Going Solo For Wyoming Cutthroats

Going Solo For Wyoming Cutthroats

  • By: Jeff Erickson
  • Photography by: Greg Thomas
  • and Jeff Erickson
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I have nothing against either expertise or good guides. of the latter, I’ve employed them in Costa Rica and the Yucatan, and it paid to recognize my limits—I had no more chance of catching a tarpon or permit on my own than teaching algebra to a dog.

But in Wyoming I feel different. The Cowboy State’s wild and expansive geography encourages people to just throw themselves into it and see what happens. Miners, trappers, hunters, hippies, hermits and fly-fishing bums have been doing this for generations. That’s because in remote corners of western Wyoming you can slip away from the modern world. No texting, inane cell-phone chatter, relentless political idiocy or “reality” TV shows: Just ripsaw mountains shimmering above sagebrush; wary pronghorn herds; a rancher’s truck and horse trailer kicking up a tornado of dust five miles up the road; and beyond, a lonely stretch of canyon cutthroat water. It’s just you and a gliding golden eagle, and perhaps a grizzly best addressed as “Sir.” In an age when we seek authorities to guide us through every bit of life’s minutiae, I like the idea of taking measured risks, studying a good map and making it up as I go.

Here’s my humble Wyoming cutthroat tip: Fill the truck and check the tires; study the topography, roads and weather forecast; stock the cooler with beer and food; grab a couple of rods and boxes of attractors and terrestrials; and then follow the sage advice of David James Duncan, offered in his book, My Story as Told by Water:

“Go Fishing Yourself! We are a nation plagued with self-anointed experts, pundits, middle persons. Away with them! Dare to be the bumbling hero of your very own fishing story . . . . Solo experience now and then teaches the hard way, but the hard way is the unforgettable way . . . go catch a beautiful fish all by yourself!”

Fortunately, there’s no lack of places to do that. You could fill a coffee-table book full of beautiful places, but in western Wyoming you’d be hard pressed to beat the Greybull, Greys and Smiths Fork rivers, along with the remote and overlooked Wyoming Range. Here’s a rundown on each.

Greybull River
On civilization’s fringe

I was ensconced in the historic Cowboy Bar in tiny Meeteetse, Wyoming, a double-haul from the Greybull River. Above me were bullet holes in the ceiling from old shootouts. In this establishment Butch Cassidy was once arrested for “borrowing” a horse, leading to the only jail time of his long outlaw career.

The stool I was on had only recently been occupied by a convicted murderer on the lam from an Arizona prison. As I sat at the elegant wooden bar (crafted in 1893), nursing a pint and devouring a locally-raised bison burger, the owner and bartender held forth with accounts of unwittingly playing host to Tracy Province, a felon who recently ranked among the most notorious criminals in America.

Before he was captured and returned to prison shortly before my visit, Province was beginning to integrate himself into Meeteetse life, singing in church and hanging out in the Cowboy Bar with locals. The bartender observed that “Meeteetse is such a welcoming community that people just took him in,” like a stray dog. She added that she had served the killer, but didn’t recognize him from the mug shots shown relentlessly on TV because “they didn’t show the tattoos and missing teeth.”

While we visited, a crew of bikers had been authorized to sear a new brand onto the venerable walls, the smell of burning wood filling the establishment. The brand took its place amongst a treasure trove of local ranch icons and historical memorabilia. In isolated corners of the West like Meeteetse, bars do triple-duty as museums, social centers and refuges.

After finishing my beer and lunch, I wanted to linger and soak up the ambiance. But wild cutthroats beckoned in the upper Greybull River and its tributary, the Wood River, along with the prospect of football-shaped trout in the nearby Sunshine reservoirs. I would return for more gunslinger tales, but I first needed to attend to business.

