Boise angler tackles elite trout fishing challenge: 20 native species across 12 states
BY NICOLE BLANCHARD JUNE 09, 2021 05:00 AM, UPDATED JUNE 09, 2021 01:23 PM
At the end of May, Daniel Ritz again found himself in unfamiliar waters. The 33-year-old Boisean had just landed in Alaska, the latest destination in his pursuit of more than a dozen rare trout species.
Within a few days, Ritz had landed four of the six species he came to Alaska to catch, adding to the list of trout he’d already landed in the southwestern U.S. weeks earlier.
The trek is part of the Western Native Trout Challenge, a catch-and-release fishing endeavor that requires anglers to reel in various species of trout in their historic waters. Ritz created an additional challenge for himself — he’ll try to complete the undertaking in just a few months, chronicling his fishing trips on the Trout Unlimited website.
He said he hopes the project will shed light on the often dire circumstances these fish are in, something he learned only relatively recently.
“Every single day I’m looking to learn as much as I possibly can (about the fish and their habitats) and share some of the most important parts,” he said in a phone interview.
PURSUIT RAISES ANGLERS’ AWARENESS FOR CHALLENGED NATIVE TROUT
Ritz learned to fly fish on Idaho’s alpine lakes just a few years ago. A Maryland native, Ritz had grown up interested in surfing, hiking and backpacking. The latter hobbies naturally led to his love of fishing, he said. In 2018, he became “infatuated” with fly fishing and soon started to learn as much as he could about it.
“I love to get really impassioned by my hobby,” said Ritz, who is the communications manager for the Ted Trueblood Chapter of Trout Unlimited, which is based in Boise. “I like to become a student of the things I like to do.”
Ritz said he focused on learning the ropes of fly fishing, but soon enough realized there was more than meets the eye to the species he was catching.
“It just blew my mind,” he said of learning about historic fish habitats. “It’s a very historically complex and, I think, a really important aspect people can add to their fishing experience.”
Not long after, he stumbled across the Western Native Trout Challenge. The challenge, hosted by the Western Native Trout Initiative, has three tiers for anglers of different skill levels: Expert, Advanced and Master Casters.
“The easiest level still isn’t that easy,” said Therese Thompson, coordinator for the Western Native Trout Initiative, in a phone interview.
The expert level requires anglers to catch and photograph six different trout species in at least four states, while the advanced challenge ups the requirement to 12 species in at least eight states. The master level — which Ritz is attempting — requires an angler to catch and photograph 18 species across all 12 states that participate in the initiative.
“The challenge is our way of raising the profile of these 21 native trout species that we focus on,” Thompson said.
Participants pay $25 to register, with nearly all of the registration fee going toward the initiative’s conservation efforts. There is no time limit to complete the challenge, and anglers must follow a handful of rules, including stipulations that forbid them from duplicating species across state lines. Thompson said pursuing the challenge is a chance to learn, even for experienced anglers.
“If you ask most anglers, much less someone who doesn’t fish, they will tell you a brown trout is native to North America,” she said, “and it’s not.”
She said she hopes challenge participants will make having fun their No. 1 priority.
“The whole concept of the challenge is to tell people about the fish and also motivate them to get out and hopefully catch them, but it’s really more about the adventure,” Thompson said. “It’s the adventure of a lifetime.”
FROM APACHE TROUT IN ARIZONA TO ARCTIC GRAYLING IN ALASKA
The Western Native Trout Initiative works with fish and wildlife agencies in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming to try to preserve and restore native trout habitat. Ritz must travel to each state to complete his challenge.
By early June, he had already landed fish in six states. He reeled in his first challenge fish, a Lahontan cutthroat, in Nevada. Next was a redband trout at home in Idaho.
Next, Ritz traveled to New Mexico, reeling in a Gila trout amid a landscape charred by repeated wildfires.
“These are the southernmost trout in North America,” Ritz said. “To be so lucky as to go to a place like that — the only place where they exist — was a powerful experience for me.”
He partnered with Trout Unlimited, the Western Native Trout Initiative, Orvis and Montana Fly Company for the journey, which took him across the border from New Mexico into Arizona to pursue Apache trout. The fish, whose original range was an already sparse three waterways in the Southwest, have in recent years shown promising signs of population growth, Ritz reported.
Completing the trout challenge in the space of a few months will prove tricky, but Ritz is feeling confident. Already he’s nearly halfway to his goal after catching Dolly Varden, arctic grayling, lake trout and coastal cutthroat trout in Alaska, and a Yellowstone cutthroat in Utah.
“There’s a part of me that has to acknowledge that a part of angling and a pursuit like this is there has to be a possibility of failure,” Ritz said. “That’s why you get excited when you catch a fish.
“The angling portion … I think it’s very doable,” he continued. “I think it will be difficult in the nature of doing it in a continuous, consecutive loop … but that’s what makes it a fun challenge.”
Soon he’ll return to the contiguous U.S. to pursue species like bull trout and a variety of cutthroat trout. Ritz is fishing only on public land and said he’s forgoing guiding services, hoping to pursue an “everyman’s journey” that other anglers can emulate (though he acknowledged his contacts through Trout Unlimited offer him a substantial leg up).
Thompson said she’s excited to see the outcome of Ritz’s challenge.
“I love what Dan’s trying to do,” she said. “I think he’ll make it. It’ll be interesting to see.”
She said Ritz’s well-organized trips will be a big boon, but even the best-laid plans hit roadblocks. Ritz won’t have any hope of catching the Little Kern golden trout, a California species found only in the Little Kern River and its tributaries in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The area burned in a wildfire last August and has been closed to recreation as it’s rehabilitated.
That hasn’t deterred Ritz, who said he’s “almost looking forward to failure” because it will illustrate the message at the heart of the challenge.
“That’s the story, right? It’s learning about why we need to enhance populations … and look to protect these really isolated homes of these species,” he said.
If Ritz completes the challenge, he’ll be one of just six anglers to earn the Master Caster designation and one of only a few dozen to complete any level of the challenge. Follow his progress at the Trout Unlimited website, tu.org.