In July of 2012, I was selected to join Chris Hunt and Kirk Deeter of Trout Unlimited, Rebecca Garlock, Bruce Smithhammer, Steve Zakur, and several representatives of Simms, The National Park Service, and The Yellowstone Park Foundation in a tour of Yellowstone. We were directly involved in removal of the invasive lake trout from Yellowstone Lake, stream study on Soda Butte Creek, and stream recovery on Specimen Creek. This is the third of a six part series recounting my adventures. This was my first trip to Yellowstone.
In part two, we saw how involved and messy gill netting for the small lakers can be. But what about the big boys? What about the mature adult that is actively reproducing? Obviously the whole gill netting thing will not work on a fish that size. So instead of the spider web analogy, lets switch over to the corn maze. Easy to get into one…not so easy to get out.
What happens is this. A huge live trap net is set in the lake. This massive enclosure has a series of extensions on it that are like long hallways. Hallways that are hundreds of feet long. Big guys swim in, hang out, can’t find the exit. And then the men on the boat go to work.
This is where the action really picks up. We left the gill net boat feeling pretty satisfied with what we had just participated in, but we literally had no idea as to the massive undertaking necessary to get rid of the Lakers. Yellowstone Lake is big and very deep which is perfect for Lake Trout. They are literally in Laker Valhalla in this majestic body of water, and they do get big.
The crew starts out by retrieving the net. I never quite figured out if the net was stationary and we were moving or vise versa, but either way, we were in for the surprise of our lives when the catch started revealing itself.
There are some fish that get caught in the net, but most are still alive when the crew started hoisting it aboard. But the big show was the huge net enclosure that held numbers of biblical proportions. The sheer number of big fish was astounding. To compare what we were seeing to the 167,000 plus that had been retrieved up to that point just blows your mind. I caught myself looking out at the lake an just trying to grasp just how many leviathans were swimming in those waters.
In the picture below you see a tub full of dead Lake Trout. To get an idea of how large these fish were, the box they are in was about two and a half feet by twenty inches by two feet. Just about every fish we brought to the boat would be grip and grin status.
There were several tubs stationed at the rear of the boat. By the time our work was done. Every tub would be full. It bears mentioning again that this operation is taking place, every day for at least ten hours per day.
Tracking devices are placed in some of the Lakers. The use of these trackers is to identify movement of the fish throughout the lake. Listening stations placed in various locations in the lake will monitor movement of the fish as they go about their day. The hope is to positively identify spawning locations so that they can begin the arduous task of killing eggs. There is still an ongoing discussion as to how they could best accomplish this. Everything from UV rays to a vacuum system has been brought to the table. The Park Service, Trout Unlimited, and The Yellowstone Park Foundation are actively pursuing their options with a hope to tackle this next battlefield soon. The telemetry study was started in August of last year. 141 tags and 40 receivers were implemented. As of this writing, there are 221 tags and 55 recievers on and in Yellowstone Lake. This is not a cheap undertaking either. Trout Unlimited purchased 153 tags at a cost of 85,000 dollars and the National Park Service purchased 68 tags at a cost of 25,000 dollars.
And yes, some of the Cutthroat are caught. Here is the statistics as best as I can recall. In a day when we caught probably close to 1,000 trout. I only saw two Cutthroat dead at the gill net boat, and I think there were maybe five live Cutties on the live net boat.
The large holding net is brought to the side of the boat and there are literally hundreds of fish swimming around. A long net is used, and you simply lean over and scoop up a net full of fish. It is really quite amazing. And keep in mind that you are scooping netfulls of 20″-30″ fish. Exhilarating to say the least. There were a couple that were to big to fit into the net. You would scoop through the holding net, get the bruisers head in it, and that would be all that would fit. That is when the crew stepped in and gilled them to the boat.
After the fish are caught. They are cut, identified as male of female, and the air bladder is ruptured. A lot were full of eggs. Thousands of eggs. This is the point when it all started coming together for me. We caught and killed a multitude of these fish, but if you also take into consideration how many eggs we removed form the life cycle of the species in this lake, the numbers were staggering. I really felt like I had done something that was good, worthwhile, and important. Important to more than just the Cutthroat. It was important to the total ecosystem of the park. And that is a very good thing.
Though Lake Trout are a very good food source, and plentiful, these fish are not put into the food market. My thought was that they could be used to feed the homeless, needy, mobile meals, but the logistics and cost of doing this are just not feasible at this time. So much would be involved in trying to get this idea off the ground, and the amount of money it would require prohibit it.
So we left that afternoon feeling very good about what we had done. The conversation among us was like that of a team after winning the big game. We recounted the events, smiled, shook our heads in disbelief, and made our way north to the Lamar Valley.
*Photos by Rebecca Garlock, Chris Hunt, Steve Zakur, and Marc Payne