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A Week in Wonderland: Yellowstone's Volunteer Fly Fishing Program

Yellowstone citizen science program offers opportunity to have fun fishing, learn, and give back to native fish conservation.

Courtesy of Fly Fisherman Magazine, August 31, 2022.

By Joshua Bergan

“Imagine booking a guided fly-fishing trip in Yellowstone National Park, where an experienced and fishy escort takes you to some of the Park’s best trout fisheries. But you don’t so much as need to fork over a tip. It’s completely gratis.

Consider this your coupon for a $600 day of guided fly fishing.

Okay, it’s not exactly a fully guided trip, but it is real and it’s called the Yellowstone Volunteer Fly Fishing Program (YVFFP). Since 2002 it has offered a symbiotic means for anglers to see and fish some of Yellowstone’s most heralded fisheries while supplying Yellowstone National Park fisheries personnel with important data that they don’t otherwise have the resources to collect. It’s also nice to be part of a group when traveling and fishing in serious grizzly bear country. The program lasts for six weeks during July and August.

YVFFP has not been operating since after the 2016 season due to a lack of housing, a government shutdown, and then COVID-19. But with the help of a few dedicated believers, it’s back on again for 2022 under the tutelage of fly-fishing veteran Paul Weamer.

Weamer takes over for former YVFFP coordinator Bill Voigt. Voigt, along with his wife Joann, joined the program in 2004 and eventually took over coordinator duties from Tim Bywater, who was the first program coordinator. Voigt was coordinator up until the program’s hiatus. “I love these fish and I love the streams so much that I always felt an obligation, no matter where I was, to try to give something back,” Weamer said.

Weamer’s career in the fly-fishing industry has led him to this position. He is one of the founders of the nonprofit Friends of the Upper Delaware River, is a former stream monitoring specialist for the Penns Valley Conservation Association in Pennsylvania, fishing lodge manager, fly-shop owner and manager, and fishing guide. He moved to Livingston, Montana eight years ago. He is a longtime contributor to Fly Fisherman and has authored numerous books. His upcoming title, Favorite Flies for Yellowstone National Park is due out in October 2022 and can be preordered from Amazon.

In a year that has seen the discovery of smallmouth bass in the Yellowstone River near the park boundary, and after numerous years of dealing with below-average snowpack and drought, invasive lake trout in Yellowstone Lake, New Zealand mud snails (Potamopyrgus antipodarum), hybridization with and expansion of nonnative trout, whirling disease,red-rimmed melania (Melanoides tuberculata, a small aquarium snail), and more, fisheries biologists have their plates full. The role of volunteers seems especially urgent.

Trout hybridization is a focus of this year’s program. Rainbow trout can spawn with native cutthroat trout and hatch cuttbows, a hybrid of the two species. This is problematic because it dilutes the genetics of these rare cutthroats, and over time, all the trout will become cuttbows, and genetically pure cutthroat trout will be lost forever.

This cuttbow—a cross between a rainbow trout and Yellowstone cutthroat trout—is an example of the threat to Slough Creek’s native cutthroats. All nonnative and hybrid trout are culled by fly fishers with the Yellowstone Volunteer Fly Fishing Program. Harvest of the trout is already required by law in Slough Creek and the entire Lamar River watershed. (Joshua Bergan photo)

YVFFP is directed by Todd Koel, the lead fisheries biologist for Yellowstone National Park, and leader of the park’s Native Fish Conservation Program. Koel directs and oversees the program, while Weamer coordinates the efforts of the volunteers.

At the beginning of each year, priority projects are defined by Koel and other park biologists. This year, working with Montana State University Ph.D. candidate Keith Wellstone, volunteers will focus on Slough Creek and the Lamar River, and will likely spend some time checking on the westslope cutthroat restoration in Grebe Lake at the headwaters of the Gibbon River, and Goose Lake near the Firehole River. Some notable past projects include researching Arctic grayling movement and reproduction in the Gibbon River basin, locating trout-spawning areas in Slough Creek (to determine where hybridization was occurring), cataloging species and genetic purity of fish in upper Trout Creek, and checking on the status of whirling disease in Pelican Creek.

