By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist
When divvying out our local trout species, the trout gods smiled upon our corner of the fly-fishing universe. Europe received brown trout, which aided by humans are found the world over. Rainbow trout and steelhead originated from the tributaries of the northern Pacific Ocean. Brook trout, though technically a char, migrated west from the eastern U.S. Bull trout are a char, as well, so they don’t count.
Only westslope and Yellowstone cutthroat trout were “born and raised” here. And while I hate to break it to westslope cutthroat lovers out there, the Yellowstone cutthroat trout is the greatest in the world. The best way to truly appreciate a Yellowstone cutthroat is to catch and release one, but here’s why they take the cake:
Accessibility for beginners. Inhabiting many of the streams of Yellowstone National Park and the Yellowstone River, the Yellowstone cutthroat trout can be targeted on foot or in a boat. The rivers and creeks of Yellowstone National Park can be fished with an inexpensive fishing permit, and the abundance of water near a road there is surprising. The willingness of a cutthroat to eat dry flies off the surface tips the scales in their favor, as few things in fly fishing hook a new angler more than seeing a trout eat a dry fly.
Challenge for experienced and adventurous anglers. Among some anglers, the Yellowstone cutthroat’s willingness to eat dry flies is mistaken for dumbness. Any angler who has fished the lower or first meadows of Slough Creek might argue that. Light tippets and perfect presentations are necessary to catch the 18-inch fish inhabiting the crystal clear water. Additionally, if you want to find fish over 20 inches you’ll need to earn it with a hike into the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone or the far reaches of the Lamar – or invest in the right guide and time a Yellowstone float perfectly.
Their beautiful habitat. If a backdrop of Electric Peak, Paradise Valley, the pastoral setting of spring creeks south of Livingston, or the splendor of fishing in Yellowstone National Park’s northeast corner doesn’t give you pause, you may never appreciate how special these trout are to our rivers.
A vital species. Not only are Yellowstone cutthroat important to the psyche, health, and general wellness for local anglers, they are a food source for several wildlife species. In early summer as fish move into smaller creeks and tributaries to spawn, grizzly bear, osprey and river otter prey on large spawning-sized fish in shallow water.
They’re downright gorgeous. As these fish grow in size, they often develop a unique, golden hue. The namesake red slash under their gills is obvious and the buttery-yellow color these fish take on is peerless in any trout beauty contest. Big brown trout gloat the ego and blow-up Facebook posts, but it takes a special understanding of fly fishing to appreciate the subtle beauty of a 15-inch Yellowstone cutthroat.
Everyone loves an underdog. And these fish are just that. The most obvious challenge is the illegal introduction of lake trout into Yellowstone Lake. Lake trout are voracious predators, grow fast, and require many calories. Their impact on Yellowstone cutthroat is apparent in the numbers of fish migrating out of Yellowstone Lake into the river north of Fishing Bridge.
As a kid and into college I could observe thousands of migrating Yellowstone cutthroat daily. Today, their numbers are in the double digits. In other Yellowstone River drainage rivers, these fish require high water quality. As demand for water increases and our climate changes, habitat for these fish is a major concern. But there are many ways to help, including joining your local chapter of Trout Unlimited, helping the Yellowstone Park Foundation with their efforts to eradicate lake trout, and working locally to keep water in the Yellowstone River’s smaller tributaries.
As a career fishing guide, I’m often asked, “What is your favorite fish to catch?” To remain focused on the task at hand, my first response is “the one I’m fishing to.” However, to be fair to my first true love of trout, I then tell them why I love Yellowstone cutthroat.
Pat Straub is the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana On The Fly,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and he co-owns a guide service on the Missouri River.