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This blog is all about fly fishing for native trout. On it I cover trip reports, fishing tactics, conservation, the latest news about native trout species and much more. This site provides a companion to my web page Nativetroutflyfishing.com.


Thursday, August 10, 2006

Cutthroat of the Rocky Mountains

My goal for this trip was to catch all of the subspecies of Cutthroat Trout native to the Rocky Mountains excluding the Westslope Cutthroat, which I had caught a number of in the Cascade Mountains two weeks prior to leaving. While Cutthroat are native to a vast area of the western United States, their populations have been greatly reduced due to a variety of issues. As such, pure and healthy populations can be quite difficult to come by today. I started planning this trip during September of 2005, and relied on a variety of different resources to come up with a list of streams to fish that would hold healthy populations of Cutthroat without any hybrid influences. 

Day 1: Monday July 31st 2006: My dad and I made the 12+ hour drive to Yellowstone, with nothing overly exciting occurring along the way. When we got to the park, we found out the the campground where we were planning on staying was already full, so we diverted to Indian Creek campground, which luckily had a few spots left. 

Day 2: Tuesday August 1st 2006: We woke up bright and early to a chilly Yellowstone morning. After a quick breakfast, we drove over to the Lamar Valley and Soda Butte Creek to try our luck fishing for some Yellowstone Cutthroat. We arrived at the creek to find it extremely crowded and had to hunt to find a stretch that we would have to ourselves, or so we thought. We ended up being constantly high holed or low holed, which really limited the amount of water we could cover. Even so while we were there, we rose more than our fair share for Cutthroat, including one that my dad hooked and was close to 20". Even with the few larger fish around, I still only managed to catch a couple of small Cutthroat prompting us to consider a less crowded option.

A pronghorn antelope on the way out to the Lamar Valley

With Soda Butte Creek being one of the more popular streams in the park, I decided to try a relatively unknown small stream that was supposed to hold a good population of Yellowstone Cutthroat. Arriving at the stream, I found it to be completely vacant of anglers and full of small but hungry trout, with some up to 12". I rigged up my rod with a Royal PMX and Lightning Bug dropper and started catching fish in every likely looking spot. Eventually, I came to a nice plunge pool where I watched my dry fly get pulled under as a Cutthroat grabbed my nymph. After a quick fight I landed a beautiful 12" Yellowstone Cutthroat, my best fish for the creek. Soon after landing the Cutthroat, the weather began to deteriorate and I made my way back down the creek as the rain set in.
The Creek

A stream resident Yellowstone Cutthroat caught on a Lightning Bug nymph in a deep hole

Once back at the car, we made our way to one of my favorite streams in the northwestern corner of the  park. The weather was better in this part of the park, but it looked like it wouldn't last long. Although this stream doesn't have much in the way of native trout, it always spoils me as every likely spot seems to hold a fish, and I caught numerous Brown Trout, Rainbows and Cuttbows before I was finally chased out by a thunderstorm. After again being bested by bad weather, we headed back to the campground to get some dinner and settle in for the evening. After a good dinner I was feeling recharged, decided to head out fishing again to see if I could find any Brook Trout in the upper Gardner River. It didn't take long before I found a nice section of the river that was full of rising Brook Trout that eagerly took my dry fly. Well above this I found some decent pools that were packed with Brook Trout, which couldn't resist the Zug Bug that is my go to fly in this type of water.

A pool on the upper Gardner River

A Brook Trout caught on a Zug Bug

After catching my fill of Brook Trout, I headed back to camp as the sun started to drift toward the horizon. The day had been a great success, not only had I caught the Yellowstone Cutthroat that I came to the park for, but I had also caught a number of Brook, Brown and Rainbow Trout making it the first time that I had caught all four species in a single day. 

Day 3: Wednesday August 2nd 2006: I am used to cold nights in Yellowstone, but this one had been especially chilly and we woke in the morning to find everything coated with a thick layer of frost. The plan for the day was to leave the Yellowstone National Park behind and head south to the Tetons to try to find some Snake River Fine Spotted Cutthroat.

