One June evening exactly 200 years ago, a young private in the U.S. Army baited a hook tied to a willow stick and tossed it into one of the largest waterfalls on earth.
The line went taut under the strength of a 2-pound flash of living silver. The soldier took in the line, hand over hand, until he lifted the flopping fish ashore. The private killed his catch, baited the hook and cast again, and before dark he had six of the most beautiful trout he had ever seen. That evening, he treated his captain to the fish, fried in corn meal, cooked over a fire.
"Sumptuous!" declared the captain.
The cascades were the Great Falls of the Missouri. The private was Silas Goodrich. His boss was Captain Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame. Lewis logged the fishing trip for history in the expedition journals. From a scientific perspective, the westslope cutthroat trout was thus "discovered."
Today, scientists call the fish Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi — the Lewis and Clark trout. It is the state fish of both Idaho and Montana. Yet today, the Great Falls of the Missouri are entombed in concrete, and an angler can cast there until his arm wears out and never land a cutthroat trout.
The westslope cutthroat is an uncommon beauty, silver-green in the flanks and spotted like a cheetah, with its namesake slashes of red under its chin. Its name makes it sound ruthless, but in fact the fish is a mild-mannered soul, content to nibble on the larvae of water bugs and snatch the occasional mosquito from the air.
Besides being sumptuous, the cutthroat trout is the perfect fish for kids, for beginning anglers, or for anglers like me who seem to be hopelessly lost in a backwater. You don’t need fancy waders and gear from Orvis to land a cutthroat trout. A pair of cutoffs, sneakers that can get wet and a rod from Kmart will do.
To be honest, the westslope cutthroat is a gullible cuss, easy to catch, which is part of its allure and partly the cause of its demise. Many populations have simply been fished out.
I caught my first westslope cutt as a Tenderfoot Boy Scout, fishing the Little North Fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho. An older buddy taught me how to make a stringer out of a willow branch, and we caught as many trout as our troop could eat. Years later, another westslope cutthroat was my first fish on a fly on the North Fork of the Flathead in Montana. I let that one go, as if to atone for all the cutts I had whacked the years before.
Waters that support westslope cutthroat share common characteristics; they tend to be cold and clear, pouring out of some of the most pristine mountains left in this great nation. Westslope cutts need their water so clear you can see through it, and so cold it makes your feet ache.
Cutthroat trout need to be left alone: Most of the fiddling we humans do with rivers means death for them. Too much silt, not enough shade, too many hooves and cow droppings, all will ruin their habitat or give a fatal edge to exotic competitors like the eastern brook and rainbow trout. In Idaho and Montana, westslope cutthroats have been reduced by perhaps 65 percent of their original range, and nearly all of the remaining ones have been mixed with hatchery fish.
One of the best things we can do to conserve westslope cutthroat trout is to protect natural, undeveloped watersheds. In Idaho, for example, 83 percent of "strong" cutthroat populations are in undeveloped forests, without roads. The benefits of conserving cutthroats are twofold: We get pure water along with good fishing.
Across the United States, Americans are celebrating the Lewis and Clark Expedition Bicentennial. The past 200 years have been hard on the Lewis and Clark trout. We Americans have not done our job, have not been using these fish wisely. We have trashed too many of their streams.
It strikes me as sadly ironic that on the 200th anniversary of their "discovery" by the Corps of Discovery, the Bush administration is set on rolling back the protections of the roadless national forests that are the best hope for this humble, beautiful fish. A better way to honor American history is to make sure the fish are around for another 200 years.