The Origins of the “Golden Rainbow Trout” (“Beautiful” only to the ecologically illiterate)
By Ted Williams
West Virginia concocted the “golden rainbow” or “West Virginia centennial golden trout,” now de rigueur in states and provinces from North Carolina to Quebec to California.
In 1955 a mutant female rainbow deficient in pigmentation turned up in one of the Wildlife Division’s hatcheries -- to the delight of West Virginia fish managers who, one can easily imagine, rubbed their hands together and cackled, “It’s aliiiiive! It’s aliiiiive!”
They carefully reared her in a separate raceway, then fertilized her eggs with milt from normal hatchery stock. About 300 of her offspring turned as yellow as ripe bananas.
The first of these freaks were stocked in 1963, in celebration of West Virginia’s centennial. The state has 500 miles of brook-trout streams. But it’s the mutant alien, not the native brook trout, that appears on the wildlife division’s logo.
“Goldens account for about 10 percent of our total rainbow production,” West Virginia’s assistant chief of coldwater fisheries, Mike Shingleton, told me. “They’re more difficult to catch. I think a lot of that is because you can see them better, and everyone casts to them.”
“Everybody likes them because they’re such an unusual fish,” declared Brian Wisner, hatchery director for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, which fashioned what it called “palomino trout” out of golden stock acquired from West Virginia. “Our goal is to provide them for variety and so that people can experience the golden rainbows [as palominos are now called.]”
“Everybody” includes herons, otters, ospreys, pike and bass. “They’re very visible to predators,” Wisner continued. “If you were trying to maintain a population in a stream, it wouldn’t be very successful because every predator out there sees them.”
Wisner has it right about the popularity of pigment-impoverished rainbows. As the Daily Progress (Charlottesville, VA) newspaper accurately reports: “Golden [rainbow] trout are among the most sought-after species of trout that are stocked today. An angler will spot a clearly visible ‘golden’ finning in the current and spend the rest of the day trying to catch the finicky fish.”
According to Northamericatrout.com, “The golden rainbow may be the most beautiful of all trout.” The Web site of California’s Santa Ana River Lakes trout park explains that the reason for their “desirability” is that they “look like neon lights shooting through the water.”
And this effusion from the “Outdoor Passion” (TV show) team, which devoted a program to the pursuit of these mutants in Quebec’s Lanaudière region: “This glowing fish with its bright colors is so beautiful that you have to tangle with a golden [rainbow] at least once in your lifetime. They look like a cross between rainbow trout and gold, making it a super fish. They are so visible near the surface it’s almost sight fishing.”
Despite frequent reports to the contrary, golden rainbows are not albinos. But albino rainbows are being produced and stocked, too. One June morning, amid a blizzard of Pale Morning Duns, I worked my way up Utah’s Logan River, hoping to encounter a Bonneville cutthroat—a descendant of the salmon-size predators that patrolled ancient Lake Bonneville and were presumed extinct until the late 1950s, when they were rediscovered by Colorado State University fisheries professor Dr. Robert Behnke.
I was reaching down to shake another wild brown off my hook when I spied a bright orange fish hanging around my feet. “Hey, a goldfish,” I yelled to my fishing partner, Tom Wharton. “No,” he corrected, “it’s an albino rainbow.” The Division of Wildlife Resources sprinkles them among its pigmented rainbows to convince anglers who have trouble catching trout that the hatchery truck hasn’t passed the stream by. And the division cites an added benefit: “Kids love to see the yellow fish flash through the water.”