Searching For Native
by John Holt
FOR SOME OF US, not
making the uncommon effort to define failure and success on our own
terms can transform life into a largely disappointing experience. The
fact that the Cubs have yet to win a World Series in my lifetime (or my
father’s or in nearly a century) is a personal object lesson in
perseverance and loyalty. Losing my hair is perceived as a sign of high
testosterone levels. And on it goes through convoluted time.
So when Ginny and I set out for
the hinterlands of western Wyoming in search of what the Wyoming Game
and Fish Department calls the Wyoming-Cutt Slam I had already internally
acknowledged that I would probably not catch (and release) the four
sub-species of cutthroat trout in question – Yellowstone (Oncorhynchus
clarki bouvieri), Bonneville (Oncorhynchus clarki utah), Colorado
(Oncorhynchus clarki pleuriticus) and Snake River (proposed
classification of Oncorhynchus clarki behnkei). If I did succeed I would
need to submit a form stating where and when I caught the individual
cutthroat along with digital photo documentation of each variety. Then I
would receive a color certificate honoring my achievement. There are no
expectations on my part concerning fulfilling the Slam, but should this
eventuate, I definitely plan on having the full-color certificate framed
and hung in a prominent location in our living room.
I’m not into competition or
quest of any kind. I was initially reluctant to participate in the
program, but reading the information on the department’s website changed
my mind. It stated that the Cutt-Slam is “A program designed to
encourage anglers to learn more about Wyoming's cutthroat sub-species
and develop more appreciation and support of the Wyoming Game and Fish
Department's cutthroat management program.” I much prefer native species
to introduced gamefish as in casting to the Westslope and Yellowstone
cutthroat, mountain whitefish, Montana arctic grayling (Thymallus
arcticus montanus) and Bull trout as opposed to what most fly fishers
prefer chasing – brook, brown and rainbow trout.
Inured to what most
psychologically healthy individuals consider abject failure, I figured
two, possibly three, species landed would be a rousing success, but I
had no idea how this peripatetic angling road trip would play out. The
slowly-realized sinister nature of the adventure may haunt me for the
remainder of my life, possibly even threatening the long-term stability
of my rock-solid marriage.
As I was once again to
experience, the angling gods are a capricious and cruel lot.
We set out for the South Fork of
the Shoshone River outside of Cody near the southeastern corner of
Yellowstone Park. The road was paved degenerating into gravel winding
through development after development then a long-running series of
trophy and dude ranches. Once on the Shoshone National Forest every
trailhead and turnout was jammed with pickups and SUVs pulling horse
trailers. The high country big game season was in full swing. Despite
all of this human degradation, the sharp, jagged mountain peaks,
escarpments and sawtooth ridges are spectacular especially with a fresh
dusting of pure white snow. At the end of the road we stop and work our
way up a trail to some passable pocket water. There are excellent pool
and riffle stretches all along the way to the parking spot but all of
this water is on private land and therefore off limits. This is unlike
Montana where an angler can access water from public roads and bridges
and wade to his heart’s content as long as he stays within the high
water marks. In Wyoming water that flows through private holdings is
PRIVATE! No exceptions. We tend to take this freedom for granted in
Montana, but it is truly a gift not to be squandered or given up to
out-of-state wealthy who have accumulated a massive war chest in an
attempt to overturn the state’s stream access law. Not on my watch. Not
while I’m still kicking.
On this trip I packed a number
of specialty rods that I don’t use all that much but treasure all the
same. For the South Fork I rigged up an Orvis 6-0’, one-ounce,
two-weight - a deceptively strong and accurate rod. Light-weight rods
are a delight on small streams such as this one as long as the fish are
played quickly so that they are not exhausted to the point of dying.
Attached to the end of a 4x tippet is a Royal Wulff. The first four
casts to likely-looking holes produce small Yellowstone cutts that run
in splashing circles briefly then came splashing to my wet hands. Ginny
photographs the little guys as I admire them before turning them free.
The South Fork is far too
residential and locked up for our wild tastes so we decide to cut the
fishing short and move on down the roads. Since we have a long distance
to cover for our next cutthroat adventure somewhere in the southwestern
part of the state we decide to chew up some highway after a snack of
sharp white cheddar, sausage, sour dough bread and orange juice.
