Matt Dickerson: Glacier National Park Diaries 3 — Learning about Cutthroat trout

My final week at Glacier National Park (GNP) arrives too soon: I still have two presentations to make and several interviews to do.
The first interview will be with United States Geological Survey (USGS) biologist Joe Giersch, who works with rare imperiled stoneflies, such as the small black Meltwater Stonefly that lives in streams just below melting glaciers. Populations can be as dense as 5,000 per square meter. 
It’s unknown exactly how these stoneflies feed, but it is known that many other creatures, including insects, rodents, spiders and birds, depend on them. When climate change eliminates the last glaciers in GNP (predicted in 2030), these stoneflies might disappear, with impacts cascading up the food chain. 
I also will sit down with National Park Service biologist Christopher Downs, who works on several projects related to the protection of native fish: studying the genetic status of Westslope Cutthroat Trout within GNP, suppression of invasive lake trout which have devastated the native bull trout population, and the translocation of remnant bull trout to waters not infested with lake trout. 
Also on the list is USGS biologist Clint Muhlfeld, who has worked with both Giersch and Downs and has invited me to spend seven hours tagging along as he teaches a field class to university students about his recent work on trout in GNP and the adjacent Flathead National Forest (FNF).
In the midst of this, I managed to get out on Monday for my only day devoted to fly-fishing. I had a float trip with Glacier Anglers on the South Fork of the Flathead, which forms the southern boundary between GNP and FNF. Rob, a wrangler who helped me get video equipment up to one of the higher lakes, joined me. 
We arrived at Glacier Anglers at 8 a.m. and met our guide Blake. Guide Mark and his two clients partnered with us for the day (in a separate raft) to make lunch and transportation more convenient. Around 8:30 a.m., we finished our paperwork, signed the waivers, and hopped into the eight-passenger vehicle for a 20-minute drive upriver to our put-in point for a seven-mile drift.
   THIS TROUT WAS one of many columnist Matt Dickerson and his companions caught and released on the Flathead River in Montana. Dickerson took time to do some fly-fishing as his artist-in-residency at Glacier National Park is winding down.
Independent photo/Matt Dickerson
On the drive, we learned that this is the first day of the season for floating this river with clients. Blake scouted it the day before — and caught fish — but during my first two weeks in GNP it had been flooded by spring melt and thus unfishable. I also discovered that Blake grew up one town away from the village in Maine where I went to kindergarten and where my brother now lives.
We put in the river. Blake started me with a pair of dry flies. Rob got a dry fly with a nymph dropper. And for the first two hours I didn’t get a strike. Rob got one strike, but didn’t land it. Despite the minimal action, I enjoyed the morning. The scenery was spectacular. Peaks on both sides rose to 8,000 and 9,000 feet. Some slopes were only splotched with snow. Other peaks were completely white. 
At 11 a.m. the river flipped a switch. I drifted my pair of flies over the edge of a gravel shelf, and as they floated over the darker green water I saw the slow rise and take of a decent-sized fish. I led this fish into Blake’s net and snapped a quick photo. It was a brightly colored cutthroat. We released it, and not five minutes later I had another one on. For the next two hours both Rob and I saw steady action. In one 100-yard stretch of soft water behind a gravel bar we landed four between us.
It was hard to leave the river when the fishing was so good, but we pulled up onto a gravel bar and the guides laid out a luxurious lunch in the shade. It was quiet. The steady gentle hum of the river and the higher whistles of songbirds formed our soundtrack. For the first portion of the float, the river ran close to a road and railway. Though trees shielded our view, in a strange juxtaposition to the surrounding wilderness I heard a steady succession of trains pass by. 
Since the locomotives were only brief (though frequent) interruptions to the soundtrack, and every place I looked I saw gorgeous water or stunning peaks, I didn’t think much of it. In late morning the river had turned away from the tracks and it grew even more remote and pristine. 
So I was surprised when Mark mentioned that the Middle Fork was listed as one of ten most endangered rivers in the country. I asked why. It’s the trains, he explained: They carry oil. Though they haven’t yet had a spill, there have been de-railings and avalanches. Because this is one of the most important headwaters of the Columbia River system a spill would have devastating ecological impacts. Mark acknowledged that relocating the tracks would be much too expensive, but there is pressure on the rail companies to replace old cars with technologically advanced cars offering extra spill protection.
We got into our rafts again. I forgot trains. We had an afternoon of continued good fishing. Most of the fish I landed were distinctive cutthroat, but some had coloration and spot patterns suggesting hybridization with non-native rainbow trout. One of the larger fish looks all rainbow — no red slash on the throat. 
GNP still offers some of the most important waters in the country where native Westslope Cutthroat are protected, but the presence of invasive fish in these border rivers is another threat. I know from biologists that hybridized fish are less well adapted. Offspring don’t survive as well. 
All of this was only in the back of my mind. I was enjoying the surroundings, the beauty of the fish in one of the best cutthroat trout waters I’ve fished. In addition to many 14-inch fish, I’ve landed a couple in the 16-to-18-inch range. 
At the end of the day we pulled up a tributary creek to take out. As Blake rowed upstream we saw a huge cutthroat cruising the silty bottom of the deep slow-moving channel. I anticipated where the fish is heading and laid my flies gently on the water 15 feet in front of it.  
Just as Blake told me this fish will be spooked by the raft in this clear water and won’t take a fly, we saw it start upward. An eternity of five or six seconds passed as the fish covered a dozen feet in a leisurely deliberate rise. I expected it to take a closer look then turn away. Instead it put its lips to my fly and sipped in.
Two minutes later we netted the biggest fish of the day — a bright pink and green female with at least some cutthroat ancestry. We released her and watched her swim off into the deep. 
I was almost ready to get out of the boat and head back to the artist-in-residence cabin to write more. I was feeling ready to get back home to Vermont, my community, my family. But I was also wondering how and when I’ll get back to this spot — and hoping they’ll get the train thing figured out soon.
Editor’s note: This is the third in a seriews. Click here to see the first entry in Matt Dickerson’s notebook from Glacier National Park. and click here to see his second posting.
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