Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Greenbacks...


The rain beat down on the old road bed, puddling in ruts that hadn't seen a tire in years. It was August, and the monsoons had arrived with a vengeance, erupting from black clouds as they collided with the high peaks to the West.

Parked at the trailhead, I cautiously watched the sky through a windshield interrupted by intermittent wiper blades. For now, just rain. No thunder. No lightning. Just rain.

I was out of excuses. If I wanted to catch a greenback cutthroat trout, the old decommissioned roadbed climbing off into the distance was my way in. Against a slate gray sky, the lack of afternoon shadows made it seem later than it really was, and I think my brain was telling me I might be cutting it close. I looked at the clock in the dash. Three o'clock.

With a noodle that managed a C+ in college algebra, I did some quick math. Three o'clock now... it's at least an hour to the creek... I'll probably fish for four hours, and then I've got an hour or more out ... Nine o'clock. Maybe later. It'll be tight--the late-summer sun in the high country retreats behind fourteeners without much notice.

To hell with it, I thought. I'm fishing.


I stepped out of the parked truck that I'd driven all the way south from Idaho on my quest for greenbacks. My rain jacket helped a bit, but might have been a bit counterintuitive, given that my sandaled feet and cargo shorts offered absolutely nothing against the wet. It was high-country warm--maybe tickling 65 with the rain, and I didn't want to wear waders. More importantly, I didn't want to hike in waders. I shouldered my 3-weight and started walking.

It was a twisted little mission, I'll agree. I lived in the heart of cutthroat country in eastern Idaho--within a short drive of my house, I could cast to and catch native Yellowstone cutthroat trout. But years before, when I was working as a journalist in the Arkansas River Valley, I had covered the effort to restore greenback cutthroat trout to their native ranges in the Arkansas and South Platte river drainages. Before the completion of any significant restorations efforts, my job pulled me west to the redwoods of northern California, and I never got the chance to actually catch a greenback.

I followed the effort from afar, like a voyeur. As a dedicated fly fisher and someone who dearly loved the backcountry, greenbacks had captured my imagination. In too many places throughout the Colorado landscape, interloping rainbows, browns and brookies had taken over. Well-meaning but misguided fish plantings dating back a century or more had all but eliminated greenbacks--in fact, by the 1930s, the fish was thought to be completely extinct. Then, by the 1970s, relict populations had been identified by biologists in the headwaters of the Poudre and in a little creek running off the flanks of Pikes Peak that drained into the Arkansas not too far from the ever-growing Front Range. With these populations used as brood stock, restoration projects were started and completed in the time I spent away from my home state.

So this day... this soggy high-country day... took on great significance. As I trudged a couple of miles up the old roadway, splashing through puddles until I finally saw the creek well below me, I knew this was the day I'd finally catch a greenback cutthroat trout in the waters where it belonged.

I followed the old road a bit longer, and then I couldn't stand it any more. The creek below me meandered through an alpine meadow and, even in the light, but steady rain, I could tell it was plenty fishy. The sweet smell of wet willows mingled with the scrubbed-clean aroma of the mountains. It was time to chase native trout.

I scrambled down a steep grade, sliding across gravel and grabbing at wispy little aspens and stunted spruce saplings to slow my descent. It happened a hundred times before, and likely since--the urge to get the water far outweighed the practical need to get out when the time came. As I hit the bottom of the hill, I turned and looked back up.

That'll be interesting, I thought.

Shaking the rocks out of my wading sandals, I evaluated the short walk to the creek through hip-high willows and realized immediately that the parts of me that weren't soaked from the rain would be when I got to the water. I negotiated the willows, taking care to watch my footing to keep from plunging into one of the hip-deep, mucky, filthy holes that almost always seem to catch me off guard in high-mountain meadows. I can't count the times I've rooted around in one of those holes, up to my elbows in fetid, black mud searching for a hijacked wading boot.

Soaked to the bone, I arrived at the creek. A few years earlier it had been "treated" with a piscacide in hopes of removing every living trout from its waters--brookies, rainbows ...  there might even have been non-native cutts in the creek that had somehow found their way to Colorado from Yellowstone Lake a hundred years before thanks to widespread propagation of those prized trout all over the Rockies. A year after the treatment, greenbacks reared in the nearby Leadville National Fish Hatchery from native brood stock were reintroduced. And a couple of years after that, the stream was deemed fishable for greenbacks, on a catch-and-release basis, of course. It was one of the first streams with a restored population of greenbacks opened up to fishing.

