Mules and packrafts geared up with fly rods and bear spray led three adventurers recently to confirm the comeback of Yellowstone country cutthroats.
The good news is filtering out of Wyoming’s Thorofare region, centered on the Yellowstone River upstream from Yellowstone Lake. The Thorofare that spreads through the 585,000-acre Teton Wilderness is steeped in lore rivaling any fish and wildlife cornucopia in the country.
Reputed to be as far from a road as anyplace in the lower 48, the Thorofare was explored by Native Americans and fur traders as a route through the Absaroka Range between modern-day Cody and Jackson. Horseback has been the preferred mode of getting into the vast area for generations of visitors, especially hunters and anglers.
Outside of elk hunting season, interest in the Thorofare has fallen off in the past 20 years following the decline in the fishery. Beyond the main trails, it’s lonesome. Our threesome saw four grizzly bears and zero people in a five-day stretch of our eight-day July visit.
The Thorofare once was known for streams stacked with spawning Yellowstone cutthroat trout, one of 13 recognized cutthroat subspecies. These cutthroats migrate roughly 50 round-trip miles upstream from Yellowstone Lake to spawn in natal streams, including Thorofare Creek, the largest tributary to the upper Yellowstone River.
The area still hosts an impressive elk migration, with numbers exceeding Washington’s entire Blue Mountains elk population. The place is infested with grizzlies that have learned to prey on elk calves in spring to help compensate for the loss of fish.
The 1988 Yellowstone fires, the 1995 reintroduction of wolves, natural forest transition, drought years and outbreaks of exotic parasites have had a roller coaster of impacts on the Thorofare’s wildlife scene. Wolves have re-established, beavers have rebounded while moose have been thinned out.
However, nothing has slashed at the Thorofare’s legacy more dramatically than the arrival of non-native lake trout in Yellowstone Lake.
They may have been illegally introduced by an idiot, or perhaps they miraculously wiggled into the drainage through thin connecting waters. Either way, the fish-eating “mackinaw” that were confirmed in Yellowstone Lake in 1994 eventually crashed the world’s largest concentration of native Yellowstone cutthroats.
The number of cutthroats spawning at one Yellowstone Lake tributary peaked at more than 70,000 in 1978 and fell to 538 by 2007, according to Yellowstone Park officials. They attribute the decline mostly to lake trout predation exacerbated by drought years and the nonnative parasite that causes whirling disease.
Cutthroat-devouring lake trout, which spawn in the depths of the lake instead of in streams, disrupted the natural food web involving 40 Yellowstone species from invertebrates, waterfowl and bald eagles to river otters and grizzly bears. In 2001, for example, surveyors found 50 to 60 pairs of fish-eating ospreys nesting around Yellowstone Lake. In 2015, they documented fewer than five.
Reports that the effort to curb the lake trout is reviving cutthroat numbers rallied the intrepid angler in Scott Wolff, David Moershel and me. We hired Cody outfitter Jay Reynolds and his pack string to haul us and our packrafts 27 miles from the South Fork Shoshone River through the Washakie Wilderness on a trail often scratched out in precipitous rocky cliffs.
“Should I be concerned that my horse is named Bucko?” Wolff asked, as we dismounted to walk the string of horses and mules over 10,400-foot Deer Creel Pass into the Teton Wilderness.
Even more troubling was the size of the lead wrangler’s bladder. During the eight-hour ride to Thorofare Creek, Rooster, as he’s called, might never have stopped had the mules not revolted in a tangle of blow downs. Tug lines had to be cut in a cloud of dust. Relief.
As we rode down out of the timber near Woody Creek at the end of the inbound day we saw wolf scat — which was soon overshadowed by a sow grizzly that stood tall from the willows before ushering her two cubs across the stream.
“We’re dropping you off here,” Rooster said.
No cutthroats were immediately spotted in Thorofare Creek’s braided waters at elevation 7,920 feet, where July mornings are frosty. A Wyoming fisheries biologist had warned us that most of the recovering Yellowstone Lake cutthroat adults migrate into the upper Yellowstone waters during the first two weeks of June, peaking with the mosquito hatch.
By July 10, on average, most of the spawners have followed the lead of their ancestors to return downstream to Yellowstone Lake where they have more food and, historically speaking, where they have been safer.
Essentially, we would be trying to catch up in our rafts with the last of the season’s spawners as they moved downstream. Tributaries would ramp up Thorofare Creek’s flow as we traveled. Optimism prevailed.
Immediately after lake trout were confirmed in Yellowstone Lake in the 1990s, the National Park Service teamed with other agencies, foundations and conservation groups to study and attack the invader. Spawning bed gillnetting began in 2001. This and other techniques have been employed at annual costs up to $2 million in the past decade.
The cost is justified, the agencies and groups say. Estimates from the early 1990s indicate the economic value of the Yellowstone Lake cutthroat trout fishery likely exceeded $36 million a year.
“Preliminary 2018 lake trout gillnetting results are extremely positive,” reported Dave Sweet, Yellowstone Lake special project manager for Wyoming Trout Unlimited. The total number of mackinaw caught is down 37 percent from last year despite a 7 percent increase in effort. The 2017 catch was down 26 percent from 2016, he added. Efforts also are underway to smother fertilized lake trout eggs on known spawning beds.
Yellowstone Park’s former superintendent Dan Wenk supported lake trout suppression, which must continue for the cutthroat comeback to continue, TU regional spokesman Brett Prettyman said. A new superintendent, Cameron Sholly, is taking charge this summer.
