A Native Odyssey Blog Post 10: Idaho

Public Land:

Mmmm Trout Snack

Mmmm Trout Snack

 

Sawtooth National Forest

     The Sawtooth National Forest encompasses 2,110,408 acres largely in Idaho, but also partially in Utah. It is comprised of multiple terrain types including sagebrush steppe, spruce-fir forests, and alpine tundra. Throughout these terrains there are 3,500 miles of rivers and streams. The area is currently managed by the U.S. Forest Service as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The forest offers visitors multiple recreation options. Over 1,000 miles of hiking trails are available, along with four ski areas, fishing opportunities, and whitewater boating. 81 campgrounds dot the area so it is not hard to find a place to pop up a tent.

-       Matt Crockett

Native Trout:

Austin Holds a Westslope Cutthroat Trout

Austin Holds a Westslope Cutthroat Trout

Westslope cutthroat trout

     These trout were first discovered in 1805, when the Lewis and Clarke expedition took note of their existence. Westslope cutthroat trout (WCT) used to herald the most habitat of all species of cutthroat trout found in the American west, but today they occupy only half of their historical range. Traditional human land uses as well as invasive species have contributed to the decline of the species. However, genetically pure WCT inhabit a few major watersheds where they still persevere. These include the Flathead River in Montana, as well as portions of the Salmon and Priest Rivers in Idaho. These trout have forever been a symbol of the American west, and hopefully we are able to keep it that way.

Bull Trout

A juvenile Bull Trout

A juvenile Bull Trout

     Bull trout, which are actually a species of char, are distributed in the Northern Rockies of the United States. These fish require cold, clean, and clear water to thrive, and can be found in many headwater streams, lakes, and larger river systems such as the Boise River in Idaho. Bull trout are inherently a migratory species, and because of this, culverts, dams, and roads can inhibit their migratory and spawning abilities. Bull trout face many threats from introduced species such as Lake trout and Northern pike, as well as several climate change related impacts. The population of Bull trout in the United States has changed little since 1998, but 60 percent of their current habitat is at risk.

-       Jacob Lacy

Our Experience:

A look at Bull trout. 

     We have now arrived in Idaho in search of the species we have all been waiting for – the big bad Bull trout. Every person we have crossed paths with across our trip that has experienced this trophy species told us tales that we could only dream of. All accounts pointed out that they were big, their appetites were bigger, and they were always eager to eat a fly.

     Our initial Bull trout encounter was unplanned and very exciting. We were fishing the Blackfoot river in Montana in search of Westslope cutthroat trout. We hiked (I scooted) down a huge slope to the Blackfoot river. We came across this crystal blue pool and managed to catch quite a few Westslope cutties. Beautiful 8-12 in. fish, but nothing close to what we saw next. There were 2 foot-plus Bull trout swimming through this pool and our jaws dropped. Their yellow bellies gleamed through the water. Due to high levels of Bull trout protection on the Blackfoot, we could only watch these monsters from the bank.

     The majority of Bull trout water is protected. They are fragmented across the country in an assortment of areas but the ability to plop a fly in front of their nose is highly illegal in most areas. The Yankee Fork provided us with the opportunity to knock Bull trout off our bucket list. We fished a smaller stretch of water, overgrown with vegetation. The entire team managed to catch a few Bull trout on small dry flies.  

     Bull trout were different than any species of trout I have come across yet. They had a slender body, almost like a mullet and were very easy to distinguish from other trout. Mission accomplished. Smaller than predicted, but still exciting nevertheless. 

-     Heather Harkavy 

A Native Odyssey Blog Post 5: Colorado Part 1

Public Land:

Rocky Mountain National Park.

Brett and Jacob look out on Timber Lake. 

Brett and Jacob look out on Timber Lake. 

     Established January 26, 1915, Rocky Mountain National Park was the 10th recognized National Park in the United States. It is the best place in the county for visitors to experience alpine landscapes and tundra. Driving in from Denver (just 2 hours away) allows for visitors to see numerous summits, 78 of which exceed 12,000 ft. elevation. The eastern and western slopes of the Continental Divide cut directly through the park’s 265,461 acres. The northwest region boasts the headwaters of the Colorado River, and this provides anglers the perfect location to pursue Colorado River cutthroat trout. For more information about Rocky Mountain National Park visit https://www.nps.gov/romo/index.htm.

-       Matt Crockett 

Spotting fish in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Spotting fish in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Native Trout:

Colorado River Cutthroat Trout.

Jacob releases a gorgeous Colorado River cutthroat. 

Jacob releases a gorgeous Colorado River cutthroat. 

