I remember clearly hurrying to the Yellowstone River after finishing a shift as a seasonal ranger with fly rod in hand. I would rent a rowboat from the Fishing Bridge boat dock and row downstream a bit to clear the lines of the people fishing from the bridge. And then I would begin to cast — not too skillfully I might add — and catch a cutthroat on every second or third cast. It was absolutely the best fishing in the world.
In Yellowstone, Cutthroats and Me: A Fishing Guide's Autobiography, Dick Crysdale tells a similar story of this kind of fishing from the point of view of a fishing guide and a seasonal park ranger in Yellowstone National Park in the late 50s, early 60s. It is a story of fishing success almost beyond imagination, of satisfied clients when he was a guide, and of the joys of patrolling Yellowstone Lake, the place he calls his mistress, as a boat patrolman for the National Park Service. He tells this story because he wants everyone to understand what we have lost.
Dick recalls a conversation he overheard between two fishermen as he walked toward the lake near Grant Village. One said to the other, “Now we should be able to catch some bigger fish.” Dick now believes that these two were the “bucket biologists” who transferred lake trout from Lewis Lake in the park to Yellowstone Lake, setting off what Dick refers to as an apocalypse.
The lake trout prey heavily on the cutthroat in Yellowstone Lake, affecting the 42 species that depend, at least in some part, on the Yellowstone cutthroat as a part of their diet. Dick recalls a fishing trip in 2003 with old friends. They fished all the old spots that he had known as a guide; between them they caught one cutthroat, not the hundreds that they used to catch and release. As Dick says, “The party’s over.”
Writing a partial autobiography is an unusual approach to telling a resources story. Some readers may find wading through Dick’s summers as a guide and a seasonal ranger and his later life as an employee of the Bureau of Reclamation a bit tedious. Even I, one who loves Yellowstone almost as much as Dick does, found it slow going in some places. But the transformation he describes is one of the most environmentally compelling stories in the history of the National Park Service.
The “bucket biologists” were right. Now you can catch bigger fish in the lake, but the numbers of cutthroats, the iconic native fish of the lake, are drastically reduced. Many of the birds that fed on the "cuts," especially pelicans, bald eagles and osprey, are no longer seen in the same abundance around the lake. The side streams are no longer full of spawning cutthroat, forcing bears to seek another source of protein. One of Dick’s friends noted, “The woods are silent.”
Yellowstone Lake is a different place now.
Footnote: Dick has directed that the proceeds from the sale of this book go to the Yellowstone Center for Resources Fisheries Studies. This Center is conducting the gill-netting program that has removed hundreds of thousands of lake trout from Yellowstone Lake. Let’s hope the book generates lots of income for the Center.