I’ve admired the beauty of the wild trout found by President Thomas Jefferson’s Corps of Discovery since the first time I caught one while wading a sandy beach of Yellowstone Lake in the spring of 1974. The species is called “cutthroat” because of a vivid reddish-orange slash curving across each lower jaw.
When I first fished Yellowstone Lake, it was teeming with the colorful native fish. I saw tributaries erupting in splashing spawners, and pelicans, bears, and otters feasting. Years later, some misguided angler dumped predatory lake trout in the immense thermal-ringed caldera filled with an inland sea of crystal-blue water. Now the cutthroat are vanishing.
This sad fact occupied my mind on a bright day last September as I rigged up my fly rods on the porch of a rustic cabin beside the South Fork of the Snake River in Idaho’s Swan Valley. Then I crossed a wooden foot bridge over small, clear Palisades Creek. I didn’t know it at the time, but that creek is playing a key role in an innovative project to help the Yellowstone cutthroat here stay purebred and to keep their numbers robust.
Palisades Creek is one of four tributaries that biologists with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game are managing in order to boost the population of the vulnerable native. The biggest threat is interbreeding with more-aggressive rainbow trout, which are not native to the river but have thrived here because of excellent habitat and plenty of food. The biologists have installed a seasonal electric barrier across the gurgling stream. When the fish migrate upstream to spawn, it diverts them into a small trap. The prize cutthroats are carefully measured, weighed, and tagged, then released safely above to continue their journey to the spawning gravel. The rainbows are relocated to a nearby kids’ fishing pond.
Cutthroat trout spawning peaks in June. Over 15 years, 1,386 rainbow trout and hybrids have been removed from the spawning tributaries. In addition, each summer crews from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game sweep the streams. Current from a low-voltage wand momentarily stuns the young fish. Again, cutthroats are kept, rainbows taken out. The project is working. In Palisades Creek, population sampling in 2010 revealed 58 percent age-one and older cutthroats; by 2014 they made up 91 percent.
In the South Fork of the Snake itself below Palisades dam, the population of wild trout is split about evenly: 1,900 Yellowstone cutthroat and 1,900 rainbow per mile. These are remarkable numbers—this is one of the most abundant fisheries I’ve ever experienced. According to regional fisheries biologist Brett High, the cutthroat population is stable. But he wants to increase their numbers to 90 percent.
“We have an obligation to save this fish,” he told me. “You can catch a rainbow trout in just about every state but Florida. But there are maybe five places left where you can catch large, native cutthroats.”
Anglers can play a constructive role in the restoration by doing something that in today’s culture of catch-and-release fishing will strike some as counterintuitive: simply killing every rainbow trout they catch. There is no limit. And the Fish and Game department has tagged a random number of adult rainbows and is awarding prizes of up to $1,000 for the return of their heads on a platter.
On the day I spoke with High, he told me one angler had just hit the jackpot. That morning High had scanned the heads of 24 rainbow trout the angler brought in. Three had the tiny wire-coded tags. The guy won $50, $100, and $500, and went home with a whole lot of trout.
A Bit of History
In June 1876 three expeditionary forces of U.S. Army cavalry and infantry set out from forts in the Montana, Dakota, and Wyoming territories. They aimed to rendezvous around the Powder and Bighorn rivers and to herd the last of the free-ranging Plains Indian tribes onto reservations.
When Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors in Montana Territory ambushed the soldiers from Wyoming, those troops retreated into the alpine mountain meadows of a place called Goose Creek. There, they spent weeks playing cards, reciting Shakespeare, shooting grizzly bears and bison, and fishing for trout. It wasn’t until July 10 that they learned that five companies belonging to the Seventh Cavalry—including Lieutenant Colonel George Custer—had been wiped out on Little Bighorn River.
The trout that the encamped “Wyoming Column” were catching were native cutthroat. They caught and ate them by the thousands, even using sticks for fishing rods. One soldier later recalled his largest, a three-pounder: “He was noble, heavy, and gorgeous in his dress of silver and gold and black and red…I gave him all the line he wanted, fearing I should lose him.”
Fans of aviation history will be delighted to fly into Driggs-Reid Memorial Airport in Driggs, Idaho, a city-owned facility with all major features for private jets and a 7,300-foot runway. The Teton Aviation Center contains “Warbirds Cafe” and a museum housing a small fleet of well-maintained and still-flying Soviet-era MiG fighter jets, a World War II U.S. Navy SNJ, a T-28 Trojan, and an FJ-4 Fury. Info: tetonaviation.com, (800) 472-6382.
The Lodge at Palisades Creek in Irwin, Idaho offers private cabins, a fine restaurant, and experienced fishing guides. Info: tlapc.com, (866) 393-1613.
The South Fork of the Snake River is open to fishing all year but the best dry-fly fishing is from June through September. Keep in mind that this summer season coincides with high-water releases from Palisades dam to irrigate downstream potato fields, which means you need a boat or raft—or a guide who has one.