Trout Need Champions


By Scott Yates

The banks of the legendary Madison River – that’s where I got to spend last week with a bevy of Trout Unlimited staff and guests.  And the Madison was in all its spring glory.  It was a long winter, so the mix of green grass (finally), leafing trees, and the snowcapped Madison and Gravelly mountain ranges in the background certainly added to the ambiance.  We also got some time on the river; the big stones weren’t making their way toward the banks yet but traditional plying with an assortment of nymphs and streamers certainly kept everyone busy, beginners and experts alike.  Solid, healthy fish, and a couple surprises in terms of big bottom-grubbing browns and rainbows which 40 years ago, might have gone up on the wall at the Ennis Cafe.

I really look forward to getting everyone together in spectacular settings, like Ennis, where we work.  It’s a great reminder of the talent pool we have working in this organization and the epic trout rivers that we all fish and are trying to protect and restore.  But we also do these meetings in watersheds where we work, and that means having an opportunity to tour smaller waters and tributaries critical to bigger waters like the Madison – key spawning grounds and nursery areas for young fish.  And perhaps most importantly, to visit with some great rancher and farmer partners, and highlight some of the stream champions we work with—and without whom TU could not achieve its coldwater mission protecting and restoring native and wild trout.

Scott Yates and Dr. Rob Van Kirk

And TU has some incredible partners on the rivers and streams near Yellowstone National Park.  One is Dr. Rob Van Kirk, who has quietly and with little fanfare dedicated the bulk of his professional career to protecting native and wild trout in some of the most high-profile fisheries in the world.  And here’s the thing about Rob – he’s gained that respect while working on incredibly complex and divisive (both technically and politically) issues like water management in the Upper Snake River Basin.  Whether it’s a federal dam operator at the Bureau of Reclamation, a farmer at Fremont-Madison Irrigation District, or long-time Henry’s Fork angling legends like Mike Lawson or Tom Grimes, they all talk about Rob’s measured approach, technical prowess, and practical river knowledge with reverence and respect – that says it all.

Someday I’ll hopefully have a broader forum and more time to tout all the things that Rob has done to benefit Upper Snake River Basin trout fisheries.  But it’s worth providing a couple examples here.  He’s done ground-breaking research on the relationship between a healthy natural stream hydrograph and the presence and strength of native cutthroat populations.  Go figure—change the way a river or stream works and you potentially pay the price in terms of native fish populations. Rob’s work has helped provide the scientific underpinning of our restoration work on the ground.  With his expertise in mathematics and modeling, Rob has also served the conservation community as a consistent and cerebral champion in federal dam operations and state water management processes over the past 20 years.  During this time, his dogged oversight has led to significant gains on improving winter flows (Henry’s Fork) and spring freshet operations (South Fork) in the Snake River system.  Much of this work was accomplished as a professor at Idaho State and Humboldt State universities.  But I for one am glad he’s back where he started early in his career, wearing the Henry’s Fork Foundation hat, serving as their Senior Scientist.  The Henry’s Fork Foundation is a fantastic local conservation organization, and Rob’s work will continue to be critical in future years as we implement innovative water management and supply projects to protect the Henry’s Fork and other Upper Snake River fisheries.

Craig Mathews, Madison River champion

Shifting back to the Madison River, Craig Matthews has been critical to TU’s Montana Water Project and its efforts to protect flows to three creeks that run across the Sun Ranch:  Wolf, Moose, and Sun Creeks (see this video of the project).  

Craig, long-time owner of Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone and co-founder of 1% For the Planet, is truly one of the conservation heroes for fishermen in the West.  TU’s partnership with former Sun Ranch owner Roger Lang involved some of the first water leases in Montana, and legally protected over 220 cfs to the Madison River.  The water lease in 2001 was precedent-setting as a tool to help balance agricultural production and fisheries health during the extended drought years of the early 2000s.  When the Sun Ranch changed ownership to the Sun Ranch Partners, Craig, as the ranch manager, was instrumental in working with the new owners to renew the water leases for another 10 years.  Without Craig’s knowledge and passion for the Madison River, it’s unlikely that would have happened.

Stan Bradshaw of Montana TU presents award to Lyndy Caine

Finally, Lyndy Caine is another great TU partner, and has helped protect one of the great stillwaters in the West – Hebgen Lake.  She purchased the Firehole Ranch when it was threatened by development, because she had a special connection to this place from childhood.  Stewardship of the ranch and its natural resources is a driving passion for her, and led to TU’s collaboration with Lyndy to lease water rights to protect flows in Watkins Creek (watch the video).  Watkins is another example of a small creek that plays a big role in the larger watershed as a spawning and rearing creek for wild trout in Hebgen Lake.   As you know, TU advocates and works for fisheries that are self-sustaining. TU’s instream flow lease and restoration effort on Watkins Creek is building the case for a drastic reduction or even the elimination of trout stocking in Hebgen Lake.  Studies show that natural reproduction in Hebgen’s tributaries contributes far more to the trout population than stocking, and with each restored tributary such as Watkins, that percentage just gets more dramatic.

A lot of anglers venture to Yellowstone country every year to fish.  If you do, and you run into Rob, Craig, or Lyndy, be sure and say thanks. They are the kind of dedicated, passionate partners that TU depends upon to help us preserve the West’s last best places.

Scott Yates is director of TU’s Western Water Project.


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