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The decline of the native cutthroat trouts of the US West was caused by overharvest of the fish and habitat destruction by early American settlers, and the artificial introduction of competing non-native trout to replace them. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) put a brake on this degradation, but it is only now, a quarter-century later, that "bringing back the natives" has become a top priority in federal land management policy.
According to recent speeches by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, our public land agencies will henceforth give special emphasis to restoration of native species and their habitat. This finally gives a decade of rhetoric about "ecosystem management" some real meaning. With the new federal policy, angler interest in cutthroats is now blossoming. In this and subsequent articles, we’ll take a look at the history, status and catchability of these fish.
Secretary Babbitt’s favorite endangered species success story is the comeback of Colorado’s native greenback cutthroats. The greenbacks, whose original range covered the Rocky Mountains’ eastern slope from Wyoming to New Mexico, were thought to be extinct in the 1930s. But a few small populations held out in remote high-country streams, to be rediscovered in the 1960s and 1970s by Dr. Robert Behnke, author of the great series on natives for Trout magazine and a godfather of the ESA. Today these fish are once again secure, and can be fished for, on a catch-and-release basis, in about 40 Front Range streams and lakes.
Following the greenbacks’ ESA listing, an interagency recovery team led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service began restoring new populations from eggs of the 2,000 or so wild fish known to exist in 1973. The project was so successful that the greenback was soon downlisted from "endangered" to "threatened." It became the official Colorado state fish in 1994, and is now very close to "delisting" altogether. This requires 20 self-reproducing populations in each of its two major drainages, the South Platte and the Arkansas, with the Arkansas still one or two populations short.
Greenbacks are the most easterly of all cutthroats, evolving over two million years from Pacific salmon, steelhead and coastal cutthroats, which migrated up the Columbia/Snake River system to Yellowstone and the Green/Colorado River system. Sometime during the most recent Ice Age (10,000 to 20,000 years ago) these ancestor fish somehow managed to cross over the Continental Divide to eastern Colorado – probably by way of mudslides or ice dams – and evolved in isolation thereafter to become a distinct sub-species. But after just a few decades of wholesale slaughter by Colorado pioneers, they were mostly wiped out. Their destruction became virtually complete with the introduction of fish hatcheries and competing exotic trout like brooks, rainbows and browns.
Of all trout species, greenbacks are one of the prettiest. Their spots are larger than any other cutthroats, and their spawning colors more brilliant. They are mistakenly thought of as the smallest cutthroat, mainly because their habitat until recently was limited to tiny alpine brooks with short growing seasons. But early settlers in Denver reported catching them in the five-pound class, and in experimental low-elevation ponds within their native range, they can grow as large as eight to 10 pounds. They’re also not so gullible and easy to catch as once thought either. They are more opportunistic and aggressive feeders than non-natives, perhaps, but they are also faster and quicker to spit the hook. If in fact they’re easier to catch, that can’t be all bad.
The best spots to fish for greenbacks are in the upper South Platte basin in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), where a majority of the early restoration projects were completed. Park lakes where the fish can be caught-and-released include Upper, Middle and Lower Hutcheson, Pear, Ouzel, Sandbeach, Fern, Odessa, Spruce, Loomis, Dream, Lilly, Lawn, Big Crystal, Lost, Husted and Louise. Fishable stream populations in the park include Cony, Ouzel, Fern and Hidden Valley creeks, the Roaring River above Fall River, and the North Fork of the Big Thompson River above Lost Falls. Outside the park in Arapaho National Forest, the list includes Bard, Cornelius and George creeks. Adjacent Roosevelt National Forest features Sheep Creek and Zimmerman Reservoir.
On your first time out for greenbacks, it might be wise to employ a guide. A strong supporter of greenback recovery has long been Dale Darling, who owns the St. Vrain Angler shops in Longmont (*) and Westminster (*), as well as The Estes Angler in Estes Park (*), gateway to RMNP. Along with head guide Bob Zuellig, Darling has been giving free slide shows about the fish for years. I recommend them for their knowledge, commitment and convenience to the fishery.
A choice lodging venue in the area is Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch near Loveland (*), just a half-hour from RMNP. Lodge owner David Jessup is committed to rehabilitating an exclusive pond for greenbacks by next year, and is a private-sector role model in expanding opportunities for catching larger specimens at more accessible, lower-elevation locations. He also runs a fine resort operation. The ranch gives you an excellent base for exploring the park area, not to mention gourmet meals, horseback riding, spring-fed trophy ponds and private stretches of the Big Thompson River.
In the Arkansas drainage, opportunities to catch greenbacks are concentrated in Pike National Forest and the Mt. Massive Wilderness area above Leadville, including Virginia, Timberline, Rainbow, Native and Swamp lakes, and Lake Fork and Rock creeks. Except for Rock Creek, just a mile above the Leadville Fish Hatchery parking lot, most of these headwaters are a two or three-hour hike in, and would be recommended only for the fit and exceptionally interested, perhaps as an adjunct to a multi-day trip to the broader region.
If you’re passing through Colorado Springs, your best bet is to visit the US Army base at Ft. Carson (*). The base played a major role in greenback restoration by dedicating several spring-fed ponds for experimental low-elevation recovery projects. Permits to fish most ponds are very restricted, but Townsend Pond holds a population of 2,000 to 3,000 greenbacks from 10 to 18 inches and is open to non-resident visitors who take a safety briefing (call for dates) and pay a $10 fee. For greenback-knowledgeable fishing support in southern Colorado generally, contact Angler’s Covey in Colorado Springs (*) or Royal Gorge Anglers in Canon City (*). – Hugh Gardner.
(Editor Note: Angling Report contributing editor Hugh Gardner is also a leader in the greenback restoration effort. He discovered the sixth known aboriginal population of the fish in 1990. His TV documentary, "Incredible Journey of the Greenback Cutthroats," recently won nine awards at the 1997 International Wildlife Film Festival. VHS copies of the production, and 11" X 17" art prints of the fish by renowned fish illustrator Joseph Tomelleri, are available for $16.95 each postpaid from Borderline Productions.)