Despite the beauty of the day
and the landscape, subdivided as it is, shadowy, chill intimations
disturbing in nature dance among the steep, bouldered and timbered
valleys to the east. I feel uneasy. Danger on the rocks is surely here,
somewhere. This quest that seems to be morphing into a seriously
perverse Bass Masters meat hunt (possibly a slight example here of
verbal overkill - on second thought, not really) in my capricious little
mind. What the hell. I’m easily lead astray and often proud of it, so
After marveling at the rock
walls and cliffs studded with myriad rock formations that towered over
the emerald Wind River below Thermopolis, we spend a full-moon night
along the sandstone crested shore of a west-central Wyoming reservoir.
At sunrise we hit the road early and manage to kill a week or two
waiting for coffee at a kiosk staffed by individuals more interested in
making their own specialty concoctions than waiting on paying customers.
Then the road climbs up over the southern end of the Wind Rivers glowing
in autumn aspen saffron, before drifting lazily past the tourista mining
and Oregon Trail townsites of Atlantic City and South Pass City. The day
is high altitude, clear blue, late September. Antelope by the hundreds
graze, laze and stand casually in the sage flats. We roam the high
desert making our way to the town of Kemmerer, home of the original J.C.
Penney’s store. Gas is cheap here and the residents are friendly – a
delightful combination. We load up on food and fuel and head out west
northwest towards a river drainage of isolated and obscure dimensions.
Turning up a narrow paved road that turns quickly to gravel and dirt we
see the tributary we are looking for – a perfectly clear sapphire stream
twisting like a sensual snake through golden yellow and orange stands of
aspen, willow and alder. Angus and Hereford stand dumbly beneath the
still warm sun. Eagles glide. Hawks circle above soon-to-be-dead
rabbits. Mule deer hold on steep sage-pocked slopes. Rounded mountains
topped with new snow bend off into the distance. This is paradise in our
We drop down a steep rocky
two-track to the stream, set up camp and head to the water. Beautiful
water it is – riffles, runs, pools, undercut banks but after hours of
casting all there is to show are a missed one-foot Bonneville and the
vanishing sight of three tiny trout fleeing for their lives at our
approach. We walk back to camp somewhat perplexed but not discouraged.
Tomorrow will see us through. A grilled rib-eye and baked potato dinner
eaten as the full-moon rises over a steep ridge reinforces our optimism
and resolve. Strong black coffee laced with sugar and thick cream drunk
within a sparkling sunrise frosty morning further our determination.
Moving down the road a piece,
sliding through a steep cutbank of rock, sage and small cactus we work
out way upstream for perhaps a half-mile with no luck. Hare’s ear
nymphs, Elk hair caddis, Royal Wulffs, BWOs – all to no avail. I’d
noticed grasshoppers clacking and crash landing in the roadside grasses
yesterday and begin to hear them as the day grows warmer. Tying on the
rattiest one I have, then greasing the sucker down to make sure it rides
high and dry, I launch it to the head of a long, wide, deep aquamarine
pool. The bug lands with a “plop.” I can smell the slightly creosote
scent of the sage as it heats up. A warm breeze slides downstream. A few
clouds ride the wind. Magpies and crows argue over something rotten on a
nearby rise. The water burbles over and around the cobbled streambed
that flashes bright earthy shades of red, tan, ochre, grey and green.
The fly drifts slowly to me when I spot an open mouth, white inside of
jaws clearly visible as a Booneville rises slowly from the river’s
bottom following the hopper in near-vertical position for five, six feet
before taking the bait.
I set the hook and the trout
runs and leaps for twenty feet, then sounds and runs some more before
breaking the surface in a spray of crystal to jump for the light several
more times. The fish comes to me struggling at this indignity and
assault on its natural freedom. I hold the trout and wonder at its
design, its colors and its similarity to Yellowstone cutts. Ginny takes
a bunch of photos and then the fish is turned loose, disappearing in the
green-blue depths. Two more casts produce two more cutthroat like the
first one and the day is made and we’re happy. Back at the Suburban we
drink pop, eat sausage and cheese and ride a fine day for all it’s
worth, one of the finest, growing better by the moment.
