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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.


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 the elusive and supposedly extinct Alvord cutthroat trout last year (click here for details), Scott of the Cutthroat Stalker blog and his friend Dan had contacted me about making the trip back to Hart Mountain to look for some more Alvords during the summer of 2009. Initially I wasn't sure I would be able to pull it off, but finally found a week in early July that worked for both 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 Alvord vs. Lahontan cutthroat that we caught, photograph each fish and take measurements, to send to Robert Behnke. As of right now nothing what soever 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 that I had set out 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 even 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 6PM. With me off at 6PM, we were on the road by 7PM, 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 the excessively slow Oregon speed limits we didn't arrive in Bend till after 1:00AM.

Day 2: Monday June 29th 2009: We had decided to spend the first half of the day in Bend before heading down to Hart Mountain. So while my sister took care of some of here business stuff, I checked out Bend a bit. 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 pulled the plug on Bend and made the long drive out to Hart Mountain. While we did have to deal with several slow downs from road work projects and Oregon's irritatingly slow speed limits, 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. Resisting this urge 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 Hart Mountain.

Now if I had no interest in fly fishing I would still enjoy coming to Hart Mountain. Out of all of Southeastern Oregon, the area around Hart Mountain has to be some of my favorite country. Anyway that you look at it this is some of the regions most diverse terrain, from the stunning views of the lakes of the Warner Valley from the Catlow rim to the broad expanses of prairie stretching as far as the eye can see can see across the Catlow Valley. Add in the dramatic rise of Warner Peak and Hart Mountain from the valley floor and the free ranging ranging antelope and it just seems like there is something ancient about the place, like you have taken a step back in time.

A herd of Antelope

Hart Mountain antelope refuge

We finished setting up camp at right around dinner time and after passing by so many great little redband streams, I decided that it was now time to do a little fishing and made my way to the nearest creek. The one thing that I will say about this stream is that it didn't take long to know that there were fish in it as my first cast with the 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 Scott and Dan arrived and we made plans to do a little redband fishing before heading over to the Alvord stream.

Day 3: Tuesday June 30th 2009: I got up with the sun in the morning and as Scott and Dan didn't appear to be up yet I decided to head up the creek to check things out and wait for a little bit more of a reasonable hour to bother them. The creek was a bit smaller upstream and the pockets were a little more spread out, but I did manage to get a few more trout before returning to camp and heading out to fish some more with Dan and Scott.

By 6:30Am we were making our way down the creek to some good water that I had fish during a trip in 2007. Th 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. Once again the creek continued the same pace that it had set 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 Catlow Valley stream

A beautiful little Catlow Valley redband trout

We probably ended up covering about a mile of the creek and I guess that we 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 about 8:30 or 9:00 AM we 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 we decided that I would join up with Dan and Scott for the next leg of the trip while my dad and sister took care of her business stuff. So by mid-morning Scott, Dan and I were bumping along the long gravel road to the creek in Dan's truck. 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 that had already had 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 last few weeks had made a big difference on the appearance of the valley as it was much greener than I remembered it last August. 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. It quickly became apparent as we were rigging up that there was one more side effect of the wet spring that the area had been subject to, namely lots and lots of mosquitoes.

This should give an idea of the levels 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 fish. Being earlier in the season and a wetter year, there was a quite bit more water in the creek than I was used to 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 when 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 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 a single thing to look at my flies, even though it looked like a prime lie 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 that matched the description of the Lahontan cutthroat, which were also introduced into this stream. I was a little disappointed when I brought this fish in and saw that it was also a Lahontan cutthroat. Even so I got a photograph and took measurements to be sent to Dr. Behnke. Within a few minutes, Dan had also caught a fish, which turned out to be a Lahontan cutthroat.

I continued downstream and found a great little pool that was about two feet deep and had a decent looking trout holding along the bottom 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 bit of 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. On major lesson that I leave learned 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 that I could see on the bottom and gave it a few seconds to sink before stripping it back in. At first the cutthroat did not seem too interested, but as soon as it looked like he would miss his opportunity to eat my fly he changed his mind and rushed the zug bug. I saw and felt the strike at almost the same time, 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 Lahontan cutthroat. 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 where I had caught the Lahontan. I rushed back downstream where the Alvord cutthroat was still resting in the net, but unfortunately for me that time to rest had restored some of his energy. As such his plans and mine about the photoshoot were quite different and he made his 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 size 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 really work well in most of the deep holes. This include 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, catching another six fish along the way, altough all of them wereLahontan cutthroat. Once I reached this stretch the stream size shrunk a bit 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. He was sitting right below a weed bed at the head of the pool and on my first cast I got him to take but didn't hook up. I threw another cast into the pool but it got rejected by this fish. For some reason 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 coloration. 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 he 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 sterotypical Alvord cutthroat and was absolutely beautiful.

After catching so many Lahontan cutthroat, this Alvord was a very welcome change.

Perhaps the only underwater shot of an Alvord cutthroat in existance

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 after getting above the canyon stretch the ratio of Alvord cutthroat to Lahontan cutthroat 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 in this section 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 ended up being an 8" Alvord cutthroat. 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 Alvord cutthroat coloration and spotting pattern

After a long day on the water at the antelope refuge we decided to head east to the Donner und Blitzen River, which Scott and Dan hadn't fished before. I fished this stream back in 2005 and had found a good number of Harney-Malheur Basin redbands in it 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 to the Blitzen 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 the 100% DEET couldn't keep them at bay.

If it weren't for the mosquitoes the fish would have been a lot more enjoyable, as even though the trout weren't overly large there were lots of them and the eagerly rose to dry flies. These redbands are also some of the more acrobatic fish that I had ever 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

The notable exceptions were a nice 15" fish 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 was LDR'd. After a couple hours the combo of failing daylight and an increase in an already bad mosquito problem made us decide to headback downstream. We decided that we might as well fish a few of the better spots on the way back downstream, so I decided to put on a size 6 golden stone colored Jumbo John and fish it on the 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 big so this was fine by me. When we got to the spot where Dan had hooked the 12" fish, he pointed me into 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 he 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, so we headed back to camp.

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 Blitzen River, apparently my dad and sister thought that they could find there way there without its help. Unfortunately they ended up taking the wrong road and didn't discover their mistake for some time, leaving me stranded at the mosquito infested Blitzen 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. Of course I chose the river.

The Donner und Blitzen River, 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 on 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 switch back to the Jumbo John 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 and deep with drop off into 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 at about the middle of the pool 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 head back 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 3pm my ride showed up, it was already much 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 room for the night and figure out out plans.

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 so we made the long trip 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.


Doug Cook said...

Great story Gary. I cannot wait to hear the verdict from Dr. Behnke.

Chris S. said...

Looks like you guys had a nice trip. I too look forward to Dr. Behnke's response.


Anonymous said...

Great write-up Gary. That sure was fun. I need to get off my butt and figure out what we're going to do with the data. I think all of our pictures on PhotoBucket, we just need to put some words/data together to sen to Dr. B.
-scott c

Phil said...

Looks like an great trip.
I love catching small native trout they are beautiful.
Check out some of my trout art at

I might be interested in painting some of your rare Oregon native trout.