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Did you know there is a war raging in the middle of one of our greatest national parks, and it’s been going on for over a decade, with no end in sight? That war is being waged on an invasive species of fish, the lake trout, in Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone National Park. In fact, the National Park Service has removed 4.3 million lake trout in Yellowstone Lake in the past two decades.
Contracted by the National Park Service at an expense of $2-3 million a year, a crew of 20 – 30 people operate six gillnetting vessels and run 40-50 miles of net in the lake every day from the ice-off in Spring to the end of the season in mid-October. They catch, kill, and sink the fish to the bottom of the deep areas of the lake, adding to the available biomass and putting nutrients back into the lake. 4.3 million fish caught, killed, and sunk to the bottom of a lake in a national park, that’s a lot to digest… let’s back up.
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Earlier this summer I took the family to Yellowstone National Park for our annual vacation. Even though I had been all around the park during my travels, at 43 years old, it was my first visit inside. When planning the trip, to my surprise, I learned that fishing was permitted in the park, with strict rules and regulations. Now, I’m more of a hunter than fisherman, but how did I not know this? According to the National Park Service about 50,000 of the park’s four million visitors fish each year. (Take notice, if you download the 28-page document ‘Fishing Regulations 2023’ available via the link above, page 1 has a bear warning. While the fishing experience has the potential to be phenomenal, don’t forget that you’re sharing the land and streams with a formidable North American apex predator, the grizzly bear.)
The National Park Service requires anyone over the age of 16 to purchase a Yellowstone National Park fishing permit, which are offered in 3-day, 7-day, and annual terms. While mostly fly-fishing anglers occupy the rivers and streams, one is allowed to use a spinning reel to throw an approved lure. No organic baits (fish, fish parts, eggs, insects, etc.) or inorganic baits (plastics, rubber) are permitted, so leave the bobber and worms at home. The same goes for scented attractants (e.g., Berkley PowerBait), felt-soled footgear, and lead tackle. Only barbless hooks are permitted and the number of hooks on a lure is also regulated. In native trout conservation areas, non-native fish must be killed if caught and it is illegal to release them alive. Recreational anglers account for roughly 5% of the annual lake trout harvest. The lion’s share, 95%, is by the contracted commercial outfit.
I also learned that the Bridge Bay Marina at Yellowstone Lake runs guided fishing trips on 20’ Grady White boats that accommodate 1-5 people, that range from 2-hour to 12-hour excursions that operate from early-June to mid-September. All fishing tackle and rods are included, making it a very family-friendly activity. Just be on time, board the boat, enjoy the fantastic scenery, and get ready to reel. Part of what makes this experience unique is the crisp cool air on a summer morning under blue skies, spent cruising across the largest lake in North America above 7,000 feet, with very few other boats in sight.
My wife and two daughters, ages 5 and 7, and I checked-in at the dock at 7:45 AM. It was the first trip of the day for our guide Elija, who expected to have 1-2 later in the day. While you can make a reservation, as I did, according to Elija, the marina commonly has availability for walk-ins that are looking for a guided fishing trip. Soon after 8:00 AM, after donning life jackets for the kids and taking a quick picture in front of the boat at the dock, we slipped quietly out of the marina and into the main channel of the lake. The glass surface transitioned gradually into 1’-2’ waves as we motored at 32 knots for the next few minutes to arrive at our fishing destination.
Given the time of the year, Elija was having success at this spot trolling in the cooler water at a depth of 25-30 feet and a speed of 1.9 – 2.3 knots per hour. Elija is a seasonal worker in the park, like nearly all others. He is from Arkansas and spends the summer fishing every day in the park, either guiding clients, or standing in a stream casting flies at cutthroat trout on his days off. It’s a gig I wish I had known about in my college days.
Yellowstone Lake is a massive lake sitting at 7,732 feet with a max depth of 394 feet. At a volume of 3.568 cubic miles and with a surface area of 132 square miles, it’s hard to believe that it only contains two large species of fish, the native cutthroat trout, and the invasive lake trout.
