WESTERN WYOMING – Fish rose sporadically on the small mountain lake as they delicately slurped bugs from the surface. Ripples spread across the dark water, the only evidence of their existence.
They’d appear inches from our flies.
They mocked us during our time of need.
We were on a mission – albeit a foolish one. Those fish that refused to bite were all that stood in the way of success and failure, a perfect score or the loser’s trophy.
Steven Brutger, the Wyoming Energy Coordinator for Trout Unlimited, my husband, Josh and I were trying to finish the Cutt Slam. It is a Wyoming Game and Fish program encouraging anglers to catch all four of Wyoming’s native cutthroat subspecies – Colorado, Bear and Snake river and Yellowstone -- in their respective native drainages. The challenge is meant to be over the course of a lifetime. We each decided to try for it in a day.
Brutger mapped our journey in early August, as he explained the fish’s perilous history in the state. If we were going to try, this would be the best year. Thick snowpack and a wet spring boded well for high mountain streams.
I didn’t think we had a chance. Game and Fish’s chief of fisheries laughed on the phone when I told him the idea. If we each caught a couple and saw a chunk of their native range, I’d be happy.
But then we landed the first three.
We’d driven hundreds of miles over winding dirt road, bush whacked through 6-foot willows and huddled under a pine tree during a mini-monsoon. If it had been any other fishing trip, we would have gone home. The Yellowstone cutthroats clearly weren’t biting.
It may have been a silly goal, but after 15 hours, we couldn’t leave. Just try one more bug, we told each other. Surely dumb luck would shine fortune on one of us.
Before anglers came from around the world to catch acrobatic rainbow trout in the North Platte River, before fishermen reeled in 40-pound lake trout out of Flaming Gorge Reservoir, and before one lone horseman stocked golden trout in the Wind River Range by milk jugs, cutthroat trout were king.
The Cowboy State boasts four of 10 sub-species of cutthroat trout. The fish originally swam in most Wyoming rivers outside of the North Platte River system, Brutger said.
But decades ago, cutthroat numbers started to crash. Rainbow trout brought to the state for sport fishing bred with cutthroat creating a hybrid. Brook, brown and lake trout beat cutthroat for food and preyed on their young, said Darren Rhea, Pinedale regional fisheries biologist.
Dams, roads, irrigation projects and energy development broke up their habitat and separated spawning areas. They no longer made epic runs from lakes into high mountain streams and back, he said. Resident populations in larger rivers dwindled.
Colorado River cutthroat numbers dropped so much some conservation groups petitioned them for placement on the endangered species list, Rhea said.
But then Game and Fish, other government agencies and conservation groups such as Trout Unlimited started working to bring the remaining habitat back. Colorado River cutthroat now swim in 14 percent of their native range in Wyoming. The other three fared slightly better, but still live in only a fraction of their original areas.
Why spend millions of dollars and work tirelessly to protect a trout in its native range?
“There’s that intrinsic value placed on them,” Rhea said. “People appreciate the fact that there are still places that are largely intact, to an extent, as intact as they were pre-European settlement.”
To raise awareness of Wyoming’s native trout in the mid-90s, Game and Fish created a program called the Cutt Slam.
Anglers need to catch one of each cutthroat sub-species, take a picture to verify the type of cutthroat and location, fill out a form and send it all to a Game and Fish office.
“Cutthroat trout are a segue between sport fish and native fish,” Rhea said. “People gain a much bigger appreciation for native fish conservation in general when they can go catch one and see one.”
Since it started almost 20 years ago, the department has received more than 1,000 successful applicants.
Anglers have finished in a day before, and tried catching all four on the same fly or with only a worm. One fishermen completed the challenge in nine hours, impressive given the distance between Bear River cutthroat habitat in southwest Wyoming and Yellowstone cutthroat in the northern part of the state.
We weren’t so ambitious. We gave ourselves 24 hours, and hoped we wouldn’t be fishing by moonlight.
The challenge started at daybreak on the Salt Creek somewhere north of Cokeville. The river flowed gently through a meadow, plugged periodically by beaver dams. Brutger caught his first, then Josh and then me. Of the three anglers, I knew I’d be the weakest link, and resigned myself to dropping out should time become critical.
Our journey continued north along the Grey’s River for Snake River cutthroat.
Josh caught his, then Brutger, and then I missed one. Then I missed another, and another, and another. Shortly after noon, a few casts away from bowing out of the challenge, I caught a tiny fish.
We crossed over the Wyoming Range, looking for Colorado River cutthroat in a spit of water called North Cottonwood Creek near Daniel Junction. It took 12 minutes for the three of us to record our quests, and back in the truck we climbed.
We felt confident. Each of us had three fish on the board. We also knew Yellowstone cutthroat, native to the northern part of the state, could be tricky because of recent rainfall. We chose a lake near Dubois and arrived there before 6 p.m.
Hours later, we stared in confusion at the rising fish.
I lost six flies in the trees. Josh uttered barely audible swear words. Both he and Steven cycled through nearly every dry fly in their boxes. We began to ask each other how long we would fish in the dark.
Shortly after 9 p.m., I put a small, black woolly bugger on the end of my line one more time. I cast.
I felt a bite.
The fish was small, but counted.
Steven and Josh cast the same bugger and caught more respectable fish. Shortly before 10 p.m., we stumbled our way around the lake in the dark back to the truck. We’d finished in a day.
More importantly, I realized, we saw beautiful water in what little remains of Wyoming’s only native fish habitat.
Maybe next time we’ll move a little slower.