A Tale of Three Parks

Man, it’s been a while since I’ve written one of these, so I figured I’d share a report from a recent trip. Hope you guys enjoy the writeup and photo dump!

This summer was anything but normal, so I'm glad that my mom, dad, sister and I were able to get out and visit Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton National Parks over the span of two weeks in August. As usual, I was able to stuff a bit of fishing in; it was my first time fishing Montana and Wyoming and I was really excited for the opportunity!

We arrived in Hungry Horse in the late afternoon, and having an evening free, I decided to check out a section of river I had marked as a spot for westslope cutthroat trout, a little ways outside Glacier. After a sketchy hike down the canyon, I found a deep pool on the river with loads of fish, but they were cyprinids, not trout. A redworm I had brought all the way from New Jersey quickly determined the identity of the inhabitants: northern pikeminnow, my first new species of the trip. 

This unexpected encounter worked in my favor, as I had originally planned to target pikeminnow elsewhere.

Waking up before sunrise the next morning, we made our way towards Glacier for our first full day in Montana. Most of the day was spent on a grueling but beautiful 17.2 mile hike along the continental ridge, where we saw marmots, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and mule deer, and overlooked a stunning glacier (the trail to the overlook gained 900 feet in elevation in a little over a half mile—my legs certainly felt that the next day).

On the way out of the park, I stopped for a couple casts in a random tiny creek, and found some equally tiny brook trout with a beachhead nymph. 

Casting beadhead nymphs on my long ultralight spinning rod would encompass much of my fishing on this trip. Though my casting range was certainly limited even using pretty heavily weighted nymphs, it ended up being good enough for most situations. 

The next morning saw a significantly shorter hike to an alpine lake. This lake held Yellowstone cutthroats, so I brought my gear along and raced down the trail ahead of my family to buy myself some more fishing time, pausing only to marvel at the stunning landscape and a massive mountain goat walking up the trail.

The fish weren’t too selective, contrary to what I had read online, and generic attractor nymphs produced well. Sight fishing for cruising fish was exhilarating; the water was mirror-like and crystal clear.

I picked up a little over a dozen fish in an hour and a half before it was time to hike back up, all pristine fish caught in a pristine environment, even if the fish were nonnative. 

It was barely past noon by then, and we had a lot more in store for the day. On our way to the eastern side of the park, I stopped for a few casts in Lost Lake, home of the Rocky Mountain Limpet, and caught some small brook trout. 

Much of the eastern side was closed for the season, but there were some areas open and we opted for the short trail to a pair of waterfalls. There were people jumping off the bridge into the deep pool below the first falls, but as I peered into the water, I could see small, silvery fish grubbing along the rocks at the bottom. A drifted nymph quickly picked off two small mountain whitefish, my second new species of the trip. 

One thing I have to say about mountain whitefish: they are perhaps the least photo-cooperative fish I have encountered thus far. They just don’t stop flopping around! I was really concerned that they were going to beat themselves to death, so only got a few quick subpar shots of the first one and immediately released the second. Regardless, I was ecstatic to find one of my top targets for the trip here!

On the way back from east of the continental divide, Going-to-the-Sun Road travels along Upper McDonald Creek for a bit, and I briefly checked out an area that looked nice. This, to my delight, produced a few (extremely tiny) neoboreal westslope cutthroat trout!

I had heard that the upper creek (above McDonald Lake) was relatively fishless due to it being mostly nutrient-poor glacier melt, but I had a hunch that, if I could find cutthroats, they wouldn’t be integrated with rainbow trout (as they are in Lower McDonald Creek). Indeed, the creek was largely devoid of fish; my few tiny trout were hidden in a beaver dam. My original plan was to fish Avalanche Lake for these neoboreal westlopes, but the trail to the lake was closed while we were there due to bear frequenting. 

I was determined to find some larger neoboreal westslopes, so on our last day in Glacier I tried a lower stretch of the creek while the rest of my family hiked a trail. Similarly to the evening before, the only fish I could find were by a logjam.

The cutthroats were only slightly larger and extremely spooky in the shallow August water. If I approached quietly and kept a low profile, though, they were quite eager to jump onto a nymph. 

While the cutthroats frequented the open areas around the logjam, climbing onto the logs themselves and dropping nymphs deep into cover found some brook trout that were much larger than the tiny stream fish I had caught earlier. They were just as willing to bite as the cutthroat, and it was a lot of fun watching them emerge from under the structure and hit my fly; I even hooked a brookie that would’ve went all of two pounds, but keeping it pinned with a barbless hook in that kind of tangle with my light gear was too tall of an order. It popped off after a brief struggle. 

On one drop, I saw a small sculpin try to hit my big prince nymph. I replaced it with a tanago hook and a tiny piece of red plastic (since natural baits are prohibited in Glacier), and the aggressive little fish took it without hesitation. The Rocky Mountain sculpin was my second new species of the trip!

I ended up doing spending most of the morning fishing the logjam, and pulled a decent number of fish from it considering the low fish density of the creek. 

