The Cutthroat Quest

More than a road trip, it was a chance to spread awareness about the need to protect the last native fish in Wyoming

Mar 15

A Handful

For months we thought about tight canyons, bow-and-arrow casts, and the camaraderie of three friends dying to catch four species of forgotten trout.

A fly-fishing guide, a stonemason, and an archeologist, all had one thing on their minds – relic cutthroat trout. We’d each be attempting to catch and release all four subspecies of cutts found here: a Bonneville/Bear River, Yellowstone, Snake River, and a Colorado River cutthroat trout. It’s also called a Wyoming Relic Cutthroat Slam, and, if you want, Trout Unlimited will send you a medallion for the accomplishment.

The three of us planned out the details so we would best utilize the time because we’re usually underwater with our work in the summer. Josh Tatman, the archaeologist, was the brains of the operation. He had been contacting local biologists, state Game and Fish rangers, and anyone else who could give us any clues about untouched streams and isolated trout in western Wyoming. Josh laid out the route we were going to fish and added some time for detours to other waters where these fish might be.

Of course, we wanted to bend rods and have a good time, but a big part of our mission was to spread awareness of these native trout. They are getting forgotten in the rush to the popular species, like rainbows and browns. I feel compelled to make sure people across the country know about the value of a native trout stream. So many of these small waters are being deteriorated, polluted, or drained. These natives are worth saving, and clean water is key.

Dream Stream

Every stream we planned to fish was a relic stream. That means trout that live in them were untouched by non-native trout species and never mingled with introduced trout. Most of these waters may also have only been fished a handful of times. Some call these streams, and these trout, aboriginal or endemic trout. But I think “relic” is the catchiest of names. We call them relic trout.

For the most part, these streams were extremely remote. Often they were 2 feet wide with overhanging branches (hence the bow-and-arrow casts). As weird as it sounds, this kind of fishing is what attracted us to this trip. This is the kind of fishing we love.

A couple of these streams only held trout in 200 yards or less of fishable water because of barriers, like tight culverts or shallow areas on either side. Sometimes the water downstream would come to a trickle where the ranchers would divert it to irrigate fields.

scott with josh looking on

ROLLING TO THE RIVERS

We set out with a truck loaded with enough gear to keep us alive for a couple of nights of camping. We also packed 8-foot, 6-inch, 3-weight Vesper flyrods by Moonshine Rods, a cooler big enough to hold our elk for cooking and beer for drinking, a good spare tire, and a camera to capture what this trip meant to me.

I finished a day of guiding and met Josh and Scott Knap at a trailhead to load up all the gear and the fun began. We drove into the night to get as close to our morning fishing spot as possible. We wanted to fill our day with our first target: a pure strain Bonneville/Bear River cutthroat trout.

Not too far into our journey, we ran into that inevitable bump in the road. A piece of a windshield wiper pierced the sidewall of the truck tire. Let me tell you, Josh and I got particularly good at changing tires during this trip. Spare tire on, we hit the road again looking for a spot in the morning to get our tire patched for the remainder of the trip. That night, we found some public land in the high desert of western Wyoming to lay our heads. We fell asleep to the sound of coyotes yipping, the milky way shining bright, and the smell of sage.

We got to our fishing spot for the day – a beautiful, shrub-filled canyon with Indian paintbrush weaved into the sage. The trout played their part. They acted like a kid who gets his first taste of something sweet. If you placed a small hopper into a pool, you’d get an instant take. We all landed many Bonnevilles. This species actually was the second species of trout on the relic-trout slam. Two months before the trip, we fished a remote canyon to check off Yellowstone cutthroats from our list.

After a full day of technical trouting, we headed out of the canyon with relic Snake River cutts on our minds. We saw some dreamy water along the way, and pulled up the onX Hunt maps to see what part of the river might be public. Thankfully, there was about a mile of public water. I landed a nice 17-inch Bonneville on a dry. I put the rod down to take some more photos and hassled Scott about the fish he kept losing.

bow and arrow

We jumped back in the truck and continued to our Snake River cutthroat spot before the sun went down. We rolled out our sleeping pads and crashed for the night.

Being in the fly-fishing industry, setting up fly rods is my forte. I have a self-goal when fishing with Scott: I need to see how many fish I can land before he gets his rod put together. I jumped out of the truck and was able to lay an elk-hair caddis on a middle riffle while he was still fumbling with his ferrules. The fly fell right into a deep pool when our first Snake River cutthroat slurped it down. I let out a chuckle and ribbed Scott yet again.

After that, I set my rod down and took a while to enjoy the scenery and take some more photos. That night we found a great spot to camp. Elk steaks sizzled and sandhill cranes trumpeted nearby.

That next morning, we noticed our tire was leaking air from the past botched repair. We headed 40 miles out of our way to get it done the right way. We then regrouped and adjusted our jumbled itinerary. But it was no big problem. We continued to go with the flow and make this trip work great.

We got to the spot where we expected to catch our final goal of the trip: a relic Colorado River cutthroat. We parked and hiked in. The narrow section of water that held these trout was only about 200 yards long. It made us wonder how long these small trout lived in this section of water without ever seeing a fly. We ended up landing five, 6-inch gems in this micro stream of tight casting and super-spooky trout. Bright red Indian paintbrush grew in groves along the water. We hiked out after feeling extremely accomplished. We completed our mission and scored a Wyoming Relic Cutthroat Trout Slam.

josh stir fry

PLAN YOUR OWN ADVENTURE

The time we spent together while enjoying the outdoors is something you simply cannot buy. I love guiding. I get to teach others to enjoy what the outdoors has to offer. But being able to take time to enjoy it yourself with good friends is something else completely.

It was great to not have to worry about clients. Not to have to remind someone to mend, and mend again. And it was great never to have to be the “the sprinkler.” (That’s the guide term for the sound you make when you suddenly need to tell your client to “set-set-set-set-set” the hook.)

Plan a time to get out in nature, enjoy your time off, and protect what we have left in our native streams.

into the darkness

About the author: Dan Towsley, a Kansas native, moved to Wyoming to guide. The love for teaching others, conserving the land, and the sharing time with good people on the water is his missionary zeal.

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