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Goin' Fishin'

"In which park will I find the best fishing?"

The rangers hear that question frequently, especially when they are away from the parks on visits to the cities. The answer is, there is good fishing in practically all of the parks, though it is better at times in some than in others. There are different kinds of fish to be caught, and the angler's preference in the matter of fish must be considered. Experienced anglers have their affections for certain kinds of fish and look upon all other members of the finny tribe with something approaching disdain. The steelhead angler insists there is no fishing like steelhead fishing, while the golden-trout devotee claims the steelhead isn't even a trout. So there you are!

Most of the fish found in the national parks are trout. The lakes and streams of the parks are at a high elevation. In these icy waters, fed continually by snows and glaciers, the trout is right at home. The trout likes cold water. In the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite Park the trout go so far upstream that they almost reach the ice of the melting glaciers. In these high, cold waters trout do not grow to large size, but they are far more delicious eating than the big fellows found farther down stream. The different varieties of trout found in national park waters are as follows:

The rainbow, so called because of the shafts of color that run lengthwise on his body, is a native of California. The rainbow is found in natural state in Yosemite, Lassen Volcanic and Sequoia parks. This fish seldom weighs more than two pounds, but he is the gamest, hardest-fighting trout of all, and is a great favorite with anglers. The meat of the rainbow is usually pink, almost the color of salmon. As a matter of fact, many of the trout belong to the salmon family, being really fresh-water salmons. The rainbow has been successfully introduced into Yellowstone, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, Rocky Mountain, and other parks.

The golden trout, a native of Sequoia Park, is the most beautiful of trout. This fish is usually found in small streams and does not grow very large, although in certain lakes it has been known to weigh two pounds or more. The face of this trout is olive, its sides and belly are a light golden, while down the middle of its sides are scarlet stripes. Along the middle line of the belly is a scarlet band. Dr. David Starr Jordan, who first described this trout, named it Salmo Rooseveltii, in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt.

The cutthroat, or redthroat, so named because of the deep red dash or blotch between the branches of the lower jaw, is the native trout of Yellowstone, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain National parks. It is found mainly in the higher waters of Yellowstone, and above the falls. The cutthroat normally grows to be a good-sized trout, two to four pounds in weight, and occasionally is found much larger, even running up to ten or more pounds. Where the cutthroat is the native trout and where it thrives we keep exotic trout out of its waters. The cutthroat is a gamy, tasty fish, much appreciated by fishermen.

The German Brown is a trout imported from Europe. He is usually the color of the bottom of the stream or lake he inhabits, and is hard to see. This trout is distinguished by the dark brown spots on the pale brown body. This was the "brook trout" of England, made famous by Izaak Walton in his memorable work, "The Compleat Angler." The German Brown grows to a large size, if he escapes the fisherman's bait, in Yosemite attaining ten to fifteen pounds.


The Loch Leven was imported to the United States from the lakes of the Scottish Highlands. It originated in Loch Leven, immortalized in Sir Walter Scott's poem, "The Lady of the Lake." In markings, the Loch Leven is much like the German Brown, dark brown spots on a light brown body. It is a much more lively fish than the German Brown and is found in many of the lower-level lakes and streams of the parks.

The eastern brook trout was brought to the national parks from the lakes and streams of the Atlantic Coast. It is a light colored, bright, speckled trout, often called "the speckled beauty." Eastern brook trout grow to larger sizes in western waters than they do in the East. It is a favorite trout in the eastern national parks streams.

The Dolly Varden, or bull trout, sometimes called the red-spotted trout, is a stoutly built fish, with a large head and a broad flat snout. It is olive colored with red spots about the size of its eyes. These spots are red on the sides of the fish and paler on the back. It is found in Glacier and Mount Rainier National parks and is abundant in streams of the West.

The Mackinaw, or lake trout, is the fish for the angler who wants to have his picture taken with a big one. These trout attain three feet in length and weigh twenty pounds in some of the lakes and larger smooth-water rivers. The Mackinaw has light spots of a reddish tinge on a dark or pale gray body. The Mackinaw lives down deep in the water. To capture him it is necessary to use bait or spinners well weighted for a lure. He is not a fighter, but because of his great weight and strength will play havoc with light tackle.

