- By: Greg Thomas
upfront notes /// greg thomas
I like catching large fish as much as the next guy, maybe more; the bigger the better. I have not entered that Zen realm where any trout is as good as the next as long as it’s taken from a beautiful stream, on a dry fly if at all possible.
I still play the quality-over-quantity game and target fish that make me second-guess my tippet diameter and backing supply.
That same zeal makes Yellowstone National Park’s native fish issue so contentious—on one side are anglers and biologists who believe certain places in the park ought to be managed for the perpetual existence of native trout and grayling. On the other side of the fence is a contingent from the Jackson, Wyoming-based Wild Trout Conservation Coalition that believes non-native trout deserve equal status and that turf wars between those natives and ex-pats ought to be fought in the water and in the media, and because trout don’t write or interview well, WTCC decided it would speak for the fish.
Many of the WTCC board members are people I respect and would also call friends. Some of them really like fishing for lake trout, in Jackson Lake and farther north in Heart, Yellowstone and Lewis lakes. Lake trout can grow to 30 pounds in these waters and put a serious bend in a fly rod.
The problem is this: Lake trout are non-native and they can compete with native trout for habitat and food sources. In addition, they are dominant predators and eat native fish. For that reason, and because park biologists operate under a mandate to protect and preserve native species, a lake trout eradication program is in full swing on Yellowstone Lake—has been since the 1990s.
Lake trout aren’t the only issue—park biologists are trying to wipe out non-native rainbow trout from the park’s northeast corner, on such waters as the Lamar River and Slough Creek, where catch-and-kill mandates are in place. But, some anglers are reluctant to follow the new regulations and favor rainbows over native cutthroat because—I believe—’bows are more difficult to catch, are more apt to jump when hooked, and they grow to larger sizes. Park biologists are doing what they can to keep the rainbows from outcompeting cutthroats, just as state fisheries biologists are doing on many regional waters outside the park, including the South Fork Snake River in Idaho, and Montana’s Cherry Creek.
I love fishing for and catching rainbows, too. But here’s my position: There are plenty of rainbow trout and lake trout finning in their historical waters, and even more of them living unmolested in watersheds where we’ve introduced them.
Cutthroat trout and grayling, in comparison, are species fighting for their very existence. So, why not protect these natives in their last bastion, Yellowstone? Why not take preventive measures to keep non-natives in check? Why wouldn’t we choose the best dryfly trout on earth, living in the ecosystem where it is specifically designed to be, over non-natives that are nearly ubiquitous elsewhere? Why shouldn’t park biologists do the job they are required to do? I, too, think it’s prudent to monitor federal funding and the subsequent expenditures of that money, but I fear that the root of this debate could be as shortsighted as some anglers just wanting that bigger bend in their rods.
In taking liberty to speak for the cutthroat and grayling, I say those fish belong where they are. That is not something I can say for the park’s rainbow and lake trout, no matter how much I, too, like to see my fly rod bending big.
For more on this issue, see Conservation, on page 20.