Me with Jackson Lake and the Tetons in the background

The spot that I had chosen to fish had treated my dad and I very well on a trip in 2005, so I was looking forward to going back again. However after fishing all of the spots where we had done well on our previous trip all I had to show for the effort was one small Brook Trout and a few missed strikes.

A lake at the foot of the Tetons

With a less than successful first outing for Fine Spotted Cutthroat, we headed down the valley into Jackson to get lunch and possibly a hotel room so that I could try to get some Cutthroat later in the evening or the next morning. Unfortunately, we did not anticipate just how busy Jackson would be since our previous trips had not been during the peak travel season. With the town completely overrun with tourists and all of the hotel nearby were booked, as such staying here was out of the question. Even though it was busy, we did manage to get lunch at Bubba's BBQ than continued down the road toward the native range of the Bear River Cutthroat, my next target. We ended up deciding to stay in Afton Wyoming, which was the closest town to the Bear River Cutthroat stream and was also close to several decent Snake River Fine Spotted Cutthroat streams. 

That evening I headed out to try my luck Fine Spotted Cutthroat again, this time targeting small tributary of the Salt River. The creek was only about fifteen feet across in its widest spots, but was extremely fast moving and as a result had little holding water. Due to its small size, I decided to just wet wade, which was a big mistake as the water was frigid and the evening was cooling down fast. I covered close to a 1/4 mile of stream before I finally found a bit of decent holding water and spotted a rising trout. My first couple casts landed a little short, but finally I got a good cast into his feeding lane and hooked up. Snake River Fine Spotted Cutthroat are notorious for being hard fighting fish, and with the fast water this hefty trout fit that mold perfectly, but still came to the net before long. For a stream this size, this was a great fish running nearly 15".

A Snake River Fine Spotted Cutthroat

Not to far upstream from this first cutthroat, I found a nice little pool and after placing a cast tight to a rock ledge I hooked up with another even larger cutthroat. This fish was 18" or better, but as I went to bring it to the net my small nymph popped out and the giant drifted back into the shadows. The rest of fish seemed to share this talent for tossing flies, and as the sun began to set headed back to the hotel with high hopes of getting into some Bear River strain of the Bonneville Cutthroat in the morning. 

Day 4: Thursday August 3rd 2006: We continued on our route and drove over a mountain pass from the Snake River drainage into the Bonneville basin. The first stop for the day was a small stream that my research had indicated held a fair amount of Bear River strain Bonneville Cutthroat. Arriving at the stream I located a good looking stretch that had a large concentration of beaver ponds. The water in the creek was relatively murky, so I rigged up with a flashy Thin Mint Wooly Bugger with a Zug Bug as a trailer about 16" behind it. Once I was rigged up, I headed over to the largest of the beaver ponds and started fishing from the top of the dam. As I was stripping my fly in I could see golden flashes from the Cutthroat and after a few missed hits, I finally hooked up and brought and nice 16" Cutthroat to the net. After my luck in the big pond dried up, I tried some of the other ponds and caught several other smaller Bear River Cutthroat before getting back on the road again.

My big Bear River Cutthroat

Another smaller Bear River strain Bonneville Cutthroat

Me at the Bear River Cutthroat stream

We continued down the road with hopes of making it to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado by dark. The countryside quickly transitioned from forested mountains to sage brush desert. This desert portion of Wyoming had some very interesting and unique rock formations and had an incredibly high population of pronghorn antelope and a large concentration of natural gas wells. After several hours of driving through this terrain, the scenery became rather repetitive it didn't revert back to mountains until we were well into Colorado.

The Wyoming desert

Just outside Steamboat Springs Colorado we ran into a large thunderhead, which seemed to follow us all of the way to Rocky Mountain National Park, but finally tapered off and disappeared in time for us to set up our tent at Timber Creek campground in the park. 

Day 5: Friday August 4th 2006: We awoke early in the morning to see Elk walking through the campground. My targets for the day were set on catching some Greenback Cutthroat (note from the future - based on genetics work, we known know the the fish used for "Greenback" Cutthroat recovery in RMNP were actually misidentified Colorado River Cutthroat), so we set out for a hike in stream on the eastside of the park. The drive to the stream was through some of the most beautiful country that I have ever seen, as the road wound its way along the tops of the 12,000 foot peaks and over the continental divide.

