The new Utah Cutthroat Slam asks anglers to catch all four of the state’s native subspecies, discover new waters, and help preserve trout diversity.
[by Philip Monahan]
Having grown up in New England, I did not lay eyes on a cutthroat trout until I was twenty-eight years old. During a week of training to be a fly fishing guide in Montana’s Paradise Valley, I caught my first cutty on a Yellowstone River float trip with my fellow guides, and I was immediately smitten. Over the course of that summer, I fished for the species across Big Sky Country and throughout Yellowstone National Park, and I’ll never forget how along one particular bank of the Lamar River, the cutthroats rose excruciatingly slowly to inspect a hopper or pale morning dun. I found myself holding my breath in anticipation of the strike, which sometimes wouldn’t come.
Then, more than a decade ago, I introduced my two brothers to cutthroat when we spent a week completing the Wyoming Cutt-Slam, landing all four subspecies native to the Cowboy State. Not only was it a great fishing trip—which took us from Cody to Jackson to Kemmerer—but it was also a fascinating way to see firsthand the importance of protecting native subspecies from habitat destruction and hybridization. To many anglers, a cutthroat is a cutthroat, but the subtle and not-so-subtle differences among subspecies become stark when you are focused on catching each one on consecutive days.
So when my friend Brett Prettyman, Trout Unlimited’s (TU) Intermountain Communications Director, told me last April that his native Utah was launching a similar program, I knew I wanted to participate. I talked my high school buddy Fred Hays into joining me, and we flew out to Salt Lake City in early August. Over the next six days, we pursued the four subspecies that make up the Utah Cutthroat Slam—Bear River, Bonneville, Yellowstone, and Colorado River cutthroats—focusing on the headwater streams that provide the best spawning habitat for these native fish. In the process, we explored some of the most remote, beautiful trout waters the Beehive State offers, and learned about several important native-trout conservation projects.
A Long Time Coming
The Utah Cutthroat Slam is not a new idea. Wyoming celebrated the 20th anniversary of its Cutt-Slam program in 2016, and for nearly as long, Prettyman and Northern Region Aquatics Manager Paul Thompson have been pushing the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) to emulate its neighbor’s success. They were finally able to get the program off the ground by forging a first-ofits-kind partnership between TU and the UDWR, in which the state agency provides photos, videos, maps, and information on where to find each native subspecies, and TU manages the Utah Cutthroat Slam website (www.utahcutthroatslam.org). According to Prettyman, the program’s focus on the value of native fish and educating anglers about the unique characteristics of each subspecies is right in line with TU’s mission.
UDWR director Greg Sheehan has also supported the idea since he took office in 2012, but he wanted to ensure the Cutthroat Slam’s conservation commitment was made explicit to those who participated. So, whereas the Wyoming program is free for anglers, Sheehan pushed for a $20 registration fee in Utah, with almost every cent of those funds going to cutthroat conservation.
“I wanted to make sure that the fly fishermen who came here to fish for these native trout had some actual skin in the game,” he said. By paying money into the system, Sheehan believes, anglers become active partners in the conservation process, which makes them more engaged and focused on the efforts to restore the four subspecies to their original ranges.
Getting on the Board
The first subspecies on our itinerary was the Bear River cutthroat, so Fred and I drove east out of Salt Lake and then traveled the stunning Mirror Lake Byway into the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. There we met Jim DeRito, Bear River Project Leader for TU, who navigated a series of dirt roads to show us a fascinating fish screen on a lovely freestone section of the East Fork of the Bear River. Installed at the headgate of an irrigation canal, the screen keeps trout from being carried into the canal system, from which they can’t escape. The water flows across a long screen, so the fish stay on top and drop back into the river, while the water for irrigation falls through the screen and empties into the canal. It’s a great system for preserving the needs of both the water users and the cutthroats.
Finally, it was time to wet a line and get our Cutthroat Slam under way. I tied on a bushy PMX dry fly and waded in just a few feet from the fish screen. On my first five casts, I got three strikes, and finally connecting on the third. As I brought the fiveinch trout to hand, I could see the Bear River subspecies features sparse, small spots on its sides, with the spots growing larger and more numerous toward the tail. It’s a beautiful fish.
Although officially considered a Bonneville cutthroat by taxonomists, the Bear River cutthroats have been isolated from other Bonneville populations for thousands of years, and recent genetic evidence suggests that Bear Rivers are more closely related to the Yellowstone cutthroat than other Bonneville populations. Because of this, the UDWR and TU treat the Bear River strain as if it were a separate subspecies, which explains its place of honor in the Utah Cutthroat Slam.
Fred landed his first cutthroat a few minutes later, and we proceeded to leapfrog each other upstream. By the time we each caught a half dozen trout, including some nonnative brookies, daylight was beginning to wane. We hiked back to the truck and were treated to a glorious view of the Uinta Mountains bathed in slanted, golden sunlight. It was a great start, and we felt good about checking off our first subspecies.
The next morning, Jim took us to fish the main stem of the Bear River on a meadow section far downstream because he wanted us to see how the habitat work in the headwaters streams benefits the fishery below. Cutthroats are “fluvial,” which means they travel within the river system as part of their life history— living in the main river but heading up small tributaries and the headwaters of the main stem to spawn. Therefore, providing connected spawning habitat is vital to a healthy population. Although the fishing was slower than it was the day before—the cloudless sky certainly didn’t help—we both managed to land considerably larger Bear River cutts, which proved Jim’s point.