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, August 26, 2022

Evening Kayaking for Coastal Cutthroat

On a recent trip up to my parent's house up in Gig Harbor, I was able to sneak away for a couple of hours to do a little kayak fly fishing for sea-run Coastal Cutthroat on the Puget Sound. Back when I lived in Gig Harbor, most of my free time was spent fishing for sea-run Cutthroat and I was quite excited to revisit on of the more productive beaches in the area. I was able to launch the kayak around 4:30PM to catch the last couple of hours of the incoming tide. My original plan was to troll a fly until I either got a fish or located some good structure However, this approach was complicated by thick mats of seaweed that were rolling in on the tide. This meant that I had to stop every few minutes and clean my fly off before continuing on. 

Looking out over the Puget Sound towards the Olympic Mountains

After covering about a mile I finally cleared the seaweed mats just as I started passing over some good looking structure of a nice point. I figured this would be a good spot to start to drift with the tide and I started retrieving my fly. When my fly was about half way in a fish absolutely crushed it and my 6WT doubled over. The fish started off coming right at me and left me scrambling to retrieve my line fast enough. Just as I caught up, the fish followed this up with several short runs. After a couple of minutes I was able to get my line on the reel, just in time to see the big Cutthroat which looked every bit of 20" come shooting out of the water.  A few minutes later I was finally able to get the Cutthroat along side the kayak and was very thankful for my long handled net as I finally scooped up the beautiful 20" native Coastal Cutthroat.

A beautiful 20" anadromous Coastal Cutthroat Trout

After catching my big sea-run, I started to drift and cast. As Coastal Cutthroat tend to travel in pods, I wasn't surprised when I immediately hooked another fish, which unfortunately popped off. This scenario repeated itself three more times before the bite seemed to die off and the seaweed floated in encouraging me to move on. I covered another mile of beach, but didn't get a single additional grab before the wind picked up and forced me to turn back towards my take out. It was at this point that I realized that my net, which I had been so thankful for an hour earlier had some how managed to fall out of the kayak. Making this my third net for fall in the line of duty over the years...

Choppy water as the wind picks up on the Sound

A greedy little Staghorn Sculpin

On the way back I stopped where I had caught the big Cutthroat, but all I managed to find were a couple of Staghorn Sculpin. With the no indication of Cutthroat, light fading and the wind still howling it was finally time to make may way back to the take out after a wonderful evening on the water.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Westslope Cutthroat of the South Cascades

After my trip up to the Methow drainage after Westslope Cutthroat in the North Cascades in Washington, I wanted hunt down some Westslope Cutthroat in the Southern Cascades of Washington this summer as well. In particular, I was hoping to find some fluvial Westslopes. One thing I strive to do on my website is represent as much of the diversity as possible in each variety of trout, such as the different life history forms. The fluvial life history forms are also known as riverine migrants and are known for making concerted migrations throughout larger river systems as well as typically reaching much larger sizes than stream resident forms. The difference in the two life history trajectories also typically results in slightly different phenotypic traits, which is why I was hoping to document the fluvial life history.

After a bit of research, I landed on a moderate sized stream that I had fished way back in 2006, but at that point the stream was dominated by small Columbia Basin Redband Trout, with Westslopes only being a rarity. Since that point, catch and release regulations have been adopted in parts of the watershed and supposedly the Cutthroat population had responded very well to the new regulations. When I mentioned my plans to my neighbor Dyllon, he was interested in joining me, so set a date on the calendar and made plans for the trip.

The day of the trip we were on the road by 5:30 AM and made good time getting over to the east side of the Cascades. As we drove up the road once we hit the stream, we were both shocked with the number of anglers out already. I had specifically chosen a stretch as it appeared to have a good concentration of pools based on satellite imagery hoping that it might hold a few large Cutthroat and luckily it was still free of anglers. . While the morning was extremely chilly, we opted to wet wade as the clear skies promised that it would be quite hot by the afternoon. Dyllon opted for a streamer setup, while I brought, my 2WT with a dry/dropper and my 6wt with a double nymph rig. Once we were rigged up, it was time to get on the water.

Dyllon took to the river first and had a few good grabs in the first hole, but it wasn't until we got to the next riffle upstream that we landed any fish. I opted for the nymph rig and after a couple casts got a good take and after a quick battle landed a beautiful fluvial Westslope Cutthroat on my October Caddis nymph.

A beautiful orange-bellied Westslope Cutthroat Trout

After I got my Westslope, Dyllon got a nice Redband on his streamer and I picked up a couple small trout on my dry at the head of the riffle before we moved further upstream. The next stretch of the stream was a mix of riffle and pocket water habitat and turned out to be the most productive of the day. With the abundance of pocket water I grabbed my 2WT and started working up the run. The fishing was fast and furious with a fish on almost every casts and two Cutthroat (one on the dry and one on the dropper) on one of the casts. The recovery of the Westslope Cutthroat population was on full display in the section of river, as about 75% of the fish we encountered were Cutthroat. Despite the predominance of Cutthroat, it still was a mystery what would grab on each cast, and I was surprised by a couple of Chinook Salmon parr on dries in addition to the Redbands and Cutthroat.

A healthy wild Chinook Salmon parr

Dyllon managed to get a few decent fish up to 12" and continued upstream on ahead of me. Just as Dyllon was vanishing from sight I landed a nice cast along a boulder on the far bank and saw a big flash as a nice trout grabbed my dropper. I got a solid hookset and 2WT was completely doubled over by the powerful fish. The trout stayed deep and made a number of runs before I was finally able to net a beautiful 17" fluvial Westslope Cutthroat.

A beautiful fluvial Westslope Cutthroat Trout

The big Cutthroat managed to thoroughly put down the run, prompting me to continue moving upstream. The water for the next 1/4 mile was predominately pocket or shallow riffle water and most likely looking spots seem to produce a fish on my dry/ dropper rig.

The stream

I linked up with Dyllon at a series of deep pools, where it was time to switch back to my nymph set up. The most productive of these pools was quite deep and required a long drift to get to where the fish were holding. This resulted in a low take to hook up ratio, but by being persistent I was rewarded with some nice Cutthroat and a beautiful Columbia Basin Redband.

