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.


Thursday, September 28, 2023

American Fisheries Society Changes to Cutthroat Classification

The American Fisheries Society recently published their 8th Edition of the Common and Scientific Names of Fisheries from the United States, Canada, and Mexico, which contains a major change to the classification of Cutthroat Trout. This instead of a single species, this change elevates the four major lineages of Cutthroat Trout first identified by Robert Behnke to four full species. These species are:

Coastal Cutthroat Cutthroat Trout - Oncorhynchus clarkii

Westslope Cutthroat Trout - Oncorhynchus lewisi

Lahontan Cutthroat Trout - Oncorhynchus henshawi 

Rocky Mountain Cutthroat - Oncorhynchus virginalis

These changes were first proposed back in 2018 in the book Cutthroat Trout: Evolutionary Biology and Taxonomy, but what the current change to Cutthroat Trout classification remains silent on is the classification of Cutthroat subspecies. While the tradition classification proposed by Robert Behnke recognizes 14 subspecies of Cutthroat Trout, the one proposed based on genetics in the 2018 book would expand that number to 25. My website will continue to follow the proposed 2018 classification, which includes the species now formally recognized by AFS and only time will tell if the subspecies classifis official recognized by the American Fisheries Society in the future.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Colorado Adventure Part 5: Wrapping things up

Monday August 28th: On my last day in Colorado, I had my sights set on catching a Greenback Cutthroat. While I had once believed that I had caught Greenback Cutthroat in Rocky Mountain National Park, genetic evidence indicated that those fish were actually Colorado River Cutthroat and the only remaining population of Greenback Cutthroat was found in a small stream called Bear Creek on Pikes Peak. I had planned to return to Colorado once restoration efforts had established some viable populations and with news of natural reproduction occurring in some of these streams the time had finally come. With the Greenback Cutthroat being the last that I needed to catch it felt fitting to save it for last on this trip as well. So after a good nights sleep, I was up bright and early and reached the trailhead to the creek just as the sun was beginning to rise. I had heard that this hike could get quite busy and the combo of a Monday and arriving before dawn certainly paid off as got a front row parking spot and there were only a couple other rigs in the lot.

On the trail at sunrise

The first part of the hike was a steep slog up the side of the mountain and I was quite appreciative for the cool morning temperature as I trudged up the trail. However, before long the trail leveled off a bit and the country opened up to broad meadows surrounded by towering 13,000 foot peaks. With the valley laid out in front of me, I decided to hike upstream of the first meadow to start out with in hopes that there would be less pressure and more fish higher up.

The high Rockies from the meadows

By the time I reached the creek, the sun had yet to crest over the mountains and it was bitterly cold, but excitement was running high and numb fingers and feet was a price I was more than willing to pay for a new subspecies of Cutthroat. I started working my way upstream looking for good holding water, but I unfortunately spooked the first Greenback that I came across. 

Early morning on the creek

It took me a little while to pin down the type of water that these Greenbacks really like holding in but after a couple missed grabs, I finally a had decent Cutthroat rise to my dry fly in the mid section of a pocket and after a short fight a brought a beautiful Greenback Cutthroat to the net.

Success! A true Greenback Cutthroat!

There is nothing quite like catching a new variety of trout, but catching my final subspecies of Cutthroat was really special. On top of that, these Greenbacks are certainly a unique looking Cutthroat, with a more drab coloration and denser, finer spots than the other Cutthroat of the southern Rockies and it was great to spend a few moments admiring this one prior the watching it dart back into its small stream home. 

With the pressure off and the Greenback Cutthroat checked off the list, I was eager to catch more, as I like to represent some of the diversity found within the subspecies of native trout whenever possible. As such I pressed on upstream and before long, I caught another smaller Greenback Cutthroat. However, as I worked my way upstream and the creek got progressively smaller and the fishing slowed way down with holding water spaced further and further apart. When the cold was starting to get intolerable, the sun finally rose over the mountains providing some much need warmth. Shortly after this I finally found another good pocket and landed another Greenback that again took my dry fly.

