About this blog

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.


Friday, July 24, 2009

SE Oregon again, "extinct" Alvord Cutthroat and desert Redbands

This post has been a long time in coming, but here it is at last. Shortly after my outing for trout matching the description of the elusive and supposedly extinct Alvord Cutthroat Trout last year (click here for details), a couple of native trout enthusiast Scott and Dan from Utah had contacted me about making another trip out to southeast Oregon in search of these trout. Initially I wasn't sure I would be able to pull it off, but finally found a week in early July that worked for all of us and we made plans to meet up for some fishing. 

As part of this trip, we had also decided to take data on the number of trout displaying Alvord vs. typical Lahontan characteristics, photograph each fish and take measurements, to send what we collected to Robert Behnke. As of right now nothing whatsoever is being done to protect these fish or begin to restore them to their native habitat and with any luck this data will help to get the ball rolling soon.

Originally it was just going to be my dad and I heading down for this trip, but shortly before the trip a slight complication arose as my sister whom had to travel to the same area for business proposes decided to join us. She seemed fine with the plans I had and as such I decided to roll with it. As Scott and Dan were coming from Utah and hadn't been to this area, we made plans to meet at a campground on Monday not far from the creek before embarking on our Alvord adventure on Tuesday.

Day 1: Sunday June 28th 2009: In order to split up the driving a bit, I figured that it would be best to head out on Sunday after I got off work at 6:00 PM. With me off at 6:00 PM, we were on the road by 7:00 PM, bound for Bend, Oregon where we would be spending the first night. The drive out to Bend was quite uneventful, although due to the shear distances involved and we didn't arrive in Bend until after 1:00 AM.

Day 2: Monday June 29th 2009: We had decided to spend the first half of the day in Bend before heading out to the campground. So while my sister took care of some of here business stuff, I checked out Bend. One of my favorite discoveries in Bend that I had heard about prior to the trip was the Orvis casting course. The concept of this course is similar to that of a golf course, where the caster earns points for landing his fly within the target area. The course also has a wide range of difficulty for their targets, that will challenge anglers from the beginning to the advanced level.

One of the ponds on the Orvis casting course in Bend, OR

Right after lunch we finally departed Bend and made the long drive out to the high desert. While had to deal with several slow downs due to road work projects, the most trying part of the whole drive was resisting the urge to stop and fish as we drove across the native range of four different forms of Great Basin Redband. This was especially difficult as we were stuck at a road work project along a nice meadow stream in the Chewaucan Basin within plain view of a pool holding several actively rising fish. However, the wait ended up only being a few minutes not giving me too much time to dwell on things and by late-afternoon we were making our way up the long gravel road to the campground. Even if I had no interest in fly fishing I would still enjoy this area, which has some the most diverse terrain in Oregon, ranging from high mountains, desert basins to grassland prairies. 

A herd of Pronghorn Antelope

The road into the campground

We arrived at the campground in the late afternoon, got the tent set up, made dinner, then I was off to check out a nearby Redband stream in the Caltow Valley. Upon reaching the stream, it didn't take long to know that there were fish in it, as my first cast with a Royal PMX and black Copper John dropper produced a beautiful little Redband. From that point on fishing pretty much continued to be fast and furious and it was just a matter of seeking out pockets large enough to hold a trout or two.

It is easy to see where these fish get their name of "redbands" from on this one.

I fished until the sun fell below the horizon and only called it quits when I could no longer see my fly. Shortly after getting back to the campground, Scott and Dan arrived and we made plans to do a little Redband fishing in the morning before heading to the Alvord stream.

Day 3: Tuesday June 30th 2009: I got up with the sun and by 6:30 AM we were on the water making our way down the creek to some good water. The creek in this area wound its way through stands of willows and aspens, and was best fished anywhere that the vegetation opened up a bit. We found one such open spot that had a couple nice pockets and within a few seconds Dan had caught his first Catlow Valley Redband. The fishing on the creek was just as good as the night before and within a couple minutes Scott and I also had a few fish under our belts. For the most part this was simply tap and dap fishing, and I was long arming my dry dropper step up into the pockets with very good success. While the dropper did help here, the dry still worked great and I was getting about a 50/50 mix of fish above and below the surface.

