Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer
"The hardest fighting fish, the gamiest fish, in all the world is the Lake Crescent Beardslee." – E. B. Webster.
June 1st 2013
It was opening day of trout season on Lake Crescent in Olympic National Park. I dressed quietly in the grayness of the early morning, slipped on my fishing vest and crept down the creaky stairs and through the dark lobby in my stocking feet. I laced up my boots on the front porch of Lake Crescent Lodge. I was hoping I’d catch a rare Beardslee Trout, I just didn’t want to catch the very last one.
I walked half a mile through a forest path to the boat landing at the Storm King Ranger’s Station. There my fishing guide Sean from Waters West, and my friend Robert were waiting for me. We pushed off from the dock onto the big, deep lake. Robert was sitting in the bow, I was sitting in the stern and Sean was rowing at the gunnels. It was calm in the early morning. The cool air was thick and moist. There were only a few cabins and houses on the far shore. Most of the shoreline was mountains covered in big firs that rose straight up from the edge of the water and where wisps of clouds floated among their peaks. High above was a flat-gray sky, but blue-green Lake Crescent refused to reflect the slate color, such was the lake’s powerful beauty.
Ten thousand years ago a landslide at the east end of Lake Crescent blocked its outlet to the sea and created an isolated habitat. A fascinating geological and biological event, but it wasn’t science that was behind the discovery of the Beardslee Trout. In his 1984 thesis Admiral Beardslee Goes Fishing: The Early Exploration of Lake Crescent Trout, Robert U. Steelquist discussed the hucksterism in the story of the Beardslee Trout. In 1895, after much lobbying, Port Angeles promoters, James A. Coolican and M. J. Carrigan, convinced Rear Admiral Lesley A. Beardsley, commander of the Pacific Squadron of the U.S. Navy, to schedule a visit to Port Angeles. Beardsley was an avid fly fisherman and so a tour of Lake Crescent was arranged. The Admiral landed a ten pound trout with a blue back that he pronounced a distinct species. Three trout were embalmed and shipped to Dr. David Starr Jordan, the leading ichthyologist of the day. Though Dr. Jordan had developed an allergy to the embalming fluid which prevented him from examining any of the specimens directly, he concurred anyway and named the new species Salmo gairdneri beardsleei in honor of the Admiral.
I kept glancing over the side of the boat. The gravelly bottom of Lake Crescent dropped steeply away just a few feet from shore, but even in fifty feet of water, I could clearly see the logs and big rocks as we glided over them. There was no algae and no plant life. I asked Sean if there were Beardslee Trout left in the lake. Sean assured me that there were plenty and that we’d catch a few. Sean was the only guide approved by the National Park Service on Lake Crescent, so I wanted to believe him. Still, I’d fished with guides whose promises of the morning were much different than the results in the afternoon. Every time I peeked into that deep, clean lake I didn’t see any fish.
Sean passed me a rod with a streamer tied at the end of the leader. A streamer is an artificial lure made of feathers and weighted so it sinks below the surface of the lake. We weren’t casting, we were trolling. I fumbled with loops of heavy line, stripping them off the reel so that the streamer disappeared into the lake far behind the boat. With every few stroke of Sean’s oars I’d jerk my wrist and the rod tip would flex, causing the streamer at the end of the line to imitate a hurt fish, which I hoped was real enough appearing to attract a Beardslee Trout.
By the first decade of the 1900’s, the promoters of the Olympic Peninsula had achieved success; a species of trout was named after Admiral Beardslee, the Pacific Squadron made annual visits to Port Angeles harbor, and hotels, lodges and fishing camps had sprung up around Lake Crescent. Local newspaper editor, E. B. Webster, picked up the promotional drumbeat where Coolican and Carrigan left off. Webster wrote that there was no better game fish anywhere, “And the pity of it is that not more than two or three dozen world-anglers are aware of that fact.” Enthusiastic outdoorsmen heard Webster’s siren call and traveled from all over the globe to land a trophy-sized Beardslee Trout. Fishermen bought what Webster and others were selling, hook, line and sinker. They filled the lodges, hired local guides and bought special sterling-silver lures. Don’t purchase the cheap, silver-plated version, Webster said, “The fish can tell the latter every time.”