     Colorado River cutthroat trout are one of Colorado’s three native trout species. They are known by the orange or red slash under their chin and their large gradient spots. On the mature fish, bright red flanks are found as well. Colorado River cutthroat trout are a beautiful species that are historically bound by the perimeter of the Escalante River to the west, San Juan to the south, the Continental Divide to the east, and the Green River to the north. Throughout this area, their historical distribution is discontinuous because of warm, large, and sediment rich waters that inhabit the Colorado River basin.

     Populations of Colorado River cutthroat were originally spread out across the Colorado River. An assortment of factors led to the dispersion and lack of connection amongst this species. The issues breaking up Colorado River cutthroat include isolation management, the intrusion of invasive species, and the poor management of land and water. Currently, Colorado River cutthroat trout inhabit small headwater streams and high-elevation lakes.   

     Colorado River cutthroat were believed to have 361 conservation populations that inhabited a total of 2115 miles of stream. As a result of a restoration project gone wrong, Colorado River cutthroat inhabit much more water than studies initially showed. Due to strong similarities in appearance and genetics, Colorado River cutthroat were mistaken for Greenback cutthroat trout. This is good news for the Colorado River cutthroat, but a sad realization for their sister species.

-       Heather Harkavy 

Brett holds his prize from Timber Lake. 

Brett holds his prize from Timber Lake. 

Our Experience

Alpine Angling. 

Proper planning leads to great days chasing fish. 

Proper planning leads to great days chasing fish. 

     For me, the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park serves as a depressing reminder of a place that was once plentiful and true. I can’t help but feel a slight melancholy jab every time I glance upon the headwater meadows of the mighty Colorado River, knowing it will never again complete its journey to the Sea of Cortez. Compounding my melancholy feeling is the fact that whenever I fish in these headwaters I yield nothing but invasive brook trout, as opposed to a once bountiful supply of native Colorado River cutthroat trout.

     When I heard that the “Native Odyssey” trip would be trying to conjure a native cutthroat out of the west side of the park I immediately became apprehensive and wary of new challenges. Although I grew up in Colorado, I never ventured to fish the west side of the park more than I had to, for fear of annoyingly hard to dodge brook trout in once fruitful native trout waters. I knew it would be a challenge finding a Colorado River cutthroat trout haven in this hell of invasive species and mis-managed cutthroat populations. With much work to do in order to find these natives, I immediately gave a call to Rocky Mountain National Park. The park staff pointed me towards a few options, and I ultimately settled on Timber Lake and Timber Creek, which serve as a tributary to the headwaters of the Colorado River.

     Fishing in high mountain lakes is a game of cat and mouse, where the mouse most often eludes the cat. A variety of factors contribute to whether an alpine lake will produce worth-while fishing opportunities. These factors can include ice-off timing, weather, elevation, insect life, and lake depth. Basically, multiple things have to come together perfectly in order to have a good day of high-elevation fishing.

     Luckily for us, everything decided to come together. After our group’s 4.8 mile hike up to an elevation of 11,040 feet, I was a bit depressed to see dirty mounds of snow, swampy shores, and long ice sheets. Usually this signals that the lake is still in thaw mode, and that the fish aren’t as active. For a while this held true as we had only netted a couple of small Colorado River cutthroat, and hadn’t seen any trout cruising the shore in search of a meal. A bit out of sorts, we decided to have lunch, which consisted of turkey wraps and granola bars. Post lunch time took on a Thanksgiving afternoon vibe, as everyone but Andrew and I decided to take a nap on the warm rocks adjacent to the lake.

     As everyone else took a snooze, Andrew and I started working flies along the large ice sheets which still hovered over the lake’s surface. Before I knew it, Andrew had hooked into a decent native, which we netted, photographed, and released. Suddenly, morale shot up, as we had figured out how to conjure these elusive natives out of the depths. With the rest of the group still happily napping, Andrew and I continued to work our small streamers along the thick ice until we had netted and released six gorgeous Colorado River cutthroat. The day had suddenly gone from abysmal to killer. To me, there is absolutely nothing cooler than sight fishing to ruby red native trout, having them chase down your fly, and then watching them swim back to their ancient home. Unfortunately, once everyone else woke up from their siesta, the fishing was not as great and shortly we were prompted off the mountain by an afternoon thunderstorm. The hike back is always a little bit easier when you’ve had the satisfaction of bringing a few native trout to hand.

     What I once viewed as a depressing and melancholy expedition turned out to be an eye opening experience. Having the pleasure of catching, photographing, and releasing Colorado River cutthroat trout in their ancient ancestral home is truly an awesome experience that makes you feel connected to the land. The fact that these fish have an isolated stronghold high up in the mountains gives me solace, as I know the native trout will keep on chugging away at life with little interference... that is, except for the occasional hook I hope to plant in their jaw.

