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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.


Sunday, September 10, 2023

Colorado Adventure Part 2: Hayden Creek Cutthroat

Saturday August 26th: My second day of hunting for native trout in Colorado dawned to soggy overcast conditions after an extremely restless night of sleep in the car (see here for part one). However, by 6:45AM, the rain finally stopped and after a quick breakfast, it was time to hit the trail once again. My target for the morning, was a curious and unique form of Cutthroat only known to one small stream - the South Prong of Hayden Creek in the Arkansas watershed. What makes these trout so unique is that they are an exact genetic match for the "Greenback" Cutthroat that once occurred alongside the Yellowfin Cutthroat in Twin Lakes, Colorado. Genetics revealed that these "Greenbacks" were in fact Colorado River Cutthroat, but with a genetic signature not found in any populations west of the continental divide.  While it is still unclear how these trout found their way into the Arkansas basin, it is clear that they were abundant in Twin Lakes in the 1880's, but like the Yellowfin Cutthroat were unable to withstand the introductions of nonnative species in the lakes and vanished within a few short decades. These fish held on in one last refuge until 2016, when a fire burned through Hayden Creek and if it were for a last minute rescue operation they would have been lost entirely. With the Yellowfin Cutthroat still believed to be extinct, Cutthroat reintroduction efforts in the Arkansas basin have focused on establishing these Hayden Creek Cutthroat in a number of refuge populations around the watershed. So for me after the revelation that the Colorado River Cutthroat (see here) that I had caught in Rocky Mountain National Park years ago were in fact Green River Cutthroat, these fish would check that box again, while also representing a particularly unique lineage of Cutthroat Trout.

The spot that I had picked to target these rare Cutthroat was among the first transplant populations and while the Cutthroat had apparently failed to establish in the upper reaches of the stream, several friends of mine had succeeded in finding them in the lower reaches, which is were I planned on going. By 7:00 AM, I was on the trail, hiking through a forest of sparsely spaced Pine trees. Compared to the day before, the trail started out at a much easier grade and was at a slightly lower elevation, which helped me make good timing and feel like I wasn’t completely out of shape.

A wet start to the day

While the hike the evening before had been stunning, this one was a much more standard walk in the woods, although the few brief views of the valley through the clouds did add to its charm.

A wet gray start to the day

With the relatively easy hike, within a half hour I could hear the sound of running water and was descending into the creek valley. Upon arriving at the creek, it was immediately clear that this would be some challenging brush whacking and fishing, as the stream was extremely high gradient, with dense riparian vegetation. However, there was a nice looking pool right at the trail crossing that looked like excellent holding water for trout, so it was time to get to it.

A pool on the creek

While the first pool looked great, multiple drifts failed to produced any sign of trout so I started working my way upstream. With the high gradient it was slow going, but there were plenty of plunge pools. Unfortunately, none of them seemed to hold any trout and with the crystal clear water I really should have been able to see the fish if there were any. After covering a dozen or so really great looking spots, the creek was really beginning to appear devoid of trout. I am not one to give up easily, so I decided to go back to the trail and try my luck downstream. Despite finding more great looking holding water, the same scenario repeated itself and I didn’t see as much as the slightest sign of a trout. While this was always a possibility when I was planning the trip it was disappointing. This was definitely going to set my schedule back a bit, but I had a couple backup spots along my route and as such I decided to cut my losses and head for a different stream. I moved as fast as I could on the hike out and despite taking one wrong turn, by 9:00 AM I was back at the trailhead and hitting the road once again.

Other than the stocking history, I had very little to go off of with the next stream and even had to guess which stretch of stream would have the Hayden Creek Cutthroat in it. However, it was the closest along my route so if it didn't pan out it shouldn’t put me too far off my schedule to at least check it out. Based on the research I had done, the benefit of this spot based on the timing of the introduction, was that if it had been successful, by all rights the population should be well established with multiple age classes at this point. 

My drive took me along the Arkansas River which was running high and off color due to the storm the night before, and while it was gorgeous, knowing that the Yellowfin Cutthroat which once inhabited its waters were now lost to time was heavy on my mind as I ascended the valley.

The Arkansas River - once home to the Yellowfin Cutthroat

I made great timing on the drive and by the time I turned off on the road to the creek the cloudy skies of the morning were finally starting to give way to afternoon sunshine. The drive into the mountains, which should have been gorgeous, was marred by the legacy of mining, with derelict structures and equipment left in place and large swathes of land still barren.

The legacy of mining was certainty apparent on the drive in to the stream

About 3/4 of way into the creek I got an unwelcome surprise as there was a set jersey barriers blocking the way. Or at least partially blocking the way as the was a bit of a gap in between two of the barriers looked like it just might be wide enough for a small car to fit through. Having already be shut out on one stream, I wasn’t going to give up easily on this one and decided to see if I could squeeze through. I angled the rental car towards the barriers and after getting out to verify it would fit slowly inched on through and was back on track. A quarter mile up the road there was another set of barriers but luckily there was a large gap in this one and I sailed right on through. Another five minutes of bumpy dirt roads later, and I was standing at nearly 11,500 feet of elevation, amidst the peaks of the Rocky Mountains on a rise a couple hundred feet above the creek and eager to reach the water. I quickly got the ball rolling and grabbed my gear, found an old two track road I had seen on the satellite imagery and started my descent into the valley below.

The meadows on the walk into the second stream

Regardless of whether or not this stream held fish, the surroundings were absolutely stunning, with a crystal clear creek tumbling over rocks as it meandering through a verdant alpine meadow surrounded by peaks that rose to over 14,000 feet and towered above the tree line. While I would have been happy to just sit and immerse myself in my surroundings, I was here for a reason and I quickly directed my attention to the stream.

The second stream of the day was gorgeous!

In the first piece of holding water that I came to, I briefly hooked a fish but only saw a bit of green, yellow and red that I feared might be a Brook Trout before it popped off. Regardless of what it was, it was more life than I had seen in the last stream and in the next pocket upstream a trout grabbed my dry fly. This time I got a solid hook set and luckily when I brought the fish to the net, I found it was a beautiful Hayden Creek Cutthroat! 

Success! A Hayden Creek strain Colorado River Cutthroat

Despite being essentially considered a Colorado River Cutthroat, these Hayden Creek Cutthroat certainly are a unique fish, and were a bright yellow colored with red blotches along the lateral line and moderate sized spot concentrated near the caudal peduncle. The first Cutthroat was soon followed by another and another, and this stream proved to be one where every likely looking spot held a trout. On top of that, there was no shortage of good holding water, with every corner and plunge pool screaming trout. The trout in the stream which averaged 6” to 8” were also abundant and eagerly rose to my Royal PMX, with a few going for the dropper as well.

A beautiful Cutthroat in the photarium

My original plan was for a quick in an out trip, but between the beautiful surroundings, excellent fishing and unique trout, I just couldn’t pull myself away from the creek and before I knew it several hours had slipped by.

One last look at the stream before hitting the road

While I was reluctant to move on, I still had many miles ahead of me a knew it was time to get back on the road again. Although the morning started a bit rough, the second stream had far exceeded my expectations and with another fish under my belt the trip was coming together nicely. Next I was headed for the Flat Tops of northern Colorado with high hopes of finding some native Green River Cutthroat Trout.

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