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

Laurie with a beautiful Alaskan arctic char.

The Western Native Trout Challenge, launched this year, requires 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; Advanced 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.

So far, we have introduced you to the first angler to hit the Expert Level and the first Advanced Caster. Here’s some info on the first female angler to hit the Expert (and probably Advanced) Level–Laurie Banks of Sacramento, California–as well as her impressions of the experience.

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

I have been fly fishing for about 15 years. The love of my life, Ken Davis, is an aquatic biologist and fly fisher. When we were first dating, I would travel with him as he spoke to fly-fishing clubs. When we went to Montana to visit his relatives, I would watch them fly fish, and I thought it looked like fun. Ken tried to teach me to cast, but I would either end up mad at him or in tears. He encouraged me to join the local fly-fishing club, California Fly Fishers Unlimited (CFFU), so someone else could teach me.

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

In 2014 I was elected President of CFFU a 400-member fly fishing club. During my two-year term, the president-elect was Dave Lentz, who was the leader of the CDFW heritage-trout program. He was a huge influence in getting dozens of our members motivated to try the California Heritage Trout Challenge. I completed that and found it was so much fun to have goals to achieve. I had seen a variety of fish, but never the beautiful California and Little Kern golden trout, Lahontan and coastal cutthroats, Goose Lake and Warner redbands. I fell in love with small-stream fishing for these tiny jewels. When Dave told our club members about the Western Native Trout Challenge, I knew that was my next quest. I love that 23 of the 25-dollar registration fee goes for improving native fish habitat.

This small Idaho redband rainbow trout was a first for Laurie.

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

We had reservations for fishing in Alaska in early June. I knew we could get several of the fish on the challenge list there. Besides fishing for salmon, we targeted and caught arctic char, grayling, and Alaskan rainbows. Because we had caught fish for the CA Heritage Trout Challenge in 2016, we knew where to find them. In late June, we traveled to the Kern Plateau and caught the California goldens, Little Kern goldens, and Kern River rainbows. Now we had the six species needed for the first level, but only two states.

In July, we planned to go to Las Vegas to visit our daughter and grandkids. I casually mentioned to Ken that the location of the Apache trout in Arizona was only a six-hour drive from Vegas and that the New Mexican Gila trout were just over the Arizona border. He was all for it, so I started planning. The fish maps on the WNTC website are great. We knew what creeks we needed to target. We used our Garmin Explorer inReach and found access points for the creeks. I used a paper map and found a strategic town in Arizona to use for a home base and made hotel reservations. We bought our licenses online. I had no idea how to identify the fish, so I printed pictures of the Apache and Gila from the WNTC website. We were successful getting both, so now we had eight fish from four states and completed the Expert level.

In search of Lahontan cutthroats in northeastern Nevada.

In early September, we planned to visit our other daughter and grandkids in Idaho, then go to Montana to visit Ken’s sister and brother-in-law. Since we had to drive through Nevada to get there, I started planning. We caught the Lahontan cutthroat and redband in northeastern Nevada. Our daughter and her family love to spin fish, so we chased redbands and bull trout in Idaho with them. We got our Redband, but the Bull trout eluded us in both states.

Next we drove to Butte, Montana. Ken’s brother-in-law was recovering from neck surgery. To get him out of the house, we all went for a ride to a nearby pond that was included on the Challenge map. It was a delightful change from bushwhacking to get to streams, and we caught our Westslope cutthroat. We now had three more species and three more states. Just one more state to reach the Advanced level.

Our friend Nick had given us information about the Wyoming Cutt-Slam, so we decided to drive home through western Wyoming. Using his information and the WNTC website we found a drainage that contained the Bonneville cutthroat. I recently braved 16-degree weather to catch my Eagle Lake rainbow. I now have thirteen species in eight states to complete the Advanced level, but I can’t send in the documentation until next year as the WNTC only accepts one level per year.

Wyoming’s Salt River offered another glorious backdrop for the Challenge.