As with all road trips, out of
the ordinary is par for the course. On the walk back to our rig three
stoned, blasted Bozos stop and ask us where to gain access to the water.
They’re in a painting company truck from Jackson. The guy in the back
obviously lost track of his name weeks ago and has contented himself
with working on a can of Schlitz beer. They tell us they’ve caught a
hundred Bonnevilles and plenty of Czechoslovakian browns with blue
stripes above their eyes. The driver tells us they were planted over
two-hundred years ago. We eye each other, chat a bit and then they
vanish in a cloud of dust. I do not see any fishing gear in the cab or
the truck’s bed. Never heard of blue-streaked eastern European browns
and if their planting data is correct the salmo trutta described here
were dropped in this little stream before Lewis and Clark wandered
Ah, yes. The joys of conversing
with the terminally wasted. I fully understand the concept. We look at
each other again and laugh while a turkey vulture offers a wide-spread
wing display on a weathered fence post. The behavior is known as a
horaltic pose whose purpose is to bake off parasites, dry feathers and
warm the body. A companion looks on with obvious boredom. These
creatures defecate on their own legs, using the evaporation of the water
in the feces and/or urine to cool themselves down. There’s a fancy
scientific name for this, but considering the ostentatious nature of the
behavior using the word might be overkill. The vultures also projectile
vomit on perceived enemies. Wonderful creatures, every one of them.
We finish our lunch and make
plans to head for the upper Green River to seek Colorado cutthroat
The drive up to an open, grassy
flat on the Green River a few miles below Green River Lakes in the
Bridger Wilderness is pleasant, scenic and uneventful. We set up camp
and decide to enjoy the snow-crested peaks of the Wind River range while
cooking dinner. There’d be plenty of time to catch Colorado cutts
tomorrow and the next day or so I thought. Flat Top Mountain dominated
the skyline as it passed through grey-indigo, lemon, orange and then
darkening lavender color phases as the sun dropped from the sky.
The next day we fish the river
for a couple of miles catching plenty of 8-12 inch wild rainbows.
Beautiful fish but not the cutts we are after. For some reason I’m
growing anxious about this and not really enjoying myself like I always
do when fishing. Most curious. We decide to hike into the wilderness
along the eastern shore of the lower of the lakes. The wind is severe
from the south whipping whitecaps and blowing leaves from the aspens in
a steady stream as we work our way several miles to Clear Creek. The
stream pours over a natural barricade of granite, plummeting 89 feet to
form a shallow pool and then raced down hill through a rocky streambed
to join the Green. Flakes of iron pyrite (fool’s gold) sparkles among
the dark shoreline sands.
Royal and Green Humpies turned
numerous small rainbows colored intensely in purple, crimson, dark green
and silver with black spotting and bluish parr marks along the flanks,
but again no Colorados.
“I thought for sure they’d be in
this stream if anywhere,” I say to Ginny. “I don’t get it. This is
"Look at the light playing off
the waterfall,” Ginny says. “Isn’t it beautiful? What a great day.”
“Yeah. Right,” I say all the
while wondering where I’ll find a Colorado cutt so I can complete this
portion of the Slam. I realize that this pursuit is taking over me and
spoiling the joy of fishing and Ginny’s good time, but those are minor
considerations at this point. There is a goal here that needs to be met.
I’m obsessed. Driven. Fame and silliness are riding on each cast. The
tension is growing, becoming thick, palpable. Can I do this? The
imagined crowd looks on in studied silence.
We fish for a couple of hours
taking lots of colorful rainbows but no Colorados. We head back to camp,
an enjoyable exercise in the late afternoon sun that warms us,
illuminates the dense pine forest across the lake and highlights
mountains that rip skyward all over the place.
We decide to drive back down
south to Big Piney and work the South Piney Creek and its tributary, the
Landers Fork. Sage flats and bluffs dotted with oil rigs and storage
facilities dominated the landscape as we head into the Wyoming Range.
