LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY FISHERMEN: A cast of all-star anglers comes to the aid of villain trout

By on April 30, 2013

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Park officials are making a stand in Yellowstone Lake. Their extermination crusade to eradicate lake trout in order to give native cutthroat a fighting chance has been largely heralded by pundits and public alike save one: Peter Moyer.

Peter Moyer enjoys some tube time in Heart Lake.

CUTLINE: Peter Moyer enjoys some tube time in Heart Lake.
CREDIT: Paul Bruun

Moyer has a track record of making a federal case out of things that bug him. In the past, he has often felt compelled to come to the aid of a longshot with injunctions and lawsuits. In the case of Yellowstone’s policy concerning the laker, Moyer is backing the bully this time. The larger and more aggressive lake trout are being singled out amongst a myriad challenges currently facing the cutthroat, Moyer said.

The Jackson attorney, who has made a habit of swinging at windmills from his downtown law practice, is using Yellowstone Lake as his latest call to arms. Don Quixote Syndrome or not, Moyer has assembled an A-Team of anglers – some 20 men with creel life experience – who have formed what he is calling the Wild Trout Conservation Coalition (WTCC). His goal: to take back from politics and principle the popular sport of angling, and return it to the seat of a drift boat and the fit of a sturdy pair of chest waders.

He said

Some of his new board members, but not all, share Moyer’s contentions toward Yellowstone officials. He believes lake trout and Yellowstone cutthroat can coexist in Yellowstone Lake as they do in other deep-water bodies like Heart and Jackson lakes. He cites government documentation he uncovered that points to federal authorities themselves stocking Yellowstone with lake trout when park officials have long declared the dirty deed was likely done by a few well-meaning but misguided “bucket biologists” in the late 1980s. A $10,000 reward still stands for information leading to the conviction of the person(s) who illegally introduced mackinaw to the lake.

“Captain Hiram Chittenden, a high-ranking park officer and an eminent park historian, wrote that the federal government itself stocked 10,000 lake trout in Yellowstone Lake in 1890,” Moyer contends. “The park is spending $2.3 million this year alone to kill wild trout in Yellowstone – much of it going to a Wisconsin netting company – while funding for snowplowing and essential park visitor services is curtailed.”

Moyer and others also point to lakes like Jackson, Lewis and Heart, where lakers have coexisted with cuts for more than a century. “For Jackson Lake, professional reports reveal an abundant deep water prey base for large lake trout such as suckers, chub and smaller lake trout. Actual stomach contents of 271 lake trout produced only one cutthroat trout. One species inhabits shallow water, the other deep water,” Moyer said.

Moyer adds he would like to see money and effort being spent on positive measures to aid native cutthroat like habitat improvement and whirling disease mitigation.

PHOTO CUTLINE: Pat Bigelow. The biggest lake trout removed from Yellowstone Lake weighed in at 33 pounds, she said. PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy

PHOTO CUTLINE: Pat Bigelow. The biggest lake trout removed from Yellowstone Lake weighed in at 33 pounds, she said.

She said

Yellowstone fishery biologist Pat Bigelow echoed her boss, chief scientist David Hallac, saying it doesn’t matter when or how lake trout got into the lake – they have to go.

But it does matter. If Moyer’s right, lake trout have made little trouble for cuts in 120 years. Only recently have cutthroat numbers declined and that could be pinned on drought, disease, global warming, spawning habitat degradation, or the increase of predators like pelicans, osprey and grizzly bears.

Then Bigelow shot a few holes in Moyer’s boat. “We have never found an old one,” she said, simply. In removing more than a million lake trout to date, park officials have yet to find a fish older than 21 years old. Lake trout can live twice that long. “We age all big ones we catch and the oldest are 17 to 21 years old.”

That would jibe with the park’s assertion that lake trout were introduced to Yellowstone Lake around 1989. In addition, Hallac said microchemistry analysis done on the inner ear bone of fish suggests most lakers in Yellowstone have likely spent time in nearby lakes like Lewis and Shoshone, which were stocked with lake trout in the 1890s to create a ready food supply for park visitors and personnel. It’s easy to imagine a mack or two caught in Lewis making their way into Yellowstone sooner or later.

What of the Chittenden record that shows 10,000 lake trout stocked in Yellowstone in 1890? Bigelow said she thinks he simply screwed up.

