by John Holt
When you live in the Rocky Mountains and someone mentions native trout, you think of cutthroat trout and none other — not rainbows, not Dolly Varden, not bull trout and certainly not browns or brooks. True, the cutthroat trout, especially the feisty sea-run strain, is also associated with the lush, green rain forests of the Pacific Coast. But, when many of us think of this species, images of mountain lakes beneath ice-scoured glacial cirques above timberline come fondly to mind; or crashing, rushing mountain torrents spilling down over boulders and through tangles of downed larch and fir; or finally, big rivers like the Yellowstone rolling away between spectacular mountain peaks in the Paradise Valley.
The fish gets its name from the orange to scarlet slashes running laterally below the lower jaw. The back of the trout can be anywhere from green, to blue, to black. Black spots can be scattered throughout the length of the body or concentrated near the tail section. The flanks of the cutthroat can range from silver to yellowish-green to bright red on spawning males. The lower fins are often orange.
The range of the species is from Prince William Sound in Alaska, down through northern California and throughout the inland western U.S. and Canada. The fish resembles the rainbow, a species with which the cutthroat frequently cross-breeds. When this happens the rainbow's characteristics remain mostly intact with the exception that the "cuts" or slashes are present, often in orange. The cutthroat also cross-breeds with the golden trout, retaining most of its markings while taking on a pronounced golden sheen along its sides and gill covers.
Numerous Subspecies Exist
One of the unique aspects of the cutthroat is that where the species is isolated as a result of geologic formations, in other words, separated from other cutthroats by mountain ranges or even deserts, the fish takes on distinct physical characteristics that are endemic to a specific region. Fourteen subspecies of cutthroat have been identified. These subspecies include the coastal, westslope, Yellowstone, Snake River, Lahontan (a threatened species that has adapted to highly-alkaline desert lakes and grows to very impressive sizes), Humboldt, Paiute, Alvord Lake basin, Willow/Whitehorse Creek, Bonneville, Colorado River, greenback (threatened), Rio Grande and the yellowfin (now extinct).
The cutthroat spawns in mid- to late-winter along the Pacific Coast, into early summer in the mountain West. The fish live 10 years, but this is an exception with six years a more reasonable life span. The largest cutthroat was a Lahontan specimen taken from Pyramid Lake in Nevada weighing 41 pounds. In the mountain waters, a fish of 3 pounds or more is an exceptional trout and sea-run average about 5 pounds or a little less. In high-mountain streams, the fish are much smaller with a 12-incher a true trophy.
Perhaps no other member of the water-quality-sensitive trout clan is more affected by changes for the worse in its environment than the cutthroat. The westslope cutthroat has disappeared from all but a dozen or so of its native streams on the Flathead National Forest in northwest Montana as a result of logging and the introduction of rainbow trout years ago. Extensive work by state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologists seems to indicate that the trout can be re-established in its original watersheds, provided no additional threats to its habitat occur and stream bank habitat is restored in clear-cut areas.
Cutthroat Prefer Smaller Food Sources
The cutthroat has a reputation for being easy to catch and a poor fighter. There is some truth to both of these traits, but the trout is still a worthy adversary, if for no other reason than chasing a cutthroat allows an angler to spend time in some of the most beautiful and wild country in North America.
Where big browns are associated with eating forage fish and smaller trout, cutthroats feed predominately on aquatic insects, terrestrials like grasshoppers, crickets and ants and on freshwater shrimp. Imitations of these food sources are the best bets for catching cutthroats and that is why these fish are more a fly fisher's quarry. The comparative large size of plugs, spoons and spinners often spook cutthroats before they have a chance to consider what it is they are fleeing from.
One of the reasons cutthroats are easy to catch is that they are usually found in remote regions that receive little pressure. A cutthroat's susceptibility to the wiles of an angler, particularly if dry flies are used, is more a result of provinciality than stupidity. Anyone who has fished for the Yellowstone cutthroat in Yellowstone Park understands this situation. Park trout are often taken a half-dozen times or more in a season by the hordes of anglers that descend on this over-publicized trout Mecca. A fish that survives for more than four years has probably been pulled from the water a few times. When you see cutthroats of between 2 feet and 30 inches delicately sipping tiny insects on a river's surface, your heart races and your hands shake. Only the most delicate of offerings, one that perfectly matches what is hatching before you, tied to the slenderest of tippets, will fool these fish. And if you do manage to touch one, good luck holding it on the spiderweb-like leader.
Cutthroat are not acrobatic fish, but any one of them weighing more than a few pounds will put up a strong, below-surface struggle. This is especially so in rivers where the trout instinctively make use of their bodies by running sideways in the current, gaining power from the force of the water pushing against their muscular flanks.
For the fly fisherman, one of the best patterns around for the small mountain streams is the Goddard Caddis No. 14 to No. 18. This high-floating deerhair pattern will nearly always draw the cutthroat out from beneath the logjams that is probably its species-specific habitat. Find a logjam and you will find cutthroat, but the big ones hold way under the debris, and sinking a nymph or wet fly under this stuff is difficult (so is pulling a hefty trout out of a hole like this).
Small spinners (1/24 and 1/16 ounce) of silver, brass or copper with undressed hooks will also take cutthroat consistently in pools, and when cast quartering downstream and slowly retrieved. A small, wriggling worm worked through the jams and pools can be deadly, too.
Cutthroat, more than most trout, feed in a definite path, especially in high mountain lakes. Standing on the shore you can watch them, often in pairs, work their way down toward you as they dine on emerging aquatic insects. This makes anticipating where to cast a dry fly or small spinner relatively easy. The fish will race to take the offering provided it is presented with some degree of caution.
The main difference between sea-run cutthroat and steelhead seems to be that the cutthroat are taken more frequently in estuaries, especially when the tide turns and begins to run upriver. Streamers and wet flies worked along the swirls of upwelling current produce trout.
Fishing for cutthroat is a straight-forward proposition. Look for unspoiled, pristine streams or lakes. Fish any logjams thoroughly and use small flies or spinners.