A beautiful native Columbia Basin Redband Trout

After the deep nymphing hole, we found one more productive run before we started to run into the afternoon innertube and swimmer hatch and decided to relocate. We headed downstream to where a few major tributaries came together to try our luck in some larger water. Right off the bat we found a nice run and I dredged up a beautiful 11" Westslope on my October Caddis nymph, which was definitely a good sign. After that first Cutthroat, the fishing slowed down considerably. 

The second river

We finally found some more good water about a 1/4 mile upstream, where both Dyllon and I managed to get into some more fish. For me it was another Columbia Basin Redband and a few smaller Cutthroat on my nymph rig, but Dyllon got the real surprise when he hooked into a nice fish on the streamer. I saw him hook into it from downstream and was able to reach him just in time to net a beautiful Bull Trout for him. Bull Trout are quite rare in this watershed making this a very special catch. We took extra care handling this beautiful fish and it was a joy to watch it glide back into the depths after being released.

Dyllon's surprise Bull Trout

We covered a bit more water, but didn't find much more in the way of fish and with temperatures reaching their peak for the day we both decided to call it a day. After encountering 4 native species and finding an amazing Westslope Cutthroat fishery I am already looking forward to my next trip to the east slope of the Cascade Mountains.

Monday, August 15, 2022

After work Coastal Cutthroat

Every now and again I find myself with an odd hour or two that would be the perfect time to sneak a little fishing in. When I lived in Gig Harbor, I had a handful of solid spots for native Coastal Cutthroat that were perfect for such outings. However, since moving a few years ago I have had a hard time finding a spot in my local area that has really fit the bill for the quick after work outing. Sure there are a couple beaches not to far away, but they have been inconsistent producers at best and dependence on the tides always makes fishing in the salt water less than straight forward. The other local waters I have found are just far enough from my place that they require a slightly longer block of time. What I have been really looking for is a quality small stream or pond and on my last outing with 2 hours to burn I found the stream I was looking for.

This actually was not my first time to this stream, as last year I had taken my buddy Steve here and he caught his first sea-run Coastal Cutthroat in the creek right at a road crossing. However, I played guide on that outing and this trip was my first time really exploring the creek with a fly rod in my hand.

I arrived at the creek at 5:30PM, with just enough time to explore the 1/4 mile stretch I had been meaning to check out. As I wasn't quite sure what to expect, I came equipped with my 1WT with a dry/dropper step up and my 2WT with a rust colored aggravator nymph, a fly that fishes well both dead drifted or twitched as a streamer. The first hole that I came to was several feet deep, with little flow so I opted for the streamer. After letting my aggravator nymph sink in next to a log, a bright 10" Cutthroat shot out and chased the fly but refused to grab. Subsequent casts failed to get even the slightest response from the trout, so I decided to continue downstream, at least feeling good that there were some sea-runs in the creek already.

The Creek

The next couple of bends of the creek were shallow and show no sign of life, but as I neared a deeper pool I spooked another 10" Cutthroat in 8" of water and halted my progress to see if there were any other fish about. It turned out that yes, there were several more fish about as I spotted five large Cutthroat in the 14" to 18" range sitting on the edge of the drop off into the hole. With little current or cover, I knew I was only going to get one shot at these fish, so I carefully lined up my cast and made a presentation. My aim was true and the cast landed just over the drop off, slightly upstream of the fish. Immediately a previously unseen fish came out of the depths and grabbed the fly, but failed to hook up. Luckily this did not spook the rest of the fish and with the fly still in play I was able to strip it right in front of the group of Cutthroat and sure enough one of the fish darted out and viciously attacked the fly. For a moment I thought that the stars had aligned as it felt like the hook had taken, but one big headshake later and my fly popped loose and the school completely spooked.
Hard to spot at first, but there are five Cutthroat holding right in front of the drop off.

In the hole just downstream, I spotted several more Cutthroat of a similar size, but just like the group upstream I only got one shot at each of them and despite several solid grabs, I just couldn't get a firm hookset on any of them. However, another bend downstream I was finally able to get the attention of a Cutthroat and this time got a solid hookset. This fish was fresh from the saltwater and full of spunk and quickly found its way into a logjam, but I was lucky enough to get my net under the logjam and come up with the the 12" Cutthroat. The fish was chrome bright. with no visible cutthroat markings and after snapping a few quick photos shot back into the depths. 
A beautiful bright sea-run Coastal Cutthroat

At this point I worked my way back upstream, but it appeared that either the fish I had encountered on the way downstream were still hunkered down or had moved on and I didn't have any additional luck. However, with a new close to home stream to fish and having caught a beautiful sea-run it was a great evening on the water.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Rainbow and Redband Trout Taxonomy - How do I count my trout?

Following up on the classification of Cutthroat Trout, I wanted to do my best to cover the classification of Rainbow/ Redband Trout. While Cutthroat taxonomy is a bit tricky and inconsistent, the classification of Rainbow and Redband Trout is in many ways even more challenging. As such, this post is going to be much longer than the one for Cutthroat. 

Just like Cutthroat Trout, there are multiple ways to interpret Rainbow and Redband Trout classification

Unlike most Cutthroat subspecies, that have clear delineations often associated with watershed boundaries, Rainbow Trout subspecies typically have zones of transition making clean classification systems challenging at best. Even where clear watershed boundaries do exist in the Northern Great Basin of Oregon, past connections to other watersheds complicate classification. In many cases this has resulted in secondary contact between forms of Rainbow and Redband Trout resulting in transitional forms. The lower Klamath River is a clear example of this, where the fish in the lower river represent a mixture of Coastal Rainbow Trout and Klamath Lakes Redband genetics. As with Cutthroat, I am going to present Rainbow Trout classification as three systems, the Behnke System, the Genetics based system that I use one my website and the Western Native Trout Challenge System. 

