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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.


Monday, July 19, 2021

Rapid Fire Westslope Cutthroat Trip: Part 2

 Day 3: Saturday July 3rd 2021:  With three subspecies of Cutthroat down, we were up early and on the road again headed into the Salmon River country of Idaho. While we certainly could have tried the big water of the Salmon River, instead we were heading for a small stream that had come highly recommended from a friend of mine. According to him, he had caught Salmon River Westslopes, Columbia Basin Redbands and Interior Bull Trout all in this stream. It took us a few hours to reach the stream and I decided that we would start upstream of the road crossing. Almost as soon we stepped out of the car, we were mobbed by swarm of deer flies. These things were persistent too and even DEET, which I rarely resort too didn’t do the trick. Despite the onslaught of flies, we geared up and headed to the water. The stream here was high gradient pocket water and extremely brushy, but it only took a few casts to rise a little cutthroat and like that the Salmon River Westslope was checked off the list. A few minutes later Derek got one too. After trudging a a couple hundred yards through the steep brushy terrain, I found a nice deeper pocket. My first few casts through the typical strike zones didn’t produce, but when I let the fly drift a bit further back a nice fish rose. After a quick battle, I brought this fish in and found that I had a Bull Trout and not a Cutthroat in the net. 

A Salmon River Westslope Cutthroat

A beautiful dry fly caught Bull Trout

The brushy stream

Despite finding a few fish on the way upstream, the going was extremely tough so we made the call to relocate downstream about a mile to a more open meadow stretch that we had passed. I did pop into a few pockets we had walked by on the way upstream and managed to get three more Cutthroat before getting back to the car and relocating.

Just as before, once we got back out of the car, the flies we at us again. The first bit of the stream was lined with dense willows not particularly productive, but we did pick up a couple more cutthroat in the deeper pockets. However, before long the stream braided and the meadow opened up and the holding water greatly improved. 

Some more promising water

As I headed upstream, I caught a couple more small Bull Trout and rose a couple others. The last hole that I came too ended up being the best. First cast in I got a decent Cutthroat in a pocket in the tailout. Next cast I got a Columbia Basin Redband a little upstream of the Cutthroat. On my next cast I landed my fly next to some woody debris and got a nice fish to rise my fly. When the fish jumped a couple times I could see it was a nice about 14” Bull Trout. Just before I netted this fish another slightly smaller Bull Trout shot out of nowhere and attacked the one I was fighting, but I was able to put mine out of the way and land it a couple seconds later. Not sure if I have ever managed the feat of landing three different native species on three casts before!

Cast #1 - Salmon River Westslope Cutthroat
Cast # 2- Columbia Basin Redband

Cast # 3 - Interior Bull Trout

After releasing this fish, I made a few more casts in the head of the pool and low and behold out came the other Bull Trout and grabbed my dry fly as well. After a short battle with a few good jumps I was able to bring the about 13” Bull Trout to the net.

After that fish, we were done with the biting flies had to be on the road again headed for the Ruby River Valley in Montana. If it hadn’t been for the biting flies, this stream would have been one of my favorites of the trip, as catching three species of native trout on three casts is just not something that one usually finds when small stream fishing.

Our next target was the Missouri River Westslope Cutthroat, has been the most heavily impacted Westslope subspecies and was the one I was the most worried about finding. In addition we were also hoping to find some fluvial Arctic Grayling in the Ruby River, one of the last place to hold them in the lower 48 states. Unfortunately, this next stretch of trip is where we started to hit some hiccups. The first was that the road to the Westslope Cutthroat stream I had planned on fishing was gated off and there was no way to get into it. I did have another stream planned for Missouri River Westslope for the next day so this wasn’t the end of the world. With that, we decided to head to the campground we planned on staying at and fish the Ruby River in that area. This campground left a lot to be desired, first we got one of the last spots and there really was no good spot for a tent and the picnic tables were pretty busted up. The bigger issue to me was that the rest of the campground was full of RVs and car top campers, with every one of them seeming to find it necessary to run their loud generators nonstop. We decided that we would hold off setting up camp and see what the river had to offer.

