Turning Back the Clock for Yellowstone Cutthroat

The spread of an invasive species can happen with the best of intentions. One unfortunate case took place during the creation of America's first national park. While traveling through Yellowstone back in 1891, the park's Acting Superintendent Captain F. A. Boutelle would offer an observation with far-reaching impact.

Captain Frazier Augustus Boutelle "In passing through the Park, I noticed with surprise the barrenness of most of the water in the Park. Besides the beautiful Shoshone and other smaller lakes there are hundreds of miles of fine streams as any in existence without a fish of any kind.... I hope ... to see all these waters stocked that the pleasure-seeker in the Park can enjoy fine fishing within a few rods of any hotel or camp."

I'm sure the idea sounded good at the time. But, today we know that kind of thinking to be naive and even dangerous. With the mission to see all these waters stocked, Captain Boutelle and the U.S. Fish Commission set in motion changes still playing out in Yellowstone today. With the law-of-unintended-consequences fully in-charge, the Captain, with the help of the Fish Commission, launched the first wave of invasives inside Yellowstone National Park. By the early 1900s, westslope cutthroat and the Arctic grayling were eliminated from the headwaters of the Madison and Gallatin Rivers inside the park and replaced by brown and rainbow trout. Attempts were made in the early 1900's to stock rainbows and Atlantic salmon in Yellowstone Lake. Thankfully, those attempts failed to take hold. However, in 1994 an angler pulled an invasive species of trout from Yellowstone Lake. This unwelcomed species now presents the single gravest threat to Yellowstone cutts in Amercia.

Yellowstone cutthroat trout, estimated to have numbered some 3.5 million in Yellowstone Lake and its tributaries, have been reduced to a remnant population. At the root of their decline, a rapidly expanding population of lake trout (illegally introduced before 1994). In fact, lake trout thrive in Yellowstone Lake. Besides crowding-out the native cutthroat in Yellowstone Lake, the adult lake trout prey on these natives. And if being outcompeted by lake trout wasn't enough - where rainbow trout exist in the park, the Yellowstone cutts are being hybridized.

bear catching fish in creek The urgency to restore Yellowstone Lake goes far beyond providing anglers the chance to catch a yellowish brown native cutthroat. It's ultimately about getting Yellowstone's ecosystem back into balance. Grizzly bears, white pelicans, river otters, and ospreys count on the presence of Yellowstone cutthroat to survive. Each spring, cutthroat trout migrate from the lake to its tributaries to spawn. While spawning in these tribs, cutthroat trout are preyed upon by numerous animals including black bears and grizzly bears. If the lake trout successfully push out the cutts from Yellowstone Lake, life becomes very different for these animals.

But it's also true that Yellowstone stands out as one of the most unique places in our country to cast a fly. Just ask any angler who's been fortunate to ply it's waters. Where else can you stand at the edge of small stream and fish a gray drake hatch as a herd of bison graze in your field of view? Years have passed since I stood in absolute awe of that screen in Lamar Valley. But, if given the chance to go back in time and actually relive that moment, I wouldn't.

Instead, if I have a ticket to go back in time, I would grab two rods and my fly boxes and select 1891. Assuming enough precision, I would land near Captain Boutelle's quarters and invite him to fish the Yellowstone River. After a bit of explanation about the wonders of graphite fly rods and fluorocarbon leaders, we would hit the water. I would hand him by polarized sunglasses and show him where big cutthroat like to hide in the river. And if the time-machine had been calibrated correctly, we would be in the throws of a major gray drake hatch. "Here, try drifting this dry fly in the seam behind that big boulder."

Fishing Yellowstone National Park After a few misplaced casts, the Captain would line up a perfect drift. A large mouth would open slowly over the fly and I would instruct the Captain to be patient. "Ok, set it!" The cutt would throw his whole body back and forth trying to shake-off the hook, but the Captain would play him like a pro. As usual I would forget the net, but we'd land that big cutthroat. "So, see Captain, Yellowstone isn't barren. You just need a pair of polarized glasses, a stealth approach, and the right fly." And hopefully, fishing that afternoon hatch would change the Captain's mind about contacting the U.S. Fish Commission and send a couple small ripples through the space-time continuum.

Well, sadly I don't have such a ticket for time travel. Instead, a century later, the guardian's of America's first national park along with concerned anglers battle against non-native trout with monofilament gillnets and fishing rods to rescue an important member of Yellowstone's ecosystem. Yellowstone cutthroat may not be the media darling of species recovery in the West like the wolf, the grizzly or even the buffalo before that. But these native cutts symbolize all that is unique and special about our country's wild places. And for me, the one place that has come to symbolize both the possibility and reality of species recovery is Yellowstone. I like their chances here.

Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout