Fishing problems in the upper Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone

High angling pressure and spread of rainbow trout the problem-

It’s not like fish have disappeared from the Beartooth Plateau or the streams of the nearby Absaroka Mountains, but the fisheries accessible without a long walk or pack trip are in decline.

The Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River rises far up in the Beartooth Mountains, just NE of Yellowstone Park and then tumbles down and out of Montana into Wyoming where after about 10 miles it runs into a deep hard rock gorge to emerge in a stream valley in the plain and coulee country of Wyoming and SE Montana. Along the way it picks up many more streams from the Beartooths and the rugged Absaroka Range on its SW and south side.

Beartooth Lake and Beartooth Butte
Beartooth Lake on the Beartooth Plateau. It’s on the Beartooth Highway. Thousands stop here and many try their luck fishing. Copyright Ralph Maughan

The famous Beartooth Highway cuts climbs up from the Clarks Fork to the Beartooth Plateau and crosses it at almost 11,000 feet. Then the highway   drops down, taking people to Red Lodge, Montana. Along the way the people love to fish the accessible alpine lakes of the Plateau and also some of streams coming in from the largely largely lakeless Absaroka.

The beautiful scenery can make up for a poor catch in part, but the catch has been declining.

If a person is willing to hike or pack deeper in the Beartooth Wilderness there are scores of lakes and ponds with fish. These lakes support many kinds of trout and a few grayling too.  Of course, most people lash the waters of the lakes with fish near the Beartooth Highway, particularly Beartooth, Island, and Long Lakes.

These 3 lakes and some of the Wilderness lakes get far more fishing pressure than natural reproduction can support due to the attraction of the scenery, the slow growth of trout at this high elevation, and the fact that they contain the wrong kind of trout for the conditions.   In addition, most of these lakes lie in glacier-scoured granite basins with resultant clear, beautiful, but infertile water.

The 3 large roadside lakes are stocked and many of the Wilderness lakes are too. It is important to remember that most of the Beartooth Mountains were originally fishless because barriers such as waterfalls prevented the migration of fish to the headwaters of the Clarks Fork and other rivers. Fish were introduced to the lakes in a chaotic fashion. Some fit the lakes. Others soon died out and still others produced abundant but stunted brook and/or rainbow trout.

The Wilderness Absaroka Mountain fisheries have a different story. These are less visited, but equally rugged mountains. Of volcanic origin, they have very few lakes despite their towering height. There were some native cutthroat trout fisheries in the stream, but the migration of stocked rainbow trout  up the Clarks Fork into them have produced instead hybrids which have not thrived for various reasons.

The Billings Gazette has a more detailed story on problems with the fishery. Mountain lake Mystery: Planted trout disappearing from popular Beartooth Mountain lakes. By Brett French.

The stocking of sub-alpine and alpine lakes, which were often fishless throughout the Western United States seemed like the natural thing to do, but it was done long ago in most cases, without a plan, or contradictory plans. Now the various Wildlife or Fish and Game Departments of the states are trying to straighten things out and deal with a new problems such as the spread of diseases and non-native species.

This story on the fisheries of the upper Clarks Fork is just a microcosm.



  1. Daryl L. Hunter Avatar

    I am glad they planted the fishless lakes, it is a shame they planted the Clarks Fork and all other western rivers with non-endemic fish.

  2. Cody Coyote Avatar
    Cody Coyote

    There never used to be ANY native fish up there at all . No way for them to get above the various waterfalls and steep cascades in the granite gorge of what is now the Wild & Scenic River portion of the Clarks Fork.

    Having said that , I am more than a little ambivalent about ” Put and Take” fish management to begin with

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Cody Coyote and rork,

      I suppose folks would need to agree on a definition of “put and take.” I would limit the term to a body of water that must be stocked almost every year, and is stocked with catchable fish.

      The Beartooth high lakes in the Wilderness are often self-sustaining fisheries. Some have to be stocked because there is little suitable spawning habitat in the them, so the fish slowly grow larger, but fewer, grow old and disappear. Other lakes have abundant spawning gravel, but for the “wrong kind of trout.” Too many hatch and survive, but in a stunted form.

      I think the two states are largely interested in the building self-sustaining fisheries and correcting the early day mistakes. Doing this would not harm the Wilderness character of the lakes as much as having a late at 10,500 feet full of 5 inch rainbow trout.

      Many are too shallow and winterkill and will never keep fish in them.