Storm clouds moving through

Our first try at fishing only lasted 20 minutes until a thunderstorm pushed us off the river. After waiting it out in the car for another 45 minutes, the weather finally cleared enough for us to get on the river. As Grayling have smaller mouths than trout, I brought both a dry fly and nymphing rod with me. The dry fly was the first to get any action and I landed a little Westslope with some slight hybrid traits. The next few fish were also cutbows. Finally I found a deeper hole and hooked into something with the right body shape of a Grayling on the nymph rig, but when I landed it turned out to be a Whitefish.

Cutbows galore

A Ruby River Whitefish

While I had been fishing here, Derek had gone upstream and found a pod of rising fish, but was having trouble hooking up. When he did finally hook up, we found out why as it was another Whitefish. I also picked up a Whitefish here, before we continued upstream. The character of the river changed above here, opening up into a classic meadow stream with lots of cutbanks, that would have fit in well in Yellowstone. However, the fishing didn’t change and it was pretty much 6-8” cutbows and a handful of Whitefish, but no Grayling. As such after covering a mile or so of the river we headed back to the car.

The fishing may not have been what we hoped, but the scenery was amazing! 

Sunset over the valley

At this point, the sky was threatening to bust loose with another thunderstorm again and with our subpar campsite and loud neighbors we decided to go ahead and head for our next spot. As we were already getting close to dusk, we knew this was going to be a night drive followed by sleeping in the car, but so be it. When we arrived at the next stream at 10pm, the thunderstorm had followed us and as such it looked like sleeping in the car it was.

Day 4: Sunday July 4th 2021: After a rough night of sleep in the car, we woke up at day break and drove up to a meadow stretch of the stream. The stream was pretty small here and when we arrived, there was a herd of cattle grazing along the banks, for whatever reason when we walked out to check out the creek these cows decided they wanted to follow us and back to the car. As we still needed to rig up, it was quite cold out still and we didn’t really want to to rig up surrounded by cows we waited a few minutes in the car for them to clear out. Before moving on, for what ever reason one got in a head butting contest with my back bumper, but before long it was time to get fishing. 

Our cattle friends

It didn’t take long to find fish, but unfortunately every single one of them was a Brook Trout. After covering a good length of the creek, I decided it was time to scoot over to our second backup creek. This next creek was located one watershed over and with luck we would be able to find ourselves a few Cutthroat there.

A beautiful stream, but no Cutthroat...

Brook Trout - the bane of small stream Cutthroat

When we arrived at this creek, the deer flies that had plagued us in Idaho were back in force and definitely made the experience less enjoyable. Where we started the creek was extremely brushy but had decent holding water and within a few casts I had hooked into a trout. However, just like the last stream, it was a Brook Trout. At this point I was starting to get worried about getting the Missouri River Westslope on this trip, especially when the next few fish were also brookies. However, when I came around a bend and spotted what looked to be a trout and not a char sitting in a tailout, I was given a bit of hope. One the next cast, the fish rose to my fly and when I slide the fish into the net, I was a beautiful Westslope Cutthroat! In the next hole upstream, I was also pleased to find another slightly larger Missouri River Westslope.

The elusive Missouri River Westslope Cutthroat

Unfortunately, this trend did not continue, the ratio of Brook Trout to Cutthroat was probably 10 to 1, making it challenging to catch many more cutties. Despite this the stream was certainly beautiful and the fishing was certainly good, even if we were catching the wrong fish. However, as we still needed to make it to our next spot in Idaho in time to fish and set up camp before dark we had to hit the road again. Hopefully, the next spot would treat us better on the Cutthroat front than the last few had.