In addition to the trout there are two other fine fish found in the Rocky Mountain national parks: the grayling, a native fish, slender, graceful, beautiful, with pearl-like luster, large hard fins, a good fighter, but not large, usually from one to two pounds when full grown. The grayling has white meat, is good eating, and resembles the trout in habits. The Rocky Mountain whitefish is similar to the grayling, with smaller fins. He has a sucker-like mouth and must be handled with care by the fisherman. The whitefish, unlike the grayling, is not sporty, and is sought only because it is good eating.


Occasionally other kinds of fish are found in the waters of the parks, but not frequently. In the early days, when the stocking of streams was a haphazard matter, largely in the hands of well-meaning individuals, fish of many kinds were planted in the streams and lakes. Gradually the trout have been eliminating the others, and sometimes have eliminated other trout. If a native trout will not live in a certain lake or stream, then the rangers try another kind. In some lakes in Yellowstone they have tried practically every variety of trout, without success. Sometimes this is due to lack of food, sometimes to peculiar contents or to temperature of the water. In view of this, it is always well to talk over your fishing plans with a ranger when you enter a park. He can at least save you the time you might spend fishing in waters where fish cannot live. And he may be able to tell you just where you can catch them.

To recapitulate, park by park, these are the kinds of fish that anglers may expect to find in the different parks they visit:

In Yellowstone, the native is the cutthroat, which is the only trout found in the eastern half of the park. In the Gibbon River and in the lakes at its headwaters, there are rainbow trout. Brook and Loch Leven trout are found in the streams on the west side of the park. Mackinaw are in the Snake River and in Shoshone, Lewis, and Heart lakes, and are found just south of the park in Jackson Hole lakes. Grayling are found in some of the lakes and streams of the Madison River watershed, and whitefish in the lower Yellowstone River and in the Madison. No fishing license is required in Yellowstone Park.

In Glacier National Park, the native trout is the cutthroat. Rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, eastern brook, and grayling have been introduced, and lakes are well stocked. No fishing license is required.

In Rocky Mountain National Park, the native is the cutthroat. Rainbow and eastern brook have been planted. Whitefish are also found in the lakes. A Colorado state fishing license is required and can be secured in the park.

In Mount Rainier National Park, fishing is sometimes difficult, due to "glacier milk" in the waters of streams. The glaciers empty quantities of ground rock into the streams each summer. Yet many trout are caught each year in this park, rainbow, cutthroat, Dolly Varden, and brook. No fishing license is required.

Crater Lake, having no streams flowing from it, was not stocked with fish when discovered. One of the pioneers of Oregon, Will G. Steel, superintendent of the park for several years and later United States Commissioner there, took it upon himself to carry trout to the lake in cans. They have prospered, and now Crater Lake offers good rainbow and black-spotted trout fishing. No fishing license is required. An interesting sidelight upon the introduction of fish into Crater Lake was the problem of finding food for the fish. The trout at first failed to grow because of the scarcity of fish food in the lake. A fresh-water shrimp was finally found that grew rapidly in the lake and the trout began to grow large and fat as soon as the shrimps became plentiful.

In Lassen National Park the streams are well stocked with the native California rainbow trout. The usual California fishing regulations prevail here and a California license is required.

Yosemite National Park, with more than three hundred lakes and streams, is well stocked with trout. More than a million fry have been planted each year for several years in the waters of this park, and a new rearing pond in Yosemite Valley now supplies the park with fingerlings. The native trout is the rainbow. In addition there are German Brown, eastern brook, Loch Leven, cutthroats, and a number of other exotic varieties, among them the steelhead, always prized by anglers. The steelhead is a sea-running form of the rainbow trout, recognized by its small head, its silvery body, and its large scales. Introduced into several Yosemite lakes, this trout, ordinarily found only in the coast streams, has increased in numbers and grown to good size. A California fishing license is required, and can be obtained in the park.

In Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks the natives are the California rainbow and the golden trout. The steelhead, Loch Leven, and cutthroat have been introduced to their waters. A California fishing license is required.

Grand Canyon National Park offered some problems when the rangers undertook to stock its waters, naturally barren, with trout. There were fish in the river, but the waters were so muddy that fishing was not attractive. In 1925, 50,000 cutthroat trout eggs from Yellowstone were shipped, 1200 miles by express to the north rim of Grand Canyon, thence 250 miles by motor truck, 35 miles by pack animals, and one mile on the backs of rangers to the waters of creeks flowing into the Colorado River on the north slope. This was one of the most difficult plants undertaken by the rangers. During the entire distance, the eggs were packed in ice, to maintain the temperature of Yellowstone streams across the hot deserts of Arizona, until they could be planted in the cold waters of Shinumo Creek. The planting was entirely successful and fishing is already good in the streams stocked. Similar plantings of rainbow and cutthroat have since been made in Bright Angel Creek and other waters of the park. In Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks, the trouts are brook and rainbow. Olympic and Isle Royale Parks offer many and varied species for the fisherman.


