Updated: Apr 9
The Western Native Trout Challenge
This is the first of two blog posts written by my friend and fellow NVATU member, Daniel Lazenby, highlighting his trip to Wyoming to fish the cutthroat slam. All photo credits belong to Daniel.
I like chasing blue lines. High on my retirement life list was to chase blue lines out west. While planning a western DIY trip, I discovered the Western Native Trout Challenge (WNTC). The WNTC has three levels: Expert (six species trout/char across four or more western states), Advanced (twelve species trout/char across eight or more western states), and Master (eighteen species trout/char across all twelve western states). These fish must be caught within their native and historical watersheds. I also discovered each western state had their own state level trout/char slam with similar requirements.
Before COVID I was planning to fish Yellowstone National Park. Record breaking visitation and new restrictions squashed that. Yet the Wyoming Cutt-Slam looked like a great starting point, especially as I like high elevation blue lines. The Wyoming Cutt-Slam includes Bonneville River, Colorado River, Snake River and Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Of these four species, only the Snake River cutthroat is not part of the WNTC.
Wyoming offers an excellent interactive guide to each cutthroat trout watershed and specific water within the watershed. All four watersheds are in National Forests on the western side of Wyoming. Three of the watersheds converged in an accessible area within the National Forests known as the Tri-Basin Divide. This was perfect. I could, minimize driving, camp-out in one state, and work on two challenges. My adventure of chasing high elevation western blue lines had begun.
First on the list was the Yellowstone Cutthroat in the Wind River watershed. It was well into the second week of September when I set up camp in the Shoshone National Forest West Northwest of Dubois, WY. I selected three creeks as possible fishing candidates Warm Spring, Enos, and Fish Lake creeks. These creeks were about 20 Forest Service road miles into the forest.
The first day was spent surveying the creeks. It does not matter how much electronic reconnaissance you do, or how comfortable you are with your assessment of the terrain, nothing beats seeing it in person. All three creeks were protected by a buffer of willow bushes ranging from 3 to 7+ feet tall and a swath ranging from a few feet to 50+ foot deep between where I stood and the creek. The water was low and crystal clear. Fishing the Cutt-Slam was going to be a challenge just getting to the water without spooking the fish. Worse would be to discover something you really don’t want to meet in the trek through the willows.
The first two days were slow. Real slow. Nothing was of interest to the fish. Nothing. Not a Hopper/dropper, stimulator or attractor, nor beetles and a dropper, nymphs, a dry, or dry/dropper. Nothing moved. Third day went much like the previous two days. In the afternoon I hiked up Fish Lake Creek to the lake (9,245ft) at its headwaters. Here I began streamer fishing with a sparkly black wooly bugger with a flashy green tail near wood debris piled against the lakes bank. A nice Yellowstone Cutthroat couldn’t resist. I had the first of my four cutthroats!
Colorado River Cutthroat
Next was the Tri-Basin Divide area, which is the juncture of three watersheds. It is the only place in the world you can catch 3 different species of Cutthroat Trout within relatively close distance of each other. On the easterly side is the Green River Watershed and Colorado River Cutthroat. The Snake River watershed drains the north westerly side of the divide and home of the Snake River Cutthroat. The Bear River watershed drains the south westerly portion and is the home of the Bonneville Cutthroat.
I decided to begin with the Green River watershed and Colorado River Cutthroat. Rather than drive north around the Wind River Range, I took a long (72 mile) and incredibly scenic Forest System Road known as Union Pass (9,212ft). This started as a native American trail and was used by early (1811) settlers to cross over the Wind River Range into the Green River watershed. My first stop was Pinedale, WY to refuel, resupply and visit at the Two Rivers Fishing, Co. for some flies and advice. Originally, I had planned to fish the La Barge or Little Corral Creeks. Josh and Micha quickly redirected me to the more promising North Cottonwood Creek.
About twenty-seven miles down a dirt road west of Daniel Junction, WY one enters the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and shortly thereafter North Cottonwood creek appears. Like the previous creeks this one was protected by its willow ‘centurions’. Here my focus would be on Beaver ponds, pools, and holes with incredibly low and crystal-clear water. Once again it took a couple of days to figure out the water and what the fish wanted to eat. I had expected these high elevation (7,950ft) Cutthroats to be like Brook Trout – I’m hungry and I’m going to hit anything that looks like food. That wasn’t the case.
The next morning included a drive of about 2 miles downstream to a small rise above the creek. I began my upstream journey in search of a Colorado River Cutthroat. The day was starting a lot like the day before. About noon I came across a small opening in the willows below a pool. While eating lunch I noticed greenish grasshoppers nearby. I switched to my last, and a little too big, green Morrish hopper. Cast, drift, nothing. Cast again, drift, nothing. Sat there a bit watching the pool’s current tongue. Cast, mend, drift, and a strike! A nice 8-inch Colorado River Cutthroat hit the hopper. The second cutthroat was in the books.
This blog post continues with Part II which will be featured shortly. Tight lines!