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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 environmental 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 changed plans and ended up staying at the Indian Creek campground instead.

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 costantly high holed and low holed, which really limited the amount of water we could cover. Even so will we were there we rose more than our fair share for cutthroat, including one that my dad hooked and was close to 20" long. Even with the few larger fish around, I still only managed to catch a couple of small cutthroat.

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 cutthroat. Arriving at the stream, I found it to be completely vacant of anglers and full of small but hungery cutthroat with some fish 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. I came to a nice plunge pool, where I watched my surface fly get pulled under as a cutthroat grabbed my nymph. After a quick fight I landed a 12" 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 in the rain.

The creek
A small stream 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 park of the park. The weather was better in this part of the park, but it wouldn't last long. Although this spot doesn't have much in the way of native trout, it always spoils me as I find trout everywhere I think they should be, and I caught numerous brown trout, rainbows and cuttbows before I was finally chase out by a thunderstorm.

After again being chase away from a stream by bad weather, we headed back to the campground to get some dinner. Full from a good dinner, I headed out fishing again to see if I could find any brook trout in the upper Gardner River near the campground. A little ways above the campground I found a nice section of the river that was full of rising brook trout the eagerly rose to my dry fly. Well above this I found some decent pools that were packed with brook trout that couldn't resist the zug bug that I usually try 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 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 layer of frost. The plan for the day was to leave the park behind and head south to the Tetons to try to find some Snake River finespotted 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 out previous trip all I had to show for the effort was one small brook trout and a missed strikes.
A lake at the foot of the Tetons

With a less than successful first outing for finespotted 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. Unfortunetly we did not anticipate 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 booked, staying here was out of the question. Even though it was busy, we did manage to get lunch at one of our favorite restaurants Bubba's BBQ than continued down the road toward the native range of the Bonnevile cutthroat, my next target.

We ended up deciding to stay in Afton Wyoming, which was the closest town to the Bonneville cutthroat stream and was also close to several decent Snake River finespotted cutthroat streams. That evening I headed out to try my luck angain for finespotted cutthroat in a small tributary of the Salt River. The creek was only about fifteen feet across in its widest spots, but was extremely fast moving and had little holding water as a result. Due to its small size I decided to just wet wade, which was a big mistake as the water was ice cold and numb feet are really not that much fun.

I covered close to a 1/4 mile of stream before I finally found some good holding water and 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 finespotted cutthroat are notorious for being hard fighting fish, and with the fast water this hefty trout fit that mold perfectly but came to the net before long. For a stream this size, this was a great fish running 15".
The Snake River finespotted cutthroat
Not to far upstream from this first cutthroat, I finally found a nice little pool and after placing a cast tight to a rock ledge I hooked up with another larger cutthroat. This fish was 18" or better, but as I went to bring it into 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 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 Bonnville basin. The first stop for the day was a small stream that my research had indicated held a fair amount of 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 wooley 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 Bonneville 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 Bonnevilles before getting back on the road again.

The big Bonneville cutthroat
Another smaller Bonneville cutthroat

Me at the Bonneville cutthroat stream

We continued down the road with hopes of making it to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado by dark. As we continued through Wyoming, 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 natural gas wells. After several hours of driving through this terrain, the scenery became rather repetitive a didn't revert back to mountains until we were an hour and a half 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 and 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 some elk walking through the campground. My targets for the day were set on catching some greenback 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 the park

We arrived at the trail head 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. We covered a few yards of good looking stream and I only managed to rise one cutthroat. I figured that most people do the same thing that we had just done and start fishing as soon as the arrive at the creek so I decided to head further upstream. I hiked up the trail another mile or so, which 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 set up out but couldn't get any reaction from the fish. I figured that they must be keying in on something, than I noticed an unusually high number of yellow jackets on the banks. 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 a certain 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 fish was that way.
A Greenback cutthroat

After the first fish things kept on pace and I started to work my way upstream, catching cutthroat in most of the likely spots. After covering about a half mile of water and running into where the trail crossed the stream I reluctantly pulled the plug on fishing and headed back down the trail to the car. The next stop was back at the campground for a quick lunch, than it was off to another stream for some Colorado River cutthroat.
Some of the high country on the way back to the campground

When I arrived at the stream I found 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 a spotted a decent trout holding in a small run and the fish grabbed my dry on the first cast, but 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 up 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 mountain side from one stairstep pool to another.
A small but beautiful Colorado River cutthroat

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", which had an odd little hole in one of its gill plates, no doubt a testament to the harsh conditions that these fish live in.

Since I had successfully caught some Colorado River cutthroat I went back down to the campground to get some dinner, than my dad and I headed out to the Colorado River for some more fishing. The mosquitoes on the river were terrible, so after catching a few small brook trout we called it quits.

The Colorado River
Day 6: Saturady August 5th 2006: We broke camp early in the morning and headed out of Rocky Mountain National Park bound for New Mexico to 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 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. 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 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 choosen to fish for Rio Grande cutthroat. The country rapidly changed from desert to high mountain forests with meadows and a picturesque stream flowing through the middle. As we drove up the valley it became apparent that I was not going to have the whole place to myself as there were fishermen in every pull off along the road. Continuing upstream we managed to find a section of the stream that was vacant of other anglers, so I got to work trying to catch some cutthroat.
An abandoned pueblo in the valley leading up to the stream
The Rio Grande cutthroat stream with an afternoon thunderstorm in the distance

This 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 my 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, then we got back on the road again and ended up finding a place to camp outside of Durango Colorado.

Day 7: Sunday August 6th 2006: We were kept awake much of the night by a symphony of insects and thunderstorms, 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 so we finished up the day at the small casino town of Wendover Nevada on the edge of the Bonneville salt flats, within striking distance of the next target the Humboldt cutthroat. While here 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.

Where we camped in the morning

Looking out toward Wendover NV 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 than turned north at Elko to go search for the 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 but it 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 weren'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.

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 murky, 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 along the Humboldt cutthroat stream caused by the destruction of riparian vegetation by cattle

After catching these fish 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 10:30PM 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.

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