The message comes in via text: “Millgate, get up here. We gotta fish. The Yellowstone is like it used to be.”
It’s from my fishing buddy Todd Lanning. He wants me to fish the Yellowstone River with him. Lanning lives and works an hour north of me in Island Park, Idaho. He’s in Yellowstone’s backyard. It’s peak shooting season for me so I have a camera in hand more often than a rod right now, but Lanning’s hopes are high. I don’t have days off any time soon, so I do the next best thing. I go to Yellowstone National Park while I’m working to find out if Lanning’s claims of yester year are even possible. I doubt it because of lake trout.
“The problem here on Yellowstone Lake is the rapid and incredible decline of Yellowstone cutthroat trout through this system,” says Dave Sweet, Wyoming Trout Unlimited Yellowstone Lake special project manager. “From a population of 4 million fish, the lake trout have essentially eaten their way through that population and decreased it by 90 to 95 percent.”
Invasive lake trout are cutting into native cutthroat trout in a massive way in Yellowstone National Park. The first lake lunker took an angler’s bait in 1994. By mid-2000s most of the cutties were gone.
“That’s not allowed,” says Todd Koel, Yellowstone National Park native fish conservation leader. “We’re not going to allow that in Yellowstone National Park. This place is much more than that. We’re way better than that.”
Better must be ambitious and Koel is ambitious. He’s overseeing a massive commercial gillnetting operation on Yellowstone Lake. There’s up to 40 miles of net in the lake daily from May through October. Those nets trap lake trout, which live in deeper waters than cutthroat trout. Large bins stacked on netting boats collect 300,000 fish annually at a cost of $2 million. The operation started in 2009. This year is the halfway mark.
“What I really love about it is just knowing we are making positive change at a time when if we weren’t doing some of these things maybe 10, 20, 30 years from now those fish would be gone,” Koel says. “We’re just doing things right at the right time. We are making a big difference that will last long term for a lot of other people into the future.”
Fins sustain future feathers and fur. When cutthroat trout declined, eagles and bears left the lake in search of other food sources. Signs of cutthroat trout recovery are evident in the grizzlies going after cutties this spring and anglers with fish on this summer. There were more fishermen on opening day than the park has seen in at least five years.
“This fish is more than just a fish,” Sweet says. “It’s a vital part of the economy in this area. The fishery represents about $30 million annually."
You can catch cutthroat trout on flies, but you can’t keep them. You can, however, keep all the lake trout you catch. In fact, you have to. There’s a mandatory kill order on lake trout. Between angler harvest and intense netting, lake trout are taking a punch in the gills.
The park’s goal is a lake trout population crash. The crash is five to seven years away, but cutts are already coming back due to seven years of intense lake trout netting. In simple terms, there are less lake trout eating cutthroat trout.
“The lake trout population is in a steep decline,” Koel says. “Were’ still killing thousands of fish a year so it’s hard from the boat’s perspective, but no doubt the data were collecting says, ‘Yes, you are winning. You just have to keep it up.’ It doesn’t happen overnight or over one year or two years. It takes time. We’ll be there.”
So Lanning’s text is no fish tale. The park’s namesake river really is fishing better than it has in years. Lanning is seeing the first signs of native spawn swimming from the lake into the river without being detoured into an invasive lake trout’s mouth.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks closed the Yellowstone River to fishing August 19 due to an unprecedented fish kill in the area. The Yellowstone River is still open to fishing inside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. Stay tuned for further updates.