4. What was your favorite experience of the Challenge?

It’s hard to pick just one. I love new experiences. By pursuing the WNTC, we saw new terrain, streams, towns, and beautiful native fish species. On the long drives through some stunning country, I enjoyed the hours Ken and I spent collaborating. We’d discuss what worked and what didn’t, flies, techniques, and the state of the creeks. We are better fly fishers from participating in this challenge.

It was joyful to combine family and fishing. My grandsons Bo and Colt were thrilled to catch their first fish on a fly rod. I bought each of them a small fly box on a lanyard and let them pick out flies. They wore them around their necks all day. We introduced them to the catch-and-release concept. It’s a great feeling to pass on my passion to future generations. Someday someone will ask them, “How did you start fly fishing?” and they’ll answer,” My grandma taught us.”

Laurie’s grandsons loved their first day of fly fishing.

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

This challenge takes a lot of planning. Be sure you check the WNTC website. For example, Arizona Apache trout must be caught in one of three creeks. Montana only accepts fish caught in stocked ponds and lakes. If you drive a long distance and don’t get your fish, you may be disappointed and frustrated. If you have planned your trip to include tourism and other events, you will still have wonderful memories.

Some of these fish are so small that they slip through a standard net. I carried a small-holed net. We fished mostly dry flies: red and black ants, hoppers, and Elk Hair Caddis. Fish readily accepted these flies. Except the Gila. Nothing natural appealed to these fish but a lime-green Trude. Go figure! So, when the fish aren’t accepting your accurate imitations, try your attractors. Many of our fish were caught at dusk. By the time we got back to the hotel, restaurants in small towns were closed. We packed lots of food. It’s amazing how good Ramen Noodles are after a cold rainy day of fishing.

It was cold on Eagle Lake, but well worth the effort.

Many fish are only caught at high elevations. Pace yourself until you are acclimatized. Don’t trust the weather report! Be prepared for heat, cold, and unexpected rain. Remember to bring a wading staff. I didn’t need it for crossing these small streams, but many of the banks were overgrown and unstable with hidden rocks and deep holes. The rain had made many of the dirt roads worrisome. Even though we have an all-wheel-drive SUV, we found ourselves leaving the car to hike on slippery steep paths. I carried a small emergency kit in my vest: a signal mirror, bandages, waterproof matches, a space blanket, whistle, knife and cordage.

Click here for more info and to register for the
Western Native Trout Challenge!

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

  1. Thanks to Orvis for supporting the WNTC program. The Helios rod was a generous reward and according to Laurie it casts really well.

  2. Congratulations!!!!!!!! If I had the money to travel I could do it to!!!!! There are a lot of talented and knowledgeable people being held back cause of not enough money!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. I would encourage you to figure out a way to join this adventure. Other than Alaska, the cost can be minimal. I know one guy who slept in his truck. I can’t do that, or camp, so Laurie and I split rather cheap hotels, split gas purchase, and fixed Ramen noodles using the coffee maker to heat water as many of the inexpensive hotels don’t have microwaves. We have 4 friends who teamed up to make the cost of driving, lodging, etc., more affordable. It was an incredible learning experience worth all the effort. The biggest challenge was finding some of the creeks and getting to the fish. That’s a different story.

  3. Congratulations Laurie! Not only is Laurie an outstanding angler, she’s a very kind and wonderful person. All the best!

  4. Great story–Way to go Laurie and Ken!! Thanks to Orvis for the support for western native trout and featuring the WNTC. The Western Native Trout Initiative is doing great things and the WNTC is a fine way to get more people involved. I’m sure we will learn that Laurie has done the Master Level in 2020.

  5. Laurie, you are amazing! What a wonderful experience you and Ken are having. Seeing your adventure at our December CFFU meeting and reading this article is very special. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  6. Congrats Laurie! Quite an enviable accomplishment. BTW: Isn’t that an Agulowak Char at the GCI section of the river? That pic brings back some fond memories, especially the early season high water/fast current/tough fishing conditions. Guided there for 12 summers.

    1. Wow Neil, you nailed the exact site where Laurie caught the Char. GCI. As you know that area will spoil any angler…all the great fish. Thanks for the comment. Great memories!!! We fished out of Bearclaw Lodge.

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