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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Sports >  Outdoors

High achievement: Backcountry biologist created wilderness fishing Mecca in Beartooths

By Rich Landers For The Spokesman-Review

Pat Marcuson is a rare breed of mountain man fisheries biologist who, for more than a decade, had to resole his boots halfway through every summer.

“They said Vibram soles would last a season, but they never did,” he said.

While working for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Spokane native hiked thousands of miles usually with a college helper or two. They’d climb into lung-stressing elevations while schlepping packs heavy with gear, food, 125-foot gillnets, instruments and a 100-pound Taiwan raft.

“The work was manageable, but the weather sometimes kicked my ass,” he said.

Retired and fit at 78, Marcuson is a rock star among fishermen familiar with his work in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

Backcountry anglers who don’t know of his contributions simply reap the benefits from his career and guidebook, “Fishing the Beartooths.”

The fisheries scientist devoted around 180 days a year from 1967-82 to surveying and hydrographing 989 lakes. The resulting trout management plan he drew up continues to provide one of the country’s standout backcountry fishing experiences.

“A Montana State University professor once said he had some smart, top-notch grad students interested in getting involved in surveying the lakes,” Marcuson said. “I told him I liked ‘smart,’ but mostly what I needed were hard workers who knew how to use a hammer and pack a load.”

Marcuson, who graduated from Lewis and Clark High School and the University of Idaho, recounted his decades-old work in the spectacular mountains north of Yellowstone National Park during a recent interview at his family’s Waitts Lake cabin north of Spokane.

“A man who had a Jeep business in Cooke City complained to my supervisor, and rightfully so, that we weren’t paying attention to those lakes,” Marcuson said. “The Beartooth Highway hadn’t yet become popular as a tourist attraction and most people entered Yellowstone Park elsewhere.”

When Marcuson started surveying the remote lakes, other biologists schooled in cost-benefit ratios questioned why he’d devote so much attention to the mountains while so many resource problems persisted in the state’s river valleys.

“I also had lowland stream projects going on … but I was intrigued by how much we didn’t know about the wilderness lakes,” he said.

Trout did not naturally occur in most of the Beartooths high-mountain lakes, many of which are in the vast alpine tundra at elevations above 10,000 feet.

Change began around the 1930s, including an ill-advised biplane stocking of brook trout from Pennsylvania into remote Star Lake.

“It may have been the first aerial mountain lake plant,” he said. “We later learned that brook trout would overpopulate and stunt.”

Horse packers were bringing in fish in cream containers and in some cases brook trout were displacing native cutthroat where they occurred. Golden trout from California were stocked hit and miss; rainbows were planted, too.

“A game warden was dumping a hatchery Yellowstone cutthroat stock on top of established fisheries of golden trout and grayling,” he said. It was a mess.”

Based on a review of the 47 golden trout fisheries in Montana at the time, he started creating a Beartooths plan.

“Nobody knew much about the goldens until I started studying them,” he said.

His plan called for finding lakes with suitable food source, mostly strings of lakes that were remote to reduce the potential for attracting heavy pressure. “Golden’s are outlet spawners. They’re usually unsuccessful up there, so I wanted another lake below them if they were washed out.”

Cutthroats also don’t reproduce well in most of the lakes. That gives fish managers greater control. In some cases, about 100 young trout are stocked into the remote high lakes every four to eight years for maximum growth. Most mountain anglers release their fish for others to catch.

“I emphasized in the book to watch the state’s stocking schedules and plan fishing trips for the third or fourth year after a plant,” Marcuson said. “The fisheries need time to grow and rebuild.”

Brook trout, which are autumn shoreline spawners, tend to be overly successful at spawning in high mountain lakes. “I found some very hard-to-catch 7-pound brook trout in the Beartooths,” he said, “but most of the brookies are stunted and sexually mature at 6 inches long.”

In some cases Marcuson used rotenone to clean out a poorly performing cutthroat or brook trout fishery or a lake fouled with minnows used illegally as bait.

The lakes were restocked with cutthroats originating from Yellowstone’s Slough Creek. They were adapted and performed much better in the high lakes than the previous hatchery stocks, he said.

“Winter was a good time to kill off a lake,” he said, seeming to brush off the rigors of snowmobiling to the wilderness boundary and then continuing on skis or snowshoes to get the job done.

“A little rotenone goes a long way in the cold when the fish are concentrated in the smaller portion of water that has oxygen.”

He’d restock the lake when, in subsequent surveys, a fish didn’t die as he lowered it through the water column in a cage.

Before lakes were stocked and managed, they had to be studied.

“Every lake is different,” he said. “If you want to know what’s out there and how to get maximum growth, you have to get out and study it, feel it, look into the water. Only then can you determine how to plant.”

Surveys involved setting gillnets at night, getting up early the next day and working the fish by recording lengths, weights, stomach samples and collecting scales and ear bones (otoliths) for aging.

Once he got the stocking schedule perfected for a mountain lake, he’d stick to the script to avoid overstocking or hybridization.

“Sometimes pilots stocking fish would have difficulty finding specific lakes in the years before GPS. It was tricky flying in the high country and I’d tell them I’d rather they dumped a load of fish on the rocks than put them in a lake we hadn’t specified.”

