New Heathens

The Pelican Valley; Where 6″ > 20″

Pelican Creek in Yellowstone's storied Pelican Valley, which could very well be the park's wildlife crucible, is perhaps the only stream where a six-inch trout is better than a 20-inch trout.

Rich Hamstra and Bill Voigt, YNP volunteer angler coordinators, measure a 6-inch cutthroat on Pelican Creek.

I had the pleasure of visiting Pelican Creek today with Bill and Joann Voigt and Rich and Sue Hamstra, coordinators of the park's volunteer fly fishing program. The fact that we were able to fish Pelican Creek was a big deal unto itself: the stream had been closed for seven years because whirling disease was discovered there in 1998. Whirling disease is a parasite, imported from fish hatcheries in Europe, that infects, deforms and kills baby trout.

Whirling disease in Pelican Creek made for a double-whammy for the park's beleaguered Yellowstone cutthroat trout population. At the time the disease was discovered in Pelican Creek, the park's native cutthroats were already fast on their way to being decimated by lake trout that were illegally planted in Yellowstone Lake, into which Pelican Creek flows.

In many other streams that have been infected with whirling disease the trout populations have rebounded via natural selection. The small percentage of trout that are genetically resistant to the disease go on to survive and reproduce, eventually filling the stream with healthy trout.

The problem in Pelican Creek, according to biologists I spoke to, is twofold. First, the concentration whirling disease in Pelican Creek is incredibly high. Scientists took healthy baby trout inside fish cages and put them in the water in Pelican Creek in several sections along its length. When they went back and measured how severely they were infected with whirling disease, using a scale of one to five with five being the worst, all the little trout were fives.

Here's Bill examining minnows and trout fry caught by his granddaughter Dana Megginson for signs of whirling disease.

The second huge problem is that even if a cutthroat born in Pelican Creek did have a natural resistance to whirling disease, that fish would eventually migrate down to Yellowstone Lake where the odds are high that it would become a meal for a lake trout.

Thus by the early 2000s the trout population in Pelican Creek, which once averaged around 30,000 spawning cutthroat each spring, collapsed. Also, ominously, of the cutthroats that remained most were old and big. Entire populations of young, small cutthroats were missing, a bad sign for the future.

Bill had gone into Pelican Creek a couple weeks ago with other volunteer anglers that caught two 20-inch cutthroats. He said it was great to see cutthroats in the creek, sure, but what would be really encouraging would be to see some different sized fish, showing that there are different age groups that are surviving.

Enter me. Need a little fish caught? I'm your man. Look what I pulled out of Pelican.

That's Bill holding my 6-inch cutthroat. He had me put the little dude in that yellow bag of water so I could bring him over to be measured before we released him. Note that the cutthroat shows no visible signs of whirling disease, such as a deformed spinal cord or a swollen head. That fish was probably born within the last two years, Bill said, and has survived.

Cutthroat trout aren't the only animal to have been pushed to the brink in Yellowstone's Pelican Valley. In his remarkable book "Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, The Battle to Save the Buffalo and the Birth of the New West," author Michael Punke brings the story of North America's mass bison slaughter to an incredible climax in Yellowstone's Pelican Valley. It was there, by 1902, that the last 23 wild bison hid out after they were pursued by a notorious poacher named Edgar Howell. A U.S. soldier and a civilian scout captured Howell in a brutal snowstorm in March 1894. The two men heard shots from Howell's rifle, and then they snuck up on him while he was cutting the head off one of five dead buffalo lying around him.

The buffalo in the Pelican Valley today are descendants of those 23 survivors, making the 50-square-mile valley the only place in the U.S. where bison have roamed continuously since the last ice age.

It was really cool to see one of them today.

Yellowstone's volunteer angler program is a neat way for regular Joes and Josephines who love the park and its trout to help out. The program started because the park's fisheries biologists are so overwhelmed battling the massive lake trout problem in Yellowstone Lake. Volunteer anglers can help these biologists by bringing them information on trout populations in other waters, and by harvesting non-native trout from certain lakes and streams.

Click here for more information about the program.

Me & Bill in the Pelican Valley.

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  1. Awesome informative article! Thanks Nate, for illuminating these issues. It’s a rare opportunity for people to be part of a conservation program by simply fishing! We all knew we could change the world through fishing! Carry on!

  2. Thanks, Nate. That was a really great post and very informative. I really enjoyed reading it.

  3. Your post was so good it inspired me to write about my recent experience on Pelican Creek. Thanks for the update.

  4. Great job of telling the story…it was a great day. I didn’t know the bison story.

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