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Fly fishing for trout in Montana and Idaho

More adventures related to the Western Native Trout Challenge

Fairy Lake in Custer Gallatin National Forest

This is another contribution provided by my friend and fellow NVATU member, Daniel Lazenby, highlighting his continued adventures in pursuing the Western Native Trout Challenge. All photo credits belong to Daniel.

Retirement has offered me an opportunity to pursue various interests. One of them is camping and seeking out native fish in their historic range or watershed on public land.

Western Native Trout Challenge

During the late summer and fall of 2020, and 2021, I traipsed through and camped Wyoming’s National Forests in successful pursuit of the four Wyoming Cutt-Slam Cutthroats across four different historic watersheds/ranges. In the process, I learned that many Western States individually sponsor their own Native Trout Challenges/SLAMs. Collectively the 12 Western States also participate in the Western Native Trout Challenge (WNTC), a 12 State and 21 species challenge to raise funds for conservation.

Each state specifies which of its native fish are included in the WNTC challenge and provides information on their species historical watershed/range. Some states such as Montana and Arizona define specific bodies of water included in the WNTC. Other States provide everything between generic to specific historic watershed/range guidance.

My first challenge comprised four states and six species. On my list were Wyoming and its Colorado River Cutthroat; Montana and its Yellowstone and Westslope Cutthroats; Idaho and its Redband and Bull Trout; and lastly Utah and its Bonneville Cutthroat.

Fishing for Montana Cutthroats

With my Wyoming Colorado River Cutthroat from 2021 in the net, the Montana Cutthroats were next up. At 7,500 feet elevation in Custer Gallatin National Forest is Fairy Lake a Montana Yellowstone Cutthroat designated lake. A six-mile passenger car-friendly forest road leads to within a quarter- mile walk of the lake.

This was my first-time trout fishing from the bank of a lake. I know that fish like drop-offs and structure. The drop-off was within my casting range. There were over hanging trees, shadows, and debris along the shore - lots of places fish should be. Most of the day was spent changing flies and working the drop-off around the lake’s perimeter. This day I learned that trout in a lake are constantly cruising. Sometimes you get a chance to sight cast –what an experience. Other times it is a matter of being in the right place at the right time with the right offering. It all came together as the shadows lengthened. My net soon held a Yellowstone Cutthroat.

a Fairy Lake Yellowstone Cutthroat

Montana Westslope Cutthroat

On to my next Montana lake. Sureshot Lake at 7,200 feet elevation in the Beaverhead Deer Lodge National Forest is a Montana Westslope Cutthroat designated lake. A three-mile passenger car-friendly forest road leads to an 4WD, upward climbing lake access road of approximately a quarter mile.

Sureshot Lake in Beaverhead Deer Lodge National Forest

Sureshot is very different lake from Fairy Lake, with no real defined drop-off. Instead, the lake had lily pad like plants scattered along the shoreline. It was another day of casting into the shallows where the water changed color and swapping-out flies. As the day was ending, I tried a woolly bugger and began casting it close to the shoreline. In desperation I began casting onto the lily pads with a stripping retrieval. With this approach, it wasn’t long before an 18+ inch Westslope Cutthroat Trout ambushed my woolly bugger.

a Surest Lake Westslope Cutthroat

Fishing for Idaho Redband trout

Next on the list was Idaho and its Redband and Bull Trout. Redband Trout are a subspecies of Rainbow Trout and have similar Rainbow markings. A Boise National Forest Road, no longer open to the public, paralleled a small mountain creek 8-10 feet wide in many places. According to Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG), Redband Trout were supposed to reside in this somewhat pressured roadside creek.

roadside mountain creek in Boise National Forest

It typically takes me a day or so to learn new water and it was not different with this creek. After a couple of days of orientation, I had landed what IDFG said should be a Redband Trout. It looked very Rainbow-ish to me.

Idaho Redband Trout

I feel I have a better chance of catching a purer member of the species by fishing higher in the species watershed. Idaho Fish & Game indicated there were 6,000-foot and higher elevation streams with Bull Trout further up into the Boise National Forest. Fishing for Bull Trout requires an understanding of their life histories - they have three similar yet different life histories. Understanding the Trout’s life histories can help locate Bull Trout in their specific watershed. Not knowing the trout had three life histories, the early snows, freezing temperatures, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, my 2022 fishing season ended standing in a forest that had experienced a wildfire some time ago. Utah would have to wait until next time.

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