A couple bags of stale hot dog buns, a couple yellow plastic bottles of mustard, I spot a lonely bottle of orange juice in a nearly empty refrigerator and take it to the bar where a couple dirt farmers are starting the day off right. The bar, the attached gas station, ten acres with a dilapidated beer garden and a dozen derelict RV hookups within spitting distance of a fishing access. Half a million dollars.
“You interested?” The man behind the counter asked. I politely took a flyer, wondering how many folks under forty would make a go in a town of 75. No wi-fi.
I start out on the valley floor, figuring out unfamiliar access among a labyrinth of rough, cobbled BLM roads as lanky black steers stare blankly. I pick pockets between river-worn gray boulders, watching dark figures dart from them occasionally, hooking something orange-flanked- a brookie, probably, though maybe a cutthroat, that comes unbuttoned in the heavy flow. I tie on a small, heavy nymph and bomb it through deeper runs, looking for something. Anything.
Above the canyon, the river gathers tributaries from sterile, granitic bedrock. There were no fish until about a hundred-fifty years ago, when cowboys and miners packed and released fry and fingerlings as supplemental protein, brook trout as a sure bet against starvation.
Some feel that linkage with the past makes the nonnatives a touchstone of their western heritage. Others root for the underdogs, the cutthroats that have been mined and logged and stocked out of more than 90% of their native range, now mostly relegated to headwater streams where they’re competing with the same brookies and rainbows for food and resources. The range of some cutthroat subspecies are predicted to contract even further in the next few decades, from combined effects of climate change and invasive species. Where you shake out depends largely on where your sentiments lie, with the people or with the place.
I threaded that needle a decade ago, studying for the Graduate Record Examination, and watching a jug of milky white rotenone drip into a small headwater stream. We would mix the poison with sand and pack them the size of golfballs, tossing them in seeps and off-channel pools. The biologists joke brook trout can spawn in a bathtub or a five-gallon bucket, kidding on the square, and missing a couple adults or a backwater filled with fry undoes all the time and labor and expense.
Ten years on, I’m watching progress slash at a House & Lot as it bounces around boulders and spruce sweepers, bringing to hand brick-red cutthroat that’ll hopefully persist for subsequent generations to chase.