The Trout of Lewis & Clark
June 14, 2019
More than 200 years ago, the Corps of Discovery encountered waters filled with a curious trout. Here's where the cutthroats of yesteryear still thrive today.
In 1803, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked on a Homer-esque journey to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase Territory at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson.
The Corps of Discovery was to penetrate this vast piece of uncharted real estate and seek passage to the Pacific Ocean by way of the Missouri River, all on a reported $2,500 budget. The team would encounter many new wonders, including the cutthroat trout, a species until then scientifically unknown.
On the trail into the unknown, the exploratory team fed themselves with buffalo, elk, deer, pronghorn and bear meat, but also fish. Fishing was also pursued as recreation during the early stages of the journey, despite the more pressing matters of exploration, scientific collection and survival.
Most noted of the team’s fishermen was Private Silas Goodrich, whose angling prowess often kept the Corps’ fed when meat became scarce during various periods of the expedition.
Goodrich’s fishing skills are mentioned throughout the journals of various expedition members. Lewis, too, apparently found great pleasure in fishing, no doubt an escape from the expedition’s heavy responsibilities, as well as procuring scientific specimens. The explorers had with them no fancy tackle, only horse-hair line and hooks.
But it wasn’t until an advanced scouting party reached the Missouri’s Great Falls on June 1805 that reports of “large trout” (16 to 23 inches) appear. Catches before then had consisted of smallmouth bass, freshwater drum, catfish and northern pike, with sauger and goldeye appearing by the second summer moving upstream. Lewis described these trout as resembling “… our mountain or speckled [brook] trout in form and in the position of their fins, but the specks on these are of a deep black instead of the red or gold color of those common to the United States. These are furnished long sharp teeth on the pallet and tongue and have generally a small dash of red on each side behind the front ventral fins; the flesh is of a pale yellowish red, or when in good order, a rose red.”
As the Corps pressed further into the Rockies, Lewis’ recreational fishing became less frequent, although trout (and later steelhead and salmon) became an increasingly significant food source, as big-game became scarce. A short excursion into the Lemhi Valley of Idaho in August 1805 revealed steelhead and salmon, Clark believing the Pacific was not far away. He would soon be advised by Shoshone Chief Cameahwait that the Salmon River, of which the Lemhi River was a tributary, was labeled the “River of No Return” and not navigable. A short sortie confirmed this and the Corps’ returned to Montana.
In Montana, the team reached the Bitterroot River, another Pacific-bound water. They discovered more cutthroats, but no salmon. Lewis correctly deduced the existence of a major downstream barrier and, recalling the month-long trial portaging around the Missouri’s Great Falls (and with winter advancing), wisely abandoned that possibility. Acting on advice from Chief Cameahwait the team pushed through Lolo Pass on the Montana-Idaho border. Here, in the headwaters of the Lochsa River, in present-day Idaho, the Corps encountered still more cutthroats.
All of the trout encountered during the Corps of Discovery were Westslope cutthroats, Oncorhynchus clarkii lewisi.
TODAY’S WESTSLOPE CUTTHROATS
Today, anglers continue to fish the rivers traveled by Lewis and Clark, discovering the wonders of the American West. But progress has been unkind to the cutthroat Lewis and Clark discovered two centuries ago. In many of the rivers the Corps’ traveled, cutthroats no longer exist. Logging, livestock grazing and irrigation took their toll on water degradation.
Perhaps the greatest impact was visited by the introduction of non-native trout species. This aspect is most pronounced in Montana, especially along the waters traversed by Lewis and Clark. Anglers might still catch trout below the Missouri’s Great Falls, for instance, but today those trout will be browns and rainbows, and not cutthroats.
The Westslope cutthroat is one of two subspecies of native cutthroat found in Montana, but the path taken by the Corps along the Missouri River bypassed Yellowstone cutthroat waters emptying into the Missouri father west. The Westslope’s historical range included all of Montana west of the Continental Divide, as well as the upper Missouri River drainage. Today the average size of these fish is 6 to 16 inches, depending on habitat. They rarely exceed 18 inches — unlike those trout first discovered at Great Falls. Westslope cutts also inhabit nearly all of northern Idaho’s Panhandle region through which the Corps of Discovery traversed, with Snake River cutthroats (a close relative of the Yellowstone) inhabiting waters in southeastern Idaho.
To catch Lewis and Clark’s trout you will be required to, like the Corps of Discovery, take the path less beaten — although many of the waters they traversed still hold some numbers of the original natives.
As mentioned, introduced trout species have had the largest effect on native cutthroats in Montana. You might catch Lewis and Clark’s trout in “destination” Big Sky waters — the Blackfoot River near Missoula, Bitterroot River near Hamilton and even renowned Rock Creek — but the Westslopes you seek will be far outnumbered by rainbows and browns, hybridized cutbows, with brookies and native (and endangered) bull trout tossed into the mix.
