Native trout are the telltale sign of wild trout water that hasn’t been touched by humanity. Water that is far enough off the beaten path, that even now it doesn’t catch much attention. Or in some cases, it gets so much attention we wouldn’t dare try to change it. Either way the outcome is the same: preservation.
Most novice trout fisherman don’t realize that rainbow trout aren’t native to the majority of the United States and that brown trout aren’t native to North
America at all. Rainbow trout spread from west to east while brown trout were imported from Germany and spread from east to west. Both are relatively hardy fish and often out compete native trout, driving some species to the brink of extinction.
But I’m not writing to complain. This is simply the backstory. The spread of these trout is arguably the sole reason fly fishing is what it is today. Without the opportunity to catch fish nationwide the sport would still be confined largely to the coasts and mountains. Those wealthy enough to enjoy a well controlled trout stream would no doubt bar the general public in our modern world that is dominated by private property and capitalism.
The first time I fished for native trout was in North Carolina, on the Yellowstone Prong River, above the famous falls at Graveyard Fields. Calling it a River is a bit of a stretch. In most places it rarely gets more than waste deep and even then you’d have to be standing in the deepest spot you could find.
I fished it with my Dad the summer after my senior year of high school. It seemed as if we spent most of the day trying not to spook fish as opposed to fishing. When we succeeded the little brook trout were eager to take a fly. Many of them were too small to fit our hoppers in their mouths, but nevertheless they tried admirably. To our pleasure a few succeeded.
After fishing for a couple hours we came to a small waterfall about ten or fifteen feet in height. Dad turned to me and asked, half as if he was genuinely curious, and half as if he wanted to leave and chase bigger fish: “do you think there are any trout above that?”
I looked over at him, thought about it for a second, then pointed down stream and replied, “well they got above those falls.”
Dad nodded, and we continued, although I’m afraid he was a bit reluctant.
The second time I fished for native trout was in the Rockies. I was fishing the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area and doing terribly. After two days of fishing, and roughly fifteen miles of hiking I’d caught only a handful of little brook trout. On the last day of my trip I passed the IPWA and drove the extra hour to Estes Park and the eastern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.
I decided to fish Dream Lake, partially because it boasts a descent population of Greenback Cutthroats, and partially because it’s a short hike. The trail was packed with tourists, but once I reached the lake they either kept going or snapped some pictures and turned around. The trout were used to people but not flies and all it took was a well placed beetle to fool most of them.
In Utah I had the opportunity to fish for Bonneville cutthroat trout numerous times. Within an hours drive of the small town I lived in there were five or six small creeks that had healthy populations of Bonnevilles. Like most cutthroat trout they were more than willing to bite, and catching a dozen after work wasn’t difficult.
Of the meadow creeks and headwaters I found them in, one seemed to embody the spirit of native trout more than any other. It was a little feeder creek I spotted on the map while fishing the larger stream it fed. There appeared to be two roads leading to it, although both were marked not maintained for passenger vehicles. In Utah that typically means: it's doable, but we wouldn’t recommend it.
I was driving a brand new, dependable pickup, which now that I put it on paper seems more like a reason not to risk it on a sketchy back road than vice versa. But, that’s beside the point now.
Like a proper explorer I used my fold out BLM map to navigate and only made two wrong turns before finding a road that wound its way in more or less the right direction. After a bit the rough road began to drop steeply into a valley. The quality of the road declined rapidly in the last mile before the creek, and I figured on the off chance I made it down in one piece, the prospects of getting back up were slim.
I was forced to put my truck in reverse, and back up the quarter mile of trail I’d already been on. It was slow going with a short cliff face on my left and a descent drop off on my right. I’m a patient fisherman, but when it comes to reaching the water I’m often far to impatient. Not this time, I wasn’t taking any chances.
I reached a fairly level clearing, turned the truck around, and parked it. From there I hiked the last mile or so to the valley floor.
The summer before a massive forest fire had swept through the area and cleared the canyon of its timber. This resulted in breathtaking views up and down the little trout stream. In some places you could see up to a mile in both directions before the gradual curve of the canyon cut you off.
Not to be out done by the view, the fishing was excellent. Like any cutthroat trout I’ve ever fished for they were more than happy to eat. Hoppers were the main attraction, but I had success on small stonefly patterns, and large dry flies as well.
The fish themselves ranged in size from eight inches all the way up to a plump fourteen incher I pulled off a half burnt bit of deadfall. I’d cast up to the top of the log and mended the stonefly into a little pocket of calm water. As it sat there, waiting to be kicked downstream by the next pulse of current, a thick flash came from beneath the log. I never actually saw the rise, the fly just seemed to disappear in a dimple of water. For such a “small” fish my heart practically stopped and I nearly forgot to set the hook.
Upon landing and releasing that trout I sat there and thought about it. Always a good idea in my opinion.
When I think of native trout I don’t see them as a romantic or nostalgic footnote of the past waiting to be destroyed by humanity. No, I see the most perfect quarry for fly fisherman that are as restless and adventuresome as I am.
This brings us back to the beginning, native trout are off the beaten path, and a little bit forgotten about. At this point that's probably the best thing for them. It’s easy to complain about the past and blame what’s already happened for where we’re at, but all that gets us is a bunch of angry fisherman on two different sides of the same stream, so to speak. Instead we need to accept what we have now and fight for it. At the very least we could just leave it alone.