Meet the First Angler to Complete Expert Level of the Western Native Trout Challenge

California golden trout.
All photos by Scott Lyons

Back in May, we told you about the new Western Native Trout Challenge, which asks anglers to fish across the West, catching and photographing native species. There are three levels of the challenge. The Expert level requires you to catch six species in fours states; Advance level requires 12 species across eight states; and the Master level requires 18 species in 12 states. As part of Orvis’s support of the challenge, the first male, female, and youth anglers to complete each level will receive a Helios 3 fly rod.

The first angler to hit the Expert Level was Californian Scott Lyons. We asked Scott to send us a few photos and answer five questions about his angling life and what it took to complete the first stage of the WNTC.

1. How long have you been fly fishing, and how did you get started?

I cast my first fly into the streams of the Sierra Nevada with my dad back in the 1970s.  I remember bouncing around in the back of an old Willys Jeep as we covered the dusty miles along ridgelines between the canyons of remote and rarely fished waters. I eagerly accepted any and all opportunities to fish with dad and over the years became incredibly comfortable with a fly rod.  I still have my dad’s wicker creel, vest, and many of his flies.  I sure miss him and would give anything for another day on the water with him. 

The search for natives takes you to remote, beautiful places.

I often think about how much he and I would enjoy the pursuit of native trout across the Western United States. Dad didn’t really have a huge body of knowledge concerning native trout. What he did know is that the farther from the road and civilization, the fishing was usually better.  Dad passed away before I had become so enamored with native trout, but my passion comes from deep within and fueled by the wonderful memories my father shared with me.  In a way, he is with me whenever I hit the water.

2. What made you want to do the Western Native Trout Challenge?

When I saw the Western Native Trout Challenge, I knew I was in. I am already motivated to seek out the fish from remote locations. While I still enjoy catching large trout in tailwaters or float-tubing for grabby trout, my favorite fishing occurs on tiny streams, where rare and beautiful natives still cling to the remnants of their ancestral homes. This challenge is fabulous because it combines and coordinates many of the challenges I have already completed–the Wyoming Cutt Slam, the Utah Cutt Slam, the Nevada Native Fish Slam, and the California Heritage Trout Challenge. 

Another aspect that I love about these challenges is that I am sharing the adventures with family and friends. With a tangible task, I find it quite easy to motivate others to join me on the quest. Because these journeys often require extensive travel, I have time to plan and discuss our trip in detail with my cohorts, including the biological history of our target species. In every case, I have been to some of this country’s most beautiful and pristine watersheds. I have had the opportunity to expose others to the satisfaction of seeing the true native inhabits of said watersheds. 

Colorado cutthroat trout.

I think building appreciation for the delicate and fragile ecosystems where these fish live is part of the mission of this challenge. I never post any photos or locations and am usually quite tight-lipped about my fishing data, but I eagerly share with those who are interested and will invest the energy to share my love and appreciation of the fish. Typically, public exposure is the death knell for fisheries. On the other hand, firsthand knowledge and appreciation of sensitive natural systems can lead to advocacy and support. There’s another reason to participate in these challenges. If registration fees go towards conservation, habitat improvement, and angler education, I want to be a part of it.

3. How did you plan your trips to catch the most species?

As one who loves maps, I love plotting the course to the next location.   Whether looking at a loop of highway across several states or examining a topo map to see how close the dirt road gets to the stream, I love all stages of the planning process. My wife and I have hiked 16 miles in one day for native trout. I have been in a float plane to gain access to native trout.  I have ridden on horseback to get to native trout. These have all been wonderful experiences and built memories for a lifetime. 

In planning for this adventure, I had my two great friends and colleagues joining me. We rented a car and brought camping gear. We wanted to catch fish in Utah. From our starting point in Placerville, California, we debated going the southern route, passing through Arizona and New Mexico, or taking a northerly route through Oregon and Idaho. We knew we wouldn’t have time to complete the entire loop. Passing straight through Nevada was a probable likelihood. Fortunately, Nevada contains some amazing native trout water.  

Oftentimes, true native populations are restricted to headwater streams.

