Rare records

Wyoming offers a lot of diversity when it comes to fishing in terms of species, bodies of water and environments. But let’s face it, when many people think about fishing in the Cowboy State they think trout. From lake trout in Flaming Gorge Reservoir, rainbow trout along the Miracle Mile, cutthroat trout in lakes and rivers or brook trout in smaller creeks and ponds, trout fishing in Wyoming gives anglers many options and locales.

But what about the big ones — not trophy-sized trout, but record-sized? Most Wyoming records for trout are old. The oldest is the golden trout from 1948 when C.S. Reed of Omaha, Nebraska, landed an 11-pound, 4-ounce beast out of Cook Lake in Sublette County. That fish also is the world record.

Cutthroat, rainbow, brook and brown trout also are long-standing records. Here’s some perspective on how old those records are:

— In 1948, the year the golden trout record was caught, the cost of a first-class postage stamp was 3 cents.

— Alaska and Hawaii were admitted as the 49th and 50th states, respectively, in 1959 the year Wyoming’s cutthroat record was set. 

— Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, the same year the state’s record rainbow trout was landed on Wyoming’s shores.

— The United States bicentennial was celebrated in 1976. Wyoming’s record brook trout was celebrated that same year.

— The television show, “Late Night with David Letterman,” debuted in 1982, the same year the record brown was recorded.

Why have these trout records lasted so long? Several unique factors must come into play for any record to be broken. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t big trout in Wyoming. Look at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Master Angler fishing challenge online to see the big ones anglers have recorded in recent years, including a 30-inch brown, a 26.5-inch cutthroat and a 24-inch brook trout.

That leads to the next question: will any of these records ever be broken? It depends on who you ask.
“Some will never be broken,” said Darren Rhea, fisheries supervisor for Game and Fish in the Jackson Region.
“I have no doubt there are fish out there around the state that are going to surprise us some day. Some of those records will be overtaken,” said Robb Keith, Green River Region fisheries supervisor.

Why records are old
Trout have been in Wyoming for a long time, but with the exception of cutthroats, all are not native to the state. Many trout were stocked in lakes, streams and reservoirs, and they took advantage of those early years.
“Oftentimes stocked fish are new to an environment that hasn’t been exploited so there’s tons of food resources,” said Mark Smith, Game and Fish assistant fisheries management coordinator. “Also in their early days there probably wasn't knowledge of those fish in some of those waters and they had a longer shelf life.”
Smith said there is a phenomenon when a new reservoir is impounded where water that covers vegetation and organic material increases production of that vegetation, which in turn provides fish with food. And in many cases early in a reservoir’s life, a lot of food. Those first fish introduced have the opportunity to grow fast.

An example is the brown trout record of 25 pounds, 13 ounces in 1982 from Flaming Gorge Reservoir by George Rose of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Rhea said after the reservoir's construction in 1964 there were some floods that covered sagebrush, bitterbrush and other shrubs that provided food and helped the chub population “explode” in the reservoir. The chub was prey for brown trout and produced a world-class fishery. A lot has changed at Flaming Gorge since then — everything from water levels to the fish species that currently call the reservoir home. Today, those conditions that allowed the record brown to get that big no longer exist.

Rhea said rainbow trout in Burnt Lake in Sublette County, where the state-record was recorded at 23 pounds in 1969, took advantage of an abundant chub population. Since then there are not as many chubs in the lake and other fish species like brook and lake trout were introduced that changed the entire fish community.
“That’s a record that may never be broken,” Rhea said.

Records meant to be broken
Flaming Gorge also sources Wyoming records for lake trout (50 pounds in 1995), kokanee salmon (6.31 pounds) and channel catfish (28.52 pounds in 2017).
Rhea said he and other Game and Fish personnel have received unconfirmed reports of state-record sized lake trout caught out of Flaming Gorge, but not kept by anglers. 
“They don’t want to have to kill the fish,” Rhea said. He also said Game and Fish has sampled lake trout in the reservoir that would have exceeded the state record.

Kokanee salmon is a fairly new fish species in Wyoming, but it is growing in popularity among anglers. Flaming Gorge receives most of the kokanee Game and Fish stocks in the state, and Keith said he wouldn’t be surprised if the state record is broken in the next 10 years.