While the origin of introduction is unconfirmed, the first verifiable lake trout was caught in Yellowstone Lake in 1994 by a fishing boat guide out with their client. The most common theory of introduction is an illegal introduction of the species from nearby Lewis or Shoshone lakes, perhaps by an angler. While the method is unconfirmed, microchemistry examined from some of the early harvested lake trout in Yellowstone Lake revealed that they came from Lewis Lake. Some, with controversy, speculate they were actively introduced by the National Park Service. The U.S. Fishing Commission (dissolved June 30, 1940 – becoming part of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service) actively introduced lake trout to Lewis and Shoshone lakes in the 1890’s from Lake Michigan, over 100 years earlier. One theory is that a water-hauling aircraft unknowingly grabbed the fish out of the Lewis and Shoshone lakes when firefighting the 1988 wildfires that burned near the Yellowstone Lake tributaries. Another, non-intentional introduction theory, is the possibility of hitchhiking eggs through terrestrial or avian vectors, such as furry mammals, moist reptiles, and large footed waterfowl. Current Yellowstone Chief Fisheries Biologist, Todd Koel, suggested another alternative whereby lake trout were washed out of Jackson Lake Dam in Grand Teton National Park, and made an 80-mile journey that took them through the “Parting of the Waters” over the continental divide. Regardless of the origin, the National Park Service observed a precipitous decline in the cutthroat trout population over the first decade of lake trout introduction.
Before the introduction of lake trout, the cutthroat trout population was estimated at 3.5 – 4 million. At the end of the first decade after the lake trout introduction that number had fallen 90% to an estimated 400,000. That’s bad news on economic, social, and ecological fronts. Historically, Yellowstone Lake has been a premiere cutthroat trout fishery, and the fish is an iconic representation of the aquatic wildlife in the park. Here’s where it gets interesting, the ecological aspect. Since cutthroat trout traverse through the park’s rivers and streams and are not confined to the deeper waters of Yellowstone Lake, like the lake trout, there is a literal downstream ecological effect. An estimated 40 species in the park, including the bald eagle, river otter and grizzly bear depend on the native cutthroat trout as part of their diet. In 2013, a study was done by the Royal Society that suggested a link between increased elk calf predation by grizzly bears to the decrease of the cutthroat trout population. There are even “Lake Trout Kill Elk” bumper stickers floating around in Jackson Hole, WY.
If it’s not obvious by now, the concern of the National Park Service, and other non-profit wildlife conservation organizations, is that the elimination of the cutthroat trout population from Yellowstone Lake would forever change the ecology of America’s 1st and arguably greatest national park, in ways that we don’t know for certain, but reasonably assume to be detrimental.
Lake trout are voracious predators, living more than 25 years and growing to more than 50 lbs. About 30% of a mature lake trout’s diet is cutthroat trout, with the ability to consume a fish up to 55% of their size. To compound the problem, a mature female lake trout can lay up to 20,000 eggs per year. The lake trout can outlive, outbreed, outgrow, and consume mature native cutthroat trout. If left to their own devices, they would decimate the cutthroat population from Yellowstone Lake.
|Lake Trout(Salvelinus namaycush)
|Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout(Oncorhynchus clarkii bouvieri)
|> 25 Years
|8 – 9 Years
|6 – 7 Years
|2 – 3 Years
|Average Egg Production of Mature Female
|2,000 – 20,000 per Year
|200 – 4,000 per Year
|> 50 lbs.
|> 5 lbs.
|Deep lakes greater than 50 feet.
|Clean, cold mountain streams and rivers with a moderate gradient.
About 15 minutes after Elija dropped the lines and started trolling, we got our first hit. Very subtle, not even enough to detach the line from the downrigger clip, which Elija said was common. Our guide handed the rod to me and my 7-year-old daughter. I helped her guide the fish to Elija’s waiting net off the stern of the boat. It was a beautiful 14”, 1.5 lbs. lake trout. One for the bucket.
After two hours of fishing and helping both of my daughters land the fish, we caught two lake trout and three cutthroat trout. We took a few quick pictures with the cutthroat, revived them, and then released them unharmed back to the clear, cool waters of Yellowstone Lake. That morning, I was after lake trout for the dinner table that night. The restaurant at the Yellowstone Lake Hotel will store the fish during the day and prepare them for you that evening. Reflecting on the morning, I was happy when we landed a lake trout, as we secured our meal, and a bit disappointed when we landed a cutthroat. I couldn’t help but notice our guide was most excited to land the cutthroat. While I respect and appreciate the beauty and legacy of the cutthroat, as well as the conservation efforts, I just don’t get very excited about catch and release.