A beautiful stream, just too many brookies

For our next spot, we were aiming to find some North Fork Clearwater River Westslope Cutthroat. These were the last new subspecies that were we after, and as the rivers in Idaho had treated us well so far, I had high hopes for this one as well. After several our hours of driving through wide open Big Sky county of Montana, we found ourselves once again winding up a dusty road over the Bitteroots and into Idaho. As we pulled into the campground, our timing couldn’t have been better as several campers were from the 4th of July crowd were just pulling out and had left the best campsite vacant. This time we opted to set up camp first and fish afterwards. However, after I had gotten my first couple tasks done I couldn’t help but sneak a cast or two while standing on the bank in the campsite. These casts were rewarded immediately with a couple smallish Cutthroat and like that, mission accomplished with all five new subspecies caught. Feeling satisfied, I finished setting up and told Derek he should try the same spot. While I found a couple smallish Cutthroat, Derek managed to landed a beautiful 14” right the standing in camp.

The river at our campsite

With a little taste of the river and camp a set up, Derek and I were ready to really explore the river. I had spotted a nice hole just downstream on the other side of the river and opted to head there, while Derek went upstream.

On my way across the river, I picked up a few more small Cutthroat and one Redband in the the pocket water before reaching the hole I was heading to. This spot looked just as good up close as it did from the other side of the river, with a nice seam right down the middle. The first few casts didn’t get any attention, but once I got to the prime water, I got a good drift and rose and hooked into a nice fish. This fish had some size and really made me work for it on my 2WT with several good runs before it finally slid into the net.

A beautiful NF Clearwater Westslope Cutthroat

A couple cast after getting this fish I rose another nice sized Cutthroat, but after briefly hooking up, it popped loose. After this fish, the hole completely shut off, so I headed upstream to catch up with Derek. Derek had managed to find a few Cutthroat on his way upstream and together we moved upstream to a nice hole along a cliff face. Derek started off by a big boulder in the middle of the hole, while I started at the top. On my first cast, a big fish rose on took my Royal PMX and I was again hooked into a nice Cutthroat, however after fighting it for a minute, I felt a pop and the fish was gone and so was my fly. This had been a big fish so I was definitely bummed. At this point, a solid hatch of Green Drakes, PMDs and caddis was starting to get going and Derek opted for a Green Drake pattern and a couple casts later he got himself a nice Cutthroat that was perhaps 15". It was my turn next and a Green Drake also was the ticket for me and produced another nice Cutthroat, this time at about 16". 

Derek's Cutthroat

Unfortunately, at this point what had been a perfect evening of fishing took a bit of a sour turn and while neither of us were quite sure how it happened, my 4wt Sage SLT rod which Derek had been using completely shattered on its second section. While this wasn't the end of the word as we had a couple other rods with us, this rod has been on a lot of adventures and I am really crossing my fingers that Sage is able to replace the broken sections as I love this rod. After the rod, broke, I grabbed it from Derek and took it up to the rock my 5wt nymph rod was hanging out on to swap them out. While I was re-rigging the 5wt for dry fly fishing a bug landed on my leg and when I looked down I noted that it was a gray crane fly. Beyond that, when I looked at the base of the rock, there were hundreds of crane flies buzzing around. As luck would have it, prior to the trip and Dyllon had told me that the previous year they had run into a crane fly hatch in Montana but had no flies to match them. Due to this him and I had tied up several prior to leaving on our respective trips and it looked like it was time for me to see if this was going to pay off or not. 

After passing the 5wt off to Derek, I swapped out my fly for a crane fly and tried the top of the hole while Derek tried the middle again. After a few casts Derek rose and lost a fish and we swapped locations. Just a couple casts later, a big Cutthroat jumped out of the water and took my fly down from the top. This fish elicited a rare "HOLY CRAP" from me due more to the ferocity of the take and the thickness of the fish than anything. This fish appeared to know what it was doing and really made me work for it, but after several minutes of fighting it finally tired and I was able to net it. Interestingly when I looked at the fish in the net, there was the fly that I had broken off several fish ago! I seemed I had gotten him afterall.

