Tri-Basin Divide

At 8,680 feet above sea level the Tri-Basin Divide drains off into any one of the three watersheds below, each sheltering its own variety of cutthroat trout. The Tri-Basin vicinity is a unique piece of the West’s bio-geography: It’s arguably the best place in the world for anglers to tempt three distinct types of native cutts, living within a few miles of each other.

To the north, the headwaters of the beautiful Greys River dropped sharply off the divide, slicing a deep path between the Wyoming and Salt River Ranges. Heading to the Pacific Ocean via the Snake and Columbia Rivers, the Greys remains a stronghold for Snake River fine spotted cutthroats.

South of where we stood, LA Barge Creek begins its journey to the Green and Colorado Rivers, toward the Gulf of California. LA Barge and other streams draining the east face of the Wyoming Range support the best remaining populations of Colorado River cutthroats in the state. LA Barge is bisected by the rutted remnants of the 19th century Lander Cutoff of the Oregon Trail.

West of the Divide the upper reaches of the Smiths Fork River wind to the Bear River and Great Basin. The watershed shelters some of the most robust remaining enclaves of Bonneville cutthroats, a fish many biologists thought was extinct until it was “rediscovered” in the 1970s.

Down the Tri-Basin Divide into the upper Greys watershed, you will see the 11,363-foot Wyoming Peak, the highest point in the basin.

The river’s name was inspired by a half-Iroquois fur trapper, John Grey, who also went by the tongue-tangling name of Ignace Hatchiorauquasha. Grey explored the area between 1816 and 1840, and helped break Britain’s hold on the fur trade, eventually resulting in the establishment of the Oregon Territory by Congress in 1848.

Near the diminutive headwaters, the Forest Service has placed a roadside sign: “Greys River — Watch Me Grow.” And grow it does, quickly gathering itself into a fishable creek, expanding to a medium-sized river, then exploding into the brawling cataracts of Snaggle Tooth Rapids in its lower reaches. Over the course of 60 miles, the Greys presents an enticing array of angling opportunities, eventually playing out where it slides into Palisades Reservoir on the South Fork of the Snake River. It remains the longest undammed stream in Wyoming.

Running through the Bridger-Teton National Forest for virtually its entire length, the Greys River affords exceptional access and camping. Because of all the public land, the Greys offers an increasingly rare phenomenon, an intact Western river valley devoid of billboards, burger joints, miniature golf, or other hints of “civilization.”

According to Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) biologist, Rob Gipson, more than 95 percent of the Greys’ trout population is comprised of wild, native Snake River fine spotted cutthroats; the cutts are competing well with the small number of exotic trout in the river, benefitting from the many spawning tributaries. Since stocking of rainbows ended, there are few of them left in the Greys, a good sign given the propensity of cutts to lose the competition battle to non-native trout. The odd bow, brown, or brookie turns up periodically, but everything we caught displayed distinctive cutt markings.

Like the two-other native Tri-Basin trout, the Snake River fine spotted cutt (Oncorhynchus clarki behnkei) is scientifically classified as a “minor” subspecies of the Yellowstone cutthroat. Indigenous to west-central Wyoming and a small piece of southeast Idaho, the fine spotted cutt is named after the well-known fisheries biologist, Dr. Robert Behnke. According to Behnke (Trout and Salmon of North America, 2002), major drainages in the trout’s present range include the South Fork of the Snake and tributaries like the Hoback, Gros Ventre, Salt and Greys River.

The Greys is a wild, free-stone river, with a trout population affected by all of nature’s extremes, including drought, low winter flows, and a powerful spring runoff as the snowpack roars out of the high country. Consequently, says Gipson, the trout population is generally measured in the hundreds-per-mile, rather than the thousands you might find on dam-controlled tailwaters like the Bighorn, Beaverhead or Snake. This is a different, arguably more natural fishing experience.

Like the other Tri-Basin cutthroats, Greys’ denizens tend to be opportunistic feeders, not hatch-specific Einsteins. Cutts are suckers for attractor dry patterns, bring Turck’s Tarantulas, Chernobyl Ants, Madame Xs, Humpies, Wulffs, Renegades, Stimulators, and Trudes and you’ll likely be off to the races. These fish don’t mind looking up for their next meal. Then again, a beefy stonefly nymph bounced along fast, boulder-strewn bottoms aren’t a bad choice, either.

Near the Tri-Basin Divide, the historic Lander Cutoff of the Oregon Trail traverses the high country along upper LA Barge Creek.

The first federally financed road west of the Mississippi River, the 256-mile Cutoff was constructed from South Pass, Wyo., to Fort Hall, Idaho. The Cutoff shaved 100 miles off the route to the Oregon Territory and California gold fields; 13,000 settlers and 79,000 livestock passed through in 1859, the first year it was open. Lush, creek-side grass at LA Barge Meadows along the Divide provided abundant forage for weary stock, and the last good camping spot before travelers pushed over more mountains to the west.