Meeteetse sits between Cody and Thermopolis, along the rugged transition between high desert plains and the eastern front of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. West of town, the Absaroka Mountains soar above 13,000 feet, feeding the Greybull drainage in the Washakie Wilderness Area. The upper Greybull has an otherworldly, edge-of-civilization feel to it, with soaring cliffs, eroded badlands and rugged peaks; it’s a place where folks with backpacks or packhorses disappear into the wilderness for a week or more. But anglers can also do short day hikes to reach prime water from a Forest Service campground, going only as far as they wish.

The main draw is native, pure-strain Yellowstone cutthroats (mountain whitefish and browns enter the mix farther downstream). During the past century, this comely trout surrendered much of its original range in the upper Yellowstone and Snake River watersheds due to environmental degradation, hybridization with rainbows, whirling disease, and competition from non-native trout. According to fisheries biologist Bob Gresswell, Yellowstone cutthroats currently occupy 42 percent of their historical range; only 28 percent is inhabited by core, genetically unaltered populations. Today, these fish are largely relegated to tributaries like the Greybull, one of their best remaining havens.

While the Greybull is a small river after the tsunami of spring runoff, it’s fertile enough to produce a surprising number of 15- to 20-inch specimens. On my first evening on the river below my campsite, I was surprised to land a pair of scrappy 18-inchers in quick succession on a PMX. Collectively, Wyoming cutthroats are tailor-made for simpletons like me, who will never be the next Gary LaFontaine. Think attractors and terrestrials, as cutts are eager feeders that enjoy looking skyward during the prime July-September period: Turck Tarantulas, Chernobyl Ants, Madame Xs, Humpies, Trudes, Wulffs, Irresistibles, Renegades, Elkhair Caddis, beetles and hoppers are all excellent choices, especially if you hang a beadhead nymph on a dropper below.

Faster, bouldery sections hold stoneflies, so bring Stimulators and Yellow Sallies, and weighted stonefly nymphs. Bouncing a Kaufmann’s Golden Stone or similarly meaty morsel along the cobbles is a good bet for larger fish. Remember, cutthroats aren’t rainbows: In contrast to riffle-loving ’bows, they often prefer current seams, eddies, undercut banks, log jams, gliding runs and pools—places offering cover out of the main current. Of course, cutts also take fiendish delight in breaking every “rule” applied to them. Large specimens are notorious for rising slowly from the depths to contemptuously bump bugs with their snouts before sinking safely back to their lairs.

Because of the extraordinary natural resources in the Greybull watershed, groups like The Nature Conservancy and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation have cooperated with ranchers on conservation easements and habitat improvement projects on the lower river. The area is famous amongst wildlife biologists: The world’s last remaining black-footed ferrets were discovered here in 1981, when a dog named Shep presented his owners with a weasel-like creature he found while roaming the expansive Pitchfork Ranch. The animal was turned over to wildlife authorities, who located a living colony of an animal believed to be extinct. The Pitchfork ferrets were subsequently used to build a population for reintroduction efforts, rescuing them from oblivion.

The Greybull is only part of the enticement for anglers. Upper and Lower Sunshine reservoirs are also located near Meeteetse, offering sizable cutts, with five-pound splake (brook/lake trout hybrids) also in the upper lake. And below Lower Sunshine, the Wood River contributes its flow to the Greybull. There are streamside campgrounds and trailheads farther up; the road eventually turns into a jeep track and follows the Wood beneath towering peaks, past the historic Double D Dude Ranch to the gold mining ghost town of Kirwin, perched at 9,500 feet.

The ranch and its quiet valley hark back to an earlier era. In 1934, trailblazing aviator Amelia Earhart was having a summer home built here to enjoy following her around-the-world flight. After Earhart’s mysterious disappearance over the Pacific Ocean, work on the cabin ceased; it remains unfinished, as if awaiting her return. That’s kind of the way it is in the Greybull watershed: You feel like you’re straying off the known map into terra incognita.