The data collected informs park fisheries personnel on important issues like where Slough Creek’s rainbow trout are coming from, and if they are spawning in the creek or in a tributary. Biologists also hope to learn whether Gibbon River grayling are fluvial (river-dwelling) or adfluvial (lake-dwelling) migrants.

Each day, the coordinator meets with volunteers at a designated time and place and the crew heads out together, getting instruction on the whats, hows, whys, and wheres. Volunteers primarily fly fish while the coordinator (or a Ph.D. student) stands by to weigh, measure, take scale or fin samples of the catch, and/or insert radio telemetry transmitters into the fish. Any given day can involve hiking several miles, and occasionally volunteers camp in the backcountry. Volunteers make their own arrangements to get to the park, and for the reboot of this program anglers also need to find their own lodging.

About 30 volunteers signed up for the 2022 program. Over the course of the program’s lifetime, hundreds of volunteers have donated many thousands of hours for important research.

All nonnative fish, including rainbow, brown, and cuttbow trout, are culled by volunteers in the remote study areas. This is already required by law throughout the Lamar drainage, which includes Slough and Soda Butte creeks. Some anglers might find this objectionable due to the sport’s long-held catch-and-release ethos and other reasons, but most volunteers understand the rationale.

“Yellowstone cutthroat trout and westslope cutthroat trout are rare,” Weamer said. “They only exist in a few places, and if you have to put up a stand to protect them, and that includes killing some wild trout—that would be praised other places in the world—then that’s what we have to do to protect them.”

Westslope, Yellowstone, and Snake River cutthroat trout are native to the park. Yellowstone cutts are native to the Yellowstone River drainage, westslopes are native to the Madison and Gallatin River watersheds, and Snake River cutts swim the Snake River drainage.

Cutthroat trout are considered a “keystone” species in Yellowstone, which means that the entire ecosystem, including dozens of different species of animals, relies on them to function and survive.

Funding for the YVFFP is largely provided by Yellowstone Forever, Yellowstone park’s official nonprofit partner. Patagonia—a company with a stated mission to protect native fish—has donated more than $55,000 to Yellowstone Forever since 2017. The Western Native Trout Initiative also chipped in some grant money, and companies like Patagonia and local businesses like Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone have also directly contributed to the YVFFP over the years.

Programs like this take the dedication and coordination of many people, but the real heroes are the volunteers.

“These are very passionate people who care about the park,” said J.D. Davis, Yellowstone Forever’s chief development officer. “You are getting people who want to do a good job. They want to save Yellowstone cutthroat trout.”

And it’s a rare opportunity to fish with knowledgeable anglers like Weamer, who has spent several years guiding in Yellowstone. Volunteers may fish places they otherwise wouldn’t, and they can learn a lot about fishing in the park.

But Paul Bunker, a veteran volunteer for the program, said it’s about more than the fishing. “It was about the relationship with the other volunteers and the former coordinators Bill and Joann Voigt,” said Bunker.

 “At night, one of the cool things was to go into the Utah dorm where all the scientists in the park were housed and talk to the people who were on the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel, to talk about seismology, volcanology, marmots, butterflies—the whole gamut.” “And of course I gained a deeper understanding of how everything is tied together as far as the ecosystem of Yellowstone,” Bunker added.

During the research, native fish are kept healthy and safe during the recording and sampling by use of a collapsible yellow bucket filled with fresh water. But these somewhat ostentatious pails serve a dual purpose—they also help volunteers with public outreach.

“People stop and ask you what you’re doing,” Weamer said. “Being a positive influence regarding the park’s rules and explaining why barbless flies are important and explaining why the work you’re doing is important (is part of the job).” Other visitors sometimes report this “suspicious activity” to rangers (more on that later).