“Chittenden published many editions of his travelogue,” Bigelow said. “The first edition reported fish stocking lakes in Yellowstone for food sources. By the fourth edition he began detailing the stocking more and reported 10,000 lake trout were added ‘above the falls.’ If you compare that to the U.S. Fish Commission report for 1889-1891, Appendix B, which records 10,000 whitefish stocked above the falls, I think he messed up. Later editions have this removed.”

So could lake trout have achieved their present day population explosion in just 25 years or so? Bigelow said yes. Moreover, given their dynamic exploitation rate, it’s reasonable to assume lakers would have been dominating the ecosystem long ago if they truly have been swimming in Yellowstone Lake for more than a century, Bigelow said.

Further, if claims that lake trout were introduced before the turn of the 20th century were to be believed, why hadn’t anyone caught one until July 30, 1994? “The first verified catch of a lake trout was in 1994,” Hallac said.


CUTLINE: Dave Hallac

“That’s impossible. I know people that were catching them in the ’70s and ’80s,” said RIO fly lines founder Jim Vincent. “Lakers and cuts have coexisted for over a hundred years in Heart and Yellowstone lakes, and nearly that long in Jackson Lake. These fisheries are going out of their way to eliminate lake trout. They’re overplaying the ‘native’ card.”

Mack attack: scapegoating the laker?

Paul Bruun, to riff on the saying and Skeeter Davis song, has forgotten more about fishing than most people will ever know. The longtime local angler gets his research data from a leader and tippet. He’s suspicious of the book-learned collegiate that think they know it all.

“Biologists can get mad when you try to be an expert. To them, their way is the only way,” Bruun said. “In this case, they make lake trout out to be the bad guy here with a lack of knowledge of the basics. We know they coexist in other lakes. In the Yukon, there’s whitefish, northerns, chub and cuts; they all survive together. A lot has happened in Yellowstone like whirling disease, depredation and habitat degradation. So you just can’t make the statement that it’s the lake trout to blame. The question to ask is, ‘If Yellowstone were totally free of lake trout, what would the true number of cutthroat be?’ I don’t believe it would be that much different than what it is today.”

But Yellowstone cutthroat numbers appear to be plummeting, and rapidly. Too drastically to blame other factors like pelican predation, disease and disruption to habitat.

“If the building’s on fire are you going to take time to paint the staircase?” Bigelow asks. “Whirling disease is a worry. There are a couple of streams where whirling is a particular problem like Pelican and Clear creeks. And cutthroat are very susceptible to whirling disease but Todd Koel just conducted some tests with sentinel fish and the results were fairly positive.”

Hallac and Bigelow both say cuts in Yellowstone Lake – which need to swim upstream into tributaries to spawn whereas mackinaw seek out shallower water in the lake – are not lacking for habitat. “Humans haven’t really done anything to degrade habitat around Yellowstone Lake. There is no lack of spawning habitat in Yellowstone,” Hallac said.

“And I would be really, really surprised if predation was knocking down cut numbers,” Bigelow added. “Bears don’t eat nearly enough. They have so much more to their diet. Pelicans could be blamed to some degree but compared with lake trout it is not substantial.”

Josh Bock shows off monster lake trout.

Josh Bach shows off monster lake trout.

How we got here

At the turn of last century, cutthroat were so numerous and easy to catch they were considered a nuisance. “There were so many fish that there was no great pleasure in catching them; it was all too easy,” wrote one angler in the mid-1890s. The aforementioned Crittenden designed and built Fishing Bridge in 1902, where fishing was easy pickings. An estimated 50,000 tourists fished from the bridge each year through the 1960s.

Fishing pressure finally took its toll, though. Until 1921, the daily limit of cutthroat was 20. That was halved from then on until 1949 when the limit was further reduced to five per day. Still, in 1959, an astounding 393,467 cuts were fished out of Yellowstone Lake. Jack Anderson, an avid fly fisherman, came on board in 1960 as park supervisor and introduced immediate changes. Catch-and-release, then an unheard of practice, was heavily promoted. Spawning habitat was improved and Fishing Bridge was closed to anglers.

While fish population estimates are tricky, park managers counted 70,000 cuts spawning in Clear Creek in 1978. In 2008, less than 500 made the trip. In Bridge Creek it’s been worse. Some 2,363 cutthroat spawned there in 1999. Five years later, that number was reduced to one.

