Let’s back up a bit. There are a lot of stocked trout in the world. Stocked trout being the ones that at some point in their lifetime lived in a hatchery. Halverson’s An Entirely Synthetic Fish is a perfect read on the topic, specifically with regard to rainbow trout. Likely hatchery beginnings beat up the fishes’ fins, or lead to some other interesting and often highly indicative injuries. It also, as more and more science is showing, ultimately makes the fish dumber than their native correlates. In some places these trout have their adipose fins clipped (yes, I know that’s not a trout on the right in the above graphic… it’s obviously a small tuna*). Elsewhere, they may have a pec fin clipped, or have some other intentional marker. In New York recently, stocked trout are not physically marked in any way. Their spots may blend together, or their coloration may be less than vibrant. Other times, they may look pretty damn convincing. Nevertheless, stocked trout are neither wild nor native (on the East Coast at least, and arguably anywhere).
Wild trout are more easily referred to as stream-born. Certainly there is a point to be made about stocked trout that have lived a long life in the waters in which they were placed. But the influence of the hatchery is still there in the genes. Check out the West Coast steelhead debate if you want to see what hatchery programs do to native fish. Wild trout are not necessarily native trout, anymore than a third-generation Irish-American born in the States is a Native American. In Western New York, for example, we don’t technically have ANY native trout. Brook trout are char, not true trout, as are lake trout (hence Salvelinus). Furthermore, most of the brook trout to be found in WNY are stocked fish. Distressingly, our native lake trout are probably the most likely to be considered trash fish as far as the local cold-water species go, despite beautiful patterning and an addictive, throbbing fight.
I caught some native smallmouth today. It was wild.
Native fish are those species endemic to the area. To poach from Dictionary.com, the most applicable definition in this context is, “an organism indigenous to a particular region.” This caters directly to brook trout in the Northeast being referred to simply as “natives.” There’s a reason that the rainbow trout originally stocked in WNY were referred to as California Spotted Mountain Trout in stocking reports. The only native rainbows we can catch are those that form due to precipitation in the atmosphere. Are there WILD rainbows to be found in our area? Of course there are, and they’re beautiful. But they aren’t, and never will be, native. The same goes for our brown trout. They are derived from a number of European strains. There’s a reason the hatchery in Caledonia is famous, because it represents a crucial part of the history of brown trout in the Eastern United States. Beautiful, unique browns can be found nearby. But they aren’t any more native than those in the hatchery. Wild and native are not interchangeable terms if native doesn’t apply to the fish in the first place, just as fish that were originally native can also be stocked. The waters can get exceptionally muddy. I won’t broach the subject of steelhead versus “steelhead,” or why the concept of domestic rainbows is hilarious. Either way, I caught some native smallmouth today. It was wild.
*Or a stocked Chinook in a Lake Ontario tributary. And that’s about as fresh as they get in this tributary. Imagine how they look when they’ve been in the creek for a while. Being dragged on a stringer through the dirt and along pavement doesn’t help either.