“With reference to the qualities of trout, tastes differ greatly. In my judgment, the finest for the table are the black-spotted trout (Native Cutthroat), and they are undoubtedly the true angler’s favorite, being active and gamey. Brook trout rank next, they being of excellent flavor.”
Mr. E. M. Robinson 11/13/1889
Wild, naturally reproducing fish; feisty rainbows, solitary browns and colorful brook trout are a treat to catch, but they are not native Salmonid fish to the Rocky Mountains. The regional sub species of cutthroat trout and the mountain whitefish are the natives and were isolated by the repeated glacial periods in the late Plicone or early Pleistone epochs. The rest were stocked or their ancestors were stocked, they then reproduced and created wild fisheries. Why and how did this occur?
Neosho, the oldest operating Federal Fish Hatchery resides in the Ozark Mountains of southwest Missouri. Established in 1888, it still raises rainbow trout and endangered species such as, Ozark Cavefish, Pallid Sturgeon and freshwater Drumfish to disperse native Fat Bucket Mussel eggs. This is an unfair description of this hatchery’s superior mitigation and restoration work, but since I grew up in Colorado…
The same year, the US Fish Commissioner Colonel MacDonald was looking for a Rocky Mountain location to replenish the dwindling cold water fisheries used as a food source for the people evolved in the Colorado mining boom. A year later, in 1889, by the executive order of US President Benjamin Harrison and $15,000 appropriated by Congress, 30 stone masons built the Leadville, Colorado, Federal Fish Hatchery with native red sandstone. Newspaper articles of the early days reported it as “the most magnificent building in western Colorado.”
October 12, 1889, Leadville Daily and Evening Chronicle, Page 1. What Spangler Saw. The Editor of the Philadelphia Star Pays a Visit to Leadville and Evergreen Lakes – “A very general impression prevails that the streams of Colorado literally teem with game fish. Some of them do, and all of them once did; but the immense extent of mining operations in nearly every part of the state, the consequent pollution of many of the streams, the erection of saw mills, and the fact that there are not only great numbers of keen and expert native anglers out there, but that thousands of anglers from other states…. have all served to very materially lessen the number of fish. Colonel MacDonald, fully appreciating the situation, wisely concluded to establish a hatchery at this point, steps for the immediate erection of which have been taken.” The eastern editor continued later in his article, “It will perhaps be news to some readers to learn that Colorado has but one kind of valuable edible game fish-the trout. The mountain streams of the state, and practically there are no other, are admirably adapted to that fish, but no other American variety. The native trout can grow to a very large size, not unfrequently (sic) reaching six or seven pounds, but it has been found advisable to introduce our eastern mountain variety (Brook Trout). This has been done with great success. The newcomers thrive splendidly, seemingly better than in their native waters. A visit to Dr. Law’s fine fish ponds, which adjoin Evergreen lakes, completed our visit. The doctor is not only an enthusiastic and successful fish culturist, but enjoys the distinction of being the pioneer in the business in Colorado. His ponds were in perfect order and swarming with trout, evidence of which was given me, when a primitive rod and line was put in my hand, and in twenty minutes I had succeeded in landing sixteen very nice ones…”
Dr. John Law of Leadville was instrumental in convincing the Federal Government to establish a hatchery and donated eggs. He established his hatchery three years earlier. The raising of brook trout at the new hatchery began even before the completion of the main building. Eggs collected from trout from several of Dr Law’s high Colorado ponds were incubated in a temporary building.
November 13, 1889, Leadville Daily and Evening Chronicle, Page 1. The Spawning Season. “We have already secured 64,000 eggs,” remarked Mr. E. M. Robinson, of the government fish hatchery, yesterday afternoon, to this reporter.
“What species of trout are you securing the spawn from?”
“The pure eastern brook trout. When Commissioner McDonald made the agreement with Dr. Law, we selected a great many trout from the doctor’s different lakes and put them in a pond near his hatching house. It is those fish we are working upon now.”
“How many spawn do you expect to get this season?”
“Fully a million.”
“How many can you accommodate at the hatchery at present?”
“One million six hundred thousand, and if we were to use Dr. Law’s place, we could accommodate two million.”
“How will this station compare with others?”
“Our prospects are brighter for doing better work than any station on this continent, and at present we are doing more than any other. We have got a lovely place at Evergreen and everyone of us are in love with it. It may seem strange, but the temperature of the water has not varied since I have been there half a degree.”
“How long have you been in the fish culture business?”
“Since 1870 and I have been with the government since 1885, and visited a large number of stations. We all expected to suffer from cold here, but none of us so far have experienced any disadvantages from the weather. The New England coast is the place to suffer from cold.”