For the purpose of this post, I am not including any of the Rainbow Trout like trout of Mexico or Gila and Apache Trout. There are at least 12 distinct forms of Mexican Trout, all of which originated from the Rainbow /Redband Trout lineage, likely involving two to three distinct colonization events. Long isolation has resulted in significant differences from Rainbow/ Redband Trout further north and suggest that many of these trout could be considered distinct species. Similarly, Gila and Apache Trout both represent and ancient divergence from the Rainbow Trout lineage, occur long enough ago that they are distinct from Rainbow and Redband Trout as well as the Mexican Trout and represent their own lineage.

Behnke Classification: (Italics for "sub populations")

The classification system for Rainbow and Redband Trout developed by Robert Behnke is covered the  in the outstanding book Trout and Salmon of North America.  Behnke's system is based on traditional taxonomic methods that account for physical differences, such as phenotypic traits (spotting or coloration) scale counts, vertebrate counts etc. These methods were excellent for their time and are still useful, but often miss linkages that genetics work picks up. Based on taxonomic methods, Behnke recognized 9 subspecies of Rainbow /Redband Trout native to the United States, with two additional subspecies found outside the United States, the Kamchatkan Rainbow Trout and the Baja Rainbow Trout of Mexico. Both of these forms are closely related to the Coastal Rainbow Trout. 

Coastal Rainbow Trout account for a single subspecies that stretch from Alaska all the way to Southern California. The presence of sea-run Coastal Rainbow Trout (i.e. steelhead) has resulted in genetic exchange between populations of Coastal Rainbow resulting in the large continuous range of the subspecies. The next lineage is the Columbia Basin Redband Trout, which similar to Coastal Rainbow Trout have had significant genetic exchange between populations due to the steelhead life history. Columbia Basin Redband Trout are found east of the Cascade Mountains in the Columbia Basin, in the Fraser River basin upstream of Hells Gate and in the Athabasca River east of the continental divide.

The next group of Redband Trout Behnke lumps as a single subspecies known as the Great Basin Redband Trout. He acknowledged that there is significant diversity among these fish an that they likely derived from multiple sources, but his lumping differs significantly from the Genetic system. In the upper Sacramento watershed Behnke recognized two subspecies of trout, the Sheephaven Creek Redband Trout and McCloud River Redband Trout, which we will see also differs from the genetic method. The remaining Rainbow Trout subspecies are consistent between Behnke's classification system and the other two systems that were are discussing here. The Eagle Lake Rainbow Trout is a unique isolated lake adapted population likely deriving from a mixed Coastal Rainbow and Redband ancestry. Similarly the Kern River Rainbow Trout is thought to arise from a mixed ancestry of Golden Trout and Coastal Rainbow Trout. It is important to note that historically Golden Trout were considered a distinct species and there are still some that recognize them as such. 

  1. Coastal Rainbow Trout
  2. Columbia Basin Redband Trout
  3. Great Basin Redband Trout
    1. Fort Rock Redband Trout
    2. Harney-Malheur Basin Redband
    3. Catlow Valley Redband Trout
    4. Klamath Basin Redband Trout
    5. Chewaucan Redband Trout
    6. Warner Lakes Redband Trout
    7. Goose Lake Redband Trout
  4. McCloud River Redband Trout (also associated with fish found in the Pit and Feather Rivers)
  5. Sheephaven Creek Redband Trout
  6. Eagle Lake Rainbow Trout
  7. Kern River Rainbow Trout
  8. Little Kern Golden Trout
  9. California Golden Trout
Subspecies outside the United States

  1. Kamchatkan Rainbow Trout 
  2. Nelson's Trout or Baja Rainbow Trout

Genetics Based System: (Italics for "sub populations")

The Behnke system did a good job of classifying Rainbow and Redband Trout, but evidence has suggested some changes to the classification of several of the Redband Trout forms. While there is still significant work to be done with the genetics of Rainbow and Redband Trout a few recent studies have provided significant clarity regarding the relationships of these fish. Genetics work suggests that Behnke's classification of Coastal Rainbow Trout and Columbia Basin Redband Trout may not be as straightforward as originally thought. With a 2000 study (here) suggesting the core of the Rainbow and Redband Trout lineage originated in California and northern populations predominately originated from glacial refuges in the Columbia Basin (Redband Trout) and on Queen Charlotte Island (Coastal Rainbow Trout). The genetics work also suggests that mixing of these two lineages appears to be more extensive than suggested by traditional taxonomic methods, however a more recent study (here) supports the subspecies divide at the Cascade crest. Like Behnke genetics work does not subspecies level distinction for the Athabascan Rainbow Trout (here) and has indicated that the Athabascan Rainbow Trout is very closely related to Redbands in the upper Fraser River. Additionally, studies show that both the Kamchatchka Rainbow Trout (here) and the Baja Rainbow Trout (here) are genetically very closely related to Coastal Rainbow Trout. 

A notable study that deviates from the Behnke system was conducted by Ken Currens, Carl Schreck and Hiram Li, titled the Evolutionary Ecology of Redband Trout. Based on the results of this study the Northern Great Basin Redband Trout should be broken out into multiple lineages. First the Redband Trout of the Harney-Malheur Basin and Catlow Valley (determined in this study) group with the Columbia Basin Redband Trout. Next the Goose Lake, Chewaucan Basin and Warner Lakes Redband Trout all group with the McCloud River and other Redband Trout of the Northern Sacramento Basin. A major difference comes up with the Klamath Basin Redband Trout, which appear to have two to three separate forms. There are two groups with subspecies level differences in the basin, one in the headwaters of the Williams, Sprague and Sycan Rivers (Klamath Headwaters Redband Trout) and another group associated with Klamath Lake. A third group in select tributaries of the upper basin aligns with the steelhead populations in the lower river, which appear to be a mix of Redband and Coastal Rainbow trout as mentioned in the Behnke section. The other major difference is the distinctiveness of the Fort Rock and White River Redband Trout. Both of these groups align most closely with the Columbia Basin Redband Trout, but have diverged enough due to long isolation and possible past contact with the Klamath Redband Trout that they should be consider distinct subspecies. Additionally, the Sheephaven Redband Trout are now recognized to just be a population of McCloud River Redband Trout that have experienced significant a genetic bottleneck, but are very closely related to other McCloud River Redband populations (see here).