The Colorado high country

A herd of elk in Rocky Mountain National Park

We arrived at the trailhead for the Greenback stream and the parking lot was so crowded that we could barely find a spot. We hiked up the trail about a mile before we came to the creek and started fishing. After covering a few yards of good looking stream and only managing to rise one Cutthroat, I figured that most people would also start fishing as soon as they arrived at the creek, so I decided to head further upstream. I hiked up the trail another mile or so and this made all of the difference in the world.
The Greenback Cutthroat stream

When I got down to the creek I could see several Cutthroat holding in a nice deep slot, so I cast my Royal PMX and Copper John dropper out, but couldn't get any reaction from the fish. Given the lack of interest, I figured that they must be keying in on something, and after a little pocking around I noticed an unusually high number of Yellow Jackets on the banks and a few dead ones in the stream. The closest imitation that I had was a yellow bodied Tellico Nymph, so I switched out my dropper and gave it another try. The results were immediate, as a nice sized Greenback grabbed my nymph on the first cast. There are some fish that when you catch them you have a hard time turning them loose again simply because they are so beautiful, and every one of these Cutthroat feel into this category. Drop dead gorgeous. 
A beautiful "Greenback" Cutthroat.
Note: In 2012 it was discovered that this population was actually made up of Colorado River Cutthroat that had been mistaken for Greenbacks.

After the first Cutthroat, fishing stayed consistently good as I worked my way upstream and each likely looking pocket produced a decent fish. After covering about a half mile of water I ran into trail crossing and reluctantly pulled myself away from fishing and headed back down the trail to the car. I still had one more fish to pursue and the next stop was back at the campground for a quick lunch, than it was off to another stream for some Colorado River Cutthroat.

Rough weather coming in over the high country on the way back to the campground

When I arrived at the Colorado River Cutthroat stream, I found it to be much smaller than what I had been led to believe from the research I had done prior to leaving on the trip. However everything that I had read indicated that it held a pure population of Colorado River Cutthroat, so I headed upstream to see if I could find any. Not to far upstream the gradient of the creek increased and there started to be a bit of decent holding water. Before long I spotted a decent trout in a small run and the fish grabbed my dry on the first cast. However, when I got it to the net it ended up being a Brook Trout instead of a Cutthroat. It seems that these fish have a special talent for turning up where they aren't supposed to be...

Small stream fishing in the extreme: the Colorado River Cutthroat stream

Luckily the Brook Trout was not the norm and in the next pool upstream I caught my first Colorado River Cutthroat on the Royal PMX. Just above this point, I ran into a fish barrier, above which the only fish present were beautifully colored Colorado River Cutthroat. As I continued upstream, the gradient steadily increased and the creek flowed down the mountainside from one stairstep pool to another.

A small, but beautiful Colorado River Cutthroat

Above the barrier, most the pools and pockets held fish, and I spent the next couple hours catching fish in most of the likely spots using dries and nymphs. In such small conditions it was fun watching the reaction of the fish to different flies. I one pocket I tossed a stimulator in only to watch it be refused at the last minute by a Cutthroat. For the next cast I switched back to a Royal PMX and watched as the fish rose to it without any hint of hesitation. In one of the larger pools upstream I caught my biggest trout on the creek at right around 10". While beautiful, this fish had an odd little hole in one of its gill plates, no doubt a testament to the harsh conditions that these fish live in. Having successfully caught some Colorado River Cutthroat I went back down to the campground to get some dinner, then my dad and I headed out to the Colorado River for some more fishing and to see if we couldn't find some more Cutthroat that had washed down from the creek. The mosquitoes on the river were terrible, and after only catching a few small Brook Trout we decided to call it quits.