Another nice Greenback Cutthroat

After my third Greenback Cutthroat, I covered good stretch of water without seeing anymore fish and as I had seen the most activity right where I had started I opted to take the trail back downstream to try out the stretch I had passed by in the first meadow.

The upper reaches of the stream

Back on the trail

After 10 minutes or so of walking back downstream, I cut back into the creek and got back to work. This decision to head back downstream, really was what made the day, as this stretch of the creek turned out to be incredibly productive and as long as I took care not to spook and of the fish each pocket produced one or two beautiful little Greenback Cutthroat. 

Back on the water

In one pocket I missed a Cutthroat on my dry fly and after watching move around the pocket and placing several more casts in front of it, I finally got it to come back and take my dropper. This was one of the more beautiful Cutthroat of the day and was a heavily spotted bronze colored gem of a Greenback. 

A gorgeous heavily spotted Greenback Cutthroat

While most of the Cutthroat in the stream were gorgeous, about 1/3 of the fish had some sort of deformity as well. These deformities were primarily misshapen jaws, but I also got one fish that had a truncated body. These deformities are an unfortunate consequence of a genetic bottleneck, due to a loss of genetic diversity and the small population size of Bear Creek. With only a single source population of Greenback to go off of, options to address this issue are quite limited. However, there are currently discussions within the Greenback Cutthroat Recovery Team whether or not to consider introducing some genetics from the Greenback Cutthroat's closest relative the Colorado River Cutthroat (green lineage) into the Greenback Cutthroat broodstock to increase their genetic diversity and only time will tell if this is a necessary step to restore this beautiful subspecies.

A Greenback Cutthroat with a deformity, an unfortunately consequence of a genetic bottleneck

After catching a number of beautiful but smallish Greenback Cutthroat, I came to a log jam pool where I could see a couple nice Cutthroat holding in the tail of the pool. I knew that these fish would be extremely spooky, so I kept a low profile behind the log jam and when I landed my cast in the tailout of the pool I watched the larger of the two Cutthroat scoot over and grab my dry fly. I had a couple tricky moments where I thought the fish might get off in the log jam, but in the end I was able to keep it away from the wood and netted my largest Greenback of the day.

My best Greenback Cutthroat of the day

A Greenback Cutthroat in the creek

After releasing my big Greenback, I picked a few more Cutthroat before I found myself right back where I had started the day. At this point I knew that my time was up as it was already late morning and I had an afternoon flight to catch. 

Back where I started

While I was reluctant to pull myself away from the Colorado high country, this stream had treated me extremely well and I certainly had done what I set out to do. The hike out was all down hill making it an absolute cake walk and when I finally reached the trailhead I was amazed to see a nearly full parking lot, despite only seeing a handful of people while I was fishing, it apparently pays to be arrive early. 

Mission accomplished and back on the trail again

Getting off the mountain before noon meant that I had plenty of time before my flight and the remainder of the trip to the airport was absolutely smooth sailing. While this trip certainly had its ups and downs, after catching five varieties of native trout, it was hard to look at it as anything but a resounding success. On top of that I managed to check two feats off this summer, one I finished my quest to catch all of the subspecies of Cutthroat Trout and two I managed to catch all of the native Cutthroat in Colorado over the course of single summer, not too bad if I do say so!