Me with a solid Cutthroat

At this point it was getting close to dinner time and after the next few casts failed to get anyone's attention, Derek and I opted to head back to camp and grab dinner. However, once back a camp I decided that I needed to take one more shot at the fish I had lost in the hole on the other side of the river. I was glad that I did so as just a couple casts in, a Green Drake rose a nice Cutthroat and I landed my last NF Clearwater Westslope Cutthroat of the day, a 15" beauty. With that last fish, we settled in to camp, had a nice taco dinner for our last night and bundled up for what proved to be one chilly night.

Day 5: Monday July 5th 2021: After a much colder night than the rest of the trip, I was eager to get up and start moving a get a nice cup of hot breakfast tea while I was at it. Today was going be a long day of driving, but I was hoping to round out the Westslope Cutthroat with on last stop for some Neoboreal Westslope Cutthroat. After crossing back in to Montana, we found a likely looking spot on the stream on the other of the pass and tried our luck. Derek took a run just upstream of where we parked, while I opted for a bush whack to the next pool up. Fishing in this pool proved to be fast and furious and within a half hour I had caught around 8 Cutthroat and headed back downstream. Derek had also had decent luck while I was upstream and had gotten a few Cutthroat as well as one Brook Trout. After only an hour stop, we had our final species of the trip checked off it was time to call the trip a wrap. 

Our final stream of the trip

A small stream Neoboreal Westslope Cutthroat

Overall the drive back was pretty smooth, we hit some 4th of July weekend traffic on the eastside of Spokane and another slow down on the westside of Spokane due to a forest fire raging a couple miles south of I-90, but made it back to Yakima by 3pm. After dropping Derek off, I was forced to the US 12 home instead of I-90, which seemed to be gridlocked due to the 4th crowd, but this way was more scenic and relaxing anyways and I made it home shortly after 7pm. This was an absolutely amazing trip and one that I will not soon forget! There are several streams that I am definitely hoping to revisit down the road when I have a bit more time as the fishing was hard to beat. The final tally was 11 varieties of salmonids; 7 subspecies of Westslope Cutthroat, Interior Bull Trout, Columbia Basin Redband, Mountain Whitefish and Brook Trout. Not to bad for a 5 day road trip!

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Rapid Fire Westslope Cutthroat Trip: Part 1

In 2018 a range wide review of the genetic relationship between Westslope Cutthroat populations showed that we had been looking at them all wrong. Formerly Westslope Cutthroat had been considered a single subspecies of cutthroat, however this review indicated that the genetic diversity warranted Westslope Cutthroat being reclassified as 9 distinct subspecies. As chance would have it, I had already caught four of the subspecies, however the other five (St. Joe Westslope Cutthroat, NF Clearwater Westslope Cutthroat, Clearwater Headwaters Westslope Cutthroat, Salmon River Westslope Cutthroat and Missouri River Westslope Cutthroat) were another question. So with that I started planning out a trip to chase all of these fish down. As plans unfolded, I also was eyeing what other trout were nearby. I eyed a couple additional Westslope Cutthroat subspecies, as well as Bonneville Cutthroat as my secondary targets. Additionally, it seemed that the was a good chance of catching some Interior Bull Trout, which are genetically distinct from Coastal Bull at some point, but Bull Trout have been notoriously challenging to find for me so I wasn’t banking on that one.

Originally this trip was going to cover 7 days at the end of June and would have aligned nicely with a trip my neighbor Dyllon was doing. However, the dates ended up conflicting with a family vacation and in the end the trip was reduced to five days and was pushed to the first week of July over the busy 4th of July weekend. Luckily these dates worked well with my cousin Derek, who has been my native trout partner in crime for years and the trip could still go forward. The loss of two days meant that the Bonneville Cutthroat were out but if I managed my time well, I should still be able to go after all of the Westslope Cutthroat. The delay ended up being a bit of blessing in disguise despite the potential for crowds as it allowed time for the abnormal heatwave (110+ temps) hitting the west to cool down a bit - into the upper 90’s.