Some of the best fishing waters in the national parks were originally barren of fish. This was due, no doubt, to the high altitudes of the lakes and streams of the parks and to the waterfalls in the parks which barred the upstream progress of the fish. The trout, like the salmon, is able to negotiate difficult rapids and small waterfalls in his search for the headwaters in which to spawn, but not such enormous falls as Nevada, Vernal, Narada, and the Yellowstone. Originally all of the northern and western waters of Yellowstone were barren of fish. Most of the better streams and lakes of Yosemite were devoid of fish, likewise those of Sequoia, Crater Lake, Glacier, and other high-altitude parks.

In their natural state trout spawn under difficulties at best. As the spawning time approaches, the fish push up toward the shallower waters, where the female selects a spot near the bank of the stream and prepares her nest by washing out the sand with her tail and pushing aside the gravel with her nose. After forming a slightly concave depression, she deposits a part of her eggs on the newly cleansed gravel, and the male, which up to this time has been playfully swimming around the nest, emits milt upon them almost simultaneously. The female then covers the eggs with the loose gravel. The spawning, impregnating, and covering are repeated continuously until the eggs are all laid. The eggs of trout are heavy and non-adhesive. They will sink, therefore it takes current to wash them away. Often flood waters destroy all eggs laid in a stream.


When the tiny fish is first hatched, he has a large stomach, like a pollywog, which makes it difficult for him to navigate. He falls easy prey to a passing fish, which may eat hundreds of little fish in a day. Life is a precarious proposition, with the odds all against the small fish until he grows the size of a fingerling and can take care of himself.

The rangers and the representatives of the United States Bureau of Fisheries and the state hatcheries have sometimes planted in one year as many as eight million fry, just hatched, in the waters of the national parks. It is doubtful if more than one in ten survives the first year, with all the existing hazards. For this reason the rangers are gradually discontinuing the practice of planting fry, except in barren waters where the fry are safe from older fish. In many of the parks rearing ponds are being built, in which the little trout can be raised to fingerlings. In these ponds the trout are fed on beef liver. They grow rapidly, and within a year after they are hatched are well able to fight for themselves.

Everybody, of course, wants to "catch the limit." The inference always is that the angler could have caught a great many more if it had not been for the limit. All anglers like to infer that. Limits in the national parks have varied to conform to the regulations in the different states. Most of the state limits have been too generous. Twenty-five fish are too many for one person, yet when the limit is twenty-five the sporting fisherman feels that he must catch the limit to be a good sport. In certain parks the rangers tried the experiment of holding the limit at ten fish, though the state limit is twenty-five. The limit of ten proved entirely satisfactory to most fishermen. They wanted to be able to say they caught the limit. One way to increase the sport of fishing for a limit of ten is to fish with barbless hooks, from which the trout may escape if the line is not taut. Barbless hooks do not injure the fish, and if the limit is passed they may be thrown back.

The greatest fishing spot in any of the parks is the Fishing Bridge of the Yellowstone River, just below the lake of the same name. This is the outlet of the lake, and here the cutthroats gather in great numbers, working up the stream to the lake. On the bridge crossing the river one can count as many as fifty fishermen at a time, and every one of them seems to be catching fish. Sagebrushers love to camp by this spot so that they can fish early and fish late, without being far from camp, and recently the rangers laid out a large campsite there. Walk through it any evening and you will find trout frying in the pan over almost every campfire.

Fishing in the Yellowstone brings some unusual thrills, with the great variety of streams and lakes, the beauty of swift-flowing waters of the big rivers and small creeks, and the thought that some of the cutthroat may have crossed the continental divide through Two Ocean Pass; but the greatest of all thrills is "the music of the lakes." Ever since the Yellowstone was discovered, on Lake Yellowstone and on Shoshone Lake, strange sounds, sometimes like moans, again like the low humming of a tune, and again like sweet music, have been reported by anglers. Curiously, the sounds are heard when the air is still, the sky clear, and the water smooth as glass, and rarely ever except in the morning.

