Where People Can Catch Trout, & Trout Can Catch People

by Nate Schweber

There were more than 4 million visits to Yellowstone National Park in 2016, all drawn by the same want—to better know the wonders of our natural world. And what better place to meet nature’s best ambassadors? Yellowstone is well-known for its animals, such as grizzly bears, bison, wolves, elk, and eagles. Yet among these ambassadors, one species stands out as the best: trout. Hear me out, non-anglers. Of all the game animals in Yellowstone, the only ones people are welcome to make a physical connection with are trout (I’m including in my thesis brook trout and lake trout, technically char, and also their cousins, Arctic grayling and mountain whitefish).

Think of the reciprocation in that ceremony. A person wrangles, touches, lifts, and studies a wild animal, from the mercurial colors of its speckled sides to the obsidian triangles in its eyes. If the trout is non-native, under the right circumstances the angler can eat it—a communion with Yellowstone. Native trout, however, always must be let go. Then each release becomes a human lesson in the magnanimity of restraint, a concept with wide-reaching implications for our changing earth.

But for this ceremony to happen, for the lessons to be learned, trout must first be preserved. Native trout are the most imperiled. For their sake, Yellowstone officials have taken some of the bravest and most proactive steps in conservation history.
When Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake dropped to dangerously low levels in the mid-20th century, the park set strict angler limits. When these native cutthroats were killed in even more devastating numbers by illegally-introduced lake trout in the early 21st century, officials began using boats to net lake trout. To-date, this ambitious netting campaign has removed more than two million of the non-natives. Slowly, native cutthroats are returning.

On the sunset side of the Continental Divide, Yellowstone biologists led by Todd Koel recently restored populations of another native trout gone for nearly a century— westslope cutthroat. Ambitious hikers can climb to High Lake and find westslope cutthroats cruising teal waters deep in the Gallatin Range. Cyclists can pedal to Goose Lake, a short ride from steaming Midway Geyser Basin, to find westslope cutthroat. Soon, people will be able to once again catch westslope cutthroat and sailfinned Arctic grayling in Grayling Creek. That’s welcome news for anglers, for the rare grayling, and for the veracity of maps.

Recently, Yellowstone set rules requiring anglers to automatically kill non-native trout in certain imperiled waters. While controversial, the decision sent a powerful message throughout the National Park Service about the urgency of protecting native trout and, by extension, all animals that coexist with them. By setting this precedent, Yellowstone saved steelhead in Washington’s Olympic National Park, bull trout in Montana’s Glacier National Park, Bonneville cutthroat trout in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, and brook trout in North Carolina and Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

One million years of mankind’s exploratory and intellectual effort led to the creation of Yellowstone National Park—the world’s first national park, the best idea from the best country in history. The next million years will be shaped for the better if Yellowstone remains a place where people can catch trout, and trout can catch people.

Nate Schweber is the author of “Fly Fishing in Yellowstone National Park: An Insider’s Guide to the 50 Best Places.” A freelance journalist, his work has appeared in the New York Times, Al Jazeera America, and Montana Quarterly. Born and raised in Missoula, Montana, he now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Nate spent the summers of 1997 and 2011 working in Yellowstone.
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Last updated: August 1, 2017