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In Memory

Robert "Bob" Behnke - "The Trout Doctor"

October 17, 2013

Dr. Robert "Bob" J. Behnke was an emeritus professor and a renowned fisheries biologist who educated and mentored generations of fisheries professionals in his 30 years of teaching at Colorado State University's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology.

Bob BehnkeBehnke, 83, of Fort Collins, peacefully passed away at his home with his wife Sally by his side, on Friday, Sept. 13.  

Behnke was born in Stamford, Conn., on December 30, 1929, and developed a love for fishing and nature in his early childhood. Trout were the fish in particular that captured his imagination and fascination.

He lived in Connecticut until he was drafted into the U.S. Army to serve in the Korean War. He then returned to the University of Connecticut and received his undergraduate degree. Afterwards, he went to the University of California Berkeley where he received his Master’s and Ph.D. degrees in ichthyology.

In 1963, he met and married Sally Martin. He moved his family to Colorado in 1966 for a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Colorado Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. He became a professor with Colorado State University in the 1970s where he cemented his role as a leading authority on trout and salmon taxonomy and systematics and advocate for their conservation worldwide.

Behnke with a fly rodBehnke was widely recognized as the world's foremost expert on North American trout and salmonid species, and his work was pivotal for fisheries research and species conservation efforts. He is credited with the re-discovery of an “extinct” Lahontan cutthroat trout subspecies and the rediscovery of the Colorado greenback cutthroat trout which was declared extinct in the 1930s. Behnke also had a subspecies of cutthroat trout named in his honor - Oncorhynchus clarkii behnkei - or Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout.

He was the author of bestselling books including "Native Trout of Western North America," "Trout and Salmon in North America," and "About Trout."  Behnke’s books, more than 100 scientific articles, and 20 years of contributions as a columnist for Trout Magazine earned him the title “Dr. Trout.” His graduate students simply knew him as “Doc”, for there was no mistaking who they meant. He was a skilled writer and communicator, instilling in colleagues and students alike the need for brevity and clarity of thought.

His work took him to distant places including Russia, Japan, and Iran, and, at the age of 72, to Mongolia, in search of native salmonid fishes. In addition, he had working knowledge of several languages and for many years translated the Russian Journal of Ichthyology to English. His writings have inspired both professional fisheries biologists and general fish enthusiasts alike to support wise conservation of trout and salmon and their essential cold water habitats.

As a professor, Behnke taught courses in fisheries science, aquatic biology and conservation biology. His research focused on evolutionary relationships among various trout and salmon species worldwide, native species identification and restoration, and coldwater habitat conservation. His sharp mind and quick humor often garnered smiles and laughter from colleagues, students and friends, and he generously shared his expertise and time with others. Even after his retirement, he was a frequent friendly face in the hallways of the department and at the American Fisheries Society Student Subunit meetings. 

One of Behnke's remarkable attributes was his eagerness to sit down with students, both graduate and undergraduate, to talk about fish. He truly and deeply loved his subject matter and was one of those rare individuals who could transfer that love and excitement to others over the course of a conversation. Dr. Behnke was the world expert on North American trout and salmon, but he also was, and always will be, an integral part of the CSU fisheries community.

After his retirement, Behnke endowed the Robert J. Behnke Rocky Mountain Flycasters Research Fellowship. The fellowship provides support for a CSU graduate student to study fisheries issues such as restoration of native greenback cutthroat trout in Colorado, impact of sedimentation on trout from run-off following forest fires, and lessening the impact of whirling disease on rainbow trout. Prior to establishing his fellowship, an annual scholarship was also created in Behnke’s name by Trout Unlimited, a national fisheries conservation organization, in honor of Behnke's longtime TU chapter membership and his devotion to the study and appreciation of native trout and salmon.

Next to his wife and family, Dr. Behnke's greatest love was to educate others, and his wish was to help fund future scientists. Those who would like to help fulfill Dr. Behnke's wish may do so at The Robert J. Behnke Rocky Mountain Flycaster Research Fellowship, Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at CSU Foundation, PO Box 1870, Fort Collins, CO 80522.