These strange sounds were first described in the early 'seventies. In 1891 Professor Edwin Linton of Washington and Jefferson College, and Stephen Forbes of the Illinois State Natural History Survey, had an experience which Dr. Forbes described as follows:

"Here we first heard, while out on the lake in the bright still morning, the mysterious aerial sound for which this region is noted. It put me in mind of the vibrating clang of a harp lightly and rapidly touched high up above the tree tops, or the sound of many telegraph wires swinging regularly and rapidly in the wind, or, more rarely, of faintly heard voices answering each other overhead.

"It begins softly in the remote distance, draws rapidly near with louder and louder throbs of sound, and dies away in the opposite distance; or it may seem to wander irregularly about, the whole passage lasting from a few seconds to half a minute or more.

"It is usually noticed on still, bright mornings not long after sunrise, and it is always louder at this time of day; but I heard it clearly, though faintly, once at noon when a stiff breeze was blowing.

"No scientific explanation of this really bewitching phenomenon has ever been published, although it has been several times referred to by travelers, who have ventured various crude guesses at its cause, varying from that commonest catch-all of the ignorant, 'electricity' to the whistling of the wings of ducks and the noise of the 'steamboat geyser.' It seems to me to belong to the class of aerial echoes, but even on that supposition I cannot account for the origin of the sound."

In 1919 Dr. Hugh M. Smith, then United States Commissioner of Fisheries, had a series of adventures on Shoshone Lake with these strange sounds. The following is a part of his report on these experiences:

"The surface of the lake was glassy, the air was still, a faint haze overhung the water, the sky was cloudless, and the lake for a considerable distance out was in the shadow of heavily timbered hills. The canoe had barely gotten under way and was not more than twenty meters from the shore when there suddenly arose a musical sound of rare sweetness, rich timbre, and full volume, whose effect was increased by the noiseless surroundings. The sound appeared to come from directly overhead, and both of us at the same moment instinctively glanced upward; each afterward asserted that so great was his astonishment that he almost was prepared to see a pipe organ suspended in mid-air. The sound, by the most perfect graduation, increased in volume and pitch, reaching its climax a few seconds after the paddling of the canoe was involuntarily suspended; and then, rapidly growing fainter and diminishing in pitch, it seemed to pass away toward the south. The sound lasted ten to fifteen seconds and was subsequently adjudged to range in pitch approximately from a little below center C to a little above tenor C of the piano forte, the tones blending in the most perfect chromatic scale."

The sounds are still heard and remain unexplained. Hardly a summer goes by without some excited fisherman coming in with a tale about the weird sounds from the air above the lakes.

The national parks are already the rendezvous of the trout anglers. They can be made the finest fishing places in the country. They enjoy certain advantages peculiar to themselves. They are at the headwaters of streams where the water is cold and invigorating the year around, just right for the gamy trout. These waters cannot be spoiled by pollution, the greatest enemy of the fish. The winter seasons, when the parks are little frequented, give the fish their opportunity to increase and grow. In at least half a dozen of the parks there are literally scores of lakes and streams ideal for trout propagation. All that is needed to complete this picture of fisherman's paradise is sufficient money to build rearing ponds and raise the fish from fry to fingerlings.

The mellowing influence of goin' fishin' has already been mentioned. It is something that must be tasted to be enjoyed. Give a ranger the hardest-shelled, most pompous dignitary in business or public life to take out in the mountains, just fishin'. Watch him pull out the old pipe, draw down the old slouch hat, loll around the campfire with the boys. See him unbend, become "reg'lar." Keep an eye on him while he is fishing. There is hope and optimism in his eye, there is youth in his fingers as he zings out his line over the water. The way he jumps when that trout hits the line! Note that smile as he holds the speckled beauty high for inspection! "Ain't he a fish, though!" Hear him say it. Take a deep breath as the trout hits the pan, alongside the coffeepot, over an open fire. Aroma, oh, man! What if the fish is overdone? What if the coffee is strong enough to paint a cabin? No chef could ever put into food that delicious flavor of the mountains, tasted by a fellow when he has been goin' fishin'.


Oh, Ranger!
©1928, 1929, 1934, 1972, Horace M. Albright and Frank J. Taylor
albright-taylor/chap5a.htm — 06-Sep-2004