By 1915 it was clear that the Lake Crescent fishery couldn’t sustain itself. Instead of preventing overfishing with stricter regulations, a fish hatchery was built on the Beardslee’s spawning grounds and the lake was stocked with exotic trout species to keep the fishermen happy. The results were predicable; the new species of trout competed for scarce food and the Beardslee resisted hatchery breeding. Within five years the Beardslee population had crashed. By World War II the hatchery was abandoned, then razed, and the Beardslee Trout population continued to plummet toward extinction.
Sean veered away from shore and the lake bottom disappeared into blackness within a couple of oar strokes. Lake Crescent is over 600 feet deep. I fidgeted. I didn’t want to go back to the lodge without catching a fish, but what if something entirely different occurred? What if I caught the last Beardslee Trout in existence? Silly? Sure, unless you consider this coincidence: I grew up on Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire, the only lake in the world where the famous Sunapee Golden Trout once lived. The tragic story of extinction that my Grandfather Wirta told my brother Mark and me one night, while we listened to the Boston Red Sox on the radio, wasn’t about the extermination of the Passenger Pigeon or the slaughter of the plains buffalo, but the death of our own golden-colored, Sunapee Trout. My grandfather said that wealthy anglers from New York and Boston rode private train cars and stayed at the great hotels that ringed our crystal-clear waters just so they could stalk our famous fish. But by the mid-twentieth century the familiar dirge played. Over-fishing and the introduction of a competitive species, the Lake Trout, meant that fishermen found no Sunapee Trout left.
The surface of Lake Crescent rippled as Sean dipped his oars in and out of the still water. I held my rod lightly in my hand, hoping for a strike. Fishing is one of the few sports where you battle your opponent by relying mostly on touch. Though your streamer is deep in the water, and far behind the boat, when a fish strikes, it’s instantly transmitted up the line, down the rod and to your fingertips. You pause just for a half-second and then jerk the rod and set the hook. You feel for the trout’s response so you can estimate the size and hopefully anticipate the fish’s wily tactics.
And that’s just what happened. I worked the fish to the boat leaning backwards and reeling in line. The fish fought back hard and the rod tip convulsed. I kept the tip high above my head, letting my rod absorb the power of each surge. By the time I’d recaptured much of my line I could feel the strength of the fish ebbing. The water was so clear I could see it diving and wildly spinning upside down trying to rid itself of the hook. I brought the tip of my rod to the side of the boat and Sean scooped the net into the water. I thought the fish was played out, but with surprising agility the fish avoided the net. My reel whined as the fish stripped line and dove under the boat. I stumbled to the opposite gunnel keeping the line taught enough to keep the hook set. Sean tried to net the fish twice more until we finally landed it in the boat. It was a gorgeous, blue-headed Beardslee Trout.
The body of the Beardslee looked like a Rainbow Trout. It was silver with tiny diamond-shaped scales and there was a light pink and azure band running from gills to tail. It was its head that was different. Its head was blue-gray colored. There were thick bands of iridescent indigo and sapphire arching above its big, black eyes, like a girl who wasn’t sure of how to apply eye shadow and had layered it on too thick. I have never seen a trout with colors like this. Sean slipped the barbless hook out of the Beardslee’s mouth and slid it back into the water. After a pause the Beardslee flicked its tail and dove into the deep waters of Lake Crescent.
I was surprised that the Beardslee Trout Sean had held gently in his hands was only fourteen inches long. It weighed about a pound. I tried to imagine fighting one of the legendary, fifteen-pound lunkers that E. B. Webster wrote about in Western Out-of-Doors magazine in April of 1922, "The longest battle ever fought with a Beardslee, the one species of trout that never knows when it is licked, took exactly three hour and forty-five minutes… Landing an ordinary Beardslee requires from half an hour to an hour. Small ones are often landed in fifteen minutes. But frequently a big one will fight a full two hours before being brought to net."
