The fishing fever had been getting to me. Too much work, too many other endeavors last summer kept me from the No. 1 most relaxing pastime. This year was shaping up to be no different, until my slave-driver boss invited me to go fishing with him. We both put off buying a fishing license until the last minute before the weekend. I knew the weather was to change, but figured that the worst day of fishing was always better than the best day of work.
There was a big line at the sporting goods store - not just people waiting for a fishing license, but many intending to buy all their big game licenses. My boss alone spent considerable time purchasing almost everything including deer, elk, moose, sheep, antelope and birds. When it finally came to my turn, I said, "Just a fishing license, sir." The licensing agent replied, "Okay, how about a warm water permit?" "No, I'm a trout fisherman," I insisted. He joked, "You stood in line for an hour just for that?" I offered no reply, but thought, "Kiss off, Mr. Smarty Pants licensing agent. Just give me my dang fishing license so I might catch one puny trout while you spend all summer hauling in pike, catfish, walleye, bass, perch, crappie, paddlefish, salmon and maybe even go deep-flipping sea fishing in your spare time. I'll bet the IRS didn't clean you out of everything but your little Zebco spin-caster."
The change in weather turned out to be a big spring snowstorm, and it turned out to be too nasty to even travel to the nearest fishing hole. But when it cleared up on Sunday, and a foot of new snow was left in the wake, I chose to engage in another activity I hadn't embarked on much in this on-and-off winter. Conditions were perfect for cross-country skiing. Aside from my cheap fishing gear, the IRS had also spared me my skiing equipment along with marginal clothes on my back. And as it turned out, my destination was also home to trout streams.
The Snowy Mountains of central Montana are an uplift of the Madison shale formation, a geologic wonder full of limestone cliffs and deep forested canyons. True to their name, the mountains accumulate great depths of snow, and spring runoff feeds a host of trout streams. I had skied up one such stream a few weeks ago to find a mostly frozen creek that ran dry halfway along its course.
Years ago, I had hiked up this stream on a hot summer day. As I hiked far up the cool, shaded canyon, I marveled at how the creek gushed brilliantly over the green and yellowish limestone. There, in the clear, deep swirling pools was something I had not seen since my childhood days in the Bear Paw Mountains. Lying in the shadows of overhanging limestone and logs were cutthroat trout. Amidst the sound of the roaring stream and the cover of the dense, dark forest, they flashed for a second and then vanished. It's as if they sensed my presence. Perhaps it was the reflection of my glasses or the sound of my footsteps. These wily trout didn't stick around for photos. Being a bit more cautious, I approached the next pool and peered over the cutbank that helped shade the hole. There they were. Those colorful native cutthroat fish were facing the swift current, gently and effortlessly waving their tails. Toward the end of my long hike on that hot day, the forested canyon turned muggy, and I thought about plunging my hot, achy feet in the icy stream. But darn, what if my smelly feet drove these rare, precious fish farther up against the swift current. I figured I had bothered them enough in their remote, sheltered lair.
So now, years later after mother drought had reduced this stream to half of its course, I'm skiing along her banks where spring runoff is offering new life. There's the clear, cascading water, sparkling over green and yellowish limestone against a backdrop of bright, sunlit snow. Farther up the canyon I wander, seeing no wildlife save for an occasional bird. I worry that after perhaps a hundred thousand years of existence in this creek, a few years of harsh climate has wiped out the cutthroat trout. I finally sneak up cautiously on a deep pool, shadowed by steep banks, boulders and pines. Lo and behold, there they are! The cutthroats survived.
Salmo clarki is the taxonomic classification that Lewis and Clark gave to the primary cutthroat species. They encountered many subspecies in the headwaters of the Missouri River, the Bitterroot, Snake, Clearwater, Columbia and Yellowstone rivers. More subspecies were discovered when John Colter, Jim Bridger, Zebulon Pike and Captain Gunnison explored the streams. The cutthroat trout soon became commonly known as the frontier fish.
Cutthroats, named for the reddish-orange slashes under their jaws, are closely related to rainbow trout and undoubtedly evolved from a common ancestral species. The original cutthroats may have been isolated in mountain refuges formed by receding primordial seas, glaciers and geological upthrustings. The rainbow and cutthroat trout remain so closely related that they often successfully mate in the wild state, producing hybrids that plague fisheries managers hoping to protect the native strains. Cutthroats have also proven to be difficult to breed by artificial means, making transplanting hard. Their once countless numbers were reduced by mine-tailing wastes, silt from clear-cut logging, pollution from smelters, overfishing and the introduction of predatory fish.
Cutthroat trout have been considered easy to catch as they have a fatal curiosity about bright spinners and spoons. In my youth, I caught a cutthroat on a bare hook that had the scent of a worm on it. What happened to the cutthroats in the Bear Paws is questionable; most likely, drought-stricken streams and overfishing doomed them. So what about the timid cutthroats that thrive only in clear, cold, oxygenated streams like the one in the Snowies? Are they like other forms of wildlife - educated by threats?
One of those threats is whirling disease, now present in central Montana streams. Perhaps the only advantage to a remote, isolated stream that runs out into a dry streambed is that parasites, diseased fish, and predatory fish are unable to navigate upstream.
Despite these threats, the isolated, remote streams harbor the once plentiful cutthroats. They are relatively free from disease, free from swarming hordes of fishermen and predators, free from cynical licensing agents, and most enviably, free from the IRS.