Native Trout on Public Lands and Waters




In February 2020, I met BHA’s chapter leaders and regional staff at the chapter's annual meeting near my home in Boise, Idaho.

That was the first time I met Ace Hess, the Idaho and Nevada BHA chapter coordinator. Shortly after meeting Hess, he asked about my current projects and interests. At that time, my pursuit of the Western Native Trout Challenge was still a lofty pipedream driven largely by my own angling inexperience, curiosity and dissatisfaction at my soul-sucking, full-time job.

“Well ... what’s your favorite native trout?” Hess asked me with a bit of a smirk. While this test was not conspicuous, it was refreshingly stimulating. Finally, I might get to work with someone with a pulse.

“That’s a tough question, but I’d have to say westslope cutthroat trout,” I responded. “It’s not necessarily about the fish, but in my opinion, westslopes live in the most beautiful places in the world. They’d have to be my favorite if only because they live in my favorite places.”

By that, I meant the densely forested and largely undeveloped interiors of Idaho and western Montana. Hess nodded in unspoken agreement as if my words were music to his ears.
More than nine months and 23,000 miles of travel later, having completed the Western Native Trout Challenge – catching and releasing each of the 20 native trout and char species and subspecies of the western 12 states of the United States – the concept and importance of place and place-based conservation is clearer than ever.

Reflecting on this life-changing journey, the concepts of public lands and waters and the opportunity to access those lands and waters – key pillars of BHA – are responsible for some of the most valuable lessons of my trip. And I can see that two rules I set for myself from the outset did much more than just refine my experience.

Rule #1: No professional assistance

To be clear, this isn’t a slight on the guiding and outfitting community. I have a number of friends and colleagues who are guides. They offer an invaluable service soaked in experience and context. But, for the purpose of this specific project, I felt it was best to explore the experience of the average person and eliminate as many barriers to entry as possible.

Rob Parkins is BHA’s public access coordinator (former). Parkins doesn’t have kids, so, if you see him out there in the field or on the water near his home in Eastern Idaho, buy him a cold one because he’s probably tired from working to ensure future generations have access to America’s public lands and waters – even if they aren’t his.

“Without clean water, and access to that clean water,” Parkins said, “there is no fishing … there is no opportunity for engagement … there’s no pull to advocacy.”

Parkins’ words rang loud and clear in states like Nevada, Wyoming and Utah, where public access lies at the center of the native trout experience.

“Without clean water, and access to that clean water,” Parkins said, “there is no fishing … there is no opportunity for engagement … there’s no pull to advocacy.”

In Nevada, home of the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout, streams that once held salmon all the way from the Columbia River basin are now choked off due to privatization and resource extraction that has Lahontans largely isolated into small headwater systems. As I traveled from north of Reno, where I’d stood on a ladder pitching and stripping streamers in the snow to the largest cutthroat in the world at the now Instagram-famous Pyramid Lake, to fish for the high desert mountain stream form of Lahontans, exiled to their respective headwater refuges, I saw a bit of the path unfolding before me. All was not as it seems regarding the native trout of potentially the world’s mecca of fly fishing.

This feeling returned upon my landing back in Idaho from Alaska, where I immediately set out to begin the Mountain West leg of my journey. It was my goal in each of these states to successfully complete their respective “slams” (i.e., programs to benefit conservation where you catch each of the native gamefish species and subspecies of the state). Considering Wyoming and Utah are both border states to my home, I thought it was important to fulfill the contextually dense experience of the Wyoming Cutt Slam and the Utah Cutthroat Slam.

In southern Wyoming and then again in Utah, I experienced first-hand the access issues and careful planning it takes to pursue the native trout species of the region. In Wyoming, driving a single track road in the remote red rock desert, I became acutely aware of the checkerboarded and often difficult to navigate public lands and waters inhabited by the Colorado River cutthroat, often described as the West’s most beautiful cutthroat subspecies. It was also in Wyoming, near the Tri-Basin divide within the Bridger-Teton National Forest, where three rivers flow into three separate drainages – each containing a distinct strain of cutthroat trout – where I felt an understanding of a West I had never been forced to know – one that is profoundly and inherently connected.

Parkins stated that Montana, where I pursued the iconic Yellowstone cutthroat trout along the shores of the mighty Yellowstone River, could be a future battleground state. Once considered the gold standard of stream access law, future access to fishing for famed species such as the Yellowstone cutthroat, westslope cutthroat and Arctic grayling could be restricted due to increasing bureaucratic support for privatization of access to natural resources.

In an attempt to understand more of the reasons people would resist or discourage access to public lands and waters, I asked Parkins about issues that frequently – and understandably – surface regarding their impacts to public lands.



“It’s important to remember that (things such as) overcrowding are mainly social issues,” Parkins said. “Largely [speaking on stewardship], I feel that education is key. Increased signage could go a long way towards educating the public. Think about it: How many [public land users] check out the information kiosk at the trailhead or gather at the signage at the boat ramp?”

I took Parkins’ commentary to mean that public access not only allows the community to engage with the environment but also serves as a sort of forced portal to education – a gateway that could celebrate what currently is and, if carefully curated, could guide us into the future.

Speaking of that future, it was in New Mexico, in pursuit of Rio Grande cutthroat trout high in the Carson National Forest, where I fully embraced the humbling notion that access and public lands does not mean exclusive use or prioritization of recreation. Public lands are for the people, all of the people. In order to connect communities as well as waterways, I would need to embrace being more than “the trout guy.”