Besides being from the same Salmonidae family classification, what did these rare and wonderful trout from two lakes on the opposite edge of the continent have in common? They both had promoters! In 1889, just a few years before Coolican and Carrigan shouted to the world about Admiral Beardslee’s unique trout, a similar story had already been told on Lake Sunapee, NH. Dr. John D. Quackenbos was the owner of Soo-Nipi Lodge, one of Lake Sunapee’s grand hotels. Quackenbos was an avid fisherman who liked nothing better than to preach about the joys of fishing for the hard-fighting, Sunapee Golden Trout. In The History of New London, local Lake Sunapee residents cheered on Dr. Quackenbos’s advertising campaign by saying, “For the denizens of the lake itself he fights valiantly until he secures the recognition of a new species of trout which he loyally christens (Salvelinus Sunapee) from the crystalline waters of its birthplace.”
In the end all my worries about catching the last Beardslee Trout were silly. We had a delightful day on Lake Crescent. Sean was a terrific guide. He rowed all along the south shore while Robert and I took turns catching and releasing a dozen trout. They were all about the same size, but not all had the blue head and indigo eyes of the Beardslee. The half-dozen fishermen wading at the mouth of Barnes Creek were having good luck too.
Thanks to strict fishing regulations, the Beardslee Trout has made a comeback in Lake Crescent. In 2000 Olympic National Park responded decisively to the threat of the Beardslee’s extinction with emergency fishing rules including; catch and release only, no bait, single barbless hooks, no downriggers and not more than two ounces of weight on the line. According to Sam J. Brenkman, Chief Fisheries Biologist at Olympic National Park, “The Lake Crescent Beardslee positively responded to restrictive fishing regulations in the lake, although today they remain at numbers near or below minimum viable population sizes.”
In his thesis, Current Status of the Trouts Endemic to Lake Crescent, Washington, Bryan E. Pierce discussed the reclassification of the Beardslee Trout. Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus f. beardsleei is no longer viewed as its own species. Pierce said, "The trouts of Lake Crescent provide us with a clear example of speciation in progress; they haven’t diverged enough from the parental lines to warrant sub-specific designation — yet. In the interim we must bear the ultimate responsibility for the preservation of these unique fish."
While I don’t think the early promoters of the Olympic Peninsula would be that disappointed that Lake Crescent no longer holds its own species of trout, I’m sure they would shout, Hip! Hip! Hurrah! that the Beardslee Trout fishery is sustainable over a century later. I think that Coolican, Carrigan and Webster, might be most pleased with the popularity of the Olympic Peninsula tourism that they promoted. Last year 3.5 million people visited Olympic National Park. Some visitors like me, stayed at the historic Lake Crescent Lodge and fished just like they did.
The Sunapee Golden Trout in Lake Sunapee didn’t have the same happy ending as the Beardslee Trout in Lake Crescent. Though a watershed approach to its protection has kept Lake Sunapee one of the cleanest bodies of water in the state of New Hampshire, lax regulations, mis-management and weak governmental oversight doomed the Sunapee Golden Trout. Gone also is Soo-Nipi Lodge and all the other grand hotels that once stood on the lake’s shoreline. They have been replaced by hundreds of individual homes and cottages. Even the Sunapee Golden Trout’s memory has been downgraded too. It’s now classified as Salvelinus alpinus, or one of the common Arctic Char.
Though the story of Lake Crescent’s Beardslee Trout and the Lake Sunapee’s Golden trout ended differently, their legendary popularity both grew from the tall-tales of early promoters. I’m a hotel and restaurant owner on the Olympic Peninsula who’s sympathetic to a good promotional story. Today, if you want to visit the Olympic Peninsula to look for "Twilight" vampires in Forks or Bigfoot in the Olympic National Park wilderness, I’m all for that. There is even a million dollar reward being offered for the capture of BigFoot that we’ve helped to promote. I’m sure that Coolican, Carrigan, Webster and even Dr Quackenbos would applaud my promotional strategies.
Postscript: While researching this article I came across this sentence in a 1984 article from Robert J. Behnke’s, About Trout, "The story of the Sunapee Golden Trout, however, has a happy ending – they are alive and well in two lakes in Idaho!" I gasped and read on. In 1925 the Idaho Fish and Game Commission reported that, "Sunapee trout eggs were received from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department in exchange for fish eggs from Idaho." Like Lazarus, the Sunapee Golden Trout had risen from the grave! I called my brother back in Sunapee and breathlessly broke the news. Mark said, "We should dedicate our lives to restoring the Sunapee Trout in Lake Sunapee." I don’t know if he’s kidding or not, but I think a fishing trip to Idaho is in order.
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