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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17 thoughts on “The Toughest Water in Wyoming

  1. Great read! I completed my Cutt Slam in 2011 on LaBarge Creek and you are not kidding about that being a bumpy, long road from the beginning of the Grey’s! I would say that the restoration of LaBarge Creek is a tremendous success! Thanks for taking me back, Kent!

  2. Thanks for pointing out a successful restoration story. There are many, many more restoration stories that are helping fisheries all across the country. I have been involved with the huge-scale restoration of the Clark Fork River, its tributaries, and Milltown Dam removal in Montana and have seen amazing results already both as a worker and fisherman. More good restoration stories please.

  3. It’s too bad that we were so impressed with the fact we could transplant fish species to places they weren’t native to that we never stopped to think about whether we should be doing it in the first place.

    It would have saved ourselves a lot of money, time and effort correcting these prior acts of hubris.

  4. Funny post…I also completed my Wyoming cutt slam on LaBarge Creek this past July. After unsuccessfully trying multiple small (but blown out) tributaries of the Upper Green for Colorado River cutts we drove all the south towards LaBarge Creek hoping to fish up South Piney Creek to the Tri-Basin Divide and then down LaBarge. After rigging up at the beginning of the public lands we went to South Piney only to find it charcoal grey, then we looked up canyon to see a large forest fire still smoldering. I don’t know how big the burn area was, but it extended all the way up to the Divide and over into the headwaters of LaBarge Creek. Water visibility was zero all the way down to the structure they built to keep non-native fish from getting into the section of LaBarge where the CO River cutts were reintroduced. Hours of fishing produced nothing and I was thinking we were going to be skunked for the day and the cutt slam. Luckily I thought to dredge the pour-over pool below the structure and within a short while we caught a couple of CO River cutts to redeem our day and goals for our trip.

    We took the WY cutt slam challenge and expanded to what we called the Decatchalon–just catch 10 species of salmonid that occur in WY. It took almost two weeks and lots of missteps and hiking until we finished the Decatchalon at Lily Lake east of Yellowstone catching grayling. 3-inch long grayling to be specific, which could only get their mouths around the smallest dry flys we had in our boxes. Elation was quickly followed by a keen sense of how absurd it was. I wouldn’t change a thing.

    One piece of advice for the WY cutt slam aspirant…the Tri-Basin Divide will get you into three of the four cutt species, even in just one day. I recommend staying for longer though as the Greys River was sublime and my friend caught an 18″ Bonneville cutt out of a shockingly small piece of water.

    Thanks for post Louis, I enjoyed thinking about that trip!


  5. That’s pretty cool you stumbled into that situation by chance. Hate that you got skunked, but at least you had a good excuse!

  6. I grew up on La Barge creek camping and fishing with the family in the late 60’s all through the 70’s and early 80’s….it’s where I learned to fly fish for Cutts on beaver ponds and for some rather large rainbows on the lower stretch in the bottoms through the ranchers property. Brookies were plentiful as well. I haven’t been there since 1993 and i’m glad to hear of the restoration process. I remember the oil exploration companies screwing up prime Muley habitat and disrupting the Elk migrations…someday I will return with my old fiberglass rod and martin reel and throw a Coachman to rising trout…

  7. I’m headed out to fish the greys this afternoon, not going g clear to Lafarge, but I’ll be in the fly fishing only section. I’ll let you know what’s happened

  8. great post Louis, always enjoy your work…always have

    Green R drainage also has CRCs. Bonnies are in Bear R drainage just north of Evanston

    man you are right about Greys R Rd…..

  9. The Greys River Road is a superhighway of Forest Roads for the first half. Sure it gets bumpy up top but I’ve driven roads 10 times worse in various Subarus to fish in total solitude. The Greys is my favorite stream in Wyoming. I also showed up to LaBarge back in the day not realizing it had just be treated. Only read about why I got skunked a month later. Anyways I’m headed up to the Greys July 1-6 th as long as the water levels continue down as expected. I’ll hit LaBarge, Smith’s Fork and Salt Creek and probable a few others. (probable won’t bother with the Salt River). I have picked up plenty of Colarado River Cutts on a few streams on the North Slope of the Uintas over the past 20 years but it’ll be good to add to that.

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