Natives in Yellowstone

I penned this piece for the Upfront Notes section of Fly Rod & Reel and thought I would share it with you here, hoping to open this up for tactful discussion. Give it a read and let me know where you stand on the debate. GT

Upfront Notes—I like catching large fish as much as the next guy, maybe more, the bigger the better. I have not entered that zen realm where any trout is as good as the next as long as it’s taken from a beautiful stream, on a dry fly if at all possible.

I’m still in that quality over quantity game, apt to huck nasty crustacean and four-inch long minnow imitations, trying my best to put a 10-pound or better whatever on the beach. Brown. Rainbow. Cutthroat. River, lake or stream. Spring, summer, fall or winter. None of that matters to me. I just target fish that make me second-guess my tippet diameter and backing supply.

That same zeal makes Yellowstone National Park’s native fish issue so contentious—on one side are anglers and biologists who believe certain places in the park ought to be managed for the perpetual existence of native trout and grayling. On the other fence is a contingency from the Jackson, Wyoming based Wild Trout Conservation Coalition that believes non-native trout deserve equal status and that turf wars between those natives and ex-pats ought to be fought in the water and in the media, and because trout don’t write or interview well, WTCC decided it would speak for the fish.

Big rainbow on the line and on this particular stream the rainbows won’t go away. In fact, in many established rainbow streams management will continue on it’s current path.

Many of the WTCC board members are people I respect and would also call friends. Some of them really like fishing for lake trout, in Jackson Lake and farther north in Heart, Yellowstone and Lewis lakes. Lake trout can grow to 30 pounds in these lakes and put a serious bend in a fly rod.

The problem is this: lake trout are non-native and they can compete with native trout for habitat and food sources. In addition, they are dominant predators and eat native fish. For that reason, and because park biologists operate under a mandate to protect and preserve native species, a lake trout eradication program is in full swing on Yellowstone Lake—has been since the 1990s.

Lake trout aren’t the only issue—park biologists are trying to wipe out non-native rainbow trout from the park’s northeast corner on such waters as the Lamar River and Slough Creek, where catch and kill mandates are in place. In the mindset of fly-fishers, these are two of the most heralded waters on the planet. How they became so is no secret—anglers loved fishing these beautiful waters for native cutthroat that rose eagerly to the fly. Today, some technical anglers, including members of WTCC, favor rainbows over those native cutthroat because, I believe, those ‘bows are more difficult to catch, are more apt to jump when hooked, and they grow to larger sizes. Park biologists are doing what they can to keep the rainbows from outcompeting cutthroats, just as state fisheries biologists are doing on many regional waters outside the park, including the South Fork Snake River in Idaho, and Cherry Creek in Montana.

I can see where the rainbow enthusiasts mindset comes from. Believe me, I’ve never seen a difficult, even maddening, rainbow trout that I disliked. I love the witty warfare those fish provide, and the subsequent solving of the riddle that’s so rewarding.

But here’s my deal. There are plenty of rainbow trout and lake trout finning in their historical waters, and even more of them living unmolested in non-native waters. Anglers share opportunities to fish those species, especially rainbows, across North America. In the West, the Pacific Northwest, and throughout Canada, lake trout thrive.

Cutthroat trout and grayling, in comparison, are species fighting for their very existence. So, why not protect these natives in their last bastion, Yellowstone? Why not take preventative measures to keep those non-natives in check? Why wouldn’t we choose the best dry-fly trout on earth, living in the ecosystem where it is specifically designed to be, over these non-natives that are so ubiquitous elsewhere? Why shouldn’t park biologists do the job they are required to do?

I think it’s prudent to monitor federal funding and the subsequent expenditures of that money, but could the answer to all be as superfluous as a small, but noisy number of anglers just wanting that bigger bend in their fly rods?

In taking liberty to speak for those cutthroats and grayling, I say those fish belong where they are. That is not something I can say for the park’s rainbow and lake trout, no matter how much I, too, like to see that fly rod bending big.