I had left home a naive but very curious fly fisherman. I had set out to “do it myself” in order to reach and enable more anglers, especially communities that have historically not been socially or geographically connected to public lands and waters. As altruistic as my intentions were from the outset, the reality quickly set in that I wasn’t doing this by myself at all; I was doing it in places we all share and are all responsible for.


Rule #2: Catch all native species on public lands within their native habitat range

While they are key to our anthropocentric fishing experiences, the West’s public lands and waters hold more value to native trout than just as mechanisms for our access and recreation.

“Public lands are the last, best hope for native trout and salmon in the face of climate change. In fact, 70% of the remaining habitat for native trout in the West is found on public lands,” said Corey Fisher, public lands policy director for Trout Unlimited.

“Public lands are the last, best hope for native trout and salmon in the face of climate change. In fact, 70% of the remaining habitat for native trout in the West is found on public lands,” said Corey Fisher, public lands policy director for Trout Unlimited. “Protecting and restoring public lands means that we are protecting and restoring the sources of cold, clean water that are important today and critical in the future for trout and salmon populations to be resilient as we experience longer periods of drought, increased wildfires and warming stream temperatures.”

Utilizing Western Native Trout Initiative “Fish Maps” that clearly show native trout habitats, I was able to curate missions into the brush to encounter native species – of which robust populations exist only within cold, clean and undeveloped waters.

Such is the case for the westslope cutthroat and the redband trout in Idaho, as well as myriad species in the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska – including Dolly Varden and coastal cutthroat trout.

In Idaho, westslope cutthroat trout historically inhabited the largest range of any of the native trout of the West. Thankfully, they still do enjoy the most prolific range largely thanks to the protections offered by federally managed lands at the headwaters of major waterways, as well as careful management by state agencies like Idaho Fish and Game.
Due to wildfires, I was unable to access a number of “highlight-reel” fishing spots in central Idaho, but that untimely complication also forced me to recognize that native species flourish in abundance where undeveloped lands abound. In my initial failures to catch bull trout in Oregon and then in Idaho along tributaries of the Salmon River, I became very familiar with the beauty and abundance of the often misidentified, abundant but largely undervalued westslope cutthroat trout and Columbia-Basin-lineage interior redband trout.

In addition to salmon and steelhead, the Tongass National Forest, the single largest national forest in the United States, is home to a number of native trout and char species. Ripping wet flies through chromed-out Dollys patrolling the saltwater shore feeding on salmon smolt and then again in swollen coastal streams north of Juneau, I reaped the benefits of the Tongass’ largely intact 9.5-million acre roadless zone, which hosts some of the most crucial habitat for iconic species anywhere in the world.

While in Alaska, I fished with a full-time fishing guide, former commercial fishing industry business owner turned conservationist who affectionately referred to Dolly Varden as “the people’s fish.” It wasn’t lost on me for one second that the people’s fish resides and flourishes within the people’s waters.

Having lived and worked there for a time, I must admit I have a somewhat complicated personal relationship with the state of California. That said, in retrospect, my time there in pursuit of its native species may speak louder than any other.

To my surprise, more than any other species, people asked me, “Where will you catch a golden trout?”

To which I would respond that I would be catching a California golden trout in the Kern River drainage – its (only) historical native habitat.

“Where’s that?” was the usual response.

High in the headwaters of the Kern River drainage, staring out at Mt. Whitney across the eastern Sierra Nevadas, I realized just how far and just how distant some of the most iconic and recognized native trout actually felt.

But they were there, and I was able to get there. Despite the 100-degree-plus temperatures and low waters, beautiful California golden trout spooked from my shadow as it appeared over a small, cool creek meandering across a high alpine meadow.

Crouching, I made an uncharacteristically effective 30-foot cast into the wind. Almost instantly upon landing softly on the water, a beautiful golden body with a bright red belly launched itself from the pool to take my fly.

As I reeled in the fish, I thought about where I was. In California, much like the rest of the United States, communities come in flocks to enjoy public lands. Within those public lands, native trout species – regularly referred to as the proverbial canaries in the coal mine regarding the health of complete ecosystems – are being pushed to the edge.

Releasing that Califonia golden trout, I saw my friend (not an angler) watching studiously from the opposing bank. He had a radiant smile on his face as we watched the fish swim away.

It had taken a lot of work, a lot of research, a lot of kindness from strangers and no shortage of good fortune, but ... what a fish. What an experience.

In case you’re still saying to yourself, “Yes, but why are native trout important, anyway?” I can only assure you I don’t have the space in these pages to articulate all the reasons I subjectively believe and why science objective shows you they are crucial.

But what I can assure you is that when you go, you’ll know.

All we need to do is guarantee these places remain pristine and accessible – these beautiful public lands and waters that are homes and highways to the iconic native trout and char of the West ... for what remarkable fish they are and what life-changing experiences the search for them holds.


BHA member Daniel Ritz is based in Boise, where he works as the communications and outreach coordinator for the Idaho Wildlife Federation – advocating for the conservation of Idaho’s fish and wildlife, habitat and outdoor heritage. He runs a bird dog named Trout and has a cat named Julio. You can read more of his work at


This article first appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Backcountry Journal. Join BHA to get 4 print issues a year right in your mailbox. 

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