Veteran angler and local guide Fred Staehr is not buying it. “I hate to spread the word, but the cutthroat in Yellowstone are doing great,” he said. “I have been going for the last several summers and the cuts are now averaging 18 inches or more and approaching four pounds. Granted, there are not as many as years’ past, and they are a little tougher to catch, but they are doing great. They look nothing like the cuts of the past. They now have a small head and big fat belly. They look like rainbows. Nothing like the cuts of old with their big heads and snaky bodies.”

Bigelow agreed Yellowstone is producing fewer but bigger cutthroat. “Faster-growing cutthroat are the ones that survive. You gotta get big fast to not get eaten.”

While Staehr’s description of the modern Yellowstone cutthroat sounds more like a cut-bow cross, Bigelow said hybridization between pure cuts and rainbow or other trout has never been recorded in Yellowstone Lake. It’s one of the reasons park managers chose the 88,000-acre lake to make their last stand.

“We can’t control all the waterways in Yellowstone; it would be too expensive,” Hallac said. “But Yellowstone Lake is home to a keystone species cutthroat which benefit anglers and more importantly bears, osprey, eagles, and dozens more potential predators that count on the cutthroat for a food source.”

Appetite for destruction

PHOTO CUTLINE: Non-targeted trap-netted cuts are returned to the lake unharmed. About 4 to 8 gill-netted cuts, which can’t be saved, are snagged per 100 lake trout. PHOTO CREDIT: Dan Hottle, NPS

PHOTO CUTLINE: Non-targeted trap-netted cuts are returned to the lake unharmed. About 4 to 8 gill-netted cuts, which can’t be saved, are snagged per 100 lake trout.

Hallac said he understands the concern of anglers who enjoy gamefish like the mackinaw but his first priority is to maintain a native ecosystem. Lake trout live at depths too great to have predators. If the cutthroat population crashes, some 40 other species of birds and mammals in the ecosystem would suffer the consequences, he said.

Bigelow said, “This is maybe the most robust population of cutthroat trout in the world. If it tanks, the Yellowstone cutthroat could be listed as endangered. Plus, they are fun and easy to catch for tourists. There’s a lot of cultural value there.”

Meanwhile, lake trout populations around the Rockies are exploding and no one is quite sure why. Maybe it just won’t die. If ever a fish was designed to survive, it’s the laker.

“Unfortunately, we can’t depend on an ecological cycle when you have lake trout,” Bigelow explained. “For instance, studies have shown when hare populations get high, the lynx grows in number. When the lynx population gets high, the hares are reduced in number; and that natural cycle continues. But once lakers get to a point where they’ve virtually annihilated all the cutthroat, they can go practically inert and wait; even for decades. They are a cold-water fish. They don’t need to eat often.”

Lake trout have developed perhaps the keenest sense of “predator inertia” of any other fish. They are built for extreme cold-water conditions where food may not come along for long periods of time. They don’t easily die of starvation. They are hardwired to ignore hunger for years at a time until prey again becomes abundant.

Government officials are committed to saving the cutthroat in Yellowstone Lake because it offers the simplest ecosystem in the Park. “Basically, there are just cutthroat and lake trout in there now,” Bigelow said. A few suckers and other species exist but to no significant degree. In fact, Yellowstone biologists use this two-fish scenario to squash theories that cuts and macks can coexist.

“Lake trout have plenty of daphnia to feed on,” Moyer said, referring to the zooplankton that makes up a portion of the char’s diet. “And when they sample, are cutthroat really in the stomachs of these lake trout, or are they smaller lakers?”

Bigelow said lake trout can certainly survive without a fish prey base in which case some will turn cannibalistic. She also admitted cuts and lakers can coexist in some bodies of water, but in Yellowstone Lake cutthroat would eventually be slashed to numbers so miniscule they would be considered functionally nonexistent as a species.

“If you look at Lewis Lake there are tons of cookie-cutter lake trout and a few monster ones. In lakes like Heart and Jackson, that have a more diverse prey base, cutthroat get along better. In Heart Lake there are like seven native species of fish. But we don’t see big cuts come out of Heart Lake.”

Fly fisherman Joe Burke might disagree with that. He hooked a cut so big in 2008 it broke the scale. From photos, it was estimated at 41 inches and more than 30 pounds. A Wyoming Game and Fish employee told Burke it would have been a state record largest ever caught on a fly had he not released it.

Yellowstone scientists have done their research. Their findings confirm what was already suspected: lake trout are gulping down cutthroat.