Wyoming Range
Colorado River cutthroat headwaters

The wind whirled a wildflower carpet into an alpine kaleidoscope, while squadrons of burnt-orange fritillaries pulsated in the meadow. Puffy cumulous clouds sailed past the peaks, pines and pioneer trails that surrounded us. The roving fly-bum life was good atop the 8,680-foot-high Tri-Basin Divide: My wife, Mary, had joined me for the second leg of my Wyoming cutthroat safari. Sometimes, after all, all by ourselves beats all by myself.

Depending on the prevailing winds, rain could drop into any one of the three watersheds below us, each sheltering its own variety of cutthroat. Tri-Basin is a unique piece of the West’s biogeography: It’s the only place in the world anglers can tempt three subspecies of native cutts living in proximity.

We surveyed our next destinations. To the north, the headwaters of the translucent Greys River dropped sharply off the divide, slicing a deep path between the Wyoming and Salt River ranges. Heading to the Pacific Ocean via the Snake and Columbia Rivers, the Greys remains a stronghold for Snake River fine-spotted cutthroats. South of where we stood, LaBarge Creek began its journey to the Green and Colorado rivers, toward the Gulf of California. LaBarge and other streams draining the east face of the Wyoming Range support the state’s best remaining populations of Colorado River cutthroats. And west of our perch, the upper Smiths Fork River wound to the Bear River and Great Basin, sheltering Bonneville cutthroats.

Given the riches before us, the main challenge was deciding where to explore first. The wind blew us north into the Wyoming Range; sometimes, after reading the clouds, it’s best to just point yourself in the direction that feels intuitively right, like the Oregon Trail pioneers we were shadowing.

It’s telling that Wyoming’s namesake mountain range doesn’t even appear on the official state highway map. In spite of snow-clad peaks soaring above 11,000 feet, and tremendous fisheries and big-game resources, many folks have never heard of these mountains. That relative anonymity has changed some during the past decade, as the Wyoming Range has been the focus of a major conservation effort to preserve it from public-lands energy development. A grassroots effort led by local sportsmen succeeded in early 2009, when protective legislation passed Congress and was signed by President Obama. The legislation conserves 1.2 million acres of the Wyoming Range’s habitat from future oil and gas rigs, and includes a provision for buying back energy leases already issued. Skirmishes continue over remaining energy leases.

Most of the range is encompassed by the Bridger-Teton National Forest and adjacent Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property. While there is decent back-road access along the fringes, much of the alpine core is accessible only by a network of trails. The interior is not a designated wilderness area, but offers the same experience, with many opportunities for backpackers and horsemen.

Wild cutthroats are a major draw, with the creeks feeding the Green River offering the most stream miles. Many of these hold Colorado River cutthroats, including the Horse, Cottonwood, Piney and LaBarge Creek drainages. The only cutt subspecies indigenous to the upper Colorado River watershed, these trout now occupy only about five percent of their original habitat, mostly in remote headwaters.

North Piney Lake, which is accessible by trail, has been a source of pure-strain Colorado River cutthroats for reintroduction efforts. LaBarge Creek in particular has been the focus of a cooperative project to restore its native cuts; they had been pushed into the headwaters by brook trout, while also losing genetic integrity to rainbows. The LaBarge project is the largest fish restoration effort ever attempted in Wyoming, including 58 stream miles in the mainstem and tributaries. LaBarge is a near-perfect small stream, exceptionally serpentine with a variety of water: Mary and I hooked feisty cutts in the creek’s upper reaches on increasingly mauled Humpies. Based on our unscientific hook-and-line survey, the cutts are hungry and thriving in their “new” home.

Near the Tri-Basin Divide, the historic Lander Cutoff of the Oregon Trail traverses the high country along upper LaBarge Creek. As scattered old graves poignantly attest, it was a tough trip. One morning, under a towering pine overlooking a wildflower meadow, Mary and I put down our rods and pondered the final resting place of Elizabeth Paul: She died during childbirth on July 27, 1862, age 32, while headed west from Iowa with her husband, Thomas, and seven children. Her new baby, also named Elizabeth, survived another week. After burying his wife and daughter, Thomas Paul and remaining kids stoically pressed on to a new life in Washington Territory.