It was a tough trip, as the scattered, poignant old graves attest. While it is impossible to know precisely how many perished on the Oregon Trail, one estimate holds that one out of every 17 travelers died along the way, leaving an average of one grave every quarter mile along the wagon trail. Despite the hardships, the early pioneers passing along upper LA Barge Creek had the opportunity to partake of a sublime landscape, abundant game, and a stream teaming with tasty Colorado River cutthroats.

LA Barge Creek rises along the southern flanks of the Salt River and Wyoming ranges in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, running southeast for approximately 50 miles. LA Barge offers a near-perfect small stream template, exceptionally serpentine, with a variety of water types.

The creek was christened after a colorful French-Canadian — Joseph Marie LA Barge — an ancestor of Pulitzer-prize winning Wyoming author, Annie Proulx. LA Barge was born in 1787 in L’Assomption, Quebec, which he left at the age of 21, alone in a birch bark canoe. He made his way past Montreal, up the Ottawa River, through various connecting waterways in Ontario, across the Great Lakes, and along the Fox, Wisconsin, and Mississippi Rivers to reach St. Louis in 1808. His original canoe still intact, LA Barge only needed to portage eight miles during his entire journey. But LA Barge’s travels were just starting: He headed west to the outer reaches of Wyoming in the 1820s to trap beaver and leave his name on an exquisite trout stream.

Wyoming was a wild place in the early 19th century, but LA Barge would likely not find his namesake creek radically altered today. In its upper reaches, above 8,000 feet, numerous mountain tributaries feed LA Barge Creek, snaking through forested glades, beaver ponds, and open meadows. The landscape becomes more arid downstream, scattered pines giving way to fragrant sage, crimson and tan rock strata slicing dramatically across the valley at odd angles. South of the national forest boundary, the creek runs through public Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property, then threads through private ranches lower down. Its wild, captivating course ends where it enters the Green River, between the small energy town of La Barge and Names Hill, a sandstone cliff where Oregon Trail travelers carved their signatures for posterity.

Today, LA Barge Creek supports a diverse trout population, including newly restored Colorado River cutthroats in its upper reaches. In recent years, the creek has been the focus of a major cooperative project to restore its native cutthroats, which had been pushed into the headwaters and tributaries by brook trout and threatened with hybridization by rainbows. The LA Barge project is the largest fish restoration project ever attempted in Wyoming.

The Colorado River cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarki pleuriticus) is the only cutt subspecies indigenous to the upper Colorado River watershed, with an original distribution that spanned southwest Wyoming, western Colorado, east-central Utah, northwest New Mexico, and extreme northeastern Arizona. Today, the fish occupies only about 5 percent of its original range. According to Behnke, approximately 100 genetically pure populations of Colorado cutts remain in the West, mostly in short, remote headwater reaches. The WGFD reports that the fish currently occupies just 13 percent of its original Cowboy State range.

Colorado cutts have been adversely affected by the same factors as other cutthroats in the West: hybridization with introduced rainbows, competition from non-native brook trout, overharvest, and harmful agricultural and mining practices. In 1999, a coalition of environmental groups petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Colorado River cutthroat under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). To date, the trout has not been listed, although it is a Wyoming sensitive species and the state is actively working to restore it.

According to Hilda Sexauer, WGFD Regional Fisheries Supervisor in Pinedale, LA Barge Creek hadn’t been stocked with non-native trout since 1990, but they had largely taken over when the cutthroat project started. The focus of the restoration effort has been upstream from the forest service boundary, where a small dam was constructed in 2002 to prevent further upstream migrations of exotic trout. Above the barrier, non-natives were successfully removed with chemical treatments. Beginning in 2007, the upper creek was restocked with thousands of genetically pure cutts, both fingerlings and catchable-size fish, including some sizeable specimens. The goal is to end stocking once the population is self-sustaining.

Sexauer says that prior to the restoration effort, the densest fish concentrations in LA Barge were in upper meadow reaches, which once held up to 1,900 brook trout per mile. Now that the brookies have been replaced by cutts, Sexauer suspects there ultimately may be fewer trout in these stretches, but they will likely be larger: “Brook trout overpopulate — cutthroats are less likely to stunt themselves.”

LA Barge Creek retains a diversity of angling options. According to Sexauer, LA Barge offers a “unique opportunity to catch Colorado River cutthroat in their native range,” while still allowing anglers to seek rainbows, browns, brookies and the occasional cutt below the barrier. Sexauer speculates that retention of these alternatives is one reason there was relatively little opposition to the restoration plan.

This is rugged, geologically complex country, rippled with energy-rich thrust faults and folds. In their book, Roadside Geology of Wyoming (1991), David Lageson and Darwin Spearing observed, “For the geologist, this part of Wyoming is a paradise of structural intrigue and stratigraphic variation; nothing seems constant or uniform.” One consistent theme, however, has been growing interest in developing the oil and gas resources in western Wyoming’s Overthrust Belt, which includes the Tri-Basin region.

