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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 28, 2008

Eastern Oregon Trip Part II: In search of something that doesn't exist: Alvord Cutthroat

After my stay in Sun River, my dad and I broke off for a trip out into the desert in search of a fish that isn't supposed to exist; the Alvord Cutthroat. What lead me on this search was evidence that indicates that fish from Trout Creek in the Alvord basin may have been stocked into a small stream in southeastern Oregon in the late 1800's. Unfortunately, the creek in question was later also stocked with Whitehorse Basin Cutthroat, Lahontan Cutthroat and even Rainbow Trout. However, according to Dr. Behnke, on a trip to the headwaters of this stream in 2006, instead of finding Rainbow Trout or hybrids, he found some fish that matched the outward appearance of the Alvord Cutthroat among a population of more typical Lahontan Cutthroat. With it appearing that there were two distinct phenotypes present in the creek and leaving open the possibility that the Alvord Cutthroat is not extinct as once thought.

We hit the road at 5:30 AM, bound for the Alvord stream and for being late August we were amazed at how low the temperature was as we drove across the Fort Rock Basin, where it bottomed out at a chilly 22 degrees. The drive was a straight shot to Lakeview, Oregon to refuel before heading out into the desert. Last year I had caught several Warner Lakes Redbands, but none of them had any real size to them so I had made plans to fish another small stream along the way to the Alvord Creek. However, what was supposed to be a fairly main road on the map ended up being a 4WD track at best and I had to take the blow of scratching the Warner Redbands from the trip due to being defeated by a road. To top it off, this road hadn't finished dealing it's punches, and about 10 minutes after reaching the highway one of my rear tires blew out. Ironically this is the first blown tire that I have had after years of driving on rough roads for native trout and came just three weeks after I had put new tires on my car in preparation for this trip. After quickly replacing the flat tire, we hit the road again for the creek. Upon arriving at the turn off for the creek, the road turned out to be as rough as the one that I provided us with a flat and without another spare there was no way that we were going to try to drive in. This meant that if I wanted to try to get some fish from the creek I was going to have to hike in.

The view from the first ridge

I wasn't quite sure how far it was to get into where the creek would become fishable, but I strapped on my hiking boots and hit the two track road at around 11:00 AM. From looking at a topo map I knew that there was a high ridge to cross that dropped into the headwaters of another creek and then a higher pass before I would reach the headwaters of the creek. The first ridge was a real butt kicker, with the summit being about 1,500 ft above where I started. However, the view from the top was amazing giving me a panoramic view across the high desert out to the Steens Mountains.

Looking out from the top of the first ridge toward the pass into the drainage holding these rare trout

I worked my way down the road into the extreme headwaters of a small creek where there was a small guard station built back against the hills. This was a beautiful little area with high desert meadows and a few Aspen groves scattered throughout the valley. I took a quick break just beyond the guard station at an Aspen grove along the creek, before tackling the pass.
The bottom of the valley looking toward the guard station

The pass was quite a haul with the summit just below the top of the 8065 ft peak. Just as I reached the top, I had a solo Pronghorn Antelope run across the trail 50 feet ahead of me and stop a short distance up the ridge to watch me pass.

The top of the pass

From the top of the pass it was a nice walk down the hill beginning in high desert sage brush and changing to a grove of Aspens once I ran into the creek. The road followed the headwaters of the creek as it curved down the slopes of the peak, but the creek was way to small too hold fish and it was evident that I would have to follow it downstream until it added a few tributaries or springs to its flow. Once the road emerged from the side of the mountain, I got a view across the valley and could see that for the next several miles the creek traveled through a flat valley and picked up several tributaries. It was a long distance, but hopefully I would find what I came for there.

Looking out across the valley

I arrived at the creek at around 2:45 PM, had a quick lunch, then rigged up my 2wt with my favorite set up for native trout, a Royal PMX and black Copper John dropper. When I walked out to the creek, it was about a foot wide and three inches deep in most places. Certainly too small and shallow to hold any fish. I only saw one option ahead of me, so I continued downstream another 1/4 mile in search of fishable water. On the way I was interrupted by a herd of pronghorns crossing the valley. Once I finally connected with the creek again, I found some holding water and began to try to locate some fish. As the creek rounded a corner and dredged out a small pool, I finally found a fish. I made a good cast and fish confidently grabbed my fly. As soon as I saw the trout, I knew that I had something unusual. I have caught most of the varieties of trout on the west coast and had never seen a fish like this one. It had red cutthroat marks, with a deep rose band and along its mid section and rosy gill plates. Beyond the caudal peduncle, its spots were concentrated above the lateral line and it was olive on the back transitioning to a brassy yellow color. Based on its appearance, the fish perfectly matched the description for the Alvord Cutthroat Trout!

A small cutthroat with the traits of an Alvord, a red lateral line with sparse spots above it.

