Sunday Classic / The Toughest Water in Wyoming

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

“How was your day?” asked the guy at the fly shop counter.

“Well,” I answered, “I fished the toughest water in Wyoming.”

Everyone rolled their eyes. This was exactly the response I expected. Working at a fly shop in Jackson hole, I imagine, you get to listen to more than a few boastful dumb asses. When I told them where I’d spent the day, they all laughed and agreed, I’d fished the toughest water in Wyoming. See if you can figure out what happened?

It was 2003 and my wife and I were camping on the Greys river for a week or so. In those days, Kathy and I used to spend the entire month of August living like Bedouins, somewhere far from Atlanta, GA. On even numbered years, when the salmon runs are bigger, we’d go to Alaska and on odd years we’d roam around Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. We lived out of whatever Subaru we were driving at the time and slept in a tent and bathed with stream water. Kathy would make pancakes over a fire and sketch or hike while I fished. A month away from the city was enough to make you feel human again.

I’m not sure when Wyoming started its cut slam program but it was around that time when I became aware of it. The idea was to catch all four of the native Wyoming cutthroat species in their natural drainage and get a certificate. The program was intended to raise awareness of the native fish and it did just that. Although I didn’t care about the paperwork, it sounded fun and I’d never caught a Bonneville Cutthroat so I did a little research and made a plan.

I already had my Yellowstone and Snake River cuts for the trip with photos to document so all I needed were the Bonneville and Colorado River cuts for the flush. Both species were available in a nearby drainage. Well, it looked nearby on the map. In reality the trip to LaBarge creek via the Greys River Road is a long haul on some rough dirt roads past where the Greys bubbles out of the ground but that’s the point of an adventure, right.

Of the four cutthroat, the Colorado River was the rarest. So rare that in 1999 there was a partition to add it to the endangered species list. LaBarge creek was reportedly one of the only places you could find them. My plan was to fish LaBarge in the morning, get my CRC then hit another little stream in the area that held Bonnies. I should have my cut slam in the bag by afternoon.

Coming to LaBarge from the Greys river side you arrive at the headwaters. It’s a tiny little thing. What we call a ‘step over’ at home. Lots of moose grass to push through and not much water for your trouble. I’ve done a lot of that kind of fishing back in the southeast so I was confident that it wouldn’t be long before I was watching feisty little trout trounce my dry fly.

I drifted my fly through a few tasty runs with no luck and continued to work upstream. After an hour without a fish I decided to check the map. I was definitely on LaBarge Creek. “I must be too far upstream,” I thought, “Fish numbers will be higher where there’s more water.” I stuck my rod through the back hatch and headed down stream.

Once the creek opened up a bit I stopped and gave it another shot. I fished several more hours without seeing a fish. By this point I was pulling out all my best stealth tactics. Crawling into position on my belly and shooting bow and arrow casts out from under moose grass. Watching runs for a long time looking for signs of life. Nothing, I headed further down stream.

I found a beautiful meadow stretch. Bend after bend with undercut banks, deep pools and plenty of cover. It was a three-hundred yard hike through thick moose grass well over my head just to get into the stream. I fished it meticulously. I changed flies. Dries, nymphs, small streamers, nothing got even a look. It was about three o’clock in the afternoon and I hadn’t seen so much as a sucker.

I could see the road well enough to see a forest service pickup stop and an officer get out to head my way. It was going to be a pain to get out of there but I knew better than to make a fish and game officer tromp through a quarter mile of moose grass to see my license. If he was dead set on it, the smart thing was to meet him half way. When we got about fifty yards from each other he climbed up on a little rise where I could see him, cupped his hands around his mouth like a cheerleader and shouted,

“Catch anything?”

“I haven’t even seen a fish!” I shouted as I fumbled for my license.

“Good!” he replied, “We poisoned the whole drainage a couple of days ago.”

When I reached the truck he explained that I’d stumbled into the largest stream restoration project in Wyoming history. To eradicate nonnative species that were out competing or hybridizing with the CRCs a barrier had been constructed downstream and LaBarge Creek, along with its tributaries had been poisoned with rodinal.

“It’ll be years before we can reintroduce the native cutthroat,” the officer told me. “First we have to be sure all the invasive species are gone and then it’ll take time for the insect life and forage species to come back.” “I was terrified that you were going to tell be you’d caught a big brown and we’d have to start the whole thing over.”

The restoration of LaBarge Creek was finished in 2007 and I understand it was a great success. The Colorado River Cutthroat has been replanted in the drainage and is once again, home alone. I haven’t gone back to fish it, and I never finished my cut slam but I’m happy to know that, thanks to the hard work of the folks at Wyoming Fish and Game, a special native fish has gotten a second chance.

You can talk for as long as you like about Flat Creek or wherever you got your ass handed to you. I’m proud to say I got skunked on the toughest water in Wyoming. It was worth it.



Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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7 thoughts on “Sunday Classic / The Toughest Water in Wyoming

  1. Too funny!
    Wife and I did our Cutt Slam in 2010 and repeated it last year in 2016. We have taken the Greys River road a couple of times over that pass. Even in 2010 we also got skunked on LarBarge but not as tough as you had it 🙂 . Just seemed to be one of those days fishing there. Ended up finding out Colorado cutt on both forks of the Cottonwood creek drainage. Thanks for the memories,
    Marty and Pat

  2. I live about 2 hours from the fish barrier in labarge creek. It is still some of the tougher waters I’ve fished. I’ve put,in 2 full days in the past few years with only looks and no success. I ended up finishing my cuttslam further south along the Colorado border for the CRC. My brother got his on labarge creek, nice one too. It was about 14″ or so. Beautiful area there. Awesome read. Thanks.

  3. That is truly a funny story, glad the G&F guy came along or you might STILL be there!
    My son and I did the CS in 2012 and followed the same path up the Greys and set up camp on LaBarge Creek above some beaver ponds where there were plenty of fish rising to an evening hatch. My son quickly rigged up and had his ColoCutty in hand and photographed in no time while i was getting a fire going and making dinner. I decided to wait until morning and ended up busting tail through the heavy willows to get to the “good runs” only to come up empty handed. Finally i swallowed my pride, went back to the beaver ponds tied on a 22 zebra nymph and a foam pinch float to get the job done. 5″ CCTT in hand is still a CCTT! 😉

  4. Good story. First of all, streams are poisoned with rotenone, not rodinal. Second, I think you meant to write “petition”, not partition.

  5. LaBarge Creek used t be one of the best fisheries in Wyoming before they poisoned it. You could catch browns, rainbows, cutts, butt-bows and brook over 20 inches. It was one of those situations that made you feel like it literally couldn’t have been any better.

    I haven’t been back in 15 years, but I’ve heard many reports like the ones above – no fish. Sad that such a beautiful fishery had to be ruined. The creek just hasn’t recovered and it sounds like it never will.

  6. Pingback: “I Fished the Toughest Water in Wyoming” – Joes Outdoors

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