Monday, September 25, 2023

Colorado Adventure Part 4: Colorado River Cutthroat Contingencies

My original plans for this day had been to fish a high elevation stream that had come highly recommended, but required a rough gravel road with pass at nearly 12,500 to reach. Unfortunately, this plan was upended right before I left when I friend sent me a picture of a snow drift still blocking the pass, that was highly unlikely to melt out before would be trying to access the area. As such, I was forced to look elsewhere to try to find some Colorado River Cutthroat. While most think of the Colorado River Cutthroat as occupying vast parts of Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, there are two distinct lineages of these fish, representing separate subspecies (Green River Cutthroat and Colorado River Cutthroat). The blue lineage which I had caught the previous day (see here), is found in the Green, White and Yampa River drainages of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. While the true Colorado River Cutthroat or green lineage was historically native to the upper Colorado, Gunnison and Dolores watersheds of Colorado and a small part of Utah. In addition to their native range, Green River Cutthroat, primarily from Trappers Lake were stocked extensively throughout the range of the Colorado River Cutthroat and as a result of that and other factors Colorado River Cutthroat currently only occupy around 3% of their native range. I had once believed that I had caught this fish on a previous trip, but genetics revealed that the population I had caught them from were in fact introduced Green River Cutthroat and while the Hayden Creek Cutthroat also checked the box, I really wanted to catch some of these fish west of the continental divide. However, the mix of nonnative Green River populations and relatively low number of true Colorado River Cutthroat populations meant that my options were quite limited, but after a fair bit of digging I landed on a stream in the sage brush country in the northern part of the upper Colorado River watershed that was reported to have a decent population of Cutthroat.

Sunday August 27th: While I had settled into my tent under a cloudless starry sky , in the middle of the night my sleep was interrupted by the crack thunder. This was followed by more, which got progressively closer until the storm was nearly on top of me and it started pouring. With the tent extremely exposed and the thunderstorm growing closer by the moment I decided to relocate and for the second night in a row took refuge in the car while a storm raged on outside.

After yet another less than restful night, I was up early and by 7:00 AM I was heading over to the creek with my rod in hand. Unfortunately, what I found when I reached the creek did not look promising. For one thing the creek was much smaller than I had expected, although certainly large enough to hold fish. Most troubling though, the creek was silted in with little in the way of any potential holding water and on top of that it was extremely off color after the thunderstorm the previous night.

Not very promising...

Despite the less than promising conditions, I decided to give the creek a fair shot before writing it over and start prospecting any of the deep holes I could find. However after covering nearly a mile of stream until I ran into a private property boundary and the only signs of life I had seen were several cows standing in the creek adding to the silt issues.

The source of the problem - cows

While there may have been a viable Cutthroat population further upstream, there was no access through the private property to the forest service lands above and the stretch I was on was a complete bust, This meant it was back to the drawing board. Fortunately, while I was looking up this stream I had noted a few other spots as backup streams and with a full day ahead of me I quickly headed back to the car, broke camp and hit the road once more. I landed on heading west towards the edge of the desert on the Colorado plateau, where there was a group of several streams reported to hold pure populations of Colorado River Cutthroat not too far off I-70.

Cruising through Glenwood Canyon heading west

By 10:30AM I was pulling off the interstate and cruising up the road towards the first of my back up streams, but when I was just 2 miles short of the stream I ran into a major hang up the road was gated with no public accessed due to natural gas extraction in the area. While I may not be able to reach the tributary where a pure population of Colorado River Cutthroat was supposed to resided, I did find access to the mainstem of the creek just downstream of the gate and decided to give it a quick try.

The country at stream #2

The water on the stream looked great, seemed to be cool enough, but after covering a 1/4 mile I hadn't seen the slightest sign of trout and with the day ticking by I decided to cut my losses once again and head for another nearby stream. Based on the research I had done, this stream was reported to hold 151 to 400 pure Colorado River Cutthroat per mile and I had high hopes as I drove up the gravel road and pulled off at one of the stretches of public land to try my luck. Unfortunately, upon reaching the stream, it did not look like great Cutthroat water, with little holding water, warm water and substantial mats of algae. However, in my excursions for desert trout, I have certainly found fish in worse habitat, so I decided to see if I couldn't at least find some deeper pools that might hold a fish or two.

Stream #3

With that I pushed on upstream, but just like the last two creeks even when I did find some decent holding water I didn't see the slightest sign of fish and figured that I needed to push on further upstream, where I might find some cooler water.

On the road again

Unfortunately, this was easier said than done and after driving several miles further up the road, I once again ran into a gate (with plenty of no trespassing signs) that I couldn't see on the satellite imagery, which blocked the path between me and the public lands further upstream. Having driven all the way out here, I wasn't quite ready to throw in the towel and on my drive up to the dead end I had seen a pull off above a canyon stretch of the stream that just might hold some cooler water and the Cutthroat I was looking for. It was a good scramble down into the canyon, but once again luck was not on my side and the creek in the stretch somehow was even more choked with algae. I still quickly covered a bit of water to see what I could find, but things did not improve, the few deeper holes I found again were devoid of fish with the added and the combo of the heat and the sound of thunder in the distance I convinced that it was time to cut my loses.