To reliably catch Westslope cutthroat trout near the Corps of Discovery’s original route, you will have to take the time to access higher headwaters of the Bitterroot River above Hamilton, but, again, these trout will share these waters with introduced species.
The east and west forks of the Bitterroot are likely the most accessible — the East Fork cutts discovered near Conner and Sula; the West Fork cutts found above Conner near the West Fork Ranger Station. Lolo Creek is easily accessed along U.S. Highway 12, although much of it runs through private lands. Blodgett Creek is worthwhile, found near the Blodgett Camp Ground above Hamilton. Big Creek might offer the opportunity for the greatest number of pure Westslopes, reached by turning west on U.S. Highway 93 at Bell Crossing out of Hamilton, north on Meridian Road, west at Curlew Crossing Road and continuing to Curlew Mine Road. Montana’s stream-access laws allow access to the water at public access points and wading up and downstream beneath the established high-water mark.
To catch pure Montana Westslope cutthroat trout today you will have to leave the Lewis and Clark trail and travel north into the Mission Valley area of northwestern Montana. All the upper forks of the Flathead River produce excellent fishing, although the best of these remains, perhaps, the South Fork of the Flathead River. The South Fork begins deep in the heart of the 1.5-million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness south of Glacier National Park. Access is fair, including dozens of easily-accessible trailheads. From here, things become more strenuous, whether hiring an outfitter to pack-string you in or backpacking. Either way, the effort is well rewarded.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has instituted strict possession regulations (three fish — including cutthroats, rainbows and grayling — and none longer than 12 inches) that help produce respectable fish size. Fishing pressure becomes lighter the farther from trailheads you travel. These trout are anything but picky, willingly taking any reasonable fly pattern, with large foam terrestrials favorites.
Meadow Creek Pack Bridge, found after crossing Hungry Horse Reservoir Dam, is the most obvious access point. Float trips are popular, with rafts packed into the wilderness atop horses or mules. For shorter day trips, Meadow Creek Pack Bridge downstream to Spotted Bear Footbridge is all catch-and-release fishing with artificial lures. Weather in the region, even in summer months, can be chilly, and remember, this is grizzly country, so take proper precautions.
Cutthroat populations are much better in Idaho, as non-native species were not introduced into most major waterways. Finding Westslopes along Lewis and Clark’s path to the Pacific is also easy, most notably along the Lochsa River below Lolo Pass, the North Fork of the Clearwater River and Kelly Creek tributary.
The Lochsa is easily accessed, following U.S. Highway 12 between Powell Ranger Station and Lowell. Vehicle pullouts are located up and down the river, and these waters are full of pure Westslope cutts. If you catch a rainbow trout, it is a juvenile steelhead gaining strength and size before heading to the Pacific. The upper reaches of the Lochsa, above Wilderness Gateway, are catch-and-release zones with artificial lures and flies only, and generally offer the most consistent success.
Highway access means the Lochsa receives its share of angling pressure, even in the catch-and-release area, but some 70-plus miles of river help spread fisherman out. There is always room for everyone. These trout also migrate up- and downstream, according to water temperatures, so if the spot you choose isn’t producing, move to find where trout are concentrated on that given day. Like cutthroats everywhere, these trout aren’t particularly fussy (although more so than other area cutts) — caddis, stonefly and terrestrial patterns are usually the best summertime baits.
The North Fork and Kelly Creek, north of Weippe, weren’t waters Lewis and Clark visited. But it is conceivable someone from the expedition wandered out from Weippe, where the Corps made first contact with the Nez Perce tribe and were saved from starvation after their arduous journey across the Bitterroot Mountains.
The North Fork and Kelly Creek, combined, constitute more than 75 miles of prime cutthroat waters easily accessed via a maintained gravel road. During prime summer months, it’s usually best to avoid weekends, as regional outdoors types ascend to the area to escape the heat of lower valleys and traffic increases substantially. There is plenty of room for everyone, but mid-week any week during the season can provide relative solitude. Kelly Creek — designated as catch-and-release, artificial-lures/flies only — have become somewhat of an area destination spot and garner generally more attention than the lower North Fork.
Kelly Creek trout can prove a touch more particular, due to increased fishing pressure, although they never become as educated as an Eastern brown. Westslopes are always looking up, so dry flies actually provide an advantage. Anything resembling a caddis is typically best, although there are opportunities to match the hatch with mayfly, stonefly and midge patterns. On the brawling North Fork, foam-laden terrestrials remain afloat longer on rough waters and attract larger trout.
It might be inferred that cutthroat trout saved the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but that wouldn’t exactly be true.
No doubt, trout supplemented the expedition when game became scarce, but the Shoshone’s gifts of salmon certainly played more of a factor when Lewis and Clark’s men were nearly starving.
But that makes these trout no less important, especially for those who pursue them to nourish souls starved of wild places and true tranquility.