The upper Colorado River

Day 6: Saturday August 5th 2006: We broke camp bright and early  and headed out of Rocky Mountain National Park bound for New Mexico to so I could try my luck for some Rio Grande Cutthroat. The park was beautiful in the crisp morning air, and there was plenty of wildlife around as well.
Looking down the Colorado River valley

A herd of elk in the alpine tundra

Looking down the east slope of the Rocky Mountains

After leaving the park we followed I-25 across the Frontrange prairies to just south of Colorado Springs where we headed back up into the Rockies. After that, we continued through southern Colorado where the terrain consisted of small groupings of mountains interspaced with desert. The desert extended into northern New Mexico and was a bit reminiscent of the scab lands of eastern Washington. Once into New Mexico, we almost immediately turned up into the mountains heading to the stream that I had chosen to fish for Rio Grande Cutthroat. As we gained elevation, the country rapidly changed from desert to high mountain forests with meadows and a picturesque stream flowing through the middle. Despite seeming to be in the middle of nowhere, it quickly became apparent that I was not going to have the place to myself, as there were fishermen in every pull off along the road. We continued upstream until we managed to find a section of the stream that was vacant of other anglers, and I got to work trying to catch some Cutthroat.

An abandoned adobe house in the valley leading up to the stream

The Rio Grande Cutthroat stream with an afternoon thunderstorm in the distance

Catching Cutthroat in this stream proved to be more challenging than expected as these fish were some extremely quick risers that often spit the hook before I had even realized that they had taken the fly. After a while I caught my first cutthroat, which was followed by several others as I got used to their lightning fast strikes.

A Rio Grande Cutthroat

Me working a productive stretch of water
I continued fishing until we were driven from the stream by a thunderstorm, at which point we got back on the road and ended up finding a place to camp outside of Durango, Colorado.
Day 7: Sunday August 6th 2006: The combination a symphony of insects and thunderstorms made for a rough night of sleep, and when we finally got up it was back on the road for an uneventful day of driving. We drove through Colorado and Utah and along the way decided that we had time to try to go after one more type of fish - the Humboldt Cutthroat. With that our destination was clear and ended the day in the small casino town of Wendover, Nevada. While in Wendover, I finalized my plans for the next day's fishing and we took full advantage of the pool and buffet at the hotel where we stayed the night.

Breaking camp in Colorado for a long day on the road

Looking out toward Wendover, Nevada and the Bonneville salt flats

Day 8: Monday August 7th 2006: We got up in the morning and headed along I-80 through the desert, turning north at Elko to search for some Humboldt Cutthroat. We than followed the North Fork of the Humboldt River up to a forest service road leading to a small tributary that was said to hold healthy population of these Cutthroat. However, not to far up the road we ran into a group of ranchers that were driving to cattle up the road and had to wait for them to pass. While we waited, I rigged up my fly rod with the Royal PMX and Copper John step up that had already proved itself so effective on the rest of the trip.

The Humboldt National Forest

Once the cattle had passed I headed down to the creek and on my second cast hooked a Cutthroat, which unfortunately shook loose before I could get it in. A little further upstream I found a small hole and rose a 14" Cutthroat, but it too shook loose. Above this pool, the stream split into a number of side channels and was impossible to fish due to lack of water and a barrier of riparian vegetation. Blocked from continuing upstream I turned around and headed back the way I came. Just below where I had started out, I found an nice little channel with a Cutthroat sitting in the middle actively feeding on insects floating by. I made cast which landed well above the fish and slightly to his right and watched as he slowly cruised over to intercept my fly. There wasn't going to be any mistakes this time, and I landed my first Humboldt Cutthroat. Not far below where I caught this fish the stream once again flowed into an impenetrable wall of vegetation, so I decided to head back out the way I came to look for another way downstream.

A Humboldt Cutthroat

Once back where I had started, I found a little game trail leading downstream to an open section of the creek. This part of the stream had been absolutely ravaged by cattle, which had caved in the banks causing the creek to cut itself a small canyon. However, I found a nice pool that had been created by a bank cave in at the upstream end of the canyon and started fishing. The water in the pool was extremely off color, so I changed my tactics and switched to a heavy beadhead Zug Bug which I fished like a jig. The method proved to be very effective and within short order I had caught a couple more Cutthroat.