As departure date drew near, we decided to blast across Nevada, do a loop through Utah, and return through Idaho and Nevada. We knew we could count on fish from California to finish the Expert Level of the Challenge.   Having done the Nevada Native Fish Slam before gave us knowledge and confidence to catch Bonneville and Lahontan cutthroat. Utah was brand new territory for us, but I was comfortable with my research and we shared moments with Colorado River cutthroat, Bonneville cutthroat, Bear River cutthroat, and Yellowstone cutthroat. Passing through a small piece of Idaho allowed us time to fish for and catch Redband rrout. The return through Nevada allowed us to revisit waters containing bull trout. 

Although we had all been successful years ago pursuing bull trout for the Nevada Native Fish Slam, this trip saw only more redband trout at the ends of our lines. Two of us were done with the Challenge since two weeks earlier we had taken a pack trip deep into the Golden Trout Wilderness in the southern Sierra Nevada. Our other friend took his wife on a trip to the Redwoods of Northwestern California and was able to add a Coastal Cutthroat to his list. So my fish for the challenge were the California golden trout, the Bonneville and Lahontan cutthroat from Nevada, the Colorado and Yellowstone cutthroat from Utah, and the interior redband trout from Idaho.  I was very excited to hear that my submission was the first, as I am confident this will be a popular quest for years to come.  

4. What was your favorite experience of the Challenge?

I cannot just think of one favorite thing or aspect of this challenge.  When you spend a night under the stars listening to water that contains its native inhabitants, you will feel how it all rolls into one.  The miles of travel, the laughter with friends, the view of a canyon, the smell of the sage and trees, the breeze cooling you down, the cold water flowing over the rocks, and the rise of a cutthroat to a fly will soothe your soul and make time stand still. 

Sometimes, maximum stealth is required to fool small-stream trout.

5. What advice would you give someone just starting out on the Challenge?

I cannot encourage people enough to do your due diligence, as far as research is concerned. The research is a really enjoyable part of the planning process, and anticipation is a part of the pleasure. Really study the maps. Use good topographic maps. Google Earth is a big help too, but I always calibrate with an old school, hardcopy map. Have more than one stream or lake in mind as a backup. Pay attention to the weather and runoff.  Get copies of Robert Behnke’s Trout and Salmon of North America, Robert Smith’s Native Trout of North America and  Pattrick Trotter’s Cutthroat – Native Trout of the West. And of course, the internet is an amazing resource, with dozens of knowledgeable anglers hosting native trout websites. 

At this point, the Western Native Trout Initiative’s own pages regarding the challenge can serve as the one-stop shop for scientific, biological, and geographical background information.  With links to the official state departments of fish, game, and wildlife, someone just starting out can position themselves for success. 

5 thoughts on “Meet the First Angler to Complete Expert Level of the Western Native Trout Challenge”

  1. Congratulations, Scott. You not only achieved this distinction for all of the right reasons, you so eloquently described the experience as well. I look forward to a book or, at least, an article in Trout magazine. I tip my rod to you.well

    Thanks, Orvis for recognizing Scott’s accomplishment.

    Bill Love
    Sandpoint, Idaho

    1. You are cordially invited to my backyard in Chiloquin Or. My backyard holds some of the largest native redband trout. Ip to 15 lbs 100% natives and nobody can seem to catch one of the big ones. I hooked a monster during the hex but my 3 weight was not up to the challange. If u want to try your luck you are welcome the fall (right now) is the best. However water is gin clear e mail me or call 541 783 2385 and we will make a plan. You have to promise not to publish my address or phone number – John Humphrey

  2. In my younger years backpacking in the High Country Northern California I used to Target them fried fry I’m up for dinner in Camp but as I’ve gotten older and seeing less and less of them I just enjoy their beauty how they come up and take a little salmon egg or a mealworm and leave them alone there are so few now

    1. Dan,
      I appreciate your comments. It is so important to understand your species population and its location. I wouldn’t dream of keeping that first golden from the first picture. It was from an isolated, and small population that is reportedly one of the purest genetic strains of golden trout. The stream flowing through the meadow in the second picture however, can absolutely support providing the occasional limit of golden trout for the frying pan. In fact, we did sample them fried to a lovely golden brown and they were delicious. Again, I would not consider harvesting even a single trout from the final two streams in the final two photos. Both of those streams hold remnant populations of cutthroat species that I only wanted to catch for a photographic record. The rest of my time at those creeks was spent enjoying the location with a couple of the local microbrews. Another great reason to hit the road following a little research. This “challenge” is all about the adventure and education. It is not about numbers, size, or filling up a stringer.

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