RENO - One of the nation's largest fish conservation groups has a message for those charting the future of the Sierra Nevada's Truckee River: give the ''wimpy'' trout a break.
Trout Unlimited has urged more respect for the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout, which once migrated 100 miles from a desert lake in Nevada up the Truckee River to Lake Tahoe.
Looked down upon by some sport fishermen who prefer the fight of non-native brown and rainbow trout, the once-abundant Lahontan cutthroats grew 40 pounds or larger before they went locally extinct in the Truckee River after the Derby Dam was built 20 miles east of Reno in 1905.
Now, under the edict of the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe are taking steps to reintroduce the native cutthroats to the river.
The result has been a sort of surf n' turf battle between tribes and conservationists who want to restore the river that runs through downtown Reno and avid fishermen who don't want to compromise a world-class sport fishery.
''We have been told that Lahontan cutthroat trout are 'wimpy,' 'meek,' and an 'inferior species,' incapable of competing either physically or genetically,'' Trout Unlimited said in a new policy statement issued last month.
To the contrary, the group insists there is not enough scientific information available to judge whether the fish could be successfully reintroduced to the Truckee.
Local officials for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - who agree generally with Trout Unlimited's stance - said it could take 20 years to determine if the cutthroats have a fighting chance.
Trout Unlimited, with 450 chapters and 100,000 members nationwide, warns that the Truckee River ''is not a healthy watershed by any but the most generous estimate.''
It has been dammed, diverted and channelized. Its banks have been stripped of vegetation and water quality degraded.
''And where big LCT once spawned, a hatchery truck now makes regular deliveries to provide artificial enhancement to the fishery,'' Trout Unlimited said.
''At the same time, the Truckee is not a hopeless case.''
Despite growing criticism from fly fishermen and dismal returns from early efforts to rebuild the cutthroats, local members of Trout Unlimited are trumpeting the significance of the 40-year-old national group's call to re-emphasize the fish's place in the river.
The biggest federal effort under way to return cutthroats to the Truckee is a proposal to build a fish passage way around the 30-foot Derby Dam, which diverts water to one of the first irrigation projects in the West.
''This has been a controversial subject,'' said Steve Trafton, Trout Unlimited's California policy director based in Albany, Calif.
''There are a lot of nay-sayers out there right now,'' said David Bobzien, president of Trout Unlimited's Sagebrush Chapter in Reno.
''They say the Truckee is damaged goods, that this is such a long shot it is not worth taking,'' he said.
''But over the long term, Lahontan cutthroat trout recovery as the goal is the best vehicle available to us in making the Truckee River as healthy as it can be.''
Critics simply point to the results. Tens of thousands of young cutthroats from hatcheries have been stocked in the Truckee without success, proof, they say that the fish lacks the fitness to compete in the wild.
But Trout Unlimited said dumping 8-inch cutthroats ''into an apparent black hole speaks volumes about the shortcomings of a production-based hatchery program and the habitat, not the native fish.''
One of the most influential critics of the cutthroat restoration plan is Ralph Cutter, a fourth-generation fly fishermen who since 1981 has owned and operated the California School of Flyfishing in Truckee, Calif.
''I am a life-long supporter of native fish management but this is a plan based on ideals rather than logic,'' said Cutter, whose book, Sierra Trout Guide, has sold more than 40,000 copies and is considered the definitive work on California's coldwater fisheries.
''If I thought there was the slightest chance of success I'd support it. However, it simply doesn't stand to reason,'' he said.
Cutter said brown and rainbow trout are the biggest obstacle to re-establishing the cutthroat.
''Brown trout are highly competitive fish that feed upon and easily displace the meek cutthroat from optimal holding areas,'' he said in a recent article for worldwaters.com's online magazine, The Angle.
''More insidious than the brown trout are the rainbows, which not only displace the cutthroat, but readily interbreed with them.''
Of the 50,000 cutthroat fish raised in hatcheries and dumped in the Truckee last October, only 10 were recovered this spring in surveys by state wildlife officials.
''They don't appear to be doing too well in the Truckee River. They're probably not doing too well competing with the rainbow and brown trout,'' said Kim Tisdel, western regional fisheries biologist for the Nevada Division of Wildlife.
During that same period, there has been an explosion of brown and rainbow trout populations in the Truckee River, she said.
Biologists for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say it is an unfair comparison.
''Hatchery-reared fish are not wild fish. They will not do as well in the wild,'' said Randi Thompson, chief spokeswoman for the federal agency in Reno.
''The argument that they are 'wimpy' - it is because they are hatchery-reared, which means they don't have to fight for food. They are fed every day,'' she said.
While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's top priority is saving the threatened species, Tisdel said state wildlife officials have a broader charge.
''Our concern is maintaining a sport fishery in the Truckee,'' Tisdel said. ''The majority of people don't have a preference, but those who do like the browns best, then the rainbows second and the cutthroats third.''
''The anglers like the rainbows because they jump out of the water. And the browns are the most challenging to catch,'' she said.
But Thompson isn't so sure.
''Even among fishermen, there is no consensus. There's just a group that is more vocal,'' she said.
''You have a group of fly fishermen who like the brown trout because they fight. But most of the fly fishermen don't eat the fish. They release them. The hook-'em and cook-'em crowd, they love the Lahontan cutthroat trout because it is the best-tasting fish.''