Dan fish a promising looking spot on the Redband stream

A beautiful little native Catlow Valley Redband Trout

We ended up covering about a mile of the creek and caught about 10 to 15 Redbands a piece with the average size going 5"-7" and a few fish up to 10" thrown in here and there. At 9:00 AM called it on the Redband stream and headed back to camp to grab some breakfast before heading out across the desert to fish for some of the rarest trout in the world. Before taking off again, I decided to join Dan and Scott for the next leg of the trip looking for Alvord Cutthroat, followed by Harney-Malheur Basin Redbands. My dad and sister would take care of her business out in Burns, Oregon then would meet back up with me at the Harney-Malheur Basin stream. 

By mid-morning Scott, Dan and I were in Dan's truck bumping along the long gravel road to the creek. I cannot begin to express how much nicer it was to drive to this stream instead of hiking as I did last year. However, with the 2WD car that I drove last year, which already had one a flat I am glad that I didn't risk it as the road into the creek was pretty darn rough and I could have easily ended up stranded in the middle of nowhere. Coming into the meadows along the creek, it was clear that a wet spring and early summer had made a big difference on the valley, as it was much greener this year. We drove he truck as far down the road as far we dared, before pulling off, rigging up the rods and deciding to hike downstream below the section that I had fish last year. A side effect of the wet spring in the form of hordes of mosquitos made itself know as we rigged up and we were all thankful for coming prepared with bug spray this year.

This should give a little idea of the amount of mosquitoes that we were dealing with.

Looking down the valley

We followed the "road," which was more of a trail at this point downstream to where it crossed the creek before we started fishing. Last year when I had fished this creek, I had found that about 90% of the water was relatively fishless, but anywhere that the creek turned a corner or got narrower it was usually deep enough to hold a couple of trout. Being earlier in the season and a wetter year, there was a quite bit more water in the creek then I had seen last year, but it looked like fishing the with the same methods would work well again. I started out at the road crossing, while Dan went downstream and Scott went slightly upstream. Being three of us, we did a bit of leap frogging around each other as we fished with each person picking a 50 yard stretch of the stream and person in the back of the group moving to the front after they had fished through their section. Once again I started out with a dry fly and a dropper that had worked last year and would allow fish that were holding beneath the weeds or under-cut banks to still see my fly. In the road pool I couldn't get anything to look at my flies, even though it looked like prime holding water, so I grudgingly moved downstream a little further. Just downstream I found a nice narrow troth that I fed my fly into and just as it drifted past some aquatic vegetation, my dry shot under the water. I set the hook and was into a trout on my dropper. Although I had fish higher up, last year I had only caught a couple of trout with typical Lahontan Cutthroat traits. As such was a little disappointed when I brought this fish in and saw that it looked like a typical Lahontan Cutthroat. Even so I took a photograph and measurements to be sent to Dr. Behnke. While it is thought that all of the fish in this stream we introduced, evidence points to Alvords from Trout Creek being stocked first likely before the 1920's, with Lahontan and Willow-Whitehorse Cutthroat being stocked several times between the 1950's and 1970's. However, the trout in the creek appear to display two distinct phenotypes, with some typical of Lahontan and others typical of Alvords. It is unclear weather this is due to some level of reproductive isolation or other mechanism.

