The Rational Trout

Dave Witherow delves into the mysteries of trout intelligence

The great trout psychologist Bob Wyatt once explained that most of our confusion in dealing with trout was due to ‘the pathetic fallacy’ — the classic temptation to view all animals as though they had minds like our own. And while this fallacy persists we are unlikely to appreciate the true complexities of how trout think and behave. Trout, rather obviously, are not as clever as humans (or the majority of humans, anyway). They have very small brains, but it must be remembered that the size of an animal’s brain bears no relation to its intelligence. Consider the ant, for example — an organism equipped with a brain no bigger than a pin-head, yet capable of extraordinary feats of social integration and organisational complexity. Ants, together with termites, bees, wasps, and innumerable other insects, utterly demolish the lame theory that brainpower depends on sheer volume of grey matter. Trout, if the available studies may be believed, come in about halfway up the scale of intelligence — roughly on a par with dogs, parrots, owls, and badgers. They’re certainly not dumb, and the celebrated ichthyologist and all-round Australian angling ace Peter Morse maintains that the mean IQ of brown trout lies between 58 and 62. Rainbows he thinks are not quite so smart — although he concedes that one day on the Eglinton he was completely bamboozled by a big rainbow that left him looking like a half-hatched chook. Anyone who has owned a dog knows that they are not just chunks of insensate meat. They are intelligent, no question. They can be taught to come when they’re called, crap in the yard, fetch ducks, herd sheep, and so forth. Trout are very obviously different. They won’t take orders, and they refuse to learn anything, other than how not to get hooked. Which, considering how regularly they outwit the most cunning of their human adversaries, should put paid to the notion that they are dim. How intelligent they really are is a debate that has been going on forever. Every angler has an opinion — based invariably upon their own experience. But this can never be more than anecdotal waffle without reference to the biological and evolutionary history behind the cerebral firepower of every animal above the level of an amoeba. We know that dogs, like dingoes, drongos, dormice, and even dolphins, are very closely related to humans. They differ by no more than a molecular whisker, a few small cross-connections within the mini-universe of DNA. Which is hardly surprising — they are all mammals — members of the same broad zoological class as Homo sapiens. (Your average pooch, in fact, has 98.3% the same genes as you do). Trout are further removed in the evolutionary scheme of things, although not as far as you might think: they too are members of the zoological class Vertebrata, and thus are constructed — bone, muscle, blood, and brain-cells — on the same basic blueprint as we are. But their evolution diverged a long time ago, and their brains, over millions of years, have become adapted to their very different environment, and this is one reason why we often find them so baffling and, as anglers, exasperating. It is early April of a hard season, and conditions, for once, are close to perfect. Spinners dance on the water, duns are airborne, and a squadron of big trout is parked in the lee of the willows, sipping confidently, dorsal fins just stirring the surface film. From the cover of a gorse-bush you watch them, recalling a day six years before, at this same place, when everything went according to plan, cast after cast, and you nailed the whole line-up, starting from the downstream fish. That day too was in April, the tail-end of the season. And now, like an old movie replaying in memory, every detail of the scene seems replicated. The long, deep pool, the darting trout, the river adrift with yellow leaves. Can one possibly play the same game twice, across the span of years? Creeping away from the bank you circle around, moving through the bushes to a position downstream of the fish. They feed on. They sip and hover and slalom around, so wonderfully exposed, so vulnerable. The slight wind has dropped to nothing. The far bank, tightly bound by the roots of its close-spaced willows, has remained unchanged through flood after flood. The current still glides in its frothy curve beneath the sheltering branches, just as it did six seasons before. These fish look almost too easy. But the river is low and the water clear— and they’re trout, after all, not catfish. They’re alert, adaptive animals, very highly evolved, with IQ’s not far below the minimum required for employment in the government. Caution is definitely called for. A longer tippet, a smaller fly. Ignore that quickening heartbeat. Hours pass. The sun goes down below the line of the trees and you are standing in the exact same place, waist-deep in cooling water. Your feet no longer register and the numb nuggets of your testicles have retreated into your belly. The trout are still in position, still confidently rising, but after a zillion casts you have caught nothing, raised nothing, and you are considering your future as an angler. No living creature, so intensively studied by so many people, has remained as enigmatic as the trout. Biologists have devoted lifetimes in attempting to unravel a mystery that ought to have been recognised long ago as entirely beyond the reach of science. And the anglers, knowing no better, are suckers for the new books that come out like confetti at the start of every season. Expensive books, with the author on the cover by a fabled river, a big trout swinging in the net. Buy this, the spiel goes, and you’ll knock them dead every time. For two thousand years this fine rort has prospered — ever since the distant day when the first trout was snagged on a line. It’s the