Day 1: Thursday July 1st 2021: With the limited amount of time, early starts were going to be essential on this trip and as such I was up at 3:30AM and on the road by 4:15AM. With the early start, I made great time arriving at Derek’s house in Yakima WA by 7:00AM and after quickly loading up we were on our way. After leaving Yakima and connecting back with I-90 it was a straight shot to the Cutthroat country of the Idaho panhandle. 

While my goal was to catch five new subspecies of Cutthroat, I was also hoping to catch a couple repeat subspecies as well. As we had to drive right through the Coeur’ d Alene watershed on our way though Idaho, I set my sights on that as our first stop. As anticipated with the hot weather, the main stem Coeur’ d Alene was packed with rafters and inter tubers trying to escape the heat, so we decided to focus of one of the tributaries. We arrived at the stream at 11:30AM and as I had pre-rigged the rods before leaving home we were on the water and fishing in a matter of minutes. The water was gin clear and deceptively deep and it didn’t take us long to find a nice log jam hole and get into our first cutthroat of the trip. While this first hole was productive, we didn’t find anything over 8” and once the bite slowed we worked our way upstream. Derek stopped to fish some pocket water, while I pushed on to the next hole. I spotted a few nice trout in the tailout, but they were thoroughly disinterested in eating and I kept prospecting. At the next corner I spotted what looked like a nice trout in what looked like a good feeding lane. When I made my first cast I initially thought I was a bit short, but then a fish swirled on my fly and I was tied into a big fish. While the fish wasn’t a jumper it was powerful and put my 2WT to the test making some good runs and almost breaking off in some branches before I eased it into the net.

Possibly a cutbow, but definitely big

The appearance of this fish was certainly unique and while I have never heard of any rainbows or hybrids in the basin, this may have been a cutbow as it had the color of a cutthroat, but was slightly more heavily spotted than normal and had a pink band along the lateral line. I have seen juvenile Westslopes with short pink/orange bands between their parr marks, but they typically fade as the fist mature.

Not far upstream from this big fish, we found nice deep trench and I managed to hook into and land another decent fish, this time with classic Westslope Cutthroat spotting and colors and Derek managed to dust off his casting cobwebs and got his first fish of the trip. 

Definitely a Cutthroat this time

After this hole, the river braided and Derek took the larger fork, while I checked out the smaller one. A short walk upstream, I found a nice hole on the side channel and a couple casts in I hooked into another big fish. I thought I had a good hookset, but as I reached for my net I put a little too much tension on the line and unfortunately the fish popped loose. We worked upstream for a few more corners and got a couple more fish, but as we still needed to find a camp site on the St. Joe and wanted to fish there before dark, we had to get on the road again.

A last look at our first stream

Before long, we had crossed over the Bitteroots into Montana, where the weather abruptly changed with dark thunder clouds and rain that quickly dropped the temperature from the upper-90's the upper-70's.  After passing through the storm, we refueled in the St. Regis, MT and then headed up Little Joe road and made our way back into Idaho. After braving one seriously dusty road, we rolled into the campground around 5:00pm and we able to find a pretty nice spot. We immediately set to work getting camp setup and making a quick dinner so we could hopefully get in a couple hours of fishing before dark. Unfortunately, before long it became apparent that the thunderstorm had followed us in from Montana and by the time that it finally passed, we maybe had an hour to hour and half to fish. However, that was good enough for me and we headed up the road to see what we could find. Driving along the the river, I didn't see anything that caught my attention, until a few miles upstream, when I spotted a nice run with a good looking cut bank trench at the bottom, which screamed fish me.

Fishy looking water on the St. Joe River

Rods rigged we headed down to the river and got to work. Right off the bat, I caught a small ~ 8" Cutthroat, which put me at ease - one new subspecies down four to go! However, while the cut bank looked great, I only hooked and lost one more fish after 20-30 minutes of fishing hard and was starting to think about moving upstream when a big slap from a beaver made up my mind for me as it had clearly claimed this spot as his.

