A Drop In The Bucket

The front line of the fight between the Yellowstone Cutthroat and lake trout.

One of the greatest benefits of southwest Montana, Simms headquarters since 1993, is its juxtaposition to Yellowstone National Park.  The Park – as locals refer to it – is somewhat of a lighting rod for locals.  Some adore its pristine backcountry and otherworldly cauldron of fire and steam. Others stay free and clear of the Park due to its, uh, passionate attention from visitors the world over that can make it feel more like Disneyland than wild lands.

To me, the Park is one of the greatest places I have ever known.  Moreover, as an angler and employee of a fishing company, I love that Yellowstone is often seen as a breeding ground for anglers.  Just drive the Lamar Valley on a summer day and you find anglers of all abilities tossing large dry flies to Yellowstone cutthroats.  It is a wonderful site to behold.

There is a dark side of Yellowstone, however.  Some “anglers” have taken to using the Park as their own laboratory.  Witness the egregious introduction of lake trout into the cutthroat’s bedroom: Yellowstone Lake.  Thought to have happened in the mid-1980s  by “bucket biologists” who thought Lewis Lake lakers would be a great addition to Yellowstone Lake, this introduction has hit catastrophic levels. How bad? It’s believed that since lakers have arrived, some 99 percent of all spawning-age cutts in the lake have been wiped out.

Last week, I was fortunate to join Simms’s President, K.C. Walsh, Trout Unlimited, Yellowstone Park Foundation, representatives from Yellowstone’s Fisheries team and bloggers in the outdoor industry for an up-close look into the problem.  Simms was the main sponsor of a blogger contest to raise awareness for the native Yellowstone cutthroat, and the prevalence of lakers. How bad has it gotten?  Since mid-May, officials working the front lines of eradication have killed 180,000 lake trout!  In 10 weeks. That’s an average of 18,000 lakers a week.

To read statistics like this is shocking.  To see it up close and personal is staggering.  Gill nets with hundreds of dead lakers are pulled up every 45 minutes.  Trap nets with hundreds of live (and very large) lake trout dot the lake’s surface.  New research is being conducted to work on taking the fight to lake trouts spawning grounds and tracking efforts have increased the knowledgebase on how to combat lakers. All of this is an effort to help out the imperiled Yellowstone cutthroat, brought to the brink by the actions of a few.  There is evidence the assistance is helping, but it is a massive mountain and we are only in the foothills.  This story won’t end overnight.

After spending a good part of a day on the water witnessing the laker eradication efforts, we left the scene of the crime with bewilderment and a sense of energy. Protecting our native trout seems all more important for me personally…and for Simms as a company.  The fight is on and I hope you can help us in the fight.

What can you do as a concerned angler?  First of all, support organizations like Trout Unlimited that spearheaded this trip.  They are driven by the goal of helping critical native populations of trout.  Secondly, as Kirk Deeter points out, it is time to stop foreign introductions of fish. The list of damage done by illegal stocking efforts is long and heart-breaking.  Thirdly, become part of the conversation with Simms and others as this story unfolds and you hear much more about this.  Finally, embrace Yellowstone and all other angler incubators. It is the next generation of anglers we need to be part of this story.

photos courtesy of Outdoor Blogger Network and Trout Unlimited.

  • Normally I fall along the lines of militant catch and release, but I do like eating fish….

    • Thanks, Joe.  Most of us here at Simms do as well.  However, if you can’t a lake trout, you are obliged to keep it.  And there are plenty there.

  • Rob

    You guys keep up the fight we have the same problem here in the east with Rainbows being stocked in creeks where native browns are struggling to keep a hold on. Snakeheads and Flatheads are taking over the tributaries of the Chesapeake depleting the pantry with nothing left for our local version of the cuts… striped bass. We feel your pain and your passion and are fighting the same battles here.

  • Fred Telleen

    Lake Trout are a great fish where they belong as indigenous char. Not in Yellowstone. Well reported Rich

  • Cutthroat

    The lake trout problem needs to be addressed in Yellowstone lake. However, YNP should not point the figure at bucket biologists as the park service is to blame for the introduction of lake trout into the lake and the demise of the curthroat trout. For years in the sixties they had fish hatchery raceways withen jumping distance to Yellowstone lake full of lake trout used to stock various lakes around the park. Just like reintroducing a non native wolf and allowing them to eat the core indigenous elk of North America into extinction the lake trout are another case of bad science made by the Park service.

    • Steve Z

      The hatchery closed in 1957. The Lake Trout population exploded in the late nineties. I doubt that they waited 30 years before making their move.