Within a few minutes, Dan had also caught a fish, which also turned out to be a Lahontan type fish. I continued downstream and found a great little pool that was about two feet deep and had a decent looking trout holding  towards the tailout of the pool. I drifted my fly through the hole about twenty times and had my dry go under once at the head of the pool but couldn't get the Cutthroat at the tailout to as much as look at my fly. This meant that it was time for a change of tactics. If I have learned anything living in Washington and fishing for trout, it is that you usually have to think outside of the box once and a while if you want to be successful. One major lesson that I have learned, is that most native trout in slow pools or ponds will be triggered into biting when they think that the food is going to get away if they don't act quickly. It is in these situations that I pull out a fly like the ever dependable Zug Bug. This situation ended up fitting this mold exactly as I hoped it would. I tied on a size 12 Zug Bug, cast it just upstream of the Cutthroat I could see on the bottom, gave it a few seconds to sink before stripping it back in. At first the Cutthroat didn't seem too interested, but as soon as it looked like it was going miss its opportunity to eat my fly that changed and it rushed the Zug Bug. I saw and felt the strike at almost the same time. I set the hook and the fish was on with nowhere to run. The battle was short and as I slid the fish into my net, I was thrilled to see that it was what I had come for; an Alvord Cutthroat. However, my next realization was that my camera was nowhere to be found and I must have left it on the ground where I had caught the last fish. It is times like these that I am glad that I bring a net. I was able the keep the fish in the water and in the shade while I made a quick dash upstream and grabbed my camera, which still sitting on a sand bar. I rushed back downstream where the Alvord Cutthroat was still resting in the net, but unfortunately the rest had restored some of its energy. As such its plans and mine about the photoshoot were quite different and it made a dash for freedom before I could get a picture. With having had my dry go under at the head of the pool I figured there might be a fish there as well and my hunch was rewarded with a nice sized fish that looked like a Lahontan Cutthroat.

Zug Bug eating "Lahontan"

Seeing how well the Zug Bug had worked for me in this pool I decided to leave it on for a bit and head back upstream. This fly seemed to work well in most of the deep holes, including the road crossing pool where I hooked two fish and landed one of them. I continued upstream to a small canyon stretch where I had stopped fishing last year, catching another six fish along the way, although all of them had Lahontan Cutthroat traits. Once I reached this stretch the size of the stream shrunk and I switched back to my previous dry dropper system.

Covering the water just above the canyon

Just above this canyon stretch in one of the pools that I remembered catching a fish out of last year, I spotted a fish that looked to be about 8" long. It was sitting right below a weed bed at the head of the pool and on my first cast I got it to take but didn't hook up. I threw another cast into the pool but it got rejected by this fish. I allowed my fly drift downstream a little further than I had planned and just as I was about to go for another cast my dry shot under the surface. This fish was much larger than the one that I had been aiming for, but with the small quarters had nowhere to go and I quickly brought it to the net. Immediately knew that I had seen this fish last year, as out of all of the fish that I caught in this creek I had only seen one with this spotting pattern and this level of the distinctive red coloration that Alvord Cutthroat were known for. Dan seeing the commotion came over and assisted with the photos and measurements, pegging this fish in at 10.5". I knew that I had photos of this fish at home and would only know for sure then, but I was all but sure that I was right.

Wait doesn't this fish look familiar... Check out the photo below...

Yep it is the same fish that I caught last year. Although it had really grown. (Note the spots below the eye and behind the gill plate).

Dan told me that he had seen a fish in the next pool upstream, so I went to check it out and was rewarded with another fish on my dropper. This one ended up being a perfect representation of the Alvord Cutthroat phenotype and was absolutely beautiful.

After catching so many fish with Lahontan characteristics, this Alvord was a very welcome change.

An underwater shot of an Alvord
It seemed like each time the creek deepened out in this stretch, one of us would hook up with a fish. The nice thing too was that after getting above the canyon stretch the ratio of fish with Alvord traits versus typical Lahontan traits had increased and although the largest fish were around 11", we all started getting a few of the Alvord Cutthroat that we came here for.