Stream #3 - second spot, somehow even worse than the first spot

At this point, the afternoon was already progressing and three streams in I was running out of viable backup options. There were one or two other streams in the area, but the thunderstorm was really starting to set in and given the last two streams did not pan out, it seemed like I needed to change strategy if I wanted to salvage the day. 

At least it was beautiful country

With that I got back on the road once again, and this time decided to try a higher elevation stream on the edge of the continental divide. The last three streams that I had tried all had detailed information on how many trout per mile, presence of nonnatives and hybridization. Information that was proved wrong (at least during the summer months) with the absence of any trout. I would be going in relatively blind on this next stream, as it had almost none of that information. In fact all I had to go off of was a map showing highlighted streams for green and blue lineage populations (no stream names) that best I could tell indicated indicated I should find the trout I was looking for in this next location. It is also worth noting that this same map also indicated that the last three streams should have held these trout as well. After just under three more hours on the road, I pulled off the highway headed for my next stream, but once again I was greeted by a sight that had become all too common over the course of the day - another gate! 

This gate was not going to stop me

Luckily this time, I was much closer to the creek and this gate (on public land at least) simply meant that I was going to get a bit more leg work in than what I had expected. At the first sight of water, I made a beeline for the creek and immediately started working the water. While the water was certainly cold enough,quality holding spots seemed to be few and far between and I didn't see any signs of trout until a came to the best looking pool I had seen all day.

Finally some good looking water

Upon reaching this pool I first tried the outfall sure enough I rose and briefly hooked into a trout, but it popped off after just a few seconds. While I couldn't tell whether or not it was a Cutthroat, it was certainly more life than I had seen all day. I tried a few more casts to make sure that the fish wasn't going to come back, then moved on to the main course and placed a cast in the tailout of the pool. While nobody came out to inspect my fly on the cast in the tailout, I extend my next cast to the mid section of the pool and after my fly drifted just a few feet, I watched a fish slowly rise to intercept it. I waited for the fish to turn, set the hook and finally had a solid hook up on a trout. The fight got a bit dicey as the fish neared the tangled mess of wood at the back of the pool, but I managed to keep the trout from hanging up and breathed a sigh of relief as I netted a gorgeous Colorado River Cutthroat!

Mission accomplished! This fish made all the miles on the road well worth it!

This Cutthroat as an absolute flawless gem, with a vibrant orange belly that popped on the pale yellow background but after a few fleeting moments of quite reverence, it was time to turn it loose and watch it slide back into the depths of the pool. As that fish hadn't disturbed the head of the pool, that was where I put my next cast and sure enough another fish rose to take my fly and a few moments later I landed another slightly smaller Colorado River Cutthroat.

My second Colorado River Cutthroat of the day

After that first pool, it was a long walk to the next piece of holding water and only the best water seemed to hold any fish but I started picking up a few Cutthroat here and there as I worked my way upstream. Before long the valley opened up into wide meadows and it was in one of these meadows as I was working my way upstream, that some movement caught my attention and I was surprised to see a porcupine munching on some leaves just above the water line. This little guy didn't seem to be the slightest bit concerned about my presence and after a few moments of observation I left it alone and pushed on upstream.

A streamside Porcupine

Before long I came to another decent pool and after I got a good cast in I watched as a nice Cutthroat dart from hiding and intercepted my dropper. I always find that watching the take, just makes it that much more memorable, and after a few moments I was able to net an exceptionally nice Cutthroat for the stream. 
My fish of the day - a beautiful golden-bronze 12" male Cutthroat

After I released this fish, the restless nights, all of the driving and hiking was starting to catch up with me and I decided at the next meadow I would call it quits. On the way I found one more Cutthroat in another pool and the creek shortly after the creek lost the flow of a tributary and got significantly smaller supporting my decision to call it on this long day.
The creek in the meadow stretch

While it had been a rough day, in the end I got to see some beautiful country and found the fish that I was looking for making it hard to complain. After working my way a good mile upstream of where I had started, it was a relief to have an easy trek out on the abandoned road and with nobody else around it was nice to slowly work my way back to the car I admired the beauty of the high Rockies.