While it is impossible to know precisely how many perished on the Oregon Trail, one estimate holds that one out of every 17 travelers died along the way. In spite of the hardships, the early pioneers passing along upper LaBarge Creek had the opportunity to partake of sublime vistas, abundant game and a stream teeming with Colorado River cutthroats—just like today. Under a luminous sky on our last night in the Wyoming Range, we quietly tended a sage-fueled campfire and pondered the past, present and future.

Greys River
Chasing Snake River cutts

Mary and I were sampling the local suds selection at the Bull Moose Saloon, in Alpine, Wyoming. Behind us, cross-country Harley jockeys were playing pool and washing road dust from their throats, flashing tattoos, cue sticks and silver jewelry. The tavern was enveloped in a pleasant, mid-afternoon lull as we waited for our California burgers; a map of the nearby lower Greys River was spread out between us on the bar.

Inexplicably, a psychedelic Pink Floyd song came pulsating from the speakers. Alpine hardly seemed like a bastion of Pink Floyd fans, but a large sign in the parking lot touted an upcoming event, “Crazy Diamond—A Pink Floyd Tribute.” Perhaps it wasn’t so puzzling: Searching for a fly shop before hitting the bar, we walked past a locally owned, vintage VW microbus, complete with an eye-popping flower-power paint job and Grateful Dead logos. Granted, there was also a National Rifle Association sticker in the rear window; this was Wyoming, after all.

While first bouncing down the Tri-Basin Divide into the upper Greys watershed, Mary gazed nervously beyond the narrow dirt road at a tumbling mountain stream, framed by brilliant blooms of paintbrush, fireweed and 11,363-foot Wyoming Peak, the highest point in the basin.

Near the diminutive headwaters there is a Forest Service roadside sign: “Greys River—Watch Me Grow.” And grow it does, gathering itself into a fishable creek, expanding to a medium-size river, then exploding into brawling cataracts and Class IV/V whitewater at Snaggle Tooth Rapids lower down. While the middle Greys is flotable (Class II/III+) with care, the SUV-size boulders that put the snarl into Snaggletooth aren’t something you want to just blunder through. Over the course of 60 miles, the Greys presents an enticing array of angling opportunities, eventually playing out where it slides into Palisades Reservoir on the South Fork of the Snake River. It’s the longest undammed stream in Wyoming.

Running through the Bridger-Teton National Forest for virtually its entire length, the Greys River affords exceptional access and camping. Because of all the public land, the river offers an increasingly rare phenomenon—an intact Western river valley devoid of subdivisions, billboards, miniature golf or other hints of “civilization.”

On our summer sojourn, Mary and I enjoyed numerous altercations with wild Greys cutthroats, which rose from the depths to inspect and often inhale our hopper patterns with the unguarded joie de vivre these beasts are known for. We encountered miles of diverse, New Zealand-clear water and fished in comparative solitude; the experience was like drifting back 50 years in a pleasant fly-fishing dream.

According to Wyoming fisheries biologist Rob Gipson, more than 95 percent of the Greys’ trout population is comprised of wild, native Snake River fine-spotted cutthroats; the cutts are competing well with the small number of exotic trout in the river, benefitting from the many spawning tributaries. The odd rainbow, brown or brookie turns up, but everything we caught displayed distinctive cutt markings.

Like the other native Tri-Basin trout, the Snake River fine-spotted cutt is scientifically classified as a “minor” subspecies of the Yellowstone cutthroat; it is indigenous to west-central Wyoming and southeast Idaho. Major drainages in the trout’s present range include the South Fork of the Snake and tributaries like the Hoback, Gros Ventre, Salt and Greys rivers.

The Greys is a wild freestone stream, with a trout population affected by all of nature’s schizoid extremes, including drought, low winter flows and a powerful spring runoff. Consequently, says Gipson, the trout population is generally measured in the hundreds per mile, rather than the thousands you might find on dam-controlled Western tailwaters like the Bighorn, Beaverhead or Snake. This is a different, arguably more natural fishing experience.