  1. Coastal Rainbow Trout
  2. Columbia Basin Redband Trout
    1. Harney-Malheur Basin Redband
    2. Catlow Valley Redband Trout
  3. White River Redband Trout
  4. Fort Rock Redband Trout
  5. Klamath Lakes Redband Trout
  6. Klamath Headwaters Redband Trout
  7. McCloud River/ Sacramento Redband Trout
    1. Pit River Redband Trout
    2. Goose Lake Redband Trout
    3. Chewaucan Basin Redband Trout
    4. Warner Lakes Redband Trout
  8. Eagle Lake Rainbow Trout
  9. Kern River Rainbow Trout
  10. Little Kern Golden Trout
  11. California Golden Trout

Western Native Trout Challenge System

The Western Native Trout Challenge classification system is by far the most simplified of the classification systems with significant lumping. In fact, the 9 to 11 subspecies recognized by the other two classification systems are reduced to just 6. The most notable changes off the bat is that only a component of the Coastal Rainbow Trout subspecies are included, as the Alaskan Rainbow Trout. The classification of Alaskan Rainbow Trout as a distinct subspecies is not recognized by the science but instead is a categorization strictly for the challenge. The most significant lumping is with the Redband lineages, where all of the forms are lumped into a single Interior Redband classification. 
  1. Alaskan Rainbow Trout
  2. Interior Redband Trout
  3. Eagle Lake Rainbow Trout
  4. Kern River Rainbow Trout
  5. Little Kern Golden Trout
  6. California Golden Trout

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Westslope Cutthroat of the North Cascades

I recently had to make a work trip over to Washington's Methow Valley and managed to find a few hours to do some exploring for native Westslope Cutthroat. While I have caught plenty of Westslope Cutthroat in Washington State, I had never had a chance to fish for them in the northern part the state. My preference has always been to catch native trout from a variety of streams across their native range so I was particularly excited to look for some Cutthroat in the Methow basin.
The upper Methow Valley

The stream I selected, had a barrier in the lower watershed and was supposed to have a healthy population of Cutthroat upstream. Upon arriving at the stream, there were two were two things working against me. The first was that the creek had been caught up in one of the many wildfires that had torn through the Methow basin and much of it had burned. The second was that the cold wet June resulted in a prolonged runoff season and the creek was still high and off color. 
The stream

Given the off color water, I rigged up with a flash body PMX and a Lightning Bug dropper set deep to get the attention of the fish. It turned out that neither the burn nor the off colored water appeared to be hindering the trout and within a few casts a small Cutthroat eagerly rose to my dry fly. The fast water and my 2WT  made the 8” Cutthroat feel more formidable than it should, but it still didn’t take long to bring it to hand. 
A beautiful native Methow Basin Westslope Cutthroat

The Cutthroat in this stream were a stunning beautiful mix of bronze-yellow and vibrant orange with a classic Westslope spotting pattern. Continuing upstream, the fishing was fast paced with most pockets producing a gem of Cutthroat, but I was surprised by a Brook Trout on my dropper as well. While Brook Trout are typically the bane of Westslope Cutthroat, luckily this population seemed to holding its own with about 80% of the fish I caught being Cutthroat. 
A beautiful, but invasive Brook Trout

With the sun slipping behind the peaks, I decided to end my day a a particularly productive pool. I switched out my Lighting Bug for a Blow Torch nymph and the trout couldn’t resist it. After a couple smallish fish, I hooked into a fish that that had a bit more weight behind it. I nearly lost the trout when it tried to dive into some woody debris but I was able to pull the 11” Cutthroat  free and bring it to the net.
The big Cutthroat of the day

After catching the biggest Cutthroat of the outing I decided to call it an evening. Despite how many times I have caught Westslope Cutthroat, the beauty of these fish never ceases to impress. 
The canyon on the way out

Then again the beauty of the places these Cutthroat are found is pretty hard to beat too. While in the area, I was also able to get out for a short hike to an alpine lake and I have to say that the scenery did not disappoint. 
Washington truly is a beautiful state!

Friday, July 22, 2022

Cutthroat Taxonomy - How do I count my trout?

One question I often get about Cutthroat Trout has to do with how many species/ subspecies there are. For someone that is trying to catch all of the varieties of Cutthroat, this is an important consideration as it sets the basis of overall quest and planning excursions. What I hope to do here is break down what I see as the the three classification systems that are commonly used. I am going to label these as the Behnke System, the Trotter System and the Western Native Trout Challenge System - these are my names for them and do not represent official names.

How many types of Cutthroat are there? That depends who you ask...

1. The first system that I will cover is the Behnke System as it is the oldest and perhaps the most broadly accepted of the classification systems. This classification was developed by Robert Behnke, who used traditional taxonomic and meristic (scale counts, fin rays, gill rakers, chromosomes etc.) characteristics to classify trout. This system is covered in the 2002 essential book Trout and Salmon of North America as well as the excellent 2008 book Cutthroat: Native Trout of the West and breaks Cutthroat Trout (a single species) into four major lineages (Coastal, Westslope, Yellowstone and Lahontan). Within these lineages, the Yellowstone is considered to have 6 additional minor subspecies and the Lahontan has 4 additional minor subspecies for a total of 14 subspecies of Cutthroat Trout. This is the classification that I once used for my website before transitioning to the Trotter System covered next.

Behnke Classification: (Italics for "minor" subspecies)

  1. Coastal Cutthroat
  2. Westslope Cutthroat
  3. Lahontan Cutthroat
  4. Paiute Cutthroat
  5. Humboldt Cutthroat
  6. Willow-Whitehorse Cutthroat
  7. Alvord Cutthroat (presumed extinct)
  8. Yellowstone Cutthroat
  9. Snake River Finespotted Cutthroat
  10. Bonneville Cutthroat
  11. Colorado River Cutthroat
  12. Greenback Cutthroat
  13. Yellowfin Cutthroat (presumed extinct)
  14. Rio Grande Cutthroat

2. The Trotter System is based on genetics and is covered in the 2018 book Cutthroat Trout - Evolutionary Biology and Taxonomy. This book has multiple contributing authors from the scientific community and is very dense on the science. Based on the latest genetics, it lays out the reasoning for breaking Cutthroat Trout into four species: Coastal, Westslope, Lahontan and Rocky Mountain Cutthroat similar to the major subspecies of the Behnke system. These fish are recognized as distinct species as major subspecies are not recognized as a valid unit for classifying animals under current taxonomic guidelines. With the exception of Coastal Cutthroat, each of these species has its own subspecies for a total of 25 subspecies of Cutthroat Trout. 

There are a number of differences in this system with the most noticeable being the 9 subspecies of Westslope Cutthroat. These subspecies were not recognized by taxonomic or phenotypic traits, but their uniqueness is apparent at a genetic level. 

The next change is the addition of the Quinn River Cutthroat to the Lahontan line, based on their genetic distinctiveness. Based on the Behnke system the Quinn River Cutthroat were typically consider to be part of the Humboldt Cutthroat line. 

There is also major splitting among the Yellowstone/ Rocky Mountain Cutthroat line. First instead of Yellowstone Cutthroat, the Rio Grande Cutthroat provides the scientific name for this species as it is the first subspecies to receive a scientific name. Next, the Snake River Fine Spotted Cutthroat are no longer consider a unique subspecies due to their genetic similarity to Yellowstone Cutthroat (nearly indistinguishable). Additionally, Bear River Cutthroat are broken apart from the Bonneville Cutthroat.  Genetics indicate the Bear River Cutthroat are more closely related to Yellowstone Cutthroat than to Bonneville Cutthroat, as the Bear River was once a tributary to the Snake River. Finally the Colorado River Cutthroat is broken into three subspecies, the Green River Cutthroat (also known as the Blue Lineage), Colorado River Cutthroat (aka Green Lineage) and the San Juan River Cutthroat. 

A key element to note with this system is that while its based on the latest science, it has not yet been accepted by the American Fisheries Society and as such is subject to change as our scientific understanding improves. Also most of the "new" subspecies from this system are not yet recognized by management agencies which either follow the Behnke system or the Western Native Trout Challenge system.

Trotter Classification: 

  1. Coastal Cutthroat
  2. John Day Westslope Cutthroat
  3. Neoboreal Westslope Cutthroat
  4. Coeur d'Alene Westslope Cutthroat
  5. St. Joe Westslope Cutthroat
  6. NF Clearwater Westslope Cutthroat
  7. Eastern Cascades-Clearwater Westslope Cutthroat
  8. Clearwater Headwaters Westslope Cutthroat
  9. Salmon River Westslope Cutthroat
  10. Missouri River Westslope Cutthroat
  11. Lahontan Cutthroat
  12. Paiute Cutthroat
  13. Humboldt Cutthroat
  14. Quinn River Cutthroat
  15. Willow-Whitehorse Cutthroat
  16. Alvord Cutthroat (presumed extinct)
  17. Yellowstone Cutthroat
  18. Bear River Cutthroat
  19. Bonneville Cutthroat
  20. Green River Cutthroat (Blue Lineage Colorado River Cutthroat)
  21. Colorado River Cutthroat (Green Lineage Colorado River Cutthroat)
  22. San Juan River Cutthroat
  23. Greenback Cutthroat
  24. Yellowfin Cutthroat (presumed extinct)
  25. Rio Grande Cutthroat

3. The Western Native Trout Challenge System is a classification system based on how the various fisheries management agencies classify Cutthroat Trout and does a considerable amount of lumping compared to the other two systems. For anglers trying to complete the Western Native Trout Challenge, this is the classification system they will be using. The classification based on this system is most similar to the Behnke system with a bit of additional lumping. The main lumping occurs with Lahontan Cutthroat, with only the Paiute Cutthroat being separated as a distinct subspecies. The Paiute Cutthroat were recently reintroduced to their native range, which is currently closed to fishing, so they are not eligible for the West Native Trout Challenge. This primarily has to do with the fact that the Endangered Species Act listing for Lahontan Cutthroat Trout lumped all of its subspecies (minus the Paiute) under it as a single subspecies. Additionally, like the Trotter system, the Snake River Fine Spotted Cutthroat is removed from this classification. 

Western Native Trout Challenge Classification: (Italics for subspecies that are extinct or do not count towards the Western Native Trout Challenge)

  1. Coastal Cutthroat
  2. Westslope Cutthroat
  3. Lahontan Cutthroat
  4. Paiute Cutthroat
  5. Yellowstone Cutthroat
  6. Bonneville Cutthroat
  7. Colorado River Cutthroat
  8. Greenback Cutthroat
  9. Rio Grande Cutthroat
  10. Yellowfin Cutthroat

So which list is the right one to follow? Scientifically, the Trotter system is the most robust and the one that I have chosen to used. However, ultimately which system an angler choses to follow is really a matter of opinion depending on the level of challenge that they are looking to pursue.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

High Desert Angling: Part 3 - Ending on a Good Note

Day 4: Monday July 4th 2022: After a good night sleep, we got on the road early headed for the Santa Rosa Mountains in pursuit of the Quinn River Cutthroat Trout. For years the Quinn River Cutthroat had been either lumped in with Humboldt or Lahontan Cutthroat, but recent genetics work had indicated that they are distinct enough to warrant subspecies status. Back in September of 2019, I had made a trip down to the Santa Rosa Mountains to look for Quinn River Cutthroat only to be foiled by a freak snowstorm that made access to the small streams draining the mountains impossible. This time it was a beautiful bluebird day and the weather couldn’t have been further from that first trip. 

Turning off the highway and heading for the Mountains, we hit another genuinely awful dusty and deeply rutted dirt road, that was swarming with 3” Mormon Crickets. Luckily my car was up to another rough road and we made it to the trailhead at the mouth of the canyon with no issues. The first thing that struck me when we got out of the car was the noise, which was a cacophony of thousands of Crickets and Cicadas, both of which appeared to be having population booms. We quickly geared up and hit the trail headed for a waterfall, that served as a barrier to nonnative Brook Trout, blocking them from the native Quinn River Cutthroat upstream. As we followed the canyon towards the falls, the creek remained completely obscured by an impenetrable wall of vegetation, somehow the thickest of any of the creeks we had visited so far. Mormon Crickets were everywhere, making so much noise that I was worried we might stumble upon a rattlesnake without hearing it. With that very real threat, we took the cautious slow and steady approach, but it didn't take long for us to reach the falls, above which we would hopefully find some native trout.

The falls 
So many Mormon Crickets!

As we had to go by the falls to get to the upper valley, I figured we might as well stop on the way and see if any fish had washed over. The waterfall was beautiful, but the biggest thing of note was the smell. With the cricket boom, thousands had fallen into the stream and many of these had collected along the edges of the waterfall pool.

Lots of dead crickets

Usually one of the wonderful traits of native trout in small streams is their refusal to pass up food, resulting in quick rises. However, with all of the crickets falling in the stream, the fish in this creek were not as accommodating and cast after cast produced no results. Finally, on a near perfect drift my dry fly disappeared below the surface indicating a grab on my nymph. The battle was quick and luckily for me Derek was on hand to net my first Quinn River Cutthroat. The Cutthroat was a small, exceptionally fat fish, lightly spotted across its body, with a beautiful rose color across its sides.

An exceptionally fat little Quinn River Cutthroat

After I got my Cutthroat, Derek took point for a bit but we didn’t find any other fish in the waterfall hole or the creek right below it. This prompted us to head upstream, where we hoped fishing would improve. The few promising pools directly above the falls showed no signs of life and the dense vegetation made continuing upstream impossible, so we decided to hit the trail. We worked our way up the canyon looking for an opening in the vegetation or some promising looking water, but it was hard to come by. We did find some slightly open water over a mile upstream and fished the area hard but there was no sign of fish. The morning was already wearing on and we decided to start working down the canyon and pop into the stream wherever we could find access. Again no fish.

The upper valley... No fish...

When we got back to the falls we tried that area again, but didn't find any additional fish. We did find a few more spots to access the stream as we worked our way toward the trailhead, however it wasn’t until we reached the trailhead that Derek managed to hook another fish. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a Brook Trout instead of a Cutthroat. After another fishless half hour downstream of the trailhead, the day was wearing on and if we wanted to reach our next stop at a reasonable time, so we had to get on the road.
Time to hit the road again

After leaving the stream in the Santa Rosa range, we started the last leg of our trip. It was a five hour drive to our next stream in the upper John Day drainage, which felt particularly long after so many miles on the road. After several days driving through sage brush desert, coming over a rise just north of Burns Oregon and find ourselves in driving through towering pine trees signally our exit from the interal desert basins. 

We reached the upper John Day watershed around 5pm, opting for fishing over dinner. Like our attept to catch the Humboldt Cutthroat the previous day, the John Day Westslope Cutthroat was not a new fish for me, having caught one in 2019. However, I prefer to represent as many fish as possible on my website to show phenotypic diversity, so we were back to see if we could find more this time. Acting on a tip from Steve we were targeting a very small headwater stream, which was report to only hold Cutthroat. Arriving at the stream it looked like we could jump across it in most places and flowed through a meadow upstream of the road and spruce and fir forest downstream of the road. I decided to start downstream of the road, while Derek went upstream. Upon reaching the waters edge, I was immediately met with a good sign, as handful of trout were clearly visible holding in the middle of the pool below the culvert. My first cast wasn't ideal, with my flies making the water but my line hanging up on a branch over the stream. However, the drift was good and the largest of trout made a slow and deliberate rise to my dry fly. The hookset pulled my line free of the branch and even with my 1wt I was quickly able to pull the trout away from the others and land it in the tailout of the pool. Given the challenges provided by the rest of the trip, this was a very welcome change.. 

A beautiful darkly colored John Day Westslope Cutthroat

While the light wasn't ideal at this point of the day,  I managed to get a few decent photos then turned the fish loose. The photography time allowed the hole to rest and a few more casts resulted in another fish, this time on my dropper. After I hooked a third, which I lost, effectively putting off the rest of the hole. I worked downstream a ways hooking and losing a few more fish, but also finding the stream to be quite brushy, prompting me to head upstream and see how Derek was doing. 

The creek above the road was much more open than downstream and Derek was also getting into cutthroat, with every likely and many of the unlikely lies holding trout. We worked the productive little stream for a couple of hours catching a number of Cutthroat before the need to set up camp and make dinner finally pulled us away.

Derek working the stream for Cutthroat

Another Westslope Cutthroat

With our mission for the day complete and having just experienced the best fishing of the entire trip, we settled into camp for the evening, ready to turn our path towards home the next day.

Day 5: Tuesday July 5th 2022: We awoke early on the last day of our trip, although we had a long ways to go still with a roughly eight hour drive for me to reach home, we didn't feel the need to rush. As such, we took our time breaking down camp, enjoying a slower pace before hitting the road. While we had no directed plans to fish on the way back, we found ourselves driving along a beautiful little meadow stream that was too tempting to pass by and decided we could spare a few minutes to wet a fly.

Our last stop on the trip

Fishing at this stream proved to be just as fast paced as the stream from the previous evening and within a few casts we each had caught ourselves a Redband Trout. With the fish abundant and the stream open, we only spent about 30 minutes on the water, long enough to catch 3 or 4 Redbands apiece before hitting the road.

A small but beautiful Columbia Basin Redband Trout

The rest of the drive was as rather uneventful, putting back at Derek's house around lunchtime and myself home in time for dinner. This was one of the faster paced and more challenging trips that I have been on, but with with use managing to catching five varieties of native trout and three additional nonnatives, it certainly was a success. Likely this will be my only major out of state native trout road trip this year, pushing my thoughts towards next years plans of a trip to Colorado to round out my remaining Cutthroat subspecies.