The Colorado high country on the hike out

At this point I had now caught 4 out of the five fish that I was after on the trip and decided that I could really use a good nights sleep so I opted to head for Dillon Colorado and grab a hotel for the night. After several days on the road, it felt amazing to grab a hot meal, clean up and then enjoy a post thunderstorm soak in a hot tub with a view of the Rocky Mountains at the sunset.

A great way to end the evening!

With one last day left, my targets were set on the Greenback Cutthroat, the final subspecies of Cutthroat that I needed to catch the next day. As I was flying out the next afternoon, I just had to cross my fingers that the next day was going to go much smoother than this one had.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Colorado Adventure Part 3: Blue lining for Green River Cutthroat

Saturday August 26th:  While I had been successful at finding the Hayden Creek Cutthroat in the morning, the first stream not producing any fish had certainly put me behind schedule and I had many more miles to cover on the day (for the previous post see here). 

My next target was set on the Green River Cutthroat (also known as blue lineage Colorado River Cutthroat) in the Yampa watershed of northern Colorado. This fish had been a late addition to the trip as it wasn't particularly close to any of the others I was targeting, but during my research, I stumbled across a relatively large watershed that was supposed to have pure strain fish that still expressed a migratory life history. This really caught my interest as fluvial (river migratory) populations of Green River Cutthroat have become quite rare in Colorado and can produce some exceptionally nice fish. However, digging in further I could find almost nothing else out about the watershed - nothing on the fishing and not even any trail reports on the hike in. Normally this might make me redirect my efforts towards a more well known or better documented population, but my gut told me that this stream was a sleeper and I stuck to it. 

My intention had been to reach the stream by 2:00 PM, but after the morning delays and cutting across half the state I didn’t pull into the trailhead until a little after 4:00 PM. Luckily, the drive had been smooth, the weather was great and the parking lot at the trailhead was completely empty.

The the valley at the trailhead

With my rod still rigged from the morning, it only took me a few moments to get all my gear together and hit the trail. Before starting the hike, I signed in at the trailhead log book, and it was pretty clear why there was so little information on this area, as the last group of hikers had been here over a week prior and less than a dozen people had visited all summer. 

The trail in through the lush Aspen meadows

Compared to other parts of the state that were starting to show signs of a long summer, it was amazing just how green and lush everything was in this remote corner of the Rockies. The trail wove through meadows and groves of Aspens as it slowly gained elevation and progressed up the valley towards the stream I was looking to fish. 

Serviceberries along the trail

With all the greenery, I wasn't too surprised when I noticed ripe serviceberries, thimbleberries and raspberries along the trail, which made for a sweet snack as I caught my breath after a particularly steep muddy stretch of trail. Despite how bountiful the surroundings were, I saw few signs of wildlife, with the exception of a small woodpecker working an old Aspen tree.

A woodpecker working a dead Aspen

With the limited daylight, I wasn't hiking in too far and just over a mile in from the trailhead I spotted a rough side trail the looked like it headed for the river and started following. After just a few yards into the bushes, the trail faded away, but I decided to push on and cut my own course towards the stream. The stretch of water that I was angling for was just a flat just upstream of a small canyon, that had looked particularly good from the satellite imagery but I emerged from the woods I had apparently cut in too early and found myself standing on a cliff fifty feet above the water. Luckily, not far upstream I could see the flat I was heading for after a little more bush whacking I found an incline where I could scramble and slide down to the water.

