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.


Saturday, October 3, 2009

September in the Southwest: Part 1 Paiute Cutthroat

For the last few years I have felt that the array of salmonids represented on my website was strikingly incomplete due to the absence several fish. Two particular missing fish that I felt left the largest void were the Apache and Gila trout found in the Southwestern US. Since I began my native trout quest it has been a practice of mine to target several species on a single trip to get the biggest bang for my buck. However the Gila trout have long been closed to fishing due to being listed as endangered under the ESA. This meant that I would either have to make a trip just for the Apache trout and a second trip when the Gila trout were opened to fishing, or put fishing for Apache trout off and just wait to just make one single trip for both fish. I chose the second option and finally the Gila trout were downlisted to threatened in 2007 and shortly after several streams were opened to fishing. Last year planned out a trip for these two fish, however in the end life got in the way and I was forced to put things on hold for a year. This ended up not being all that bad of a thing as the state of New Mexico expanded the number of streams that were open to fishing for Gila trout and one of these new streams looked extremely promising.

Thus I began to plan another trip for this year. One of the first things that I did when planning this trip was look at what other types of trout were missing from my list of North American salmonids and see if there was any possibility of targeting them at the same time as the Gila and Apache trout. Two trout came to mind in California, the Paiute cutthroat and the Eagle Lake rainbow trout. However the Eagle Lake rainbow isn't really available to fly fisherman until late October through December, so it really wasn't an option. The Paiute cutthroat on the other hand was my last missing subspecies of cutthroat, but is closed to fishing in its native waters. However outside of its native range was another story and for sometime I have known about a couple of extremely remote refuge populations that California Fish and Game had established to ensure that this trout would not fade into extinction. While both populations require long cross country hikes to reach, one looked like it could be done as a day hike and might fit into my plans well. To round things off I decided to also target a large spotted strain of Rio Grande cutthroat only found in the Pecos River drainage in New Mexico.

This was what I decided during September of 2008 and it gave me one full year to do some research on these four fish; where I would find them and how I would go about making everything work to get to them. To say the least the shear logistics of this trip were maddening. Early on I asked my cousin Derek if he would want to join me and while he isn't the biggest on fishing, he thought it sounded fun so he was in. With Derek in I started to look into possible streams to fish and gathered info on them from a wide range of sources: other anglers, fisheries reports, biologists, online forums, etc. I also had to decide between driving and flying, which really came down to distances involved and money. If I flew I would save some time, but still have lots of driving. Plus I would have to find a central location as due to the distances between each fish, there would likely be a lot of back tracking anywhere I went. The pros and cons of flying just didn't line up, so I decided driving was the way to go. Timing was the next big issue. Normally I choose to do my fishing trips during mid-summer, however that is monsoon season in the Southwest so fall or late summer would be a better choice. I also found out from Blake that the fly fishing retailers show was during mid-September in Denver and since he said he would like me to go with him I decided to build the trip around that.

Day 1: Tuesday September 1st 2009: Fast forward several months and many of hours of planning and it was finally time to head out. We hit the road at 4AM on what would be a full day of driving to reach the trailhead into the Paiute cutthroat stream. All in all it was a pretty uneventful day with us reaching our campsite outside of Mammoth Lakes, CA a little before 8PM. Prior to hitting the hay, Derek and I got our backpacks all set so that we wouldn't have to mess with them in the morning.

Day 2: Wednesday September 2nd 2009: From all of the people that I had talked to about this hike before leaving home, I heard that it was pretty much and all day affair to get into and out of the creek. Due to this I came up with the "brilliant" idea that we should hit the trail before the sun came up to gain some time. As such for the second day in a row Derek and I got up at 4AM and guided by our headlamps and my "trusty" GPS unit we hit the trail. Now before leaving home I programmed our route into my GPS and set an alarm to go off if we went off course. Lets just say that the alarm didn't go off and at about a two miles in I noticed that we must have missed a fork in the tail somewhere and were now about a 1/2 mile to the east of where we should be. We had the choice between following the trail back to where we should have turned off or a shorter cross-country trip in the dark. We decided on the cross-country route, which while shorter ended up being a hands and knees scramble up a very steep thorn infested slope and a climb over a cliff face. I have no idea if we actually gained anytime with this route, but it got us back onto to the right trail and showed me that if I checked the GPS a little more often it could be quite useful, even if the alarm system is worthless.

Pre-dawn on the trail

By the time that the sun actually started peeking over the mountains, we were about half way up the peak that we had to cross to reach the creek. With the added light, the views of the surrounding mountains were stunning and things started warming up making tee-shirts a much better choice than the sweatshirts that we had started out wearing.