It turned out that this beaver did me a favor as it didn't take long to see rising trout in the run upstream and after a couple casts I caught a decent 10" Cutthroat. A few casts later, a nice fish rose to my trusty Royal PMX and after a good fit I netted a beautiful 16" Cutthroat. Derek rose a couple fish just above this one, but couldn't get anything to hook up and with the light fading, we had to finally call it a day and head back to camp with plans to come back in the morning.

A great way to end the first day - a beautiful native St. Joe River Westslope Cutthroat

Day 2: Friday July 2nd 2021: We woke up early, made a quick breakfast and broke camp, then headed back to our spot from the night before. Once again we had the spot all to ourselves and this time we didn't waste much time with the cut bank, but headed straight for the run. As with the night before the fish were there and they were eagerly rising to dries. Derek fished from one side of the river, while I took the other side. I started things off with a few decent Cutthroat up to 12", but Derek really got things going when he hooked into and landed a beautiful 16-17" fish. We pulled a good dozen fish out of the hole between us, before the fishing started slowing down and we headed upstream to the next corner. As it would turn out, this spot was even better than the last spot and it seemed that every likely spot would produce a fish. After we had worked the hole with dries and gotten some nice fish, I worked back through it with my nymph rig and picked up a couple more fish. While I knew that we on a pretty tight schedule, the fishing here was hard to beat and the next bend syndrome was in full effect and we kept going upstream.

A beautiful morning on the river
A nice size St. Joe Westslope

This next corner was full of great pocket water and I kept hoping that I would manage to find a fish that would rival the size of my Coeur' d Alene Cutthroat from the day before. I did manage to get one more nice Cutthroat in the 15-16" before I could no longer deny that the day was marching on and had to get on to our next spot try for some Clearwater Headwaters Westslope Cutthroat. 

Casting to rising trout on the St. Joe

Derek with a nice Cutthroat

The Clearwater Headwaters Westslope Cutthroat are found in the streams draining into the upper South Fork of the Clearwater and the Upper Selway and hopefully they would be as willing as the St. Joe Cutthroat had been. With several hours of driving ahead of us, we made our when back into Montana and grabbed a quick lunch and gas in Missoula and were back on the road again. I knew going into things this spot was going to be our most rugged and remote and worried about the road, but luckily it was snow free and in great shape. However, the remoteness factor was clearly evident as the miles of dirt road just seemed to go on and on. After a long and dust and bumpy drive, we finally descended back into Idaho and found ourselves driving along the rough and tumble stream. We were lucky when we got to the "campground" that we were able to get the last spot  on the stream and as we had had ourselves a late lunch, we opted to just head straight for the water.  While the stream was absolutely beautiful, having near white granite sand and rocks, the water in front of our camp the water was not very impressive as trout holding water. However, down at the next corner I could see a nice pool along a cliff face so that was where we headed.

Our campsite for the night

The stream

As it turned out once we got to the spot, we were about to find ourselves in some of the best fishing that I have seen in my life (I don't say that lightly!). First cast for both of us resulted in fish and from that point things did not slow down. The average size seemed to be around 12-14", but there were a few larger fish thrown in and every likely spot would produce at least one or two fish.

A Cleawater Headwaters Westslope Cutthroat

These fish were willing biters too and while Derek stuck with dries, I caught fish on dries, nymphing and tossing streamers. After several hours in and having caught several dozen Cutthroat, a few Redbands (likely steelhead smolts) and a couple Mountain Whitefish, dinner started having a stronger pull than fishing so we called it and headed back to get camp all squared away.

A streamer eating Cutthroat

A nymph eating Mountain Whitefish

A beautiful end to the day

Finding ourselves only two days into the trip and we had checked three Cutthroat off the list, and also caught some Columbia Basin Redbands and Mountain Whitefish, things were off to a good start. The next day, we would be heading down to the Salmon River drainage to try to knock some Salmon River Westslope Cutthroat off the list. Hoping things would continue to be just as productive!