If you have been reading or listening to any of my ramblings about fishing in Nebraska, you have likely heard me tout the diversity of fish species and fishing opportunities we have in our great state. I like to say we have everything from brook trout to flathead catfish, a variety of species of sunfish to muskellunge! I absolutely love our cold-water streams in the state that support trout year-round. Those cold-water streams are resources that a lot of folks do not think of when they think of Nebraska. They are some of the prettiest parts of the state and the trout that swim in them aren’t ugly either.
Most of the trout you find in Nebraska are rainbows and most of those fish are raised in one of Nebraska’s state fish hatcheries before they are stocked at a catchable size. Our fall and spring put-take-trout stockings provide those 10-inch rainbow trout to a variety of parks and urban waters around the state. You can also find a few rainbow trout in some of our year-round trout waters, and in fact the rainbow trout fishing in Lake Ogallala and associated waters has been as good as any in the country the past couple of years (e.g. http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/blogs/2011/07/special/ ). You will also find healthy populations of brown trout in a number of our cold-water streams and in fact we have excellent natural reproduction of brown trout in many of those waters. Lastly, in a few of the Pine Ridge streams a person can find some brook trout, and those fish also reproduce successfully in some of those waters.
That gives you some background on the trout fisheries we have in the state; now let me tell you about some recent trout management efforts, especially some trout stocking.
We raised some brook trout in our hatcheries this year. We have raised brook trout before, but do not do it regularly. Many of the Pine Ridge streams that have brook trout in them have enough natural reproduction to maintain those populations. However, on occasion some of those waters or some stretches of those waters can use some additional stocking to supplement those populations and that is the reason brook trout were produced this year. Those brookies were raised to a length of 4 inches and stocked in the following creeks, Bordeaux, Little Bordeaux, Chadron, East Ash, West Ash, Larabee, Squaw, Beaver, Sowbelly, West Hat and the South Fork of Soldier’s Creek. By the way, I have caught brookies from about half of those streams, and given enough time I will explore and catch them from the other half!
Trout are some of the prettiest fish that swim. That and the fact that they are found in pretty places with clean, cold water are big reasons that folks love them so much. All trout are purdy, but I think brook trout in particular are as beautiful as they get. Those fish are even more spectacular during the spawn when their colors brighten and intensify, and believe it or not, brook trout, and brown trout, spawn in the fall! So right now, October through November would be one of the best times of year to catch pretty brook trout at their prettiest from some of the prettiest country in Nebraska. Some of our Pine Ridge streams might have been impacted by this summer’s fires, but I am pretty sure there will still be some water there where a person could find a brook trout or two.
Our brookies are not large, any fish over 10 inches from Nebraska waters is a good fish. I have seen a few that would push the Master Angler minimum size of 14 inches, but am still trying to catch one of those fish myself. One fish I remember in particular was probably a 14-incher; I spotted that brook trout on a gravel riffle in late October several years ago. Normally, that big fish would have been my target, but beside her was the most beautiful male brook trout I had ever seen and I did catch him! He was 13 inches, the female was bigger, but that male brook trout is still one of my most memorable trophies! I only got one photo of that fish, another story for another time, and then I got him back into the water. If he is still living I am sure he would be one of the biggest brook trout in the state by now. It was long enough ago that I suppose he is no longer swimming, but I bet his descendants are.
Our fish hatcheries also produced some cutthroat trout this year. Again this was nothing new, we have produced and stocked cutts in Nebraska waters before, I have caught a few from the canal downstream of Lake Ogallala, but we do not stock cutthroats on a regular basis. We did raise some cutthroats this year and many folks have noticed in our stocking reports, http://www.outdoornebraska.ne.gov/fishing/guides/fishguide/FGstocking.asp , or news releases that some of those fish have already been stocked. We have no new fisheries management initiatives or objectives for the cutthroats other than providing some diversity. How many cutthroats we stock will depend on how many the hatcheries can raise, but I can tell you that it will be nowhere near as many as the rainbows we stock. The cutthroats will be something “special”, a “bonus” fish, only stocked in a few waters around the state. Most of the cutts were raised to catchable-size, 10 inches, and so far have been stocked in the White River, Blue Creek, the middle pit at Bridgeport State Recreation Area (SRA), Lake Ogallala, the Alliance Golf Course Pond, and the sandpit on the Grove Wildlife Area.
Let me ramble on a bit about one thing that makes the cutthroats “special”. First, let me digress and state that I hate some discussions of what fish were “native” to Nebraska. We flat out know that many species were not native and were introduced at some time, BUT we do not know for sure about other species because how long ago would a fish have had to have been present to be considered “native”? One of the favorite answers to that question would be “before the settlement of white Europeans”, but there is a problem knowing exactly what species of fish were here back then. Nobody made complete collections of fish back then and descriptions of fish from back in those days are open to interpretation–names were not necessarily the same as what we use today, and a person has to guess the identity from old descriptions. I also suspect that there have been a lot of fish moved around by humans for a long, long time, so determining what was “native” or not might be somewhat arbitrary and depend entirely on your definition of “native”.
Anyway, I said all of that to say this: We know that rainbow trout, brown trout and brook trout were NOT native to Nebraska. Brook trout are native to eastern North America and have been spread around the continent by stocking. Brown trout were not native to North America at all and were introduced from Europe (i.e. “German” brown trout). Lastly, it is believed that rainbow trout were native to waters west of the continental divide and have been introduced to all waters east of there. Therefore, if any trout was native to Nebraska, it would have been cutthroat trout! I have no data or references that I can point to that say cutthroats were native to Nebraska, but there is some evidence. We know that “Nebraska” at one time was the Nebraska Territory and was much larger, included much more land to the north and west, than our present state boundaries. Trout were found in waters in that old Nebraska Territory and those native trout would have been cutties.
It is also possible that cutthroats were found in waters that were within the present boundaries of the state. In fact, deep in the bowels of the Smithsonian Institute there are voucher specimens, you know, fish preserved in jars, of cutthroats collected from waters that might have been within Nebraska. Again, the problem is once you go back that far it is hard to know exactly which water those fish were collected from? The best I can say is that cutthroats might have been native to some Nebraska waters and that until someone invents a time machine there ain’t much of a chance of either confirming or denying that. Feel free to argue with me if you wish.
Our hatchery personnel will tell you that the cutthroats are a lot harder to raise in a culture or hatchery setting than the rainbows, the brookies too for that matter. Rainbow trout have been “domesticated” for a long time and many strains of rainbows do very well in culture situations–they readily take to artificial feed and can be easily raised in crowded hatchery conditions. Cutthroats on the other hand, have not been as domesticated and are a lot “wilder”. Reports I have heard from our hatchery personnel have been that the cutties are spooky in the hatchery and are much more finicky about eating artificial feed. Those wild characteristics might mean the cutthroats will be a bit tougher to catch after they are stocked.
Here is a picture of one of the cutthroats produced in our Nebraska hatcheries; a good-looking fish ready to be stocked.
And although this cuttie took a dry fly floated on Soda Butte Creek in Yellowstone a few years ago, maybe soon I can catch another one a lot closer to home?