He also added, “With reference to the qualities of trout, tastes differ greatly. In my judgment, the finest for the table are the black-spotted trout (Native Cutthroat), and they are undoubtedly the true angler’s favorite, being active and gamey. Brook trout rank next, they being of excellent flavor.”
In July 1889, Professor David Starr Jordan and G. R. Fisher visited Twin Lakes, (Leadville) and published their discoveries in the 1891 Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission. They found both the greenback cutthroat and what they proclaimed to be a new species the “yellowfin cutthroat”. In his report Jordan took credit for the name and described the fish as follows: Color, silvery olive; a broad lemon yellow shade along the sides, lower fins bright golden yellow in life, no red anywhere except the deep red dash on each side of the throat.
The subspecies was scientifically named macdonaldi after the US Fish Commissioner, Marshall MacDonald. In 1903, rainbow trout were stocked in Twin Lakes. They interbred with the greenbacks creating “cutbows” and the yellow fin cutthroat became extinct.
Colonel R. E. Goodell of the U.S. Fish Commission was quoted saying on May 2, 1894, in the Leadville Daily and Evening Chronicle, Page 4, “It might be possible and has occurred, that an early male mountain trout (native cutthroat) fertilized the eggs of a late California (rainbow) trout, but the fish are apt to be barren. It is to this fact that the perpetuation of the various species of fish is undoubtedly due…”
In 1891 the Leadville hatchery began the first distribution of fingerling fish to lakes and streams in Colorado, South Dakota, and Nebraska. The journey was at times perilous. Trout were delivered in milk cans on wagons drawn by horse or mule teams. During the early 20th century, many fish traveled 1st class. Railroad cars especially designed for the health and well-being of the fish and their human handlers were travelling all over the United States. Today tanker trucks and even helicopters stock the fish.
The first von Behr brown trout were imported from Germany to the U.S. in 1883. The earliest documented brown trout in Colorado came via England in 1885, shipped as eggs to a Denver hatchery. In 1890, U.S. Senator Henry M. Teller received a gift of brown trout eggs from Loch Leven, Scotland and donated them to the state. During this same time, von Behr brown trout were being raised at the Leadville hatcheries. More than a century later, the reclusive brown trout trying to take an angler deep are a mixture of those strains from Germany, Scotland, and England. Fortunately, the brown trout carried the European immunity to whirling disease through generations and were the mainstay for Rocky Mountain wild fisheries at the turn of the 21st Century when the rainbow fishery populations crashed.
Early visitors to the Leadville hatchery were encouraged to learn about “fish farming,” have a picnic and hike the many trails at the new Federal facility. The same is true today. Sitting on over 3000 acres of sub alpine forest at 10,000 foot elevation, it juts into the Mount Massive Wilderness Area, with impressive views of the highest peaks in Colorado. The beautiful red, native sandstone building is still in operation. Ed Stege of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Leadville said, “Our current program consists of maintaining the captive greenback cutthroat broodstock, maintaining a Colorado River cutthroat broodstock (lineage green), and production rainbow trout (for stocking).” His co-worker Chris Kennedy reports during the past 126 years the hatchery has raised Snake River cutthroat, greenback cutthroat trout, yellowfin cutthroat trout, Colorado River cutthroat trout, Yellowstone cutthroat trout, brook trout, brown trout, rainbow trout, steelhead, golden trout, chinook salmon, grayling and lake trout.
Initially trout were raised for food and recreation because mining, agriculture, roads and human activity degraded the habitat to the point native trout were unable to reproduce. Introduced brook trout did too well and now overpopulate every nook and cranny of the Rocky Mountains and are stopped only by water fall natural barriers. Rainbows interbred with the cutthroats, diluted the genetics of some and caused the extinction of others. Brown trout saved fly fishing for more than a decade.
Colorado Parks & Wildlife, volunteers from local Trout Unlimited Chapters and concerned citizens are attempting to improve habitat and introduce pure sub species of native cutthroats to their historic ranges. Currently they inhabit a fraction of their original territory. In 2007 researchers discovered 750 pure strain native greenback cutthroats, the Colorado State Fish, in Bear Creek near Colorado Springs and are believed to be only ones left in the world. The captive broodstock reside in Leadville. Please volunteer locally to help this mitigation of all cutthroats succeed and be a gift to future generations of anglers.
Remember the overpopulated brook trout was introduced as a food source and directly competes with native cutthroats for habitat. So I suggest, catch and release the cutthroats and catch and eat the delicious brookies. And of course, enjoy our wild fisheries. Fishing is fun.