Last summer, Mark Pizzimenti was deep in Colorado’s backcountry at a fishing hole that he keeps secret when he saw it.
A monster in the shallows. “Behemoth!” his teenage sons kept saying. “A trout that looked as pale as a phantom,” Pizzimenti would later write.
He battled it. He won. He posed with it in a picture and released it. And time went on, and that fish kept swimming through his imagination.
Eventually, his mind returned to a conversation from 2012. One of those dreamlike conversations in the blurry dark of the morning.
Pizzimenti and a fishing guide buddy were on their way to Taylor River when the buddy mentioned the yellowfin cutthroat that once roamed Twin Lakes on the other side of the mountains. Colorado Parks and Wildlife maintains the trout went extinct in the early 1900s.
But now Pizzimenti wondered. He looked at the picture of his mystery fish and saw fins “as yellow as a canary.”
Was this a rediscovery?
Highly unlikely, Pizzimenti concedes, unable to match old descriptions.
But, he says, “What matters, at least to me, was that it inspired some interesting research. Well, a lot of research.”
The result is “Cutthroat,” a recently self-published endeavor by the Colorado Springs man, a systems engineer by day and writer by night, a Hemingway-idolizing insomniac who channels creativity in the space between dreams. Pizzimenti calls his book historical fiction, and the fiction is heavy.
But he insists it’s all based on century-old scientific journals and news clips he perused those sleepless nights. Following the true trail of the yellowfin, Pizzimenti met lawyers, guns and money aplenty. There were cowboys and cattlemen and dynamite-toting vigilantes, too — characters of a Wild West fish war that he brings back to life with poetic license.
“What did Picasso say?” Pizzimenti asks, hoping not to sound pretentious. “Art is a lie that tells the truth. I think that’s a pretty true statement.”
But the question lingers: What role, if any, did the yellowfin play in those well-documented battles atop the Grand Mesa?
What’s true — at least what’s verifiable — is that the yellowfin made its home in Twin Lakes. That’s the location label for the salmo mykiss macdonaldi preserved in jars at the Smithsonian, labeled also with their collection date (1889) and collector (D. Jordan).
That’s David Starr Jordan. And perhaps it’s fitting that the cursed story of the yellowfin started with the enigmatic fellow. Jordan built his reputation in ichthyology and went on to be a founding father of Stanford University, but he had shadowy sides, an accused conspirator in Jane Stanford’s murder and proclaimer of eugenics.
He and Barton Warren Evermann in 1890 reported the yellowfin never growing much longer than 10 inches. That starkly contrasted with Pizzimenti’s apparitions formed by tantalizing descriptions such as the Salida Mail’s on June 19, 1894: “... 54 inches long and 5½ inches broad ...”
Therein lies the problem with Pizzimenti’s trail: The days of the yellowfin were also the days of yellow journalism.
But he tried corroborating with more substantial sources, including “Fish Culture and Stocking in Colorado, 1872-1978,” by William J. Wiltzius. The Colorado Division of Wildlife report delves into “The Grand Mesa Lakes Feud,” ending in 1901 with William Radcliffe’s commercialized tract being set ablaze.
With law and hired muscle, the English aristocrat had tried warding off local fishermen. They responded with threatening blasts of dynamite. After one of their own was shot and killed by Radcliffe’s man, they countered with hellfire.
Radcliffe never returned. Nor did the mesa’s previous proprietor, William Alexander, who mysteriously disappeared in 1892 or ’93.
Could an exotic creature have been at the center of it all?
Wiltzius found conflicting documentation. While he considered one federal record to be “circumstantial evidence” of their presence there, he concluded: “We probably will never know for sure if the yellowfin trout was successfully established at the Grand Mesa Lakes.”
But it makes for an epic fish tale. And Pizzimenti goes on telling his own tale, knowing it could be shattered by expert opinions of his muse — that behemoth, yellow-hued “phantom” he caught.
He prefers to believe that fish discoveries happen these days. And with ever developing technology, it’s true. Since 2012, the story has been widely told of the Springs’ rediscovered breed of greenback cutthroat trout, and just last year in southwest Colorado, biologists uncovered another species thought to be extinct.
But no, Pizzimenti never sought opinions of his photographed mystery fish.
“Part of me wanted to live with the fantasy,” he says.