I’m growing restless not catching the Colorado cutts and even a bit
grumpy. I realize that I’ve succumbed to a variation of competition
fishing and don’t like the sensation. Competitive fly fishing and
one-fly contest lunacy rising in my head. Enough. Enjoy the rainbows
from yesterday, the country I’m passing through and the fishing that
awaits me. At the Landers Fork I rigged up a unique five-foot,
two-weight rod made by Damon Fly Rods – ideal for small, brushy streams
like this one. Lots of decent casts to pools and pockets. No fish of any
stripe. The same holds true lower down on the South Piney in larger
water that is as pretty as any I’ve seen. Fishless all the same.
One last shot will be along
Highway 189 as we head north towards Jackson. At the bridge that spans
Cottonwood Creek I get out of the Suburban and peer into the weedy
creek. There are a dozen or more Colorado cutthroat. I only want one so
I rush back to grab my rod when Ginny points out a large silver Dodge
Ram Parked on a ridge above us. Driver’s-side window rolled down. I can
clearly see a henchmen - no doubt a common laborer for the nearby and as
(I now notice posted) trophy ranch - monitoring us with a pair of large
binoculars. Confrontation, harsh words, fisticuffs, gunfire loom on the
“The hell with it,” I say to
And for some reason the mad
compulsion to accomplish the Cutt-Slam goes away. Just like that. Gone.
I feel like a sick load of tension has risen from my shoulders and blown
away on a western wind. I smile at Ginny and she sees the change and
grins back. Life is better now.
We pull back onto 189 and head
north. I politely wave at the gentle soul in the Dodge as we pass. No
Colorado cutthroat trout. No Cutt-Slam certificate this year, but
there’s still the legendary fine-spotted Snake River subspecies to
chase. Soon we’re in the headwaters of the Hoback River and not long
after we’re up a gravel road and camped alongside a fair-sized
tributary. Night is setting in so we make dinner, enjoy a fire and hot
tea before turning in.
The morning breaks sunny and
clear. The stream rushes and burbles past our campsite. Steam rises from
the water seeming to fluoresce in the light. After coffee I rig up and
begin casting a Royal Wulff to all likely holding locations. At a large
pool that holds tight to a house-sized boulder a fish rises swiftly to
the fly, sets itself, leaps and thrashes before coming to shore. A small
Snake River cutt covered in hundreds of tiny jet black spots. Ginny
photographs the trout for posterity and this story. I release the cutt
and it vanishes like it never was here in the first place. A little more
fishing a few more trout.
A fine morning, a great trip
that was nearly ruined by my juvenile need to complete the Slam of
slams. As we drive through eastern Idaho on the way home to Livingston
running just west of the backside of the Tetons through aspen groves and
pine forest I look back on all of the fish I’ve caught on the trip –
Yellowstone, Bonneville and Snake River cutthroat and those beautiful
rainbows. And I store away the object lesson dealing with the idiocy of
competitive fly fishing.
The miles roll by as we wind
down the Gallatin Valley. The day is gorgeous, light, color and
landscape dancing together in perfect harmony. My thoughts run from how
the Cubs are doing to how our two black cats are…Oh Boy!… how I’m going
to call a Wyoming fisheries biologist next year about where would be
prime Colorado cutthroat water. Where may I expect to take this elusive
sub-species? I need that full-color certificate hanging on my living
What can be said other than a
fool and his desires are a tragic combination.
Article by John Holt © 2008
Photo by Ginny Holt
John Holt lives in Livingston, Montana.
He’s the author of 14 published books including Montana Fly-Fishing
Guides – East and West, Arctic Aurora – Canada’s Yukon and Northwest
Territories, Coyote Nowhere – In Search of America’s Last Frontier and
Hunted: A Novel. AK Press will publish Yellowstone Drift – Floating the
Past in Real Time in February 2009. His work has appeared in
publications including Men’s Journal, The Denver Post, Fly Rod & Reel,
Fly Fisherman, Outside, American Cowboy, E – The Environmental Magazine
and The Art of Angling Journal. His wife, Ginny Holt, has collaborated
with me on articles for the above publications as well as with me on
Yellowstone Drift, Coyote Nowhere and Arctic Aurora.