dressed in white with a band o’ goold in her hair, and a sthrame o’ blood runnin’ down her arm.”

Moving to the nineteenth century, Richard Jefferies’ essay A London Trout is the tale of a trout in the suburbs living secretly under a bridge. The Victorian nature writer observed the fish for three consecutive years as it “defied all the loafers and poachers” and “threw a mental shadow over the minds of passers-by, so that they never thought of the possibility of such a thing as trout.” But in the fourth year the trout’s stream was dammed, “that some accursed main or pipe or other horror might be laid.” Jefferies never saw the fish again. “I never failed to glance over the parapet into the shadowy water. Somehow it seemed to look colder, less pleasant that it used to do. The spot was empty, and the shrill winds whistled through the poplars.”

A wild brown trout, as it's supposed to look.

More recently, Cormac McCarthy invoked the haunting memory of beautiful trout in his post-apocalyptic novel The Road (2006). During the grim journey of a nameless father and son through a devastated landscape, the father stares into the lifeless rivers they pass, “where once he’d watched trout swaying in the current, tracking their perfect shadows on the stones beneath.” Or where once he “watched the flash of trout deep in a pool, invisible to see in the teacolored water except as they turned on their sides to feed. Reflecting back the sun deep in the darkness like a flash of knives in a cave.”

McCarthy returns to the image of trout in the book’s closing passage:

“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow . . . On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again.”

It isn’t just scientists who see trout as important indicator species of the health of the environment and our stewardship of it. In the wild and watery places of the Western imagination, few animals are as iconic. Trout with two heads? There’s really something wrong if people don’t find that shocking.


    Much of the above is drawn from my new book Trout (a cultural history of trout,  published by Reaktion Books).




Meet the Author
James Owen is a journalist and author based in Stockholm, Sweden. After cutting his teeth on the news and features desks of several UK newspapers, he struck out as a freelance writer, specializing in life sciences and natural history. His fish biography 'Trout' (Reaktion Books) was published in 2012.