      1. rork Avatar

        “Some have to be stocked ” – baloney, we can just have few or no fish there. There are options.
        I am not just against “put and take”, I am against “put”. The exception is if there is no other way to stop extinction. The previous insanity of fisheries managers (brook trout? what were you thinking?) make me this strict.
        If it were high country and people advocating putting ibex up there for greater recreational opportunity, would putting still be OK? The insect life in the high lakes are not nothing, just not very sexy to many people – that’s their failure.

      2. CodyCoyote Avatar

        Ralph- I mostly agree with what you say , being somewhat less of a cynic than I sometimes appear here. I’ve spent my entire life roaming that upper Clarks Fork-Crandall country, and have seen both dramatic success and dramatic failure in the fisheries ( even moreso in the management of elk hunting, byut tha is for another topic bar).

        Today you can do some outstanding sport fishing for Grayling up there in the Beartooths rushing streams , for instance.

        Surprisingly , in the Lost World of the inner Clarks Fork River wild and scenic granite gorge, accessible only by the hardiest of kayakers willing to do 15 portages to make the full run of it , you will find unbelievable deep pools of monster Cutthroats that will boggle the mind. So much so that both Griz and Otters have learned to make meals where man seldom goes. So say my kayaker friends who have marveled in that neo-antediluvian canyon. None say they would ever do the trip twice, however. It is that rough down in the gorge.

        Up in the far reaches of Sunlight Basin there are a trio of alpine lakes that have been stocked with Golden Trout from the Sierra Nevadas of California , as has been done elsewhere in Wyoming high country by well intended state fisheries folk with mixed results and indeterminate long term consequences . (The fish branch of the same Department that introduced Mandarin Golden Ringnecked Pheasants, Hungarian Chukar Partidges and other exotic game birds to Wyoming lowlands for sport )

        But Wyo G&F on the whole has a lot to answer for with their legacy of trout management in that entire upper Clarks Fork river drainage and elsewhere. Keep in mind that Montana got no help from the mining industry who effectively killed all the fish in the westward flowing waters of Soda Butte Creek that sources above Cooke City Montana and runs down inside Yellowstone for a confluence with the Lamar River. Acid mine waste destroyed all animal life in those waters, from invertebrate fishfood all the way up thru the fish and amphibians, consequentally wiping out the native Fisher, Otter, beaver and Muskrat and other mammals that lived in the higher Soda Butte watercourses. Some are now returning, but slowly.

        Above all, agencies like Wyo Game & Fish , Montana FWR . and IDFG like their counterparts inside Yellowstone have a lot to learn about ” Playing God”.

        Hard to judge, or even empanel a jury on this stuff.

        What they have done to the fisheries has produced some very mixed results; all over the dartboard

  3. rork Avatar

    Though I have eaten some of those fish, and angling is a main reason for me to visit, I’ve always thought it insane to stock fish in places you are trying to be a good steward of. I want wilderness just as it is, not a simulation of what someone thought might be nice. It’s no place to be experimenting. In more heavily fished areas, we just have to accept not killing many, or even any, and in very sensitive or important places we have to accept not fishing at all. Gotta have priorities.

  4. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    I have too much of my childhood invested in impassioned pursuit of trout of various kinds around Yellowstone to look objectively at the idea that they should not have been stocked at all. They were a big part of my “wilderness” experience, whether or not the non-natives or transplanted natives can objectively be classified as part of it (as implied by Varley’s and Shullery’s book “Freshwater Wilderness”). Vast Shoshone Lake (and Lewis Lake) completely troutless? No hungry (if small) brookies for me to catch as a 12-year old (and later introduce to my kids) in the upper Gardner, Fawn Creek and Glen Creek? What about tiny Lost Lake, charged from the effluent of the Mammoth terraces through the old power house (used before Montana Power), once an incredible, safe fishery for local kids while it lasted for browns, brookies and occasional rainbows — just a short bike ride from home? Despite all the trout, the concentrated aquatic life in that pond fueled by hotsprings minerals was practically scary. Aquatic vegetation took over the lake within a decade right before my eyes, held at bay for a time by the very bodies of concentrated trout in a single remaining, shrinking hole (only now do I realize the culprit was milfoil out of somebody’s aquarium, and today I think you could walk right across it). Clearly in hindsight, different particular choices should have been made in many if not most cases (the introduction of lake trout to the region has ultimately been disastrous), and I suspect that today no transplants (native or otherwise) would have been made in those same water bodies in the park proper. However, I simply can’t view with regret many of the best experiences of my youth.

  5. monty Avatar

    Thanks for all of the above comments, all are worthy of reading.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan