Images of the West: When All the Fish Were Natives

EARLY IN THE 19TH CENTURY, mountain men moved up the rivers of the Rocky Mountains trapping beaver. Soon they had caught everything within easy access, so they moved deeper into the wilderness. By the 1820s, trappers like Jim Bridger had penetrated the secluded area that was to become Yellowstone National Park.

Few trappers left written descriptions of what they saw, but one who did was Osborne Russell, who joined Bridger’s trapping brigade in the 1830s. Of the area around Yellowstone Lake, Russell said, “Game is plentiful and the river abounds with fish.” He also described Two Ocean Pass, a place where a stream that flowed out of the mountains “divided equally, one-half running west and the other east, bidding adieu to each other, one bound for the Pacific and the other for the Atlantic ocean. Here a trout of 12 inches in length may cross the mountains safely.”

Russell’s observation that a trout could cross the Continental Divide from a Snake River tributary to the Yellowstone drainage offered a potent explanation for the distribution of fish on the Yellowstone Plateau. While the Yellowstone River and Lake had an abundance of cutthroat trout, many other waters had no fish at all.

Early travelers thought heat and chemicals from geothermal features killed all the fish in nearly half the of the park’s waters, but by 1890, scientists had concluded that was wrong. The new explanation was that physical barriers kept most species of fish from migrating onto the Yellowstone Plateau. As rivers flowed off the hard lava rock that formed the plateau, they cut deep canyons and formed waterfalls. Fish couldn’t climb the falls, but persistent cutthroat trout apparently had crossed into the Yellowstone through the Two Ocean Pass.

Fish were abundant in other places and early travelers depended on them for food. They carried fishing tackle even when they had to travel light. David Folsom, who explored the Yellowstone area in 1869, had only two packhorses to carry supplies for three men on a six-week trip, but he listed tackle conspicuously among his equipment.

In most places, fish were so abundant that travelers could count on catching enough of them for a meal in a few minutes. One traveler, Ernest Ingersoll, described an evening stop like this: “If a stream that holds any promise is near, the rod is brought into requisition at once; and, if all goes well, by the time the cook is ready for them, there are enough fish for the crowd.”

Most early travelers weren’t fly fishermen. “Flies, as a general thing,” Ingersoll said, “are rather a delusion to the angler than a snare for the fish. We used to keep our eyes open all day, and pounce on every grasshopper we could find, saving them for the evening’s fishing.”

For decades, trappers and prospectors had described the wonders of the upper Yellowstone — towering waterfalls, deep canyons, spouting geysers and more — but most people discounted their reports as tall tales. Then the Washburn expedition of 1870 convinced people the reports were true. The expedition included prominent businessmen and government officials whose word could not be doubted. Several of them were skilled writers who published articles in Montana territorial newspapers describing what they had seen as soon as they got home. The news rapidly spread to national newspapers and magazines.

Washburn and his companions provided glowing descriptions of fishing in the area. The descriptions began on August 22, the first night after the group left Bozeman, and they continued throughout the trip.

Of all the expedition members, Cornelius Hedges wrote the most about fishing. Hedges fished at every opportunity, and his companions depended on him to keep their larder stocked.

The group ran low on food after they paused to search for Truman Everts, one of their members who had become lost east of Lake Yellowstone. Washburn organized parties to search for Everts, but he ordered Hedges to stay behind at Lake Yellowstone to stockpile fish. Hedges described his effort like this:

Proud of this tribute to my piscatory skill, I endeavored under some difficulties, to justify the expectations of my companions, and in about two hours, while the waves were comparatively quiet, I strewed the beach with about 50 beauties, not one of which would weight less than 2 pounds, while the average weight was about 3 pounds.

The party searched for Everts for several days while Hedges caught several hundred pounds of trout, which he dried for the remainder of the trip. When food supplies became critically low, the party abandoned their search and headed home. A rescuer dispatched from Helena finally found Everts nearly starved to death. He had been alone in the wilderness for 37 days.

Hedges was apparently the first person to describe cooking a live fish in a hot spring. He told the story like this:

… Catching sight of some expectant trout lying in easy reach, I solicited their attention to a transfixed grasshopper, and meeting an early and energetic response, I attempted to land my prize beyond the spring, but unfortunately for the fish, he escaped the hook to plunge into this boiling spring. As soon as possible, I relieved the agonized creature by throwing him out with my pole, and although his contortions were not fully ended, his skin came off and he had all the appearance of being boiled through. The incident, though excusable as an incident, was too shocking to repeat.

Apparently, many people didn’t share Hedges aversion to boiling fish alive. Dozens of park tourists described places where an angler could catch a fish and cook it in a hot spring without taking it off the hook. The most frequently mentioned spot is the Fishing Cone, a spring in the West Thumb Geyser Basin, but there were other places the feat could be performed.

In his 1883 travel guide, Henry J. Winser, described boiling fish on the hook on the Gardner River near Mammoth Hot Springs. Winser said he found a hot spring 15 feet from the river where he cast his fly and “tempted a trout to his doom.” He hoisted the fish out of the water and lowered it into the spring. Winser said, “This procedure was repeated several times, and each of the spectators who had purposely assembled to test the truth of the strange assertion, partook of the fish thus caught and boiled. It required from three to five minutes to thoroughly cook the victims of the experiment, and it was the general verdict that they only needed a little salt to make them quite palatable.”

Yellowstone Park’s second superintendent, Philetus Norris, used to demonstrate catching and cooking fish for tourists, but the practice was outlawed in 1929.

