Matt Dickerson: Wild Wyoming cutthroat trout
I’d been in Wyoming six days with barely a chance to wet my line. It was not for a lack of good-looking water. With the exception of a six-hour trip across a flat roasting high-altitude desert, I’d been crossing or driving alongside one beautiful river after another. Lovely. Enticing. And a bit frustrating since I was looking at them through a car window and not in my waders.
The three most recent of those six days had been spent in a cabin at the confluence of the South LaBarge Creek with the main stem of the LaBarge. It was a historic cabin on a historic cutthroat trout river in the southern end of the Bridger-Teton National Forest in a pass that a century and a half earlier had been part of the famed Oregon Trail. A few years later it became a large lumber camp where hack ties were cut and floated downriver for the new railroad. Now it was once again looking wild. Mule deer, elk, moose and pronghorn antelope roamed the valley. Eagles flew overhead. And huge hatches of mayflies rose in columns off the water in the mornings while in the evenings the streamside bushes filled with fluttering caddis flies.
But those three days had been consumed working long hours with two college students on a research, writing and video project about — ironically — native cutthroat trout. We’d done interviews with fisheries biologists and spent lots of time getting footage of the river. At least I was in the water, even if I wasn’t catching fish.
And, actually, even if the filming hadn’t consumed my time, I might not have caught any trout, because there were few to be caught. LaBarge Creek was the site of a project seeking to restore a population of the native strain of Colorado River cutthroat. The stocking of exotic rainbow trout years early had mostly eliminated the wild cutthroat through crossbreeding and competition. The National Forest Service, along with Wyoming Game and Fish and some private non-profit groups, were collaborating to restore the native fish.
The restoration had involved several steps over the past 15 years. It began with the creation of an impassable barrier several miles downstream at the edge of the national forest, to keep new non-native fish from migrating back upstream. Then the biologists used a mix of chemical and mechanical techniques to remove all of the fish from the river above the barrier. Once the river was depopulated of the introduced species, they restocked it with native cutthroat. Simultaneous to all of this, the U.S. Forest Service also had ongoing projects to restore habitat, mostly replacing old culverts that blocked fish migration.
Everything seemed to be going well, except the replanted cutthroat trout were not repopulating the river as expected. Survival rates of adults as well as reproductive rates were much lower than hoped. Biologists were not sure why. Perhaps it was the genetics of the Colorado River cutthroat they were stocking, which had come from a lake stock, and might not have been adapted to a river environment. It was all a very interesting project to report on. But I was itching to get out with my fly rod.
Finally, after three days on the LaBarge, my students and I hopped in the car and drove 40 miles over the pass to a new watershed to spend two more nights in a different cabin on Greys River, which has a healthy population of a different native strain of trout known as the Snake River fine spotted cutthroat. An early morning to film during golden hours. Then packing gear. More location stops along the way for filming. Then unpacking. When we arrived on the Greys River, my students were exhausted and ready for naps. So I hit the river alone. “Going out scouting for filming locations,” I told them as they crawled into sleeping bags.
The river behind the cabin did not look fishy. Though the water was swift, cold and gravelly, it was also wide and only calf-deep to knee-deep, and uniform. With the exception of one pool behind the cabin where a small tributary flowed in, I saw nothing that looked like it would hold trout. Still, I fished my way down a quarter of a mile. Other than one half-hearted strike from a small fish in the first pool, I saw nothing. So I got out of the river, climbed the steep bluff overlooking the water, and walked another quarter of a mile further downstream scanning from my new vantage point. I didn’t see any sections of water that looked even remotely promising.
Discouraged, I trudged back upstream atop the bluff toward the cabin. On a whim, though my expectations were low, I decided to walk a short way up the little tributary that cut a notch in the middle of the bluff. Though it looked shallow for the first hundred yards or so, I thought I caught a glimpse of a pool some distance upstream.
The pool, it turned out, was about six feet deep, with deeply undercut banks around a wide bend — an angler’s dream. Just looking at it, my heart started pumping faster. It was on my fifth of sixth cast that a massive fish rose from the depths, slammed my fly, and with a strong shake of its head snapped off my brand new leader rated at five pounds. When my heart stopped pounding, I tied on a new fly. Sixty yards upriver was another nice pool formed by an old beaver dam. Not as deep, but quite a bit longer. This next fish I had on for 10 or 11 seconds before it snapped me off.
I took off my leader and replaced it with a stronger leader. Back at the first pool, I had time to land one fish back — a fat, 14-inch, fine spotted cutthroat — before I had to head back and feed my students and prepare for our evening film shooting. It was not the lunker I had seen earlier, but it was a good fish nonetheless. I’d also discovered my filming location.
We returned that evening, and then again twice the next day, taking a long hike up the river, stopping to fish and film at the likely looking places. We were able to get some fish footage by crawling up to the bank on our bellies and dropping a camera into the water pointed back toward the undercut bank where I had seen fish rising. We were also able to get good footage of wild cutthroat by enticing them with flies, landing them in a net, and then gently releasing them. Altogether I landed about 10, the two biggest of which were 16- to 17-inch fish and took mayfly imitations off the surface.
And though both approaches made for interested challenges, I decided I liked the second approach better.
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