A typical stretch of the creek

The higher up the creek that we moved, the tighter conditions got and holding water began to be spaced out much further. To complicate matters, the creek meandered through stretches of six foot tall grass and small groves of willows that made casting or even getting a fly in the water all but impossible. The few pockets that were free of obstructions though continued to produce fish, including my only fish on a dry for the day, which was an 8" Alvord. Before long we reached the upper end of the fishable section of the creek and it was time to move on.

Another Cutthroat with the coloration and spotting pattern  typical of Alvord Cutthroat 

After a long day on the water at the Alvord stream, it was time to head to the Harney-Malheur Basin where we would be camping for the night. I fished the stream we headed for back in 2006 and had found a good number of Redbands, including one in the 20" range, which had spit my fly before I could land it. Needless to say I was a little anxious to check it out again. The drive across the desert was fairly uneventful, with a fair few Antelope sightings along the way. When we got there we grabbed a campsite near the river, rigged up our rods and hit the water. 

The first thing that I should mention about this place is that the Alvord stream may as well have been a mosquito free zone in comparison. The second that we got on the water hordes of mosquitos descended on us and even DEET couldn't keep them at bay. If it weren't for the mosquitoes the fishing would have been a lot more enjoyable, as even though the trout weren't overly large there were lots of them and they eagerly rose to dry flies. These Redbands are also some of the more acrobatic fish I have come across and once hooked seemingly spent more time out of the water than in it. We worked upstream catching trout after trout, but just about all of the them were only in the 6" to 8" range.

A small Harney-Malheur Basin Redband Trout

The notable exceptions were a nice 15" Redband that Scott rose along a seam but didn't end up getting a solid hookup and a 12" fish that rose to Dan's fly but popped off at the net. After a couple hours the combo of failing daylight and an increase in the already bad mosquito problem made us decide to head back to camp. We fished a few of the better spots on the way back downstream, and I put on a size 6 golden stone colored Jumbo John and fished it on a downstream swing. While Dan and Scott continued to catch fish on just about every cast, I would maybe get a hit on one out of three casts. However, I was hoping for something bigger so this was fine by me. When we got to the spot where Dan had hooked the 12" fish, he pointed me to the spot that it was holding and on the first cast it took. I got a solid hook set and the fish started running and jumping like crazy. However, being on a 2WT there was only so much I could do to keep him out of the snags along the shore and before long the fish finally pulled my line into a root wad and got off. At this point it was finally time to call it quits for the day.

Day 4: July 1st 2009: My original plan for this day was to meet up with my dad and sister and head to the Whitehorse Basin to fish for some Cutthroat. I told Scott and Dan and to go ahead and make their way over to Whitehorse and as long as everything went to plan I would meet them there. Everything did not go as planned though. While I had very clearly marked a map with directions how to get to the campground, my dad and sister managed to take the wrong turn. They didn't discover their mistake for some time, leaving me stranded at the mosquito infested river. When I got the call telling me how late they were going to arriving, I had a choice between being eaten alive by mosquitoes in the campground or on the river, so I chose the river.

The Harney-Malheur Basin Redband stream, a haven for trout and mosquitoes amid some very thirsty country

Once again even armed with bug spray the mosquitoes were ravenous, so even though the weather was hot I threw on a hooded sweatshirt to combat the bugs and got on the water. As with the day before, I started out with a dry and dropper and was getting smallish trout on just about every cast. When I reached the spot where Scott had hooked his big fish the night before, I made a cast and sure enough the fish was still there. However, just as with Scott this fish spit my fly after only a few seconds and it was back to casting for small trout again. I hiked upstream a little ways to where I found a couple of deeper pools and decided to switch tactics up a bit and put the Jumbo John on again. I fished this fly on the swing and in the first pool I managed a nice trout at about 10", which was an improvement from the average size that I had been seeing on the dry and dropper. The next pool upstream was fairly broad with a deep drop off on the far bank. I made my way up to the head of the pool and had a strike on my first cast but didn't hook up. After a few more casts a fish slam my fly as it neared the middle of its swing and I was fast into a nice sized Redband. Unlike the spot that I had hooked my big fish the night before this pool was relatively free of obstructions, so while the fish fought valiantly on my 2wt I was able to work him into my net. While there are undoubtedly larger fish in this drainage this 13" Redband seemed like a giant in comparison to the six inchers that I had been catching so I decided to call it quits and head back to the campground for lunch.

