The cutthroat trout is the native trout of the Rocky Mountains. Each drainage and many lakes in the Rockies supported a specific strain of cutthroat unique to those waters. The South Platte drainage, which includes the South Platte, Bear Creek, Clear Creek, the Boulder Creek system, Left Hand Creek, the St. Vrain system, the Big Thompson system and the Cache La Poudre system, was the home of the Greenback Cutthroat trout. When the early trappers - including Cerran St. Vrain - and miners caught or netted trout for dinner from the streams of the South Platte system the fish they ate were Greenback Cutthroats.
The settlers of the late 1800's brought their hopes, their dreams and their native trout: browns - which were newly introduced to the East from Germany in the mid 1880's, brookies - the native trout of the East, and eventually rainbows from the west coast. The cutthroats did not fare well with the new competition from their relatives. In most drainages the cutthroats were driven to the extremes of the high country, while in other areas they were driven to extinction.
The greenback cutthroat was considered to be one of the latter: extinct. In 1973, what was determined to be a pure strain of greenback cutthroat was discovered in a very small, brushy stream in an isolated part of Boulder County near the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. The greenback was back! This particular strain of cutthroat was taken from the Extinct List and put on the Endangered Species List and an intense, focused program was begun in an attempt to revive a self sustaining population of the fish.
I am pleased to announce that the project was a success! On August 1 of about 1982 or 1983 - I can't remember which - a few of us heard that the Division of Wildlife, in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service and Rocky Mountain National Park, would open a small set of beaver ponds to fly fishing with barbless hooks - catch and release only! Early that morning, under the scrutiny of a variety of rangers, fisheries managers and who knows who else - there were more folks watching than fishing, as I recall - a few of us showed up at the ponds at 8AM, the prescribed hour, and began fishing.
The ponds had been treated with rotenone to kill all of the fish that had inhabited the area, and then the greenbacks had been planted. Our orders were to carefully identify the fish we caught, and to kill and keep all the brookies and the occasional brown we might hook. The greenbacks were to be returned immediately to the water, safe to continue their swim back from "extinction." All of us were pretty much died-in-the-wool catch and release anglers, so the thought of killing fish was a little uncomfortable; the thought of fresh fish was nice, though. We each determined our own course. The brookies were big - some were over 14 inches, due to the lack of competition they'd had for the past couple years. The greenbacks were all very small - usually under 8 inches or so in length. But, they were beautiful, wild and back from the dead, which was really cool! (Personally, I wasn't that disappointed by their size, because while I might not catch many, they're usually all small.)
Over the next several years, I had an August 1 appointment that I always kept. The greenbacks stayed pretty small in this particular area, but the point is this: they stayed! There were still a few brookies around, too, but the fish seemed to get along just fine. After several years of fishing - there were still only a few folks that knew about the program and took advantage of the fishing in this spot - folks started wondering if the fish would ever get bigger! We were all glad they were back, but we wondered if they'd ever get the size that a person could brag about catching a fish for a reason other than the one that talked about the fish returning from the brink of extinction. One year I asked the rangers, fisheries folks, and so on what they thought. Would the fish grown up? They said that Greenbacks were getting quite large in other remote areas that were not yet open to fishing. We were encouraged.
The Greenback Cutthroat Trout is now the State Fish of Colorado. How about that? It's also off the Endangered list, I think. Pretty cool, eh? Now, if you want to see and catch a large - up to 18 inches - greenback cutthroat, head to Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. Lily is just south of Estes Park on Highway 7 on the West side of the road. There is a nice park there, with picnic tables, a hiking trail and a couple of docks that hang over the lake so you can look at the fish. Float tube fishing is allowed, as are canoes, and the fishing can be just fine from the bank, too. When I fish there, I only fish with dry flies, which the fish will take. Fishing with nymphs seems a bit of a cheat, for me at least. I'll hook a few that will come to the surface, but I'd just as soon leave the fish under the surface to their own sense of awe at being back - if fish can think in terms of awe, that is.
There are plenty of other place in and around Rocky Mountain National Park where fine greenback cutthroats may be observed and caught. The fishing for them is strictly catch and release. You're going to have to find those spots on your own, though. I told you about Lily because everyone knows and you might just as well, too. If you want to get away from the crowds, take a hike, friend, and explore the backcountry streams and lakes to discover your own green! It'll be worth it!
by Dale Darling
Note: I wrote this in the 1990’s; I’m not sure about Lily Lake anymore, other than it’s a lovely spot; and many know of other areas in the Park that have Greenbacks. Unfortunately, these spots are now often overrun with fly fishers that use any and every method to hook the fish, and many are really bear up for it. Somehow, that doesn’t seem right, at least to me.
This is my story about the Greenback Cutthroat Trout. While some of the quasi-scientific and historic information may not stand the test of absolute scrutiny, it is my story and I hope you enjoy reading it! The fishing story part is as true as you might imagine from a life-time angler; decide for yourself. NOTE: I love truth, which has little to do with fact, but has much to do with moral will. Based on that statement, I must tell you that there is a very good chance that the trout we hooked that day were, in fact, Colorado River Cutthroat (CRC) trout, or a hybrid blend of Greenback and CRC! Oh well. Science, using DNA data, continue to define and discover the few Greenback cutts that remain in Colorado. At this writing - 3/15 - there are very few pure strain Greenbacks in the state, and as far as I can tell, the trout we’ve called Greenbacks in Rocky Mountain National Park are the hybrid referred to. Oh well.