One day, Mary and I were working a side channel on the lower Greys. Cumulonimbus clouds with bruised, purplish underbellies were building over the Salt River Range. “We’re going to get pummeled; I’m heading back to camp,” Mary announced while reeling in. I acknowledged that was the smart move, but ever headstrong—and no surprise to her—I decided to stay as the clouds gathered ominously.

After Mary’s retreat I gratefully appropriated her prime spot, plunking my hopper/dropper enticements below a half-submerged root wad, where the current had scoured a deep hole. A torpedo-shaped creature immediately rose from the depths, flashed open its white mouth and grabbed the hopper. I reared back to set the hook, which promptly popped out of the fish’s closing jaws. Instantaneously the dropper tagged the fish’s tail as it headed back down; the cutt panicked, leaving a bonefish-like wake and screaming reel as it streaked out of the side channel into the main river.

Downstream were rapids where the trout would easily pilfer my backing. Even though it was foul hooked, I was able to turn the fish before it hit the whitewater, and managed to work it back toward the calmer side channel. I removed the hook and took a moment to admire an 18-inch cutt, a prize on the Greys. Then it eased back toward its root-encrusted home, as lightning flashed around distant peaks. My mind drifted back to Mary at camp and an old Pink Floyd favorite: “Wish You Were Here.”

Smiths Fork
Beer, bourbon and Bonnevilles

I was in the middle of nowhere; what trouble could I possibly get into? After the Greys, Mary had to return home, so I was left to my own devices exploring the Smiths Fork of the Bear River, the missing link in my cutthroat junket. Predictably, without Mary’s steadier judgment, my last lap was off to a shaky start.

Across the Smiths Fork, a gentleman with a gray ponytail was leaning on the fence gate, squinting menacingly and scrutinizing my movements. He was standing in front of a mobile home perched on the stream bank; pickup trucks were scattered about and barking dogs warily patrolled the perimeter. So far, no weapons had appeared. But the scene suggested a clandestine meth lab or the kind of “compound” that made news when the anti-government Freemen stood off against the FBI in Jordan, Montana.

I had been wandering up the isolated river in pursuit of elusive Bonneville cutthroats. My map showed a riverside BLM parcel, and it looked like the perfect place to camp and launch fishing sorties. But as I cased the place, it was obvious that I needed to clear it first. As I walked over apprehensively, I figured I’d get chewed out for trespassing, sent on my way and warned to never come back.

“Hi, I’m Mick, but my friends call me ‘Puddin’ Pie,’” he said, grinning and extending his hand. Behind him, I observed two naked pals cavorting wildly in the river. After explaining what I was up to, he said, “Come on in, Jeff, let me introduce you.”

Puddin’ Pie cajoled his buddies out of the water to shake hands; they turned out to be his brother Don and their mutual friend Bill, who toweled off and pulled on a tie-died t-shirt dazzling enough to draw hummingbirds. Dennis appeared later, another member of the posse who was a local ranch hand, looking like he just sauntered out of a John Ford western. It turned out that Puddin’ and friends leased the place from a rancher and visited during the summer for fishing and carousing, and again in the fall for hunting and more misbehavior.

“I was watching and could tell you were looking for that BLM piece,” said Puddin’. “Make yourself at home over there and stop back around five for beer and supper.” My Wyoming cutthroat excursions had already been blessed with serendipity—like a great college road trip—and I was pleased to see the trend continue. This was the last place I expected a party and dinner invitation.

The Smiths Fork rises off the southern tail of the 10,000-foot-high Salt River Range. It pulls in water from tributaries like Hobble Creek, becoming a modestly sized, moderately fast river that’s easy to wade (but not to float). Heavily timbered in its mountainous upper reaches, the stream gradually cuts a path through sage and aspen-covered hills, forming a broad ranching valley by the time it enters the Bear River.