A nice Redband that took a golden stone colored Jumbo John swung across a pool

At around 3:00 PM my dad and sister finally showed up. At this point it was already way to late in the day to head down to the Whitehorse Basin, so we decided to head up to the Blue Mountains to grab a hotel for the night as we started working our way home.

Day 5: July 2nd 2009: Although I had planned on staying an extra day, we all agreed that it would be nice to get home a little early, so we made the long drive from the Blue Mountains back to Gig Harbor. Scott, Dan and I a currently compiling all of our photos and data to send to Dr. Behnke and it will be fun to hear what he has to say when we get everything to him.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Central Washington Redbands and Westslopes

This past Monday I had a free day to head over to the east slope of the Cascades in Washington to check out a few of my favorite streams. The only problem was that while the 4th of July weekend had shown Washington some of our nicest weather yet this year, by Monday another marine layer had found its way inland yet again. My friend Zach had been bugging me to show him this spot for a couple of years now, so I finally invited him to join me this year.

By the time that we reached the mountains the weather had broken down bit it was raining in earnest. However, as I had hoped when we arrived at the creek the Cascade Mountain rain-shadow was in effect and while we still had overcast skies it looked like we had left the rain behind. Upon laying eyes on the stream I was a little surprised to see how low the water was. Last year when I had fished it at this time of the year, it had been a raging torrent that was tough to cross in all but a few select places. This year it was a full foot lower, no doubt a direct effect of low snowpack and an unusually dry June. While I typically like fishing a dry and dropper combo, I have fished this creek enough to know that when its native Westslope Cutthroat are feeding, they are looking for food on the surface making the dropper more of a hassle then it is worth. As such I strung up my rod, tied on a size 12 Royal PMX and hit the water.
A grey day at the creek

The action started out fast and furious and my first cast rewarded me with a nice 8" Westslope Cutthroat that attacked my Royal PMX with reckless abandon. The next few hundred yards of the stream continued to yield good numbers of Cutthroat in the 5-9" range, which confidently rose to take our dries. After this stretch, things slowed down a bit and we had to search for the fish a little harder. Even so most likely looking spots yielded a riser or two.

A typical Westslope Cutthroat from the stream.

Zach with a native Westslope Cutthroat

Over the years I have found that the higher upstream that I go on this creek, the better the fishing gets. However, this year that was not the case and instead the fishing remained slow while the weather began to deteriorate even more. In fact this was the first time in three years that my favorite run on the upper creek didn't yield a single fish. On top of this Zach managed to find a stick that was sharp enough to punch a hole in the leg of his waders, making for rough going with the frigid water. I did hook one truly note-worthy fish in the upper part of the creek, that was at least 12" but shook loose shortly after engulfing my dry fly.

Looking downstream on an especially high gradient stretch of creek

After finding the upper part of the creek less productive than normal, Zach and I made the call to head back to the car and try out another stream that was a little further to the east. We did fish a few of the more prime lies on the way back downstream and managed to catch a few more beautiful little Westslopes before reaching the car and hitting the road again. 

We traveled down the Yakima River Valley for another half hour before turning up the creek valley and searching out a productive piece of water. Although it was rather windy, the weather was sunny and 70 and the water looked to be in perfect shape. The last time the I had fished this stream the trout were quite eager to take attractor flies, so I left the Royal PMX on but added a gold size 16 Lightning Bug as a dropper. As I was rigging up I started eyeballing a little pool behind a log jam and noticed a decent looking trout finning in the tailout. Definitely a good sign!! 