I stepped out of the willows ont a gravel bar at one of the many elbows in the creek that I saw from the decommissioned road above. The water, despite the on-again, off-again rain, was clear as could be.

It took one cast--a quick little flick of a bushy Royal Coachman against the far bank of the creek elicited that tell-tale cutthroat sip. As if it had not a care in the world, this gorgeous fish emerged from the rocky bottom of the creek and intently closed its jaws on the fly that likely looked like nothing it had ever seen before. But it ate it anyway.

Minutes later, I held the 10-inch fish in my hands and reveled in the joy of a world set right. Native fish in native waters--no small event in Colorado, where, for some reason, we just couldn't leave well enough alone a century before.

I spent hours casting to these fish on that little creek, and, predictably, I lost track of time. By the time I got back to the truck, it was dark, and I was bone-cold and so wet my fingers were pruned. But I had a camera full of fishy images--pictures of a fish that belonged here.

Greenbacks. Mission accomplished.


Epilogue: On Sept. 24, a study completed by the University of Colorado using the latest in genetic science revealed that only one genetically pure population of greenback cutthroats exists today--about 750 fish live in the cold, clear waters of Bear Creek, which flows off the flanks of Pikes Peak near Colorado Springs. All other populations believed to be greenbacks--including the one described above--are not, in fact, true native trout, but more than likely fish native to the Western Slope of Colorado, or perhaps hybrids of greenbacks and other cutthroat trout subspecies that were misidentified using the genetic tools available at the time. Genetic science has gotten better. The state of Colorado's greenbacks has gone from one of promise to something less certain. If you stop and think about it, it's a minor miracle that true greenbacks, Colorado's state fish, survive at all. Despite all the efforts to "improve" Colorado's trout fishing over the years, these fish--which are actually native to the South Platte River drainage, but were stocked in Bear Creek in hopes of attracting anglers--persist. These fish are a source of hope ... they make it possible for an angler like me to one day embark upon a quest to catch a fish so rare that it was once thought to be extinct--and damn near was. May the next angler have better luck than I did.

14 comments:

  1. To hell with it, I thought. I'm fishing. That's my boy.

    A fine post, Chris. Well rounded. Informative. Entertaining. Just like its author. (And I meant the well rounded in a good way).

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    1. Thanks, Mike... Although I'm well-rounded in other ways, too ;)

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  2. What the catch of the day,mate?
    Feel free to visit and follow our fishing blog at;
    http://www.kakinginti.rumahpanjai.com
    Cheers!!!

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  3. One of the best story-telling examples I've had the pleasure of reading... breaks my heart to know the truth of the efforts in recent years. Looking forward to having an opportunity to catch one of these myself when Bear Creek holds more than enough Greenbacks to sustain the population.

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    1. I'm with you Scott... this was sad news, but encouraging all the same.

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  4. A fine piece. And what a journey! Which, like any, is always in progress...
    "These fish are a source of hope ... they make it possible for an angler like me to one day embark upon a quest to catch a fish so rare that it was once thought to be extinct--and damn near was."
    Hear hear.

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    1. Thanks Erin... when real greenbacks are restored, we ought to get some folks together and officially check them off our lists...

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  5. Nicely written.

    The news that "native" greenbacks were only in that one watershed sorta diminished my accomplishment this past summer in catching them in RMNP. Oh well, it was a fine day of fishing none the less.

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    1. I hear you, man... when I heard the news, I was really disappointed. But... it just gives us an excuse to do it again in a few years, right?

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  6. Great story. It is a shame that every state is facing the same problem right now of trying to undo what they have done and allowed in the past. Very encouraging piece.

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  7. Nice story Chris. At the time the work started in RMNP to protect the Greenback, I was skeptical. I don't think it's going to change anything except the rules surrounding Bear Creek will toughen up and hopefully we will now do a better job of protecting what seriously could be the last gasp of the Greenback Cutthroat.

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    1. Exactly, Howard... Bear Creek's fish are off limits--there aren't very many of them. But, now that we know they're there, I would hope they are the source of future restoration efforts in Colorado...

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  8. While it's ironic 'greenbacks' might have drawn many of us into the Wild, it is not their genetic purity that brings us back time after time. The high country and cutthroat of any species remain the prime attraction for this angler. Mike

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  9. Great writing, Chris. You had me glued to the screen! Sounds like an amazing day of fishing for Greenbacks..

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