To fathom the quirky Smiths Fork fishery one must consider the Bear, a 500-mile-long, convoluted oddity. It’s Wyoming’s only Great Basin watershed, and the longest river in the Western Hemisphere that never touches an ocean. This fugitive stream nervously jumps state lines five times: It rises in Utah’s Uintas Range, clips Wyoming and Idaho, then doubles back and ends its journey in the Great Salt Lake, just 70 miles from where it started.

The drainage was once immersed by glacial Lake Bonneville, which swelled to nearly the size of Lake Michigan, inundating the current site of Salt Lake City in more than 1,000 feet of water. The lake—the ancestral home of Bonneville cutthroats—nearly vanished 8,000 years ago following the last Ice Age, leaving the Great Salt Lake as a remnant. Long after Lake Bonneville’s demise, its cutts continued to survive mainly in headwater reaches and a few lakes, scattered through southwest Wyoming, southeast Idaho, western Utah and northeastern Nevada. By the 1950s, however, genetically pure Bonnevilles were believed extinct.

Then in 1974, a biologist discovered a relict population in Utah’s isolated Deep Creek Mountains: The trout had endured since the last Ice Age, but just barely survived the 20th Century. Fortunately, Bonnevilles also persisted under the radar in secluded southwest Wyoming, and the Smiths Fork remains one of the best places to catch them. The trout are highly mobile, fattening up on Bear River baitfish during the winter, then sometimes migrating more than 50 miles up the Smiths Fork system to spawn.

A singular feature of the watershed is Lake Alice, which feeds Hobble Creek in the upper drainage. Alice formed millennia ago when a landslide tore down Lake Mountain and dammed Poker Creek, which now gushes out in a giant spring below the mile-long scree barrier. Three miles long and 200 feet deep, the lake is tucked away at 7,800 feet and accessible only by trail. Lake Alice is a unique fishery, holding a native population of lake-dwelling Bonnevilles. Aside from the strain remaining in Bear Lake on the Utah-Idaho border, all other indigenous, stillwater Bonneville populations have vanished.

Following a morning hike to Lake Alice, I was excited to find a calm, glassy surface, broken only by rising, zigzagging Bonnevilles. I tied on a Parachute Adams with a gray mayfly spinner as a dropper, attempting to guess where fish were headed and lead them. Over a couple hours I caught a dozen pretty Bonnevilles up to 15 inches as they keyed on a subtle spinnerfall. I was sorry Mary was missing this treat.

The action continued downstream on Hobble Creek and the main Smiths Fork. I slapped a bushy Stimulator down next to a willowy bank; the bug danced along the current seam when large jaws engulfed it. The fish battled like a rodeo bull, shaking his head furiously as he surged along the cobbles. I suspected a good brown, but when I slid the fish into the shallows for release, I saw the pseudo Jack-the-Ripper slashes adorning the throat of a radiant 19-inch Bonneville.

Alas, my trip was winding down; a storm was forecast and the road out could get slick. After fishing, I pulled some Kentucky bourbon from the truck and headed over to Puddin’s. To compensate for her absence, Mary had presented me with a new bottle of delectable Woodford Reserve, a replacement campfire companion.

Dennis was cooking a delicious pronghorn stew. In the twilight, we scanned the slopes for elk easing out of cover to feed, and looked for late rises on the river. Swallows swished overhead, picking off remnants from the evening hatch. Tall tales were reprised, many beers drained, and by the time the night was over, my fresh bottle of bourbon was dry. Before I headed back to my camp, Puddin’ slapped me on the back and said, “Erickson, if you come back next year, make sure Mary gives you a bigger bottle of Woodford Reserve.”

Head swimming with beer and bourbon, I ambled to my camp beneath an infinite sky of dazzling stars. As I stood on the bridge admiring the murmuring, silvery Smiths Fork, an old Grateful Dead song floated to mind, the perfect coda for a great trip:

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone.

Jeff Erickson lives and writes in Helena, Montana. He’s got a sweet spot for Wyoming and off-the-radar fisheries in the West’s Great Basin.