Several years ago, a diverse, bipartisan effort to protect the Wyoming Range’s cutthroats and prolific wildlife from energy development was organized by local ranchers, outfitters, anglers, hunters, and others under the umbrella group, Sportsmen for the Wyoming Range. Their quixotic, grassroots efforts succeeded in early 2009 when the Wyoming Range Legacy Act passed Congress, part of a larger public lands bill subsequently signed by President Obama. The legislation protects 1.2 million acres of the Wyoming Range from future oil and gas development and includes a provision for buying back energy leases that have already been issued. As the bill’s sponsor, U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), said, “I strongly support oil and gas development in our state, but I also believe some places are simply too special to develop.”

The Smiths Fork rises off the southern tail of the 10,000-foot high Salt River Range. On its way down from the Tri-Basin Divide, the Smiths Fork pulls in water from tributaries such as Hobble Creek, becoming a modestly-sized, moderately fast river that’s easy to wade but not float. Heavily timbered in its mountainous, national forest upper reaches, the Smiths Fork gradually cuts a path through rolling, sage and aspen-covered hills, forming a broad ranching valley by the time it enters the Bear River, near Cokeville, Wyo.

It is difficult to fathom the quirky Smiths Fork fishery without pondering the Bear River, a 500-mile long, convoluted oddity. The Bear is the longest river in the Western Hemisphere that never touches an ocean, Wyoming’s only watershed that is part of the Great Basin. This fugitive river nervously jumps state lines five times: It rises in Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness, sneaks north into Wyoming, escapes back to Utah, briefly reenters Wyoming again to capture the Smiths Fork, then veers west into Idaho. Finally, it changes its mind once more and loops south back to Utah, ending in the Great Salt Lake 70 miles from where it originally started its confusing journey.

The drainage was once immersed by glacial Lake Bonneville, which swelled to nearly the size of Lake Michigan, inundating the current site of Salt Lake City in more than 1,000 feet of water. Lake Bonneville was the ancestral home of the Bonneville cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarki Utah). The lake nearly vanished 8,000 years ago following the last Ice Age, leaving the Great Salt Lake and nearby Utah Lake as remnants. Long after Lake Bonneville’s demise, its cutts continued to survive mainly in headwater reaches of their namesake basin and a few lakes, scattered through portions of southwest Wyoming, southeast Idaho, western Utah, and northeastern Nevada.

More than a century ago, settlers south of Salt Lake City commercially netted enormous Bonneville cutthroats up to 40 pounds in Utah Lake. At the time, the fish was a vital food source for both Native Americans and Mormon pioneers. By the 1930s, however, the cutthroats had vanished from the lake, and genetically pure Bonnevilles were thought to be extinct throughout their range by the 1950s.

In 1974, a federal biologist in Utah’s Deep Creek Mountains discovered a pure population of Bonnevilles: The trout had endured since the last Ice Age, but just barely survived the 20th century. Bonnevilles have been petitioned for federal ESA listing, but to date these efforts have been denied, in part because the states where they reside have been actively working on conserving and restoring them. Fortunately, Bonnevilles persisted under the radar in secluded southwest Wyoming, and the Smiths Fork is one of the best places to catch them.

According to Behnke, fluvial Bonnevilles residing in the Bear River drainage have “a long evolutionary history of existence in semi-arid watersheds subjected to great environmental extremes of floods, droughts, and high sediment loads.” Trout Unlimited’s Warren Colyer has conducted research on Bonnevilles and verifies their tenacity: He found instances where the fish survived daytime water temperatures in the low 80s, often lethal conditions for other trout. While the upper Smith Fork drainage is largely pristine, the Bear River can run warm and muddy, where surprisingly large Bonnevilles coexist in an unlikely fashion with carp, fattening up on bait fish.

Recent studies underscore the importance of the Bear River for cutthroats utilizing the Smiths Fork, and vice versa. Colyer says many of the largest cutts spend the winter in the Bear River before leaving for their spring spawning run. As a graduate student, he employed radio telemetry to track the salmon-like Bonnevilles traveling more than 50 miles into the upper Smiths Fork drainage, near the Tri-Basin Divide.

In part because of its highly interconnected fishery, a proposal for a new dam on the Smiths Fork has raised concerns. Colyer believes a dam would be seriously detrimental to the Bonnevilles: Aside from interfering with migrations, a dam could alter the hydrology of the system, making the stretch below a new reservoir colder, less turbid, and more conducive to rainbows, which haven’t yet gained a solid foothold in the watershed. Ultimately, says Colyer, “the Smiths Fork is really the lynch pin for the central Bear River system.”

A singular feature of the Smiths Fork Watershed is Lake Alice, which feeds Hobble Creek in the upper drainage. Three miles long, 200-feet deep, the lake is tucked at 7,800 feet and accessible only by trail. Lake Alice is a significant and unusual fishery, holding a native population of lake dwelling Bonnevilles. Aside from the strain of Bonnevilles remaining in Bear Lake on the Utah-Idaho border, all other indigenous, lacustrine populations of this fish are extinct.

Lake Alice formed millennia ago when a massive landslide tore down Lake Mountain and dammed Poker Creek, which now gushes out in a giant spring below the mile-long barrier. The abundant cutthroats residing above the slide have access to various spawning tributaries that nourish the lake, sustaining their population.