In the 1870s a curious conflict developed between residents of the territories that bordered Yellowstone Park and travelers from afar who visited the area to hunt and fish. Locals saw the bounteous fish and game as a resource to be harvested for profit, but the tourists wanted them preserved for sport.

After decimating the bison herds on the plains, hide hunters converged on the park and slaughtered elk by the thousands, leaving their carcasses to rot. Sport hunters condemned commercial hunting, but reserved their right to blast away at anything that moved. Locals countered that they were just trying to make a living and condemned killing “for fun.”

There was a similar conflict about fish. Commercial fishermen used spears, seines, nets and even dynamite to harvest fish for sale in nearby gold rush towns. The Secretary of Interior outlawed all methods of fishing in the park except hook and line in 1883, but commercial fishing apparently continued outside the park in places like Henry’s Lake until the 20th century.

The differing attitudes are illustrated in Jack Bean’s reminiscence describing the Hayden Expedition of 1872. Bean was a trapper, Indian fighter and commercial hunter, who hired on as a guide to the expedition. William Blackmore, a wealthy Englishman who had helped fund the expedition, was Hayden’s guest and an avid fisherman. Here’s how Bean described a day he went fishing at a small lake with “Sir Blackmore.”

You could see plenty of trout close to shore in the lake, but when he got to catching them he thought it would be wonderful if he caught one for each year he was old — 54. He soon caught the 54 and tried for 100, and was not long catching this and made a try for 54 more and kept fishing for another 100, and another 54.

As we had gotten two-thirds of the way around the lake by this time, I told him that I would quit as I had all the fish I could drag along on the grass, being 254. I dragged them into camp, which was close along the lake and wanted to make a little show of these fish.

Sir Blackmore, whenever he would see any bones would always ask, “How came those bones there?” I would tell him they were left by skin hunters in the winter. He thought that all skin hunters should be put in jail for such vandalism and I told him he would do the same if he were in this country for the winter.

So when I had shook all these fish off from the strings they made such a sight that I called Dr. Hayden’s attention to what Sir Blackmore would do if he had a chance. He colored up considerable and excused himself by saying, “The fish were so plenty it was a Godsend to catch some of them out.”

Shortly after Yellowstone Park was established in 1872, the army began mounting “inspection tours.” One of these luxurious trips was led by President U.S. Grant’s Secretary of War, General William Belknap, in 1875. Four other generals joined Belknap and crossed the country on the new transcontinental railroad. They rode in plush Pullman cars, smoking cigars, drinking whisky and telling stories. After arriving in Utah, they took in a special stagecoach that traveled at breakneck speed to Montana. Along the way, they were feted with banquets, parties and parades. In Bozeman, a Silver Coronet Band greeted them at the edge of town and escorted them through the city to Fort Ellis.

At the fort, each General got an orderly to take care of his every whim: packing his personal belongings, putting up his tent, rolling out his bed roll, digging his latrine and cleaning any fish he caught — all at army expense.

General W.E. Strong, who wrote a book about the tour, reveled in telling fishing stories like this one about his first catch in the park.

I threw my hook in the swift water, and down the stream it went like lightning, tossing about like a feather in the rapid. My reel whirled and spun like a buzz saw, the line went out so fast.

I never touched the reel to check the running line till 75 feet, at least, was in the water. Then I pressed my thumb firmly upon it and drew gently back the rod. At the same instant, something struck my hook that nearly carried me off my feet. I had to let go the reel to save the rod.

I had him securely hooked, but could I land him? That was the question. I gave him 25 or 30 feet more line — then checked again and tried to hold him — but it was no use, the rod bent nearly double, and I had to let him run.

My line was 150 feet in length, and I knew when it was all out, if the fish kept in the rapids, I should lose him. No tackle like mine could stand for a moment against the strength of such a fish as I had struck in such swift water.

I therefore continued to give him the line — but no faster than I was forced to. No more than 12 or 15 feet remained on the reel. Fortunately, for me, he turned to the left and was carried into an eddy, which swept him into more quiet water near the shore.

Twice in his straight run down the rapid current of the stream he leaped clear from the water. I saw he was immense — something double or triple the size of any trout I had ever caught. The excitement to me was greater than anything I had ever experienced.

No one but a trout fisherman can understand or appreciate the intense pleasure of a single run. I was crazy to kill and land him, and yet I knew the chances were against it. Again and again I reeled him within 25 or 30 feet of the rock. But he was game to the last, and would dart off with the same strength as when he first struck. I had to let him go.

Finally, he showed signs of exhaustion. I managed to get him to top the water, and then worked him in close to the shore. Flynn was waiting to take the line and throw him out, as I had no landing net. Flynn did it very well. When the trout was very near the bank and quiet, he lifted him out.

He was a fine specimen, and would weigh 4 pounds if he weighed an ounce. This trout was three times the size I had ever caught. At 4:30 o’clock I stopped fishing having landed 35 trout which would have run from 2½ to 4 pounds in weight — none less than 2½ pounds. 

In 1889, officials began planting fish in Yellowstone, including exotic species such as rainbow, brook, brown and lake trout. By 1955, more than 310 million native and non-native fish had been planted in Yellowstone waters.

The effort turned once-barren waters like the Firehole River into an anglers’ dream, but it also caused problems. Despite efforts to plan the process, inappropriate fish were introduced in many locations; even today biologists are still trying to restore and protect native species.

It’s clear from the reports of early travelers that fishing was great before the introduction of exotics. Perhaps someday it will be that way again.

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