A meadow stretch on the stream

When I reached the stream, it was still running quite fast, with little holding water, but just a couple of corners upstream it leveled off a bit as it followed through a beautiful meadow reach. I slowly worked my way upstream casting towards the far bank hoping to find a Cutthroat looking for some terrestrials, but didn't find anything until I reached the top of the run. The riffle at the top of the run looked particularly fishy and after a half dozen drifts, my dry shot under as I hooked into a decent trout on my dropper. This trout put a good bend in my 1WT and got in a few nice jumps before it finally tired and I slid the beautiful native Cutthroat into the net.

First fish on the stream, a beautiful Green River Cutthroat

After releasing that first fish, I couldn't find any more willing takers in the riffle, but just upstream in a side channel I rose another fish, but this time instead of a Cutthroat it was small Brook Trout. While I had hoped that this stream would only hold native Green River Cutthroat, given the size of the stream and the extensive stocking history of Brook Trout across Colorado, I wasn't too surprised to find them here as well. While certainly a beautiful fish, Brook Trout are also a fierce competitor of native Cutthroat Trout and cast doubt on the future persistence of Cutthroat across much of their range.

Invasive Brook Trout, beautiful fish, but not what I wanted to see

With light already starting to fade, I pushed on upstream and soon came to an excellent looking pool. I started by prospecting the inside seam, which seemed oddly devoid of life but as I worked my fly into the slower water I rose a fish and after a quick battle I landed another smaller Cutthroat.
Another Green River Cutthroat

Looking upstream towards a particularly productive piece of water

As I was releasing my first fish from the hole, I watched another fish that appeared to be larger rise right next to a log sticking out of the water. I noted this for my next cast and sure enough as my fly drifted by the log a nice trout rose to meet it. This was a decent sized trout and as soon as I set the hook my 1WT doubled over and shortly after a 14" - 15” trout came shooting out of the water. The fish was largely in control of the fight and chose to run downstream into the next stretch of flat water, but after a few minutes it finally started to tire and I was able to slide it into the net. This fish was exactly what I had been looking for, a beautiful brightly colored clearly migratory Green River Cutthroat.

Surely the fish of the day, a brightly colored male fluvial Cutthroat

After releasing the big Cutthroat, the hole went on to produce another half dozen Cutthroat and a couple Brook Trout before things turned off and it was time to push on further upstream.

Another Brookie that ended up being my biggest of the day

As I worked my way upstream, each piece of quality holding water seemed to hold a fish and fortunately the Cutthroat still seemed to be the dominant fish in the stream, out number the brook trout approximately 3 to 1. After covering about a half mile of water the sun was starting to get low in the sky and when I came to a spot with a clearing that would provide easy access to the trail I decided to fish one last run before heading out.

The last spot of the day - note the seam behind the log

This last pool had a nice back eddy behind a log and on my first cast I watched a nice Cutthroat materialize from the depths and slide over to grab my dropper. Once hooked, the fish immediately headed for the log, but fortunately did not hang up and when it came back downstream I was ready with the net. This was another gorgeous Green River Cutthroat, with vibrant yellows and an orange belly, that the low light the pictures just didn’t do justice. 

A great fish to end the day on

While I figured that this fish was likely the sole inhabitant of the pool, I had to verify it with several more casts before finally calling it quits and heading for the clearing. The clearing ended up being a much more challenging route back to the trail than I had expected, as it was extremely steep, muddy below the vegetation and was littered with dense patches of stinging nettles. However, after several minutes of hard scrambling, sliding and with my legs burning from nettles I finally reached the top and was back on the trail again.

On the trail again

The hike out was all downhill making it a breeze and before I knew it I was back at the trailhead again. With my next spot under two hours away, I opted to chase the last bit of daylight hit the road once again to reach my next spot by nightfall.

Evening over the Flattops of northern Colorado

Finger Rock on the drive towards the next stream

As the last light of the day was fading, I finally turned off the highway and made my way towards my next stream - a meandering meadow creek that was reported to hold 151 to 400 Colorado River Cutthroat (green lineage) per mile. The satellite imagery made it look like this this stream was going to be a ton of fun with hoppers, but as it was pitch dark by the time I arrived that would have to wait for the next day to scout it out and instead I focused my attention on setting up a quick camp for the night.