Erosion caused cattle on the Humboldt Cutthroat stream 

After a few Humboldts out of the hole, I decided to head back to the car so that we could me it home by the end of the day. The rest of the day was spent driving and we didn't get home until 10:30 PM after an extremely successful trip. All in all, I caught 10 types of trout on the trip, including five subspecies of Cutthroat that I hadn't caught before, making it an extremely rewarding once in a lifetime opportunity.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Eastern Oregon: Cutthroat and redbands of the Oregon desert

Day 1: Monday June 26th 2006: My dad and I left home bound for eastern Oregon around noon with the hopes that by the end of this trip I would manage to catch some Harney-Malheur Basin Redbands, Columbia Basin Redband and Whitehorse Basin Cutthroat. Other than some extremely high temperatures (109 degrees F in Gresham Oregon), the first day was rather uneventful and we ended up staying the night at my uncle's house in Bend Oregon.
The Three Sisters and Oregon Cascades from my uncle’s house in Bend

Day 2: Tuesday June 27th 2006
: This was to be the day for me to do the majority of my fishing; we drove from Bend to the small town of Burns where we purchased our fishing licenses. The next stop was a river in the Harney-Malheur Basin to try to catch some Redbands. We arrived at the river in the mid-morning, set up camp and I got to fishing.

The river

To get away from the campground, I decided to hike upstream a ways. Upon entering the river, the water was a bit high and off colored from snow melt, but luckily that did not stop the fish from feeding. I decided to start with a dry/ dropper river and began to catch fish on a Royal PMX and Lightning Bug set up almost right away. These Redlands were some extremely hard fighting fish, and the first one I hooked jumped four times before finally coming to the net. With the high flows, it seemed that the majority of the fish were keyed in on nymphs, but I caught a few on dries as well. In a few hours of fishing, I managed to catch a fair number of fish, but lost far more including an 18" Redband that I hooked on a streamer in one of the deeper pools and almost had to the net before it tossed the fly.

A Harney-Malheur Basin Redband

Another view of the river

After finishing up fishing and returning to camp, a large thunderhead was moving in and with extremely bad mosquitoes, we made the choice to go ahead and skip camping here and continuing on to our next destination in the Whitehorse Basin to fish for some Cutthroat. Oregon south of the Steens Mountains is extremely sparsely populated and we drove for over an hour without seeing any oncoming traffic. The road to the stream that I planned on fishing in the Whitehorse basin lead us up Trout Creek in the Alvord Basin which was once home of the now extinct Alvord Cutthroat; a victim of hybridization with introduced Rainbow Trout.

An old homestead along Trout Creek, the former home of the Alvord Cutthroat Trout

We arrived at the creek and I started catching fish almost as soon as I started fishing. The first fish that I hooked was an impressive about 15" Cutthroat which managed to shake the size 18 nymph just before I could net it. Once I figured out that this creek was going actually to produce some fish, I took a quick break and we went ahead and set up camp and make some dinner. As I took in my surroundings, I was amazed by the amount of life found along the creek in this parched country, far from civilization. On the walk back to the creek I had a deer run across the road in front of me, and there were jack rabbits scurrying around in every direction.

A small waterfall on the creek
A streamside lizard

Once I got back to fishing,  I found that the fish were especially susceptible to small black nymphs and most good pieces of holding water held a Cutthroat. I fished until dark and caught a good number of Whitehorse Basin Cutthroat, many of which seemed very resistant to letting me photograph them.

A Whitehorse Basin Cutthroat

Day 3: Wednesday June 28th 2006: After getting up, I went back to the creek to do a bit more fishing. However, overnight there had been some thunderstorms upstream, which had raised the flows and colored the creek up a bit and put the fish down. Despite this a little ways upstream I was able to find a series of beaver ponds, and using a Zug Bug nymph I was able to catch a few more fish.

Looking at the creek from the top of a ridge

Me at the Whitehorse Basin stream

After leaving the creek we headed to Winnemucca, Nevada and got hotel room for the night to rest and regroup for the drive home.

Day 4: Thursday June 29th 2006: We left Winnemucca and headed to northeastern Oregon to catch some Columbia Basin Redband, however this time luck was not with me as all of the rivers in this area were blown out from thunderstorms and snow melt. We decided to camp on the Lostine River, as it was one of the few areas that we found were it was not raining.

The Lostine River valley

Day 5: Friday June 30th 2006: When we got up in the morning, the rivers were still blown out and way to high to fish, so we cut our losses and headed home with an uneventful 6 hour drive home.