In 2019, I reported seeing light at the end of a long, dark tunnel regarding the recovery of Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake.
I reported catching several year-classes of cutthroats for the first time in nearly a decade and I promised yearly updates to my unofficial and non-scientific findings.
In 2019, the lake trout suppression efforts and estimated angling success were responsible for the removal of close to 300,000 lake trout from Yellowstone Lake. The National Park Service (NPS) reported that the lake trout population was diminishing and efforts not only to net them but also target and kill their embryos on spawning beds is significantly adding to the success of this ongoing program.
Mature lake trout can eat 40 or more cutthroat trout in a year, and it is believed that they will eat fish up to 75 percent of their own size. If the NPS and its commercial partners are able to concentrate on removing larger, mature lake trout and killing embryos on spawning beds, that one-two punch should continue to reduce overall lake trout numbers. The result would eventually be more Yellowstone cutthroat for the bears, eagles, osprey, otters, and anglers.
Here are the 2020 Allphin findings:
Between the fourth and eleventh of July, we caught an average of 25 cutthroat trout averaging just over 21 inches for every lake trout (averaging 18 inches) caught in five-hour periods each morning. We caught these fish between Mary’s Bay and Sand Point in the Fishing Bridge and Bridge Bay areas of the lake.
We also caught fish each day in the 10 to 14-inch class as well as a few fish from 23 to 26-inches in length. I was fascinated to note that lake trout were schooling and would move in and out of areas holding cutthroats and would strike the same lures in roughly the same depths as the cutthroats.
I charted exactly where we caught the lake trout and found that with the exception of one 26-incher, all the lake trout were caught in specific areas between 10 and 20 feet deep.
The method we used to determine this was very unscientific but effective. My Lowrance fish finders showed us the numbers of fish under the boat when we caught cutthroats, and when significantly more fish showed up on the finders, we began catching lake trout. Over the course of the week, we were able to predict when and where the lake trout would bite.
Every lake trout we caught, cleaned, and ate were very healthy fish. They were filled with black leaches, their obvious food of choice. For the first time in a decade, no cutthroats were found in their stomachs, even though in previous years, we found as many as three cutthroats in the stomachs of lake trout no more than 24 inches long.
If the remaining lake trout find more opportunities to eat other aquatic life besides cutthroats, they might just be able to coexist long term.
We found that (like the good old days in the 1980s) each time we caught fish by slow trolling our (barbless) Jake’s Spin-A-Lures and Kamloopers in reds and yellows, we could stop, cast and retrieve our lures, and catch several additional fish rather than being forced to continue to troll. All the fish we caught seemed healthy, fat, and focused on eating. We caught fish from the moment we started until the time we decided to end our excursions each day.
The cutthroats of Yellowstone Lake are definitely on the rebound, but as the NPS reports, at present, the overall population is still only at an estimated 10 percent of historic population peaks from historic data.
They seem to be taking baby steps towards recovery and we (my family and I) are just thrilled to be able to catch, care for, and release these wonderful trout in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
In next week’s Part No. 3 of my Yellowstone series, I will dig a little deeper into methods of catching these wonderful trout.