Fly fishing is a much-romanticized pastime beloved by outdoorsmen the world over. Wading in pristine mountain streams and casting flies hand-tied out of animal hair towards wild and elusive fish are so enticing that movies such as A River Runs Through It practically make themselves.
Yet Texas fly fishermen find themselves in a bit of a predicament when it comes to this addictive passion; there is no trout species native to Texas. Sure, any fish can be pursued through fishing with flies, but the heart and soul of the sport will always lie in the pursuit of the game fish it was invented for: trout. Therefore, Texas fly fisherman are relegated to traveling out of the great state of Texas if they wish to pursue non-stocked trout populations.
Imagine, however, if it turned out that none of that was true.
Enter the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout, a rare species found in New Mexico and Southern Colorado. Considered by some to be the most beautiful fish in the world, it embodies everything that makes fly fishing great. It is elusive, wild, and free. Their pickiness often borders on the non-sensical, and the pursuit of them takes anglers to locations so remote, they could double as spiritual getaways. Today, there is a growing belief that they are actually native to Texas.
The first piece of evidence for this is simple geography. The native range of the Rio Grande Cutthroat suspiciously cuts off right at the Texas border. Those familiar with nature know that wildlife tend to care little for human boundaries. There is also a plethora of anecdotal evidence; for years there have been findings of photographs and accounts from the nineteenth and early 20th centuries of people finding and fishing for trout in the streams of West Texas, specifically in tributary streams of the Pecos and Rio Grande Rivers.
Further supporting this theory is the existence of a wild, self-sustaining population of Rainbow Trout in McKittrick Creek, in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. These trout, stocked by some unknown landowner around a century ago, have thrived in this environment ever since their introduction, further supporting the idea that a native trout once occupied these waters, and proving without a doubt its possibility.
In 1991 a research paper was published in the Texas Journal of Science by two Texas Parks and Wildlife Researchers, Gary P. Garret and Gary C. Matlock. Examining historical and anecdotal evidence, and even some evolutionary biology, they claimed the evidence “indicate[s] Texas may have had one indigenous salmonid, the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout.”
The exact reason for the fish’s demise in the state is not known with certainty. It was most likely a mixture of many factors: overfishing, the effects of agriculture and development on the environment, and competition from other introduced fish species. Introduced Rainbow Trout in particular have proven very troublesome for different native Cutthroat species all over the country, as their high degree of genetic similarity allows them to interbreed with Cutthroats. As the gene pool of the fish population continues to dilute, all offspring eventually resemble Rainbows altogether, and the native fish population fades away.
So what does this mean? If there was once a trout native to Texas, what does that mean for fishermen and wildlife enthusiasts today?
The Guadalupe River Chapter of Trout Unlimited (GRTU), a conservation organization dedicated to protecting trout populations across the country, is spearheading an effort to look into reintroducing the fish into its native Texas waters, starting with McKittrick Creek, home to the aforementioned viable population of introduced Rainbow Trout. Working with other conservation organizations and Guadalupe National Park staff, they have spent the past few years studying the environment of McKittrick Creek and its suitability for reintroducing Rio Grande Cutthroats. The studies are extensive, including analysis of fish surveys, water temperature and stream flow, and genetic studies. A final feasibility study is expected to be finished sometime in 2018.
If the results find reintroduction feasible, a decision can be made on the removal of the non-native Rainbow Trout of McKittrick Creek, and the reintroduction of the native Rio Grande Cutthroats. The success of this project may allow similar efforts to be done all over the proposed native range in West Texas.
A Texas Trout. Just the sound of such a thing fills many a fly fishing Texan with pride. Not having to leave this great state to pursue these noble creatures is almost a return-to-the-promised-land scenario. In this fly fisher’s humble opinion, the possibility of catching a native Texan trout while wearing a cowboy hat is something that needs to happen.