I wanted to plan my approach on this fish so instead of proceeding to the log jam I first checked out run downstream where I managed to rise, but missed a decent sized trout. After this it was on to the log jam where the fish was still hanging out right underneath some overhanging branches. I made my cast to the trout and line flew perfectly between the branches and the water landing just a few feet upstream of the fish, which confidently rose to meet it. I set the hook and the fish launched itself out of water and made a few small runs before I brought a beautiful Columbia Basin Redband to hand.

A beautiful Redband
 managed to get one more small trout out of this pool on my dropper, before I continued upstream to where Zach was fishing. When I found him he was just releasing a fish, which turned out to be his third. As we worked our way upstream, the fishing continued to be productive, with just about every pocket and likely looking spot producing one or two Redbands. In a particularly good pocket behind rock, I managed to catch five trout, with one taking my dry and the rest falling for the Lightning Bug dropper.

Zach working his fly along an especially fishy looking log jam.

The fishing continued to be consistent for Redbands averaging 6" to 8"as we continued upstream, until we came to a pool with a basalt cliff running along it. Zach took point on this spot and one his first cast a nice fish rose for his dry fly. He missed the riser, but got lucky and another trout had grabbed his Copper John dropper at the same time and he got a solid hook up. This ended up being the larger of the two fish and after a few seconds he managed to bring it to the net. Whether this fish was a Redband or Cut-bow was hard to say, as it had a vivid Cutthroat slash but the colors were distinctly those of a Redband. No matter what it was it was a fine trout at just short of 11". After Zach released his fish I got a try at the pool and hooked up with one trout for brief moment before it came loose.

The basalt cliff pool

Upstream of the pool the stream was much less productive for the next quarter mile and we only managed to rise and handful of fish. The reason for this became clear and as well rounded a bend we ran into a crew of WDFW fisheries biologists that had been electroshocking the creek to do a study on the diet of the trout. From what they had to say, Coho Salmon had been reintroduced back into the creek during the previous year and they were looking into the importance of Coho fry in the diet of the Redbands and Cutthroat that call this stretch of stream home. Some of the larger Redbands did have Coho fry in their diets, suggesting that a streamer might not be a bad idea next time.

After our brief conversation with the crew Zach and I headed back downstream, and I got another shot at the basalt cliff pool and this time managed to catch a 10" Redband on my dropper. We also fished a few of the other prime lies on the way to the car and picked up a couple more trout. However, at this point were more keen on getting back to the car so we could explore one more nearby stream.

A post release Redband

The next stream that we decided to fish was a headwater tributary of the last one and we were hoping that we might find a few Westslope Cutthroat up there. This stream took a little bit of hiking to get to, but after about 3/4 of a mile we reach the water and started fishing. We found tight condition small stream fishing at its finest and there were numerous deadfalls overhanging bushes waiting to intercept our flies. However, there were a few decent pools a here and there and as we moved upstream I caught a few Cutthroat and a Redband or two as well.

Stream #3

A Westslope Cutthroat on the Royal PMX

In a deep slot Zach caught a fish that he was pretty happy about, but really has no business in the creek, a Brook Trout. Outside of their native range, Brookies have been been problematic for native Cutthroat across the Western US, as they typically out compete Cutthroat in cooler headwater streams. My worries were put to ease a bit, as for the remaining half mile of the stream that we covered, we only encountered the native Cutthroat and Redbands, suggesting that the Brook Trout population may not be too well established.

Zach's Brook Trout

After fishing this stream we headed to one last stream to quickly it out. However, after driving to the end of the road and tromping around a mosquito infested meadow and not seeing the stream anywhere close by we decided that we had done enough fishing for one day.

A view of the meadows

After a few more mosquito bites and little more trudging across the meadows, we hopped back in the car and made drive back down the valley and across the mountains to Gig Harbor. For Zach, this was an especially successful outing as he managed to catch three new species of trout. For me it was just nice to be out on the water looking for native trout in some beautiful country.