“We had a pretty robust study done by a Utah State PhD student that included a strong sample size of more than 600 lake trout,” Bigelow said of J.R. Ruzycki’s 2003 dissertation, “Effects of introduced lake trout on native cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake.” “He looked at the bellies of lake trout to see what they were eating and broke them down into age groups. What he found paints a grim picture for cutthroat.”

Lake trout like many other fish are happy to chow down on insects and zooplankton when they are young. As they grow older and bigger, their mouth gape increases allowing them to swallow larger things – which they readily do.

Ruzycki found cutthroat made up about 10 percent of the diet of most three- to four-year-old lake trout. For lakers aged five to eight, about half their stomach contents were cuts. Once mackinaw reached age nine or older, 90 percent of their diet consisted of cutthroat.

Last stand in deep waters

Moyer is not alone in questioning the financial soundness of waging an expensive six-year war on lake trout in the face of belt-tightening budget cuts that have so far impacted public services noticeably. Yellowstone’s entire fisheries budget for 2012 was around $2 million. Wisconsin-based Hickey Brothers received slightly less than $1 million for their trap and gill netting efforts last year. Approximately 300,000 lake trout were removed in 2012. Bigelow said the Hickeys will get a$1.3 million this season and the entire fisheries budget for FY2013 is $2.3 million.

“There is absolutely no way of ever eliminating lake trout now that they are established. The Park Service is doing nothing more than wasting our money,” Staehr said.

Vincent added, “With the preservationists, it’s always about going back in time to a point of natural history. Well, you can’t go back in time. Everything has a right and a purpose to exist. And there is no reason to knock down the browns and rainbows. Lower Lewis had those athletic browns from the Loch Leven strain. They’re almost gone now. I just don’t believe in favoring one species over another.”

“We’ll always be fighting the lake trout,” Bigelow admitted. “The biggest problem is the population is so big now it’s hard to make any kind of an impact at the start. We have already managed to slow their growth rate. Once we get to a reasonable level it should be easier and more cost-effective.”

The short-range plan is to cut the lake trout population in half every year until 2018. In a perfect world, new advances in technology will allow park managers to better target lakers and perhaps, someday, completely eradicate them from Yellowstone Lake.

Removal methods have ranged from traditional netting to experimental approaches like electrocution, carbon monoxide poisoning and sonic blasting. So-called “Judas Fish” were introduced in 2011. Select lakers – about 200 now – are caught, implanted with a transmitter, and then freed to return to their spawning grounds. Once biologists track the double-agent fish to their lair they can wipe out thousands at a time.

“We’re learning things all the time,” Bigelow said. “Like targeting adults before they breed with the ‘Judas Fish.’ Another Great Lakes finding suggests lake trout have a high fidelity to specific spawning beds in the lake; that is, the same fish spawn at the same sites year after year.” Park biologists believe there may be as few as 10 or 12 total spawning areas on Yellowstone Lake.

Other research out of Bozeman from Joe Shaw uses airborne “lidar” to spot schools of lakers on the move. “If we can find out where they spawn and how they get there we might be able to target them through certain narrow channels,” Bigelow said.

Moyer’s legendary lineup includes rod-and-reel rock stars like Jeff Currier, Will Dornan, Boots Allen and Reynolds Pomeroy. Not all are onboard for the lake trout controversy, but all seem united in their efforts to make sure they leave the region’s watersheds as pristine and fish-filled as possible.

“This group is approaching not just the lake trout elimination, but we’re trying to look at the big picture,” Burke said. “I don’t think everybody who is on this thing is against controlling the lake trout. This is not a matter of going head-to-head with the park. It’s a matter of partnering up with the park.”

Hallac said it’s his call whether to halt the program or not. If the science indicated something different he said he could pull the plug tomorrow. “Our science review panel is full of some of the best biologists around. And right now we have no intention of discontinuing our removal of lake trout,” he said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The online version of this story has been edited in some places to reflect corrections to the print version. They include Hallac’s reference to inner ear bone analysis which does not look at DNA. Yellowstone NP has budgeted $2.3 million for their entire fisheries program in 2013, not just for the removal of lake trout. Bigelow’s reference to cookie cutter cutthroat in Lewis Lake should have read “cookie cutter lake trout.” Bigelow used the term “functionally nonexistent” instead of “defunct.” Bigelow called Yellowstone cutthroat a robust “population” not “strain.” Also, the original picture used for Pat Bigelow was not Bigelow. That has been fixed. 

All corrections have been made in this online version. JH Weekly regrets the errors.

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