Smith said two relatively new trout hybrids in Wyoming — splake and tiger trout — are state records that could be broken in the near future. Splake is a cross between brook and lake trout; tiger trout is a combination of brook and brown trout.
“Splake and tiger trout are new enough, and some have not lived long enough or in the right body of water to see what they can do,” Smith said. “We’ve seen samples of splake that would break the current record, and tiger trout have been caught close enough to the existing record so I expect those records to fall.”
As for the long-standing trout records: “They are pretty safe unless some exceptional fish finds an exceptional place to grow,” Smith added. “I would be surprised if those records are broken over the next 10 years.”

Managing act
Game and Fish manages certain waters for big fish. One management tool is size limits on fish people can harvest. At Flat Creek on the National Elk Refuge from the McBride Bridge downstream to the posted closure sign in Teton County, all cutthroat less than 20 inches must be released to the water immediately. The same is true for trout at Soda Lake near Pinedale.

Wyoming has 10 streams designated as blue-ribbon trout fisheries, which means they have greater than 600 pounds of trout per mile. This represents the top 3 to 5 percent of rivers or streams in the state for trout production. Game and Fish also manages certain lakes and reservoirs for trophy fish, which is determined by a length. Examples are East Newton Lake and Luce Reservoir in the Cody Region where all trout must be released immediately. At Muddy Guard Reservoir No. 1 south of Buffalo, all trout less than 20 inches must be released and the creel limit is one per day, per angler.

However, one thing Game and Fish doesn’t do is manage waters to specifically produce record-sized fish.
“Sometimes when exceptional fish are caught from places it is because they are in really low densities, and that doesn’t necessarily equate to good fishing,” Smith said. “For example, the biggest golden trout we often see are ones that trickle downstream into a new lake and happen to grow exceptionally large because they are the only fish of that kind feeding on whatever they are feeding on.

“If you wanted to manage a reservoir for the biggest rainbow trout you could grow, there would be way fewer fish in there. We could grow bigger fish in some waters, but it would come at a cost where fishing would be relatively poor and most people wouldn’t catch fish and be unhappy about it. In many cases what we try to do is balance that scale where we grow some pretty nice fish, and yet there’s enough of them out there where people catch them regularly enough to make it worth their time.”

For the record
Smith said if any of Wyoming’s trout records are broken those fish will be caught in a lake or reservoir — not a river or stream.
“It’s not impossible for fish to get exceptional-sized in a big river system, but highly improbable because it takes such an incredible food source,” he said. “When you see a really large brown trout from a stream or river they are in proximity to lakes or reservoirs and may be putting on a lot of weight from feeding in those environments. Rivers and streams just are not as productive as lakes and reservoirs for food. A lake or reservoir likely has a sizable food source for big fish — meaning other fish. A 9-pound brook trout doesn’t get that big by eating insects. It eats flesh.”

Four subspecies of cutthroat are native to Wyoming: Bonneville, Colorado, Snake River and Yellowstone. Game and Fish sponsors the Cutt-Slam, which enters its 26th year in 2022 and recognizes anglers who catch and document landing all four subspecies within their native range. There was no acknowledgment of the subspecies in 1959 when the state record was caught. Smith said it can be “incredibly hard to differentiate from one subspecies to another.” He also said his “best guess” of the subspecies that is the state record is a Yellowstone cutthroat because that was the primary subspecies stocked in most waters in the western U.S. at that time.

That record cutthroat was caught in Native Lake in Sublette County. The brook, golden and rainbow trout records also were caught out of lakes in Sublette County. Coincidence or is there something to that?
“It’s a product of the conditions there,” Rhea said. “It's a good place to grow trout — it’s a cold environment with cold, clear water and very few impacts from humans. That region, and upper Sublette County in particular, has probably some of the most diverse trout communities in the state. There’s populations of almost all the trout species found in Wyoming in that part of the state.”

Tough act to follow
Big trout likely are older trout and have figured out ways to utilize the food sources in their environment. They also have avoided being caught by anglers. Perhaps big trout are smarter than the smaller ones, or they use their size to their advantage to avoid being landed.
“I think there’s some truth to that,” Keith said. “When opportunities are there, anglers need to figure out how to keep them on their line. With the sheer weight and size of these fish, hooking up is one thing but getting them in the boat or the net is another.”

— Robert Gagliardi is the associate editor of Wyoming Wildlife magazine.
Photographer Info
Patrick Clayton

Want the latest updates?

Sign up to get the latest news and events sent directly to your inbox.