Travels and Trips

Toeing the Line

Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout

Scott’s 15″ YCT.


Based on my recent aversion to fishing (see previous blog entry for explanation), I was a bit happy when Dan called me up Tuesday morning and said that he wouldn’t be able to do our two day trip to the Little Lost in search of bull trout. Yeah! But we could go for a day of toeing the Utah/Idaho border and fishing both sides all day Wednesday instead, he said. Uh…yeah, sure, I agreed. I figured I could toe the line of sanity for one day.

The huge, dry bowl known as the Great Basin (or Basin and Range) comprises around 185,000 square miles (for comparison, Great Britain and the rest of the UK are about half the size at 95,000 square miles). It covers more than half of Utah, nearly all of Nevada, a swath of Oregon and a chunk of California. It drains much of the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas on the west, a smidgen of the Cascades to the north and the Wasatch Mountains to the east. It is host to 14, 505’ Mount Whitney (the highest peak in the contiguous US) and 85 miles away the lowest point, Death Valley, 282 feet below sea level.

In a land of such extremes, life in the Great Basin can be tenuous at best. As early white settlers moved into the Basin they quickly tapped any available water resources. Because of this, today, intact natural watersheds within the basin are basically nonexistent. This has left the Basin’s only trout species, the cutthroat trout, toeing a perilous line in willow-choked headwaters and cattle-ravaged drainages.

On the other side of much of the northern divide of the Great Basin is the Columbia River Basin’s eastern section, the Snake River Plain, home to redband trout and several subspecies of cutthroat trout, predominantly the Yellowstone cutthroat along the southern edge of the Plain where it rubs against the Great Basin.

All of northern Utah, with the exception of a toenail’s worth, is within the Great Basin and was historically home to Bonneville cutthroat (our usual prey). That small piece of Utah not within the Basin is in the Snake River Plain. And it has a few Yellowstone cutthroat hiding out in small pockets of headwaters in tributaries that no longer make it to the Snake River. It was to a few of these headwaters in this little piece of the Basin and Range that Dan and I headed to last Wednesday.

It only took a few moments on the road to get the old fishing juices flowing. The air had that early morning chill you get in the summers in the high desert. 80 miles and an hour and a half after leaving my house, weaving our way across the invisible boundary between the Great Basin and the Columbia River Basin, brought us into Idaho and the southern edge of the Snake River Plain. We’ve had an unusually windy June, and there was some dust in the air, but we could still see about 100 miles across the Plain to the north where the white tips of the Sawtooth Mountains surrounding Sun Valley and the Big Lost River showed themselves.

Swinging our view to the south, we looked across the Utah border and into the Raft River Mountains that we hoped would hold the Yellowstone cutthroat. We made our way into a canyon, passed a handful of campers and parked along a little creek with clear-flowing water. My first fish was a little cuttbow hybrid and the rest were rainbow. Dan hooked into rainbow and brookies. We spent about 45 minutes fishing, but without any Yellowstone cutts, we were ready to move to a creek we knew had only Yellowstones.

abandoned cabinWe drove back into Idaho, then back into Utah. Worked our way past cattle that a few years before we had a little fun with. Saw abandoned cabins that I couldn’t help but wonder about the inhabitants who first settled there trying to “tame” the land. Farmers still work the soil, scratching out their stake in the sagebrush plains and hills and suck down every last drop of moisture they can find to do it. Dan made a few token casts on what used to be the largest tributary to the Snake River in that mountain range. The water was tepid as were the casts. We made our way over miles and miles of dusty dirt roads before finally making the turnoff to our destination.

When one of the first things you see on the road of your fishing place are cows, that is typically an omen of the crappy fishing to come. But crossing a culvert, I spied a fish surface feeding in the plunge pool below it. A good-sized fish for the rain-gutter-sized creek that held it. We stopped. Dan approached, but the road-savvy fish knew what was up and dropped to the bottom of the pool.

Most of the creek is open, flowing through grazing cattle. Occasionally it tumbles through small stands of small willows. About half of the basin it is in is fenced off, the private property protecting the headwaters. I have a hard time with huge swaths of land in the middle of national lands being fenced off for private ownership. But in this place, it probably saved the fish.

We pulled ahead of the culvert fifty feet, parked near a patch of coyote willow, and began to fish.

There are days, halcyon fishing days, that you remember with fondness for ages to come. Those days that I imagine an old man, when his joints and muscles keep him from fishing, can look back on to balm the body, mind and soul. Dan and I experienced that day as we plucked proportionally large  Yellowstone after Yellowstone from the little creek.

On those fortunate days of fishing, there is a time when things hang in the balance and you toe that line between satiation and gluttony. After a couple of hours, and 40 or so fish later, we decided to tube the rods and have lunch.

I had stashed a couple of bottles at the bottom of my cooler, covered in about four inches of ice. With such an incredible time fishing, I figured it was time to celebrate. Being the teetotalers we are, the bottles were nothing more than IBC root beer. But did they ever slake the thirst and tamp down the heat. As is our usual habit, we divvied whatever food we had potluck style (I contributed peanut butter and bread sans honey or jam because of my diet (see previous post), so Dan was a little bummed about that).

