Sunrise lights the willow stands and the meandering bends of a mountain meadow.   Anglers are already scattered along the stream, eager to test the area’s most popular fishing spot. But I keep driving. While fish at this location are plentiful, I’m on the hunt for something elusive.

A canyon cutthroat stream in the Bighorns
A canyon cutthroat stream in the Bighorns

I turn onto a gravel road, then a rough two-track. The gentle heights of the Bighorns spill away in every direction, into seemingly bottomless canyons. I have heard of a stream that has true native cutthroat. I park on a ridge and head down. I’m startled by a blue grouse flushing into the shadowy fir trees. I descend over a thousand feet, mostly on loose scree.  The bottom feels like a different world. The stream is a wild jumble of car-sized boulders and fallen trees. I tightrope from one log to the next, coming to a nice run with an open casting lane. I let my foam beetle sail into the riffle. Out of the deep pool appears a golden apparition. The fish flexes into my 4wt, and after a few attempted escapes, lays gasping in my hand. I feel as though I am touching the veil between past and present.  

Bighorn gold
Bighorn gold

Thousands of years ago, prehistoric families camped in the canyon mouth of Medicine Creek, dining on cutthroat and whitefish, leaving their remains for archaeologists to discover. During the fateful summer of 1876, General Crook’s troops caught hundreds of big cutthroats along Goose Creek while Custer met his end. The Bighorns are the farthest northeastern extent of cutthroat trout. Sometime during the Pleistocene, they worked their way down the Yellowstone River, then up many of its tributaries. The Little Horn, Tongue River, Shell Creek, most streams on both sides of the Bighorns were once teeming with them.  

Historic distribution of cutthroats in the Bighorns
Historic distribution of cutthroats in the Bighorns

It’s the same story all over the American West. Europeans came, soon followed by milk cans full of brook trout, browns, and rainbows. They were dumped into any stream or lake possible. This invasion continued through the early days of fisheries management until cutthroats were all but eliminated. Today, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is tasked with bringing them back.  Unfortunately, there’s not many places left to put them.  Below the mountains, streams rapidly become too warm due to irrigation diversions.  High in the mountains, the water is too cold.  

Sampling a small cutthroat stream on the east side of the Bighorns
Sampling a small cutthroat stream on the east side of the Bighorns.

Sometimes biologists can expand existing populations by simply moving fish above a waterfall or into a nearby drainage. It’s often necessary to kill off invasive fish first with the chemical rotenone. In the Bighorns, Yellowstone cutthroats are reared at the Ten Sleep Hatchery, then released into some streams.  

Hiking down a Bighorn stream in search of cutthroats
Hiking down a Bighorn stream in search of cutthroats.

Oftentimes, these streams were historically fishless. They’re chosen because a large waterfall, cave system, or a landslide prevents other fish species from returning.  While these populations are important for preserving cutthroats on the landscape, they do lack something.

There’s magic in pulling a descendant of those Ice Age pioneers from a clear canyon cascade–to hold a life in your hand that has been one with its environment for millennia.  Relict populations often look different than hatchery fish too, developing their own epigenetic characteristics after centuries of isolation.

A relict cutthroat from the west slope of the Bighorns.
A relict cutthroat from the west slope of the Bighorns.

Bighorn cutthroats occupy only a minuscule portion of their historic range. Some will say that preserving them is a waste of time and money.  After all, there are plenty of other fish to catch. The value of Yellowstone cutthroat lies not in their utility, but in their place on the land. Like elk, bison, and bighorn sheep, they simply belong. They were here before any human. We should not be the cause of their demise.  

Angling thin water on an east slope cutthroat stream
Angling thin water on an east slope cutthroat stream.

On the east side of the mountains, Wyoming Game and Fish, in partnership with a benevolent landowner, Trout Unlimited, and others are currently completing a restoration project on West Pass Creek. Non-native trout were removed and a spillway was installed, forming a permanent barrier to other salmonids. The current cutthroat population will be able to expand into the largest connected system in the Bighorns.  

Despite conservation efforts, some relict populations are just too small, too hard to access, or too overrun by invasives. To me, these fish are like stopping to watch a fall sunset. They are too beautiful to not see before they are gone.  

The Gates of Mordor
The Gates of Mordor

I pour over maps, pester fisheries biologists, and listen for rumors.  I find myself in places with no signs of human passing.  On such a morning, I trudge in wet boots into the mouth of a canyon that looks like the gates of Mordor.  Crouching in thick brush, I fire a bow and arrow cast into the dark recesses below a small waterfall.  I smile as my line comes tight to a vigorous fighter.  I bring the cutthroat to my hand.  Its tail is sparsely decorated with large spots, and its bronze flanks are tinged with delicate pink.  A brilliant crimson slash shines in the dim canyon light.  I quickly return the fish to its pool.  It will have its hands full competing with the invading brook trout.  I call the morning a success at one fish and head back to the truck.  I got the magic I came for.

A Yellowstone cutthroat from the southern Bighorns.
A Yellowstone cutthroat from the southern Bighorns.

Josh Tatman is an adventurer from northern Wyoming.  Follow him @slim_tatman on Instagram.  

Josh Tatum

Want to help? Donate to: Little Big Horn Chapter of Trout Unlimited PO Box 886, Sheridan, Wyoming 82801.

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