I then joined my family to walk Trail of the Cedars, where I saw a larger fish hanging tight to the margins along Avalanche Creek. One cast and it proved to be the largest neoboreal westslope of the trip (though it slipped between my fingers before I could grab a decent picture). 

Before we left the park, I checked out Lower McDonald creek for an hour while my sister went on a run. Redside shiners (my third new species) were abundant, as were cutbows and northern pikeminnows.

On one drift, I brought to hand an odd-looking pikeminnow, only to realize it wasn’t a pikeminnow at all!

The peamouth was my fourth new species of the trip! There were also large-scale suckers here, but they wanted nothing to do with my nymphs. 

While the Glacier leg of the trip had ended, the park left me in love with its gorgeous, dramatic landscape and rugged nature. I know I have to return to this part of the country someday (and not just to catch a bull trout).

It was time to make our way to Yellowstone. 

After a night in Deer Lodge, we headed south and arrived in Gardiner in the late afternoon. 

We decided to take advantage of the prime sunset hour and head to the Lamar River Valley, with plans to take a short hike around a pond and try to spot wildlife. On the way to the pond trailhead, we didn’t have to do much work to see huge herds of bison. We also spotted a group of pronghorns, much to my delight. 

Without too much light left in the day, we arrived at the trailhead and I wasted no time getting up to the pond. This particular waterbody is known for its Yellowstone cutthroats with a large average size, so I was eager to get some casts in. The wind was coming in at a decent clip, so I decided to try the windward side first, where there were also several downed trees and floating logs in the water that looked like perfect structure. 

I tied on a large, golden, and leggy nymph I had bought from a fly shop in Gardiner while getting my Yellowstone license, and sent my first cast alongside a big floating log parallel to shore. 

I watched the fly sink, sink, and then gave it a couple twitches before a long yellow shape, strongly contrasted against the blue-green water, swam out from underneath the log and smacked my fly with little hesitation. It was a sight I won’t soon forget; I almost didn’t register it as a fish at first. Luckily for me, though, instinct kicked in and I set the hook.

After a brief but nerve-wracking battle to keep the fish away from the submerged structure, I slipped the net under my personal best cutthroat trout. 

It taped out to a hair under twenty inches, and it was an absolutely perfect-looking specimen. Crimson and strawberry along the cheeks, flank, and fins highlighted deep, rich gold and amber hues. My mom was there to take a quick picture, and I slipped the fish back into the water. I couldn’t have been happier with my first fish from Yellowstone. 

I fished for another half hour or so while my family finished walking the trail, only seeing a couple fish cruising the shallows but showing no interest in my offerings. In the short while I was there, I saw five other anglers fishing the relatively small pond. 

The next day saw a return to the Lamar River Valley, this time a little after sunrise. The bison were certainly on the move in the morning, and we ended up getting stuck in bison traffic for about an hour as hundreds of bison of all different sizes walked, ran, and stomped past our car in a nonstop parade.

It was truly a sight and sound to behold; I could have reached out and touched some if I had wanted to. 

The sun was already high when we reached the Lamar River trailhead. I fished where the trail crossed Soda Butte Creek for a bit, and while the fish were incredibly picky (probably because I fished at the trail crossing), I eventually brought a couple silvery Yellowstone cutthroats to hand. 

I also caught several handsome garter snakes along the creek. 

Fishing-wise, the rest of the day proved relatively eventless. We hiked to some fishless lakes, saw waterfalls and hot springs (and a really cool cricket), and a couple roadside stops produced the ever-present brook trout. 

My family dropped me off at a pullout along the road while they went on a hike the following day. Throughout this trip, I didn’t really set aside any big chunks of time for fishing, as there were too many other things to do in our schedule. This spot was the exception; I made sure I had around three and a half hours to myself to fish a small meadow stream in the late morning and early afternoon.

The reason I had done so was that I expected to encounter arctic grayling and genetically pure Missouri River westslope cutthroat trout here, thanks to a tip from roughfish.com member Matt Miller. Until recently, native fluvial arctic grayling had been extirpated from the park (almost a hundred years ago), and pure Missouri westslopes had been reduced to a mere two miles of stream habitat, all thanks to the introduction of brown, brook, and rainbow trout which predated, hybridized with, and outcompeted the native fish. But with an aggressive reintroduction program dedicated to preserving the park’s native aquatic ecosystems, there are a select few places in Yellowstone today where one can see streams as they flowed thousands of years ago, with grayling swimming alongside cutthroat trout. 

Excitement coursed through my veins as I made my way down to the stream, and the first thing that caught my eye as I peered into the water were the many juvenile fish swimming about, ranging from a few centimeters to a few inches. The water was extremely shallow and clear, and with the sun high in the sky, I essentially spent my time crawling on my hands and knees along the tall grass in the stream margins while making casts to skittery fish. The grayling were fairly willing, and after only a few drifts one decided to nibble on my nymph and I had a bucket-list fish in hand. 