Marcuson’s plan purposely left many of the Beartooth lakes barren of fish for three reasons: to have a natural barometer for comparing with the food chain in stocked lakes; to comply with Forest Service rules protecting amphibians, and to mesh with his notion of wilderness.

“You don’t need fish in every lake,” he said. “Discovery is part of wilderness.

“But it’s worth noting that I never saw evidence of frogs or even juvenile frogs in trout stomach samples in the Beartooths.

“My idea was to distribute fish and spread out pressure to minimize abuse around fragile shorelines. Lakes close to trailheads are stocked more heavily to satisfy more anglers, but the cutthorats will be smaller. Anglers who wanted to eat fish were steered toward brook trout lakes, which are self producing.”

Multiple Montana’s state record golden trout weighing around 5 pounds have been taken from Lightning Lake over the years.

“I caught a bigger golden – 8 pounds – but I never said anything about it,” Marcuson said. “I caught it in a gillnet.”

Helicopters were used occasionally to access lakes outside the wilderness boundary.

“We’d land on a lake and I’d sit on the pontoons to set out nets and instruments,” he said. “That was pretty nice.”

The job was largely grunt work.

“Packing three gillnets, water sampling gear and instruments didn’t leave much room even for an extra pair of pants,” he said. “We went real skinny on the personal stuff.”

He prayed for wind some days to ward off the mosquitoes and one of the Beartooth’s legendary thunder storms was expected nearly every afternoon.

“The lightning could be scary as hell,” he said. “More than once I had every hair on my body standing straight out.

“We didn’t have great rain gear back then, so we got wet. I’d be out there with a couple grad students for 10 days at a time followed by four days off mostly preparing for the next 10 days out.

“We relied on fires in the early days before equipping with stoves that were easier on the land. But I must say, a fire saved my butt more than a few times when the weather hit, like a time I got caught in a whiteout coming out of Stillwater and spent an very long unexpected night out.”

Marcuson and his helpers ate simple dinners of potatoes or noodles adorned with some of the trout they salvaged from gillnet samples.

“You had to be fast at dinner,” he said. “Whatever food we had was gone instantly.”

Partnering with the Forest Service for funding, Marcuson also surveyed camping use in the wilderness. “They made me an ex officio warden,” he said. “I especially disliked litterbugs.”

Once he came across Wyoming climbing legend and NOLS founder Paul Petzoldt at a backcountry lake with a large group of people training in wilderness skills.

“I was pissed,” Marcuson said. “I wrote Paul a letter when I came out and sternly told him I never wanted to see him bring 50 people into the Beartooths again. He got it. We got a long well from then on.”

On another trip, Marcuson was camped near Jordan Lake, which coincidentally had attracted a Boy Scout troop from Livingston as well as a group of mining executives outfitted by Orvis with expensive rods and golden reels.

“Lt. Gov. Bill Christiansen was with that party,” he said. “They were beautiful casters. Artists with a fly rod.

“The scouts had terrible gear and needed some help getting started. I told them to cast along the shoreline on the side of the lake that had windrows of zooplankton. Pretty soon they were catching fish right and left – more than the experts.

“I actually got a nasty letter from Christiansen about that. He apparently was a bit embarrassed.”

Marcuson often sampled lakes with a fishing rod when gillnetting wasn’t practical.

“I’d usually use a grayhackle fly with a peacock body and a dropper. I would tease fish to come up by casting at a rock and letting the fly bounce off and sink.

“For goldens, I favored a Size 14 black ant with added weight to get down deep where the fish are. The goldens I sampled had bellies full of ants.”

He also used hopper flies at some lakes, and he always had green chironomid pupae patterns. “They’re in every lake.

“For cutthroat, I’d try to have red on the fly. Their stomachs would be full of big zooplankton which would be dark and packed against a segment of red copepods. It’s like they’d focus on one food and then another.”

Conventional wisdom at the time suggested that fish in ice-covered mountain lakes went dormant during winter.

“But I documented growth in winter cutthroat,” he said. “They were eating winter-friendly zooplankton.

“At Goose Lake out of Cooke City, I can remember shoveling a hole 12 feet down in the snow to reach the ice so I could auger a hole. It was like being in a flower bin.”

Bears didn’t present any notable incidents during his backcountry work in Montana.

“All of those came later when I worked in Alaska,” he said.

But the Beartooths had its share of drama.

“Once I hear commotion while working on a lake,” he said. “We ran up to where some horses were tethered and one had been eviscerated. A bull moose had attacked it with his antlers.

“Another time, I had the bright idea to speed things up by carrying the boat from one lake and riding it with a grad student like a toboggan down a snowfield to the next lake.

“We couldn’t see it from above, but there was a gap of bare ground between the snowfield and the lake. We didn’t break our necks, but we both ended up in the 50-degree water.”

State biologists continue to use some of Marcuson’s data in what’s become the most complete and detailed record of mountain trout lakes in the country, according to the Montana FWP website.

Marcuson said it was a privilege to spend so much time in the wilderness.

“I got paid to do what a lot of people do to recreate,” he said. “I’ve explored a lot of beautiful mountains, but the Beartooths top them all in terms of variety.”

All of Montana’s named peaks 12,000 feet or higher are in the Absaroka and Beartooth mountains, including Granite Peak, the highest in the state at 12,807 feet.

“Where else can you find so many lakes among such magnificent peaks and flowery meadows?” he asked. “It’s as good as it gets. The fishing is good, too.”

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