world’s longest-running literary con-job, kept going by a devious army of work-shy scribblers who fish all summer and drink all winter, delighted at their endless good-fortune. The books, of course, are worthless — crude reiterations of the same old guff, minimally repackaged. Yet the market never falters. Trout-fishers are true-believers. Trout-fishers are addicts, their incurable habit sustained by rare and transcendent moments of success that, like the most esoteric and expensive drugs, make bearable their everyday lives of disillusion and disaster. One day, they are sure, the long-sought breakthrough will occur, the jellybean brain will be fully decoded, and the trout will be snookered for sure. But will it? We look for answers to questions that bear little relation to reality, and we resolutely ignore the simple truth, which has always been obvious — that it has never been possible for an angler to tell how any trout will behave from one moment to the next. One day they are child’s play — and the next they can drive to despair the most skilled and subtle of their human predators. They are unpredictable to the point where even their unpredictability is unpredictable — a baffling and enduring fact that has driven many a keen angler berserk. As a voluntary activity nothing comes close to the sport of angling. No other pastime, so hazardous to health and sanity, has survived so long, defying all normal logic. Psychiatric analysis does no good at all, and remedial therapy is a waste of time. Generation after generation the same old story repeats itself. Broken marriages, statutory confinements, suicides and homicides — the familiar casualties and domestic bedlam inseparable from the angling life. We live in an interesting era. Pandemics rage from pole to pole, wars erupt, famines, earthquakes, but in the cloistered realm of angling these events pass almost unnoticed. Trout, as always, are the focus, and all the ancient hurdles and difficulties remain, as daunting as ever, yet fresh recruits are always forthcoming. The anglers grumble, abandon their wives and children and jump off bridges, but it makes no difference. The season ends, the year turns, the winter passes — and last summer’s debacles are blithely forgotten. The urge to fish is biological. It is hard-wired, imprinted at conception and lurking still in the latent psyche of every earthling not totally perverted by life in a city. Its presence may be unsuspected — may lie dormant indefinitely. Or, ignited by some fugitive spark, it may one day burst into flame, upsetting the given order of things, disturbing even the robots. Visions at midnight. A clean wind from the mountains, the miniature miracle of the mayfly’s ephemeral existence. Where these things still survive so too will the human animal be drawn to the hills, the green valleys, to rivers, and finally to trout. Even the tourists, incoherently searching, are driven by a deep-buried knowledge that the road to nirvana can never be found in an environment comprised of concrete. The need for escape — or distraction at least — concerns millions. But as a general panacea for the puzzlement of mankind trout-fishing is a complete dead-end. There aren’t enough rivers for a start, and even if there were it would never work because the trout are just too tricky. They always were and they still are. They refuse to move with the times and co-operate in any way for the good of the planet or the spiritual solace of humanity. Think of all the people you know who have attempted to become anglers. Some last for a week, some maybe a season, and about one in a hundred persists. As a global project it’s a non-runner, and will remain so as long as trout remain trout. When ultimately stymied we turn to Science, our last and most desperate religion. The discipline that has brought us to where we are — built and upholstered the cage we inhabit, taken us to the moon and cracked open the DNA molecule — can hardly fail to fix such a minor hiccup as a fish that refuses to behave. A solution will be found, no doubt about it. Already the biologists have accomplished miracles, and barriers once thought absolute have long ago been demolished. Separate species are no longer separate. The genes of mice are inserted in butterflies, or goldfish, and the familiar creation we grew up with — the birds and the bees, the flowers and the trees — are living on borrowed time, dependant not on heredity but on the whims of Homo sapiens. One day soon the trout brain will be fully deciphered. We will pry open that little box of tricks and lay bare the molecular clockwork that has fascinated and foxed and bewitched us for so long. And then, of course, we will rearrange it to create the ideal, amenable, predictable fish we have always thought we have always wanted. And that will be the end of the story. The end of angling as we have known it and the demise of a strange symbiotic relationship that can never happen again. The old angling writers got one thing right. They filled their books with beguiling nonsense, with cockeyed theories and loony advice and whole acres of outright lies. But they understood — most of them — that there was more to the pursuit of angling than merely catching a fish. They understood this because they felt it in their bones, knew it from their own living experience. They couldn’t miss it, any more than can any functional human who haunts rivers for long enough. And, grumble and bitch though they often did, they also knew that the trout needs no alteration. That it was perfect all along — perfect in its obstinacy, its singular beauty, its moods fickle as the river itself in drought and spate, as mercurial and as vulnerable. And that is what ensnares the angler, reconciles him to life on a rock in a universe heedless of us, our lunatic certainties, our infant dreams.

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