The first cutthroat we caught was a trophy. 24” and in the neighborhood of 5lbs. Anglers travel far and wide to Yellowstone each year just to have the opportunity to catch a fish of this caliber. A magnificent specimen that many anglers would document and recreate to proudly hang above their office desk.
In an age where sustainably sourced food is an openly discussed concept, I couldn’t help but wonder why the National Park Service is sinking hundreds of thousands of lake trout to the bottom of Yellowstone Lake each year instead of providing them as dinner fare for the 4 million annual visitors to the park, especially when several restaurants already have trout dishes on the dinner menu. The answer lies primarily in the method of removal, gillnetting. Gillnets are walls of netting that hang in the water column, typically made of monofilament (fishing line). The size of the mesh allows the fish to get its head through, but not its body. When the fish attempts to back out, its gills get caught in the next. Gillnets kill indiscriminately, which is why they are considered unethical in some circles, tightly regulated, and outright illegal in many salt and fresh United States waters over environmental concerns. They catch and kill everything, including unintended harvest, threatened and endangered species, which can have a detrimental impact to the ecosystem and restoration efforts. They work in Yellowstone Lake due to the unique ecology of the lake and its inhabitants, placed at depths that only the target lake trout inhabit, with minimal impact to the cutthroat trout. By the time the gillnets are checked, most of the lake trout have been dead for days and are unsuitable for human consumption. That’s too bad, because the meal the restaurant prepared for my family that night was one of the best tasting trout dinners that I’ve enjoyed. (Trout Meuniere: Wine-Poached Potato, Haricot Verts, Brown Butter & Lemon Sauce). They could even get the tourists in on the conversation efforts by highlighting the chance to eat the invasive lake trout to help save the native cutthroat and surrounding wildlife, and raise awareness of the war that is unfolding daily beneath the surface of Yellowstone Lake.
Over two decades later, who is winning the war?
While the National Park Service expects they will never completely remove lake trout from Yellowstone Lake, the goal is to crash the population sufficiently for the cutthroat trout to recover its population level. For simplicity, let’s measure success by looking at two factors, declining lake trout population and simultaneously increasing cutthroat trout population. Admittedly, there is a lot of nuance that I’m overlooking for simplicity, that I’ll leave for the fish and wildlife biologists. Lake trout population models estimate an 86% decline since their peak in 2011. Since 2012, adult spawning-age, mature cutthroat trout-eating laker numbers are declining, and 2-year-old fish now dominate the catch. That’s good news pointing to a decline of lake trout population.
As for the cutthroat trout, all indications are that the population is steadily recovering from its low in the early 2000’s. Aquatic migrations in the surrounding streams and spawning fish in the tributaries are increasing. A 300% increase in juvenile fish in Lake Yellowstone was reported, and anglers are experiencing a higher catch rate of cutthroat trout. This is good news for the cutthroat trout and the 40 species that rely on it as a food source.
Next time you’re in Yellowstone National Park, consider booking a trip at the Bridge Bay Marina to help remove the invasive lake trout from Yellowstone Lake, and satisfy your hunger for a tasty meal. In all honesty, it’s a great family activity. The National Park Service still has a long fight ahead. When I was at the marina on August 6th, the number 153,200 was written on a whiteboard outside the office, indicating how many lake trout had been removed this season. That number will swell over 200,000 and likely near 300,000 before the season is over. The question begs itself, if there wasn’t a possibility of catching lake trout and keeping the harvest, would one book the guided fishing trip to only pursue catch and release cutthroat trout? I’m not sure of my answer. Author Steven Rinella likes to talk about the theoretical possibility of waving a magic wand to immediately and permanently remove all of an invasive species from the landscape, such as feral hogs or wild horses. Evidence suggests that the National Park Service is doing the right thing when it comes to lake trout removal and cutthroat trout recovery. Many anglers love lake trout…they’re just in the wrong place in this instance. I’m sure that there are groups of people out there with a mindset that would hesitate to wave that wand. They would welcome the opportunity to catch a lake trout in Yellowstone Lake while ensuring a healthy cutthroat trout population was stable and adequately participating in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Kind of a “have your trout and eat it too” scenario.
Looking for lake trout recipes? Why not try this Vietnamese-style Lake Trout Salad?