“Only time will tell if he will continue making fish conservation a funding priority,” Prettyman said.
Whacking and stacking lakers has been a boon to native cutthroat and the ecosystem that depends on them. Adult lake trout numbers peaked roughly a decade ago as commercial gilllneters ramped up to haul out 300,000 adult macks a year. As the lake trout decline has accelerated in recent years, “the cutthroat have started to show a comeback,” Sweet reported in July.
We picked up on this around noon on our first of three floating days as the three of us alternated dragging and riding our gear-laden packrafts downstream to fish stretches of the creek rarely seen by horse-riding visitors. When the first 20-inch Yellowstone cutthroat rose out of olive-green depths to inhale my Royal Wulff, it was game on.
TU’s Sweet, who had sampled the waters in late June, three weeks before our trip, reported catching numerous large cutthroats nearby in the upper Yellowstone River. Photos indicated those fish were in better condition than ours. He described it as a “massive spawning migration.”
For us, it was a waning migration, but enough to keep us engaged.
We floated in 10-pound solo packrafts maneuvered with kayak paddles. The skinny waters of upper Thorofare Creek required hopping in and out of the vessels dozens of times a day to pull the boats over short rocky stretches or line around snags. A couple of portages were required around logjams.
“If you hurt your knee or sprain an ankle, that’s bad,” Reynolds, the outfitter, had said when we saddled up on the first day. “But if your entire body aches, that’s a sign you’ve had a good day.”
Indeed, after a day on horses and another navigating the creek, we were hurting in the best possible way.
We regularly used the back-ferry technique to maneuver through rocky rapids. By angling the bow of the raft 45 degrees to the right shore and paddling backward, the raft slows and the current pushes against the angled boat to aid in moving it toward the left. We never hit a rock that inflicted a tear in the tough but thin boat skins.
And most inconveniences translated into an opportunity to cast for cutthroats.
Given the remoteness, we were conservative, approaching every new stretch with caution. Strainers and sweepers dictated a few quick exits. Moershel’s most urgent reaction came on the third day as he led around a bend and suddenly began backpaddling like an eggbeater.
“Bear!” he called. Luckily, the grizzly was equally urgent about splashing its way out of midstream, clawing up a steep bank and running out of sight.
Each of us carried bear spray (also effective on moose) on our belts at all times. We stored our food in Bear Vaults and roped them up in trees for extra measure at night. Keeping bears out of camp food is the No. 1 thing visitors can do to keep grizzlies wild and protect campers who follow, bear experts say.
The ideal Thorofare trip we scoped out, in terms of fishing success, would have departed about 10 days earlier, just as the snow allowed the 27-mile horse access over Deer Creek Pass, followed by the 20 river miles of wilderness packrafting.
Extend the trip with an overnight backpack from the Hawks Rest area (site of a wilderness patrol cabin, popular horse-packing campground and bridge across the upper Yellowstone River) to fish and then visit Two Ocean Pass, where a creek splits to send water to the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. Then carry on hiking to camp and catch trout at Enos Lake. Here, in 1987, the highest-elevation tornado on record mowed a swath 20 miles long and two miles wide.
In the next day — two days would be even better — return via a cutthroat fishing detour to Bridger Lake (we saw pelicans, swans, bald eagles, sandhill cranes and other creatures) to Thorofare Creek Trail, allowing time out for the inevitable afternoon thunderstorms.
There we rendezvoused with the packer to ride out by horse and mule nearly 40 miles over two days.
The outfitter’s rib-eye steak cooked over a campfire more than made up for our previous rations of backpacking food.
The landscape we encountered — from vast meadows, streams and willow thickets to high peaks — left us frequently pausing, looking at each other, and saying, simply, “Wow, this is wild.”
Some wild visitors come even farther than the cutthroats to propagate in the remote cold, clear waters of the wilderness mountains, including the harlequin duck we saw splashing down the creek with her brood. She had come 1,000 miles from the saltwaters of the Pacific Coast to breed along Thorofare Creek. She’ll migrate back this fall to winter along a rocky ocean coastline.
When we reunited with the packer near the border of Yellowstone National Park (rafting isn’t allowed on streams within the park), he was particularly interested in our fish finds.
“I used to guide Orvis trips up here 20 years ago and we would find a hundred cutthroat layered in a pool like that,” Reynolds said as we detailed one particular run where we caught four cutts. “There were hardly any fish a few years ago.”
The average upper Yellowstone spawning cutthroat runs 16 inches long, but we caught larger fish and Sweet measured a 5-pounder in June at 25 inches.
To be honest, most of the big spawners we hooked didn’t fight too hard. The thrill was luring the black-spotted, yellow-sided hulks of olive, crimson and brown to the surface with a dry fly. The cutthroat we were able to tease into rising usually swam up slowly from the green depths as if scrutinizing every detail of our patterns before gently slurping the offering.
But every now and then, a cutt would rocket up, flash its orange-slashed throat above the water with gaping jaws to devour the fly and sprint downstream before breaking 4X tippet with a snap.
Fall elk hunting in the Thorofare continues to be the bread and butter for Reynolds and several other Cody-based outfitters. Because of its remoteness, the area provides a cherished opportunity to hunt bull elk with a modern rifle during the September rut. Hunters willing to tough out the body-punishing horseback access line up to pay $7,000 for a week of outfitted hunting in the area. Reynolds is already booked into 2020.
“I’m glad to see more cutthroat coming back,” he said. “It looks like I might be doing more fishing trips.”