After eating our fill we made our way back to Idaho and headed for a little creek that promised more Yellowstone cutts.

We were at that point of the trip where we were a little giddy with our success, the sun and heat was working on us, and we were getting a little slaphappy. Dan is an ecclesiastical leader in the region’s predominate religion, so we have a lot of esoteric doctrinal discussions while we drive. I believe we were discussing the theological correlations of kingly coronations at the time (see this 1911 Britannica entry for some insight into what we may have been discussing).

It was then, in the middle of sagebrush, dirt roads and dust, that we saw ahead of us four silos. Not exactly silos, but stacks. Not just stacks, but those slightly flanged stacks you see on nuclear power plants. There were also a lot of small, fenced-in buildings dotting the landscape. It was taking on a funky Area 51 vibe.

I reached for my camera to snap a few shots, but my camera wouldn’t work. My brand new camera. It wouldn’t even turn on. Things were going Mulder on us quick. But we Scullyed back to earth when I realized that the battery was dead. One of the only problems I found in looking at reviews for the camera was that it went through batteries quick. So the night before I made sure I charged up the extra battery. And then promptly left it on the counter as I walked out the door.

A little while later we rolled past a sign that pointed back the way we had come that said “Geothermal Energy.” (link to the project here) It was a disappointing ending to toeing the X-Files line ever so briefly.

We topped off the gastrointestinal tank with pastrami sandwiches at a little market in Malta. Then we headed out to try Eightmile Creek. After spotting dozens of hawks (Swainson, Red-tailed and one I could swear was a rough-legged, but they don’t summer in the lower 48) all day, we finally saw a golden eagle. I say “finally” because Dan mentioned several times that he had seen a golden eagle once before on a trip like this. We also saw a family of pronghorns, some whitetail deer and coyote, but no cougar. Yet. It’s our hope (and fear) that one day, in one of those Podunk places we seem to visit, we’ll see our first cougar in the wild.

baby hawkWhen we finally made it to Eightmile, we hopped out of the truck and were immediately assaulted by two Red-tailed hawks. They screeched at us and circled us for a few minutes. We figured they must have a nest nearby, so we looked around. Sure enough, we had nearly parked under the tree that that had a nest with a baby hawk peering over the edge at us. As we hiked upriver, we spooked at least two more birds from creek.

It was a very small creek that had too steep a gradient to hold fish for the nearly mile we hiked it. Having damaged my ACL (see previous post), I was in no mood to continue hiking after having spent much of the day taxing the limits of my body already, so we returned to the truck and made our way to the final destination of the day.

Driving away a bit disappointed we couldn’t help but reflect on the day we’d had so far. Although it seemed like we struck out at Eightmile (which we did fishwise), after seeing so many animals, we couldn’t help but feel that it was a homerun anyhow.

Our last spot of the day was more of a “what-the-heck-let’s-give-it-a-try-anyhow” kind of place. We typically stalk native fish, but we’re not averse to swinging a fly in the direction of anything with fins. Sublett Reservoir has two small creeks feeding it that are supposed to contain Yellowstone cuts. However, I’ve found on small creeks that feed reservoirs that are stocked with non-natives, there is a high probability that the feeder creeks are going to be infiltrated with those non-natives. The reservoir has been stocked with browns and some warm water fish. Browns are not very good at toeing artificial lines, like reservoirs—if there is free passage past those lines, as is the case with Sublett, they’ll fin right past them.

Sublett Creek above the reservoir is a beautiful, spring creek looking water. It reminds me of Silver Creek with its clear water, fine-graveled bottom, and various aquatic plants creating channels.

I was feeling great about the day and didn’t need to fish anymore, so I had taken my waders off and was in my sandals. Dan was still in fish mode and his waders, so he jumped at the chance to catch a few more fish. I went ahead and took my rod to the water’s edge, but found that I was still about six feet from the actual water and had to stop because the ground was marshy. I tried to cast, but with only a sixteen inch corridor of water through the aquatic plants, I kept hanging up in the tules. Dan was hooking into some nice brownies, so I drove the truck upriver a hundred yards and let him get the last handful of fish out of his system.

We packed up and headed home with a very satisfying day behind us as the sun toed the horizon on the western edge of the Snake River Plain.

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7 comments for “Toeing the Line”

  1. looks like a fun little trip

    Posted by mike doughty | July 1, 2012, 8:07 am
  2. Very good story

    Posted by Joe D | July 4, 2012, 11:15 am
  3. Glad to see you back in the saddle and getting out. An email with a little more detail so I can pay those little creeks a visit would go a long way toward developing a long and lasting friendship. 🙂

    Posted by Robert | July 6, 2012, 8:48 am
  4. Been there. Loved it.

    Posted by Lance | August 30, 2012, 1:29 pm

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