Monday, July 11, 2022

High Desert Angling: Part 2 - A challenging day

 Day 3: Sunday July 3rd 2022: After an extremely long, and overall successful first day of angling, we were a bit more sluggish breaking camp than I would have liked. The reason that I was anxious to get on the road again was that we had a lot of ground to cover in a single day, fishing two streams before ending up in Winnemucca, NV for the night. While originally I had just planned on fishing a single stream Steve had told me about a stream with Tiger Trout. Tiger Trout are a bit of a frankenfish, being a hybrid cross between Brook Trout and Brown Trout and as I had never caught one I was intrigued enough to check the creek out.

Although we were still slightly behind schedule we made good timing getting to the stream and arrived by mid morning. The creek was similar in size to the Bonneville Cutthroat stream from the day before, but flowed through a tunnel of Willow in the midst of the treeless sage brush desert.

While we were rigging up for the day, a local indicated two things that didn’t bode well in my opinion. First was that otters and anglers had been very effective at harvesting fish from the creek, so hold overs would be few and far between. The second was that the creek had just been stocked for the 4th of July weekend. While in theory this meant more fish, the influx of fish was likely to disrupt the existing fish community and the new stockers would be unlikely to be used to natural prey sources. So normal tactics might not be very effective.

The Tiger Trout stream

While the stream looked like it should be quite productive, with lush aquatic vegetation good holes and a few beaver ponds, few of the likely lies showed any sign of fish.  When I did manage to spot some fish they showed very little interest in flies.

Streamside cacti

I figure that sometimes persistence pays off and as I continued working upstream I did manage to get some takes but just couldn’t get a solid hookup with any of the fish. Most of these fish were on either dries stripped under the surface or nymphs jigged in the deep holes. It wasn’t until I found a fishy looking undercut back that I finally got a solid grab on my dropper. It was a small fish and I quickly was able to net my first Tiger Trout.

My first Tiger Trout

I continued fishing upstream and didn’t find any additional trout, but when I met up with Derek he had managed to catch one hard won Rainbow Trout.

Derek's Rainbow Trout

While successful, it had taken far longer for us to find fish at this stream than planned and had eaten into our time hunting for our main target of the day, the Humboldt Cutthroat significantly. It was fun to catch a new type of trout, but I couldn’t help thinking how amazing this Creek could have been if it still held the native Humboldt Cutthroat that once swam its waters. As those native Humboldts were long since gone and it was again time to hit the road and hopefully we would be able to find Humboldts in our next stream.

A lone Pronghorn Antelope on our way to the next stream

After a few more hours on the road, with afternoon wearing on and storm clouds building on the horizon, we arrived at our second stream. I had fished this stream way back in 2006 and managed to catch a few Humboldt on that trip so I hoped trip to it would be just as successful.

I decided to head further upstream on this trip in hopes of more productive water. On my last trip I had noticed the damage the lower stream had endured from poor grazing practices and apparently the upper watershed had experienced the same damage. The stream was incised into a small a 10 foot deep trench and to make matters worse, it appeared that a fire had torn through the upper watershed recently, leaving little in the way of large vegetation.

The upper reaches of the Humboldt Cutthroat stream

We found a spot where we could reach the stream and decided that Derek would go upstream while I went downstream. Upon reaching the of the incised canyon, it was clear that there at least had been an attempt at improving the habitat as there were numerous beaver dam analogues added to the stream. These are stakes driven into the stream bed in the hopes of attracting beavers to use them as anchor for their dams. As the beavers build their dams behind the analogues they act as sediment traps and slowly build up stream channel reversing the process of incising. Unfortunately, the fire in the upper watershed had wiped out all of the larger vegetation that beavers need to feed on and as such the intended purpose of the analogues had gone unfulfilled. While they didn't live up to their full potential, the analogues did act as decent sediment traps and instead of flowing from pool to pool, the creek flowed from one knee deep swath of quicksand after another making wading extremely very difficult. This also meant an almost complete lack of suitable habitat for trout and I only managed to hook one smaller Cutthroat that unfortunately was able to shake loose.

The deeply incised stream channel

With the challenging and less than fruitful conditions on the upper part of the creek, Derek and I decided to head for the lower end of the watershed, where I had fished before. We were hoping that the creek in the lower reaches would be slightly larger and more productive than upstream and with luck we might find a few beaver ponds. As it turned out beaver ponds proved to be our biggest problem on the lower creek, as upon reaching the valley floor we discovered that since 2006 beavers had flooded the entire lower valley.

A beaver pond in the lower watershed

Often beaver ponds are one of the best places to find trout on small streams, but this particular scenario was not one of those cases. The water was extremely murky and there was almost no casting room due to extremely thick vegetation growth. I was able to wade into the muck a ways and saw many fry in the 2" range (a good sign for the viability of the population), but 45 minutes of casting didn't even result in a strike. With the beaver ponds not yield results, I tried to find some flowing water, but my attempts to find a way threw the overgrown brush all proved unsuccessful. I rarely have failed to catch a native trout on a stream that I know to harbor them, but I had to accept that you can't win them all. As such with thickening storm clouds rolling in and the day already growing late, I linked back up with Derek who had just as much success as I did and we hit the road again, headed for Winnemucca, NV and some much needed rest. With one trout a piece and neither of them natives, this had been one of the rougher days of trout fishing I have had in a long while. Fortunately, I had caught Humboldt Cutthroat before and I just had to hope that the Quinn River Cutthroat I was after the next day would be far more eager.

Friday, July 8, 2022

High Desert Angling: Part 1 - A Bumpy Road

 Day 1: Friday July 1st 2022:  This year I wasn't sure whether I would be able to pull of a road trip for native trout. While great, changing jobs also meant entering summer without much in the way of vacation time. However, I when I looked at my schedule I realized I could pull away for a native trout adventure over the long 4th of July weekend and better yet my cousin Derek was also able to join. While I went after the Westslope Cutthroat subspecies last year, this year I decided to focus my attention on the Lahontan subspecies as well as Bonneville Cutthroat. However, with a day less to work with than last year's trip, this trip was packed very densely with little room for error or tough to find trout.