The cutthroat were a lot more picky; it took me some time to catch my first and it was a tiny fish. Still, it was beautiful and looked way different from similarly-sized neoboreal westslopes I had caught earlier in the trip.

I enjoyed a streamside lunch.

Eventually, a change in tactics produced several beautiful Missouri River Westslope cutthroat trout, including a stunner that fell to a prince nymph slowly dragged along the bottom. 

A tiny red zebra midge picked up a few more trout and grayling. 

It was truly incredible to see these fish in their native habitat; I just can't get over how beautiful they are. 

The next few days didn’t see too much fishing except for a quick trip to check off Utah chub at a lake outside of the park. I arrived to find literally thousands of chubs splashing on the surface. Each dimple in the photo below is a chub; the scene stretched out as far as eyes could see on the lake. 

Every time I cast a fly into the water and let it sink a foot or so, a chub would smack it. 

Most of them were small, but eventually I got a few larger fish. 

I caught a bunch of little rainbow trout below Mystic Falls and brown trout below Lewis Falls; I also got a redside shiner below Lewis that posed as my lifer lake chub. 

Tell me, how are these things the same species?

Here are some assorted non-fish related photos from the Yellowstone leg of the trip:

Getting to see Steamboat Geyser erupt was a pretty cool experience. It blew a rock up in the air that ended up chipping our car's windshield. 

After several days in Yellowstone, we took the short drive down to Jackson where we planned to spend a couple days exploring Grand Teton. 

The Tetons are truly awe-inspiring; they seemingly rise out of nothing and jut straight out into the sky.

Our first day in the Park, we spent the morning hiking around a lake at the base of the mountains, and saw a moose and four black bears in just a few hours. 

I fished an inlet stream and found brook trout coexisting with Snake River finespotted cutthroats, another new variety of cutthroat for me. 

This particular fish wrapped me around a submerged log and several branches, but somehow, the barbless hook held, and I was able to reach under the log, grab the fish, and clip the line.

Genetically, these are indistinguishable from Yellowstone cutthroats, and prior to man-made dam construction, there were no physical barriers separating the two varieties. That being said, they differ morphologically and behaviorally, with the finespotted cutthroat being a much more piscivorous variety and also less susceptible to rainbow trout hybridization. Some scientists consider the finespotted cutthroat as separate subspecies, and some think it’s a variety of the Yellowstone cutthroat. What’s more, recent literature suggests splitting the cutthroat trout into four major species based on evolutionary lineage (coastal, westslope, lahontan, Yellowstone), each of which contain their own varieties/subspecies. 

Regardless of taxonomy, each cutthroat population’s uniqueness deserves recognition, and I’m happy to have had the opportunity to see the a piece of the vast diversity of the species (or species complex) in their native habitats. 

Around Jackson and in the park, I caught speckled dace as well as more redside shiners, brook trout, and finespotted cutthroat while searching for sucker and chub species.

Some more scenery photos from various hikes:

A quick stop at a warm spring Matt Miller suggested found a lifer convict cichlid and tons of tiny Utah chub. 

Our last day in Grand Teton and of the trip, haze rolled in from the west and entirely obscured the mountains. I took some time by myself to toss lures below Jackson Lake Dam looking for a lifer lake trout. The current was extremely strong; even the backcurrent in the eddy I fished was ripping. 

One one cast with a little blue and silver Kastmaster, I found myself hung up on a rock at the bottom and was unable to free the lure. Having to resort to pulling force, I eventually bent out one of the treble prongs and was able to get the lure out. The second I popped the lure out, I felt more weight and thought I had hung up again. Then, I started to feel headshakes and realized it was a fish!

It wasn’t particularly large, but in the fast current and on an ultralight rod it sure pulled hard. I was sure my line had frayed from rubbing against rock, so I babied the fish in. As it neared shore, I saw the white margins of the fins and knew I had a laker, which significantly increased my stress. But I eventually scooped up the fish in my net without much complication. 

My first lake trout!

They were holding real tight to the bottom, which explains the strike. I caught one more on a gold spoon and decided to take both home, something I didn’t feel terrible about given their nonnative status and predatory nature. 

We steamed the fish for dinner in traditional Chinese fashion and they were incredible! It was a great way to end the trip. 

The family getaway had far exceeded my expectations for fishing; I finished with nine new species (seven of which are western endemics) and a whole host of beautiful native fish. 

The west is incredibly beautiful, and there are so many more native fish to be caught. I just hope I can visit again soon. 

Species List:

Comments

andy's picture

Having just been out West for the first time myself (Montana), I certainly appreciate everything in this post.  Wow, you caught a bunch of awesome fish!  The cutthroats of different subspecies I am envious of, along with the size of some of those trout.  It seemed like you didn't have a lot of time to dedicate to fishing, but also seemed like you made the most of it and had great success at nearly each stop.  Congratulations on all of your great catches, and thanks for sharing the excellent photography and story.

 

Mike B's picture

Great stuff man. Catching grayling and cutthroats in the same stream must be amazing. All these photos of the American continental divide makes me really sad that the border is closed.

mike b