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7 Responses to Natives in Yellowstone

  1. Travis Rehm says:

    Completely agree! If we aren’t going to protect and preserve native salmonids in the park where will we??

  2. Jack Brown says:

    AMEN ! Well Wrote!

  3. I remember a slow, soggy day several years ago on Soda Butte Creek in the Park when fishing was ever-so-slow; it was difficult to get anything to come to my dry hopper. It was late summer; there was no hatch on the water; what else was there to do? Dredge with a beadhead something-or-other or a San Juan worm? No thanks. That’s not what I was there for.

    After a couple of smaller fish, a nice 17″ Yellowstone cutt took forever to come up under my fly. The fight amounted to the fish yanking and trying to stay on its side of the stream, while I brought it to mine – nothing more. I held it underwater until I was sure it was fully revived, and as I did, I turned it slightly toward me; I wanted to soak in all of its beautiful pastel colors for all of that brief moment that I held it in my hands.

    Fall comes on the Lamar Valley early; already in late August there were golden tones to the aspens in the distance blending with the subtle gray-green of the sage around me. This trout’s colors and naive wildness blended perfectly with the whole ethos of this place. For a moment, as I held it in my hands, so did I. Wild places and wild things can have that effect on us; it’s an order of experience above what we ordinarily encounter on even our best trout rivers.

    As the trout came around and I eased my grip to let him swim slowly back to his side of the creek, I might have audibly said the words that came so clear to me: Thanks. This is why I came here.

    A rainbow of similar size might have run into the pool below, or the one below that, and jumped a couple of times in that furious wild abandon that we love in them; I can catch fish like that at home on the Bitterroot or the Clark Fork, or I can go to the Missouri or the Henry’s Fork. Those rivers are more civilized than Soda Butte Creek.

    On the way back to the truck, Jan and I were told by anxious bystanders in the parking area that we narrowly missed a face-to-face encounter with a huge bull bison that had just taken a dust-bath on our side of the base of the Soda Butte while we were fishing. The dust-bowl, with irate prairie dogs barely poking their head above ground, was still warm when we came to it. I was glad I bend over and felt it. I didn’t know where that bison was in relation to the butte and the truck. We walked away from the butte, taking a long alternate route back to the truck, and saw that magnificent beast on the other side of the road. Wilderness, even heavily-trafficked wilderness, comes with a sense of awe and uncontrolled risk that is at once exhilarating and humbling. That, too, is why we visit the park.

    That day, in the expanse of a few hours, I experienced both the wild grandeur and the rarer intimacy with wilderness that can be had in Yellowstone Park.

    If I had caught a 17″ rainbow that day on Soda Butte Creek, the whole thing would have been compromised.

  4. Pingback: Tippets: Micro Fishing, Natives in Yellowstone | MidCurrent

  5. Dr. Jack Miller says:

    Well written. That is the real essence of fishing the “wild” waters of the park. There is no place like the park and all it presents as God made it.

  6. Jim Dawson says:


    like you, I have two sides to my mouth, both of which are pretty fluent as well :)

    Who does not like to catch large rainbows? I’d say well over 99.9% of the people reading your magazine (which includes me)… but at the expense of forever losing “the most beautiful fish”; and that, only in the very limited geography of YNP? Come on.

    One of the greatest highlights of an entire summer spent in SW Montana was one pure 12″ westslope that I landed in the Madison somewhere below Lyons bridge. Only ONE in a couple hundred landed. It was exquisite. The most excited I have been landing a 12″ fish in over 40 years. I wish everyone could have that experience.

    Protect the cutty.

  7. Mark says:

    Selfishly preserving a species that has been planted into an environment in the name of having a better fishing experience is a bit ridiculous. The consequences of these actions are both visible (in the case of yellowstone lake trout) and invisible. The invisible consequences are those that sometimes only become apparent when their impacts are irreversible. Unfortunately, many times good intentions (introducing non-native trout) are looked upon foolishly by future generations.

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