Early morning in the high Sierras

The trail up the mountain was an endless series of switchbacks and when things looked to be leveling off for a few minutes it proved to be nothing more than a false summit. After this brief flat section there was another brutal series of switchbacks before the true top. By the time that we finally reached the dry creek bed where we would start the cross-country leg of our trip it was already well into the morning so we decided to take a break for breakfast before continuing on.

The cross country trek started out fairly straight forward roughly following the dry creek bed down hill through a pine and fir forest, but before long things started getting a bit more complex. While in the forested section the gradient was fairly mellow, but before long we came to a huge slab of granite where the creek fell into a fairly deep and shear faced canyon. We were forced to clamber down a few pretty gnarly cliffs before we finally made our way out across a flatter section of granite. We had probably been hiking across this slab of granite for about a half hour when I spotted what I thought for about a second was a big black dog. Of course my next thought was what in the world would a dog be doing way out here and I realized that it was a black bear. We watched as he minded his own business and clambered across the rock face in the opposite direction. Before continuing on we made sure to make a bit of noise in case he wasn't alone, but we never saw any sign of another bear.

A black bear on the way into the creek

Working my way across the backcountry

After our little bear sighting we made our way to the end of the granite slab where once again we had to do some more scurrying down the cliffs, after which our way was barred by a wall of scrub brush. Another rough scramble through the bushes put us at the creek. While I had guessed the stretch of the creek that might hold these rare trout, I didn't know for sure so I started sneaking up to the pools and try to sight any fish. In the first pool I didn't see anything, but in the one below it I spotted several small trout holding in the current. Pay dirt!!

The creek

Knowing that we were in the right place we rigged up our rods, me doing a dry dropper combo and Derek going with just a dry. I headed up to the first pool where I had spotted the trout while Derek headed downstream. Although these fish were hard to get to, they definitely were not difficult to catch and within a couple of casts I watched as one of the cutthroat grabbed my nymph. After a short battle I brought my first Paiute cutthroat to hand and although it was not very large, this spotless trout lived up to their reputation as one of the more beautiful fish in North America.

What we came for pure Paiute cutthroat trout

My first cutthroat was quickly followed by another, which took dry this time and after this I worked into to a rhythm of catching five or so cutthroat from each pool before moving downstream to sample some new water. Although the fish were quite numerous, they all seemed to be in the 5-7 range and oddly enough seemed to have very little fear of people. At first I started out trying to keep as low of a profile as possible and sneaking up on the fish. However before long I started to notice that even when the fish saw me they would continue to hold their position instead of fleeing like most trout do. I am not sure what the underlying cause of this behavior was, but it sure made fishing a lot easier.

The creek

An underwater Paiute

We fished the creek until around lunchtime at which point we decided that we had caught plenty of trout and unless we wanted to be hiking until dark we should probably start working our way back. In some ways the hike out of the creek was easier and in others it was much more difficult. The thing that made it easier was that we now had a pretty good idea of the most efficient way out back to the trail and could avoid most of the cliffs. What made it harder was that we were already worn out from the hike in and the trek back to the trail was about as steep as it gets.

The "easy" way out of the creek

The fishless headwaters of the creek

After a brutal couple of hours of bush whacking to get back to the trail, we finally reached the trail and top of the mountain at around 2pm. From here it was almost all down hill back to trailhead, so we made great timing for the next few miles until we reached the last up hill stretch between us and the car.
Derek on the hike down the mountain

Although the last hill probably wasn't all that steep, we were beat at this point and as such it totally kicked our butts. Knowing that it was all downhill to the car once we got to the top though, kept us going and at around 4:15PM we finally emerged at the trailhead. After completing the hike Derek and I grabbed a bit of dinner, hopped in the car for a six hour drive to Las Vegas, where we would have a day to recover before heading back out on the road.


Chris S. said...

I've been waiting on this report!

I'm glad you were successful all around...good work!


mike doughty said...

although way way way to much forme to read, cause i hate reading, great pics and looks like a great trip.

Brandon said...

awesome trip and thanks for sharing with all of us.

Unknown said...

good work on the gila and RGC's, luved the RGC and yellowstone lower falls pics. Oh, and thx for putting in all that hard work! ;-)

Scott C said...

Very nice Gary, very nice! I'm glad all worked out so well for you, which is amazing for the number of days you were gone. I loved the bear shot. The snake story was great. Some incredible hiking and storm outrunning. Congratulations on the successful trip!

-scott c

plummer said...

I myself am interested in all of the rare cutthroat and rainbow species. I didn't think the pure strain existed out of the silver king creek drainage, you must have did some serious research. Good job.