The creek

I continued to fish my way downstream, finding decent holding water every time the creek would round a bend. In fact, at each corner with a decent amount of flow, I could expect to hook up and either catch or spook a trout. The creek was so small though, that my target area to land a fly in was generally about the size of a 6" circle, which was especially problematic when the wind kicked up and led to me spooking my fair share of fish. I caught a fair number of fish, most of which resembled Alvords, others appearing more like typical Lahontan Cutthroat and few appearing like a cross between the two.

A small Cutthroat with some with the deep that was typical of Alvord Cutthroat

After working a ways down the creek and catching a fair few trout, I decided that it was getting close to time to pull the plug on things if I didn't want to be hiking in the dark, so I turned around and started working my way back upstream. Not too far from where I caught my first fish, I saw a large trout holding in a pool that I had either spooked or missed on the way downstream. I found a spot where the fish wouldn't see me and worked my way into position for a good cast. I made my cast and my fly landed just where it needed to be and the fish confidently rose to take my dry fly. My line tightened and the fish was on, with nowhere to go in his little pool. After a quick battle, I landed the fish which measured 15" against my net and accurately matched the description of the long lost Alvord Cutthroat. It was amazing that a fish this size could manage to survive among such meager surroundings.

The fish I was looking for a large 15" cutthroat with the outward appearance of an Alvord Cutthroat

After catching the big fish I managed to hook one more smaller one, which shook my fly loose. Once past this pool though, the creek ran into the bushes and there wasn't much in the way of good holding water so I began working my way back. Already having covered more miles that I had planned on and fished hard, walk back out was torture.

Looking across the meadow on the way back towards the pass

The sun was at its hottest point by this time and the first few miles left me completely exposed to its burning rays. Although reaching the base of the pass meant that it was time to start on the long uphill trek, the shade of the trees growing there at least provided some relief from the sun.

A tree full of vultures at the base of the pass

The long uphill slog on the way over the pass

The hill up to the pass seemed to last forever, and once I was over it, I had to start on another hill again. Around 6 PM the sun finally began falling behind the peak and with the shade the walk became much more bearable and interesting as the wildlife began coming out of the wood work.

A buck just before reaching the end of the road.

All told, the hike ended up being a 20 mile round trip, with a few thousand feet of elevation gain. However, with the fish that I caught it was well worth it. It remains unclear how genetically pure these fish are, but Behnke has suggested that even if they aren't pure Alvords it may be possible to recreate the Alvord phenotype or genotype from these fish through a selective breeding program.


Blake Merwin said...

Gary, awesome report! Way cool!

Gary said...

Thanks. I am going to try to get a hold of Patrick Trotter and Robert Behnke about the fish and see what they have to say.

BG said...

Great report, sounds like an awesome adventure... I'm also interested in a follow up report.

wyoflyfish said...

This may be one of the best trip reports I have seen this year. Chasing the ghosts of trout that "do not exist" and striking gold. Kudos and keep us posted on anything you here back from Behnke et al. I think you held in your hand the last remaining closest thing we have left to alvords and that's a pretty amazing thing.

Gary said...

So I heard back from Dr. Behnke and here is what he had to say:

"The first and third photos have the typical sparse spotting of the "extinct" Alvord cutthroat. The second photo depicts a more heavily spotted fish. This is similar to what I found in 2006 during an electrofishing survey of Guano Crk. Lahontan cutthroats and rainbow trout were stocked into Guano Crk. for many years beginning in 1957. Ore. historian Bruce Gilinski told me that, as a young boy, he caught trout in Guano Crk. right after WWII (ca. 1946), so trout were there before the first recorded stocking. An illustration of an Alvord cutthroat from Trout Crk. appears on p. 221 of my 2002 book, Trout and Salmon of North America, with further info on this fish on p. 224 (Artist's Note). I found many trout in Guano Crk. that strongly resembled the Alvord trout (Lahontan cutthroats are heavily spotted). Most likely scenario for a transplant of trout from Trout Crk. into Guano is found in Hubbs and Miller; 1948 publ. on fishes of the Great Basin. They mentioned that they were told that a transplant was made from Trout Crk. into the Catlow basin. The Guano basin was probably considered as part of the Catlow basin by local people but is at a higher elevation and isolated from the redband trout native to streams in the Catlow basin. Thus, if a transplant from Trout Crk. was made, it should have been into Guano Crk., which had no native trout. R. Behnke"

RiverKings said...

After your discussion with Dr. Behnke, and a further two years gone by, has anyone in the know traveled to said location to confirm the existence of Alvord Cutthroat trout and if so, has a breeding program been established?

Gary said...

The status of these fish is relatively unchanged since I first went to the creek in 2008. However the Lahontans seem to be gaining ground on the Alvords in there. For more information visit: http://kortumofdiscovery.wordpress.com/

Kristi said...

Do you know of anyone that has made a trip here recently to check the status of these fish?

Anonymous said...

Do you know of anyone who has made a trip here recently to check on the status of these fish?

Gary said...

Kristi - as of a couple weeks ago I can confirm that the population is still persisting. Hard to what the genetic status of the fish are through.