- Jacob Lacy

Another fine Colorado River cutty. 

Another fine Colorado River cutty. 

Valle Vidal: A Native Odyssey Experience

Located in Northern New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the Upper Rio Grande River Basin, Valle Vidal lies within the Carson National Forest. Meandering its way through Valle Vidal, Comanche Creek is one of the last refuges for Rio Grande cutthroat trout in the state of New Mexico. This extensive project addresses the environmental issues that have stemmed from heavy land use activities prior to the USFS acquiring the land from Pennzoil in 1982. Large-scale mining, logging and grazing operations left the watersheds within the Valley Vidal unit in less than ideal condition for native Rio Grande cutthroats.

Currently, Valle Vidal is managed by the USFS for multiple use and sustained yield via the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act of 1960. This means the USFS is required to manage this public land for the sustainable production of timber and multiple use of range, water, recreation, and wildlife. A recreational catch and release fishery for Rio Grande cutthroat trout is one of the uses that draws in visitors from across the country.

U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Biologist Michael Gatlin (Left) and Trout Unlimited Staffer Toner Mitchell (Right)

U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Biologist Michael Gatlin (Left) and Trout Unlimited Staffer Toner Mitchell (Right)

U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Biologist Michael Gatlin and Trout Unlimited Staffer Toner Mitchell took the Native Odyssey crew to multiple sites around the project area to see the issues they are facing and the techniques they are using to achieve their restoration goals. We started our tour by looking at the terminal fish barrier that was recently completed. Similar to other fish barriers we have seen during our first three weeks, this large concrete structure prevents the upstream movement of brown, brook and rainbow trout into Rio Grande cutthroat territory.

Rio Costilla Terminal Fish Barrier

Rio Costilla Terminal Fish Barrier

Throughout the day, Michael and Toner informed us on the importance of treating erosional headcuts, increasing baseflow, and restoring degraded wetlands. Never had I considered how essential wetlands are to native trout in the West. Coming from East Tennessee, wetland restoration is not something that usually comes up in conversation when talking about stream restoration for native trout.

The high elevation wet meadows and slope wetlands are essential in maintaining stream base-flow and providing cold water for Rio Grande cutthroat throughout the year. The historical land use created issues with soil erosion, increase in sediment load in the stream, increase in stream water temperature, and overall degradation of riparian and wetland areas. Despite the considerable damage that has occurred in Valle Vidal, current restoration efforts are having a positive impact in the watershed.

Wooden post vanes placed throughout Comanche Creek have been utilized to reduce the effect of stream channelization and allow the banks to stabilize with vegetation. Due to the large herd of elk in the area, as well as the grazing cattle in the summer months, exclusion fences are often used to maintain proper vegetation of streamside areas.

The Native Odyssey crew backpack shocking Rio Grande cutthroat trout in Comanche Creek.

The Native Odyssey crew backpack shocking Rio Grande cutthroat trout in Comanche Creek.

At our last pit stop of the day, Michael broke out the backpack shocker for us to try and sample some Rio Grande Cutthroat trout. Michael explained the importance of backpack electroshocking sampling to keep tabs on the populations of Rio Grande cutthroat in Valle Vidal. He also explained how backpack electroshocking is completely harmless to the trout. This proven technique sends pulses of electricity into the water to temporarily contract the fish's muscles until a crew member can scoop them up with a net. After a short safety briefing, we quickly geared up with our new Simms waders and finally got our boots wet. With Michael manning the backpack shocker, we slowly worked through a nice pool where we had seen cutthroat earlier in the day. It didn’t take long for us to turn up about two dozen beautiful Rio Grande cutthroat. We quickly netted the temporarily stunned trout and placed them in a bucket of cold water for a closer look. After some quick pictures, we safely released the trout we collected and watched them swim strongly back to their pool.

A colored up Rio Grande Cutthroat trout (Photo courtesy of New Mexico Game & Fish)

A colored up Rio Grande Cutthroat trout (Photo courtesy of New Mexico Game & Fish)

The success of this project could not be achieved without great partnerships from the Quivira Coalition, Comanche Creek Working Group, Trout Unlimited, Coca Cola, and the Carson National Forest among others. Valle Vidal is a prime example of the benefits a healthy watershed can provide to all its users and the good things that can come when groups with different backgrounds and similar agendas work together. This project also showcases the importance public lands play in the overall role of protecting sensitive species like the Rio Grande cutthroat trout.

-Brett Winchel