The disadvantage of the 4th weekend as always is that it seems like everyone else is trying to get out of town on adventures as well. Even with taking a half day to leave early, the traffic getting out of the Puget and over the Cascade Mountains was horrible. Luckily leaving early gave me enough of a buffer that I was able to arrive at Derek’s place in the Tri Cities right as he got home from work. This got us back on the road quickly and the traffic on our second leg to Boise was not bad at all and we arrived at our hotel 10pm to rest up before hitting road in the morning.

Off to a slow start

Day 2: Saturday July 2nd 2022: As often happens with the prospect of new native trout on the horizon, I had trouble sleeping. As such I was up at 3:30AM well before my alarm and decided to just go ahead and get ready for the day. This put us on the road again by 4:30AM and on our way to Utah and our first trout of the trip. The first trout we were targeting was the Pilot Peak strain of the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout. These Pilot Peak fish are unique as they were the last of the original Pyramid Lake Lahontan Cutthroat Trout known for being the largest Cutthroat Trout in the world. These fish had been stocked in the Pilot Peak range long ago and forgotten about until they were rediscovered and later reintroduced back into Pyramid Lake. With these fish being so special I had always wanted a chance to visit the place where they had been found and see if I could catch and photograph one. 

The first challenge with these Pilot Peak Lahontan Cutthroat was just getting to them. Part one was 40 miles of dirt road, with the last couple miles to the creek being exceptionally rough and pushing my RAV 4 to its limit. Given how rough the road was, I didn't want to push my car past its limit so we decided to walk the last bit into the stream. First we had to find flowing water. 

The start of the long walk into the mountains

Given the recent drought, when we first came to the stream bed it was dry. Not too far upstream the creek started flowing, but it was some time before it looked large enough to possibly hold any fish. However, even at this point there were several challenges to deal with. First the stream was extremely brushy so it would be challenging to do anything but dap a fly on the water. Second every open patch of water had several spider webs over it making stealth near impossible. 
Ready for the start of our native trout adventure

Derek and I worked through a stretch of the stream that I had been told held a decent number of Cutthroat with not so much as a sign of fish. After that, we decided to split up and I went another half mile upstream while Derek worked the stream below. After covering a good stretch of stream with not so much of a sign of fish and the day starting to wear on, I decided to head back downstream and see if Derek had any luck. 

A rare piece of holding water on the stream

As it turned out when I found Derek, he had just managed to catch a beautiful 12” Cutthroat that was holding in a small pool. Apparently he had spotted the the fish and cast to it, only to get his fly getting stuck in a spiderweb and have to fish jump out of the water to try to grab it. While the fish didn't get the fly on that cast, Derek was able break the spider web, land the fly on the water and managed to get the fish to eat and caught it.

Derek's big fish - a Pilot Peak (Pyramid Lake) Strain Lahontan Cutthroat

After Derek caught his fish, I redoubled my efforts but despite covering another 1/2 mile of the creek that only thing that I was able get the attention of was a small snake that spooked and swam across the creek on one of my casts. Given that we had a long drive to our next stream and that there was no sign of any additional fish, it was time to hit the road. 

Looking out over the Bonneville salt flats

Part of our need to get a move on was that we were going to meet up with my friend and fellow native trout enthusiast Steve MacMillan from Nevada, at the next stream and we still had a very long drive down to Bonneville Cutthroat country on the eastern edge of the Bonneville Basin. As with the Pilot Peak stream, we were in for another long stretch of dirt roads to get to our destination. However, we made surprisingly good time and ended up beating Steve by about an hour, although I suspect that the Pacific/ Mountain time zone difference was lost in translation and at play.

Miles and miles of dirt road

Once linking up with Steve, we made for the Mountains, which were a monolith of granite rising several thousand feet out of the salt flats. The country was a mix alpine and desert, with prickly pear, pine, birch, juniper and willows. As is typically of this thirsty country, we found a very small creek threading through a tunnel of vegetation. Luckily the creek was much larger then the Pilot Peak stream and finding good holding water didn't take long. I decided to start out with my trusty Royal PMX and Lighting Bug dropper setup and started working the water. It didn't take long to find a Cutthroat and I was finally on the board with another subspecies of Cutthroat off my list. Steve and Derek also got their fish in short order and we each started working the stream for additional fish.

A small Bonneville Cutthroat Trout

While it didn't take long to find my first fish, the stream was certainly a challenge due to the vegetation and additional fish were hard earned. However, I managed to land two more and lost a number of others over the course of a couple hours before Steve had to head back home.

The valley along the stream

After Steve headed off, Derek and I decided to hike up the road and explore further upstream. Upon hit the water, I lucked into a series of pools that were relatively open and easy to reach. This was where I struck pay dirt. As I approached the first hole I spotted a couple of trout holding just in front of a root wad. A well placed bow and arrow cast resulted in an immediate rise and a quickly landed fish. The next fish took a bit more work and rose to the fly 6 times before I finally managed to hook up and bring it to hand.

A beautiful Bonneville Cutthroat Trout

Continuing upstream each pool held several more Cutthroat, which were more than eager to rise to a dry fly and did so with reckless abandon. The topmost pool looked to be the deepest and most likely to hold a bigger fish. Sure enough as I approach, I spotted a nice Cutthroat and several small ones holding in the pool. A well placed cast got the attention of the big fish first and I managed to hook it. With limited room to run, I was able to bring the beautiful 11” Cutthroat to the net in short order.

A productive stretch of the stream
A beautiful Bonneville Cutthroat to end the day on

After getting my large Bonneville, I managed to catch the two smaller fish as well, before Derek and I decided that it was time of cap off the long day and set up camp. While the trip had gotten off to a bumpy start, between Derek and I we did document both of the fish that we were after and headed to bed with hopes that streams the next day would be as productive as our Bonneville Cutthroat stream had been.