Twenty-eight rugged miles north of the ranch you enter the Thorofare. This is one of the most remote areas of the lower 48 and the beginning of the Upper Yellowstone River watershed. Here, the mountains explode skyward on either side of the river as it flows toward Yellowstone Lake.
This land was once known as the best cutthroat trout fishery in the world. Today, it is the epicenter of an epic battle that will ultimately determine the fate of one of the purest strains of trout.
“Words cannot describe the beauty of this place and what it takes to get there,” said Jay Allen, a renowned fishing guide who has returned to the ranch. “But to make the journey and soak in the history and import of what is happening with this fishery is like no experience you’ve ever had.”
What Once Was
The Thorofare is the cutthroat trout’s highway as the fish travel from Yellowstone Lake upriver to spawn. Forty years ago, the Thorofare teemed with anglers who made the journey to see for themselves what it was like to cast their fly rods into the river and do battle with a native cutthroat trout.
Sometime in the mid-1980s lake trout were introduced to Yellowstone Lake. These ravenous fish, which can grow up to 40 pounds, decimated the cutthroat trout population with its insatiable appetite. The population of lake trout swelled from 130,000 in 1998 to 800,000 by 2012.
How the Wildfires of 1988 Affected Fish Populations
It wasn’t long after the introduction of the lake trout that Yellowstone National Park experienced a summer of wildfires that grew to historic proportions. The first fire began on June 14 with subsequent fires sparking into September.
The fires consumed 500,000 acres outside the park and another 740,000 inside the park. The debris left behind in the Thorofare washed into the Yellowstone River creating silt that badly disrupted the spawning ground of the cutthroat.
The growing population of trout lake and aftermath of the wildfires devasted the spawning rates of the cutthroat. Biologists counted more than 70,000 fish passing through Clear Creek on the way to spawn in 1978, which was the peak. That number was reduced to less than 600 by the mid-2000s.
Bringing Cutthroat Trout Back
For more than a decade now, biologists and fishing enthusiasts have been working to bring back the cutthroat. For years, commercial fisherman from the Great Lakes area have been hired to spend the summer catching and killing more than 300,000 lake trout each year.
The effort is starting to show results as the cutthroat are returning to the native spawning grounds.
See for Yourself
The healthier runs of the native have also meant a return of the fishery for anglers willing to make the trek to this hallowed ground. It’s not uncommon for many who are fly fishing to catch and release the natives to help the recovery effort.
We are lucky enough to be one of the few outfitters that have a permit to fish in the Thorofare. This is our most exclusive offering due to the rugged journey. Our third and final trip to the area has a few slots open. Allen, who oversees the fly-fishing program at the ranch, will be the lead guide for this rare adventure. If this is something you’d be interested in, we strongly encourage you to call as soon as possible to reserve your spot on this historic trip.