Bunker, a Trout Unlimited Native Trout Workgroup member and Yellowstone fly-fishing volunteer for over a decade, has played a significant role in promoting and contributing to the program. He does presentations across the country and leads a seminar in Yellowstone that teaches participants about native trout restoration. Bunker got the 2022 program set up while park officials sought the new coordinator.

“The program would be in real trouble without Paul Bunker,” Weamer said.

Volunteers kneeling in the grass near a creek measuring a trout and taking notes on a clipboard
Volunteers record information on Trout Creek’s fish to determine genetic purity and other traits. A bright yellow bucket is used to keep the fish wet during the research, and also provides an opportunity to share the importance of the projects with other park visitors. (Photo courtesy of Paul Bunker)

The sheer fun and memories made by volunteers have been documented in a coordinator’s journal. The following entries are from 2005:

Yellowstone Volunteer Program Journal Entries

“Today, August 11, 2005, we hiked 3 miles up the Lamar River Trail to collect genetic samples from the cutthroat trout in Cache Creek. It started bright and sunny but as the afternoon progressed many thunderstorms passed around us. We fished a half mile of the stream and took fin clips and scale samples from 20 fish. There wasn’t any hatch, but fish rose to our hopper and caddis patterns. With more storms threatening, we headed back down the trail to the parking lot. It was obvious that it had rained hard along the Soda Butte Creek because the trail and the creek were muddy.

As we loaded our gear into our van, two park ranger cars blocked us in and the rangers demanded to see our licenses and fish. They had a report of six people catching fish and keeping them in yellow buckets up on Cache Creek. After some explanation of the program, one of the rangers remembered fishing with Tim Bywater the previous year. One of our volunteers was quite a large lad with a voracious appetite and had brought half of a pork roast in his pack for lunch. We teased him that one of the rangers was eyeing him up to decide how to take him down if he was to run. We all chuckled.

The Lamar valley is becoming one of our favorite places in the park. The broad vistas of the valley are quite spectacular! We saw bison, pronghorns, and a coyote as well as a kestrel hunting in the meadows. It was great day!”

Another entry details a trip to High Lake, an alpine stillwater in the park’s northwest corner:

“High Lake was the first body of water recently reclaimed for westslope cutthroat trout. Now, two years later, in August 2009, we were going to High Lake for two days of fishing for westslope cutthroat trout.

This was our first horse-packing trip in the park and we all were excited. Our volunteers were so eager that they rented their own horses and brought their own supplies and equipment. We were to weigh and measure every fish we caught. We were also to record whether the adipose fin had been clipped. That would indicate that they had been stocked as fingerlings. If the adipose fin was intact, they had hatched from egg boxes put in the spring feeding the lake or from natural reproduction.

It was a 10-mile ride up to the lake on top of the mountain very close to the northwest border of the park. We set up camp and then started fishing. We caught many fish in the 11 to 11¾ inch range with their adipose fin clipped; so many so that a competition was occurring to see who would catch the first 12-inch fish. However, several smaller fish were caught with their fins intact. The lake and its fish seemed to be doing well; we caught 67 fish over the course of two days. The days were pleasant, but the nights were very cold. Hot chocolate was welcome in the morning. And no one caught that 12 inch fish.”

It’s an important job at a crucial time, and simultaneously a fantastic opportunity to broaden angling horizons.

 “In a changing climate, at a time when smallmouth bass are showing up at the mouth of the Gardner, we’re trying to save a little place in the world for Yellowstone cutthroat trout,” Weamer said. “If they’re gone, the park is altered forever in a terrible way. The world here is more alive and more vibrant because these things exist. If you can do even a small thing like this to protect a species that’s in trouble, then that’s worth doing. I just hope that when I’m dead, they (native fish) are still there.”

Added Bunker: “It was probably the best-kept secret in the National Park Service for a lot of years. For 30 or 40 volunteers, it was a week in paradise.”