TU Blogger Tour, Day 2: Native Fish on the Brain

"I'm not even packing waders," I told a friend of mine, as I casually loaded up a bag for this summer's TU blogger tour in Yellowstone National Park. "It's supposed to be in the 80s--I'll wet wade and be just fine."

And truth be told, I was just fine. But on the second day of the tour, hosted by TU and

Steve Zakur, top left, and Bruce Smithhammer prepare to net fish from Soda Butte Creek during an electroshocking effort in July.

sponsored by Simms and the Yellowstone Park Foundation, I wished I had a pair. Todd Koel, Yellowstone's lead fisheries biologist, had arranged for those on the tour to participate in the effort to remove non-native brook trout and rainbow trout from Soda Butte Creek, an important stronghold for Yellowstone cutthroat trout and a tributary to the famed Lamar River.

Trouble is, in order to remove brookies and rainbows from the waters of the creek, the Park Service and it's Student Conservation Association volunteers have to zap the creek with an electrical current--if you're not wearing waders, the experience might make your hair stand up on end.

So I watched enviously as Steve Zakur and Bruce Smithhammer donned waders and proceeded to remove a few unwanted invasives from Soda Butte Creek. The effort is part of the park's newly adopted Native Fish Conservation Plan, a thoughtful and aggressive strategy to restore the park's native fish to as many watersheds as is practically possible. The plan also includes the effort to remove non-native--and predatory--lake trout from Yellowstone Lake.

Zakur and Smithhammer were joined on the tour by Rebecca Garlock and Marc Payne. Together with me, TROUT Magazine Editor Kirk Deeter and Wyoming TU volunteer Dave Sweet, we proved to be the core of the tour, with great folks from Simms and the YPF hopping in and out of the tour, and Koel and a few of his staffers showing up now and then, just so we stayed focused.

And, of course, while the focus of the trip was the park's great new plan to restore native trout to its waters, it's tough to drive the Grand Loop Road through the park and not think about fishing.

So, after the morning exercise that included the removal of some non-native trout from a Yellowstone cutthroat trout stream, we rewarded ourselves with a visit to one of the park's most famous Yellowstone cutthroat trout streams--Slough Creek.

Rebecca, Marc and Steve fished the storied canyon that spills down the mountain from

Kirk Deeter tries not to look so tired after the bushwhack up the Slough Creek canyon.

Slough Creek's first meadow while Bruce, Kirk and I bushwhacked and rock-hopped up the canyon to that meadow. Everyone caught fish--Steve hooked a really nice rainbow-cutthroat hybrid in the canyon and then had to actually remove a can of bear spray from his hip holster--an inquisitive black bear wandered a bit too close to the three bloggers fishing the canyon.

Slough Creek is proof that the farther you get from the road, the better the fishing gets. While it's possible to catch big, fat Yellowstone cutthroats in the first meadow, which might be a couple of miles up the mountain, those fish see a lot of flies. Success is even greater in the second meadow, and if you can pound the trail for six miles, the storied third meadow can be downright ridiculous.

But even here, on this famous stretch of stream, there are worries that Yellowstone's signature native trout might be in trouble. In recent years, big rainbows--presumably migratory fish from the Lamar--have turned up in the first meadow. And rainbows, as you know, will mingle with native cutthroats and produce a fertile hybrid--Steve's fish was the product of such an unholy union.

Truth be told, after trudging up the canyon, losing the trail a number of times and suffering the inevitable bumps, cuts and bruises that come with a good bushwhack, I'm not sure how the rainbows made it up the canyon--the creek looks almost as inhospitable as the "trail" to the first meadow.

Through the canyon, Slough Creek is a white, frothy mess. It drops off the flat first meadow with a good head of steam and doesn't slow down much until it gets pretty close to the bottom of the canyon. I wouldn't have bet that any fish--let along non-native rainbows--could make the journey from the bottom of the canyon to the top. But the proof is in the offspring, right?

So the Park Service is planning to enhance one of the many high-gradient rapids (read: waterfalls) in the canyon and make a true barrier to upstream migration in hopes of protecting the integrity of Slough's native Yellowstone cutthroats. Again, it's part of it's ambitious new recovery plan for native trout, and TU supports this work wholeheartedly.

With Yellowstone cutthroat trout on the ropes in Yellowstone Lake and, really, throughout their native range, anything that can be done to protect what I think is the West's most heralded trout should be done. Simple as that.

And with tales to tell as we gathered around the cooler for a cold beer, the best stories were from the bloggers who caught pure Yellowstone cutthroat trout exactly where they belonged.

In his blog post about his adventure, Steve lamented not killing the hybrid he managed to bring to hand in fast water. I'm giving him a pass for a couple of reason. First, the Park Service barrier will do more to stop the upstream migration of non-native and hybrid trout than a lone angler ever will.

Second, with a black bear moseying along the trail behind him, I'm thinking he had more important things to worry about.

For the first time in generations, the National Park Service is doing the very things they've talked about doing. They have plans to install barriers on Slough Creek and Soda Butte Creek to protect heritage populations of Yellowstone cutthroat trout. On Specimen Creek and Grayling Creek in the park's northwest corner, they're conspiring to reintroduce native west slope cutthroat trout and grayling. Things are looking up for native fish in the park.

And thanks to Koel and his passionate staff, the TU blogger tour got front-row seats to watch the progress.



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