The Importance of Headwaters
Day three started in the small town of Coalville, northeast of Salt Lake City, where we met a group of heavy hitters in Utah’s cutthroat-conservation programs: director Greg Sheehan; Paul Thompson, Northern Region Aquatics Manager; Habitat Restoration Biologist Clint Brunson; and Paul Burnett, TU’s Utah Project Leader. They gave us a fascinating tour of a recent culvert-replacement project on Fish Creek, part of the Chalk Creek system—one of the last strongholds of native Weber River Bonneville cutthroats. Because of a failing 100-foot culvert, covered by 35 feet of road fill, Fish Creek’s upstream spawning and rearing habitat had been cut off from the river for decades.
In 2014, a project funded by a variety of conservation organizations and government agencies removed the culvert and the fill, rebuilt the streambed and the banks, and constructed a bridge over the creek. Weber River cutthroats now have access to seven miles of important habitat, which will help ensure the future health of the fishery. To my eye, the rebuilt stretch looked like a perfectly natural freestone stream, as well, including a couple good-looking resting pools for spawners on their way up stream.
After our tour, the two Pauls—Thompson and Burnett—took Fred and me to the North Fork of the Ogden River to catch Utah’s state fish, the Bonneville cutthroat. (See “Closer Look,” in the June/ July 2016 issue of American Angler). This was small-stream fishing, with very little room to maneuver, often requiring a bow-andarrow cast or dapping just to get a fly on the water. It reminded me of some of the smaller Green Mountain streams where I catch native brookies. Fred and Paul Burnett hopped in not far from the trucks, while Paul Thompson and I headed upstream. Right away, we were into fish, and once again, the PMX was the fly of choice. Most pockets that looked fishy held trout, and we caught eight or ten before things started to quiet down. After just three days, we were halfway to our Cutthroat Slam goal.
Into the Wild
Our next subspecies, the Yellowstone cutthroat, is found only in the Raft River Mountains, in the remote, sparsely populated northwestern corner of Utah. It’s the kind of place that a lifelong resident of Salt Lake City, just three hours away, has probably never visited. Accompanied by Paul Thompson, we spent the night in an old schoolhouse the UDWR converted into a bunkhouse, arising early to fish Basin Creek, flowing through open ranchland nearby. As Paul cooked bacon and eggs, Fred and I enjoyed the sunrise over the stark, mostly treeless landscape.
When we arrived at the meandering stream, a herd of cattle crowded its banks upstream, and the effects were immediately evident in the muddy water. None of us could draw a strike on a dry fly, so we switched over to small Woolly Buggers to score our first Yellowstone cutties. Since the fishing was so slow, Paul suggested we head high into the nearby mountains to fish another tiny stream called George Creek.
The terrain could not have been more different as we traveled from arid sagebrush grassland to lush forest in just 20 miles. In fact, as we hiked through the large pines and lush vegetation, Fred turned to me and said, “This looks like prime Squatch country.” The creek itself was small enough to jump across, and colorful wildflowers covered the sunny hillside opposite the forest. The hard part was getting your fly on the water—we again resorted to bow-and-arrow casts and dapping—but each little plunge pool held a gorgeous gem of a cutthroat, and they were eager to eat our dry flies.
A Trout Filled Oasis
The final stop on our tour was Boulder Mountain, a high-elevation plateau that’s an oasis of green amid the spectacular desert landscapes that make southern Utah a popular tourist destination. We picked up Brett Prettyman on our way through Salt Lake City, drove three hours south, and then met up with fisheries biologist Mike Hadley and TU’s Price River Project Manager, Jordan Nielson. After lunch at the Sunglow Café in the small town of Bicknell (I highly recommend their famous pickle pie) we headed into the mountains on a series of well-maintained dirt forest roads.
Our first destination was a lake formed by a large beaver dam, just about a half-mile hike from the trailhead. Although conditions looked perfect—overcast skies, a slight breeze, and clear water—none of us could hook up for the first hour or so. An approaching storm front seemed to have given the fish lockjaw, a situation made even more frustrating when Brett and I watched a large trout lazily cruising just under the surface right in front of us. It didn’t even spook when we cast at it; instead it simply ignored our offerings and continued on its way.
As I rummaged around in my fly box trying to find a solution, I unearthed a soft hackle tied on a heavy jig hook. I’m pretty sure the pattern was left over from my trip to Slovenia two years earlier and hadn’t been in the water since. With a shrug, I tied it on, cast into the deepest part of the lake, and retrieved it with slow, short strips.
On my fourth or fifth cast, a fish hammered the fly between strips, and the game was on. After a brief fight, I got my hand around the biggest fish of the trip and the one that would complete my slam. Colorado River cutthroats are considerably darker, with richer colors, than the other species we had caught, and I marveled at the remarkable spotting pattern and the deep red throat slash. After Mike took a few quick snaps, I released the fish and received congratulations on my slam. Fred caught his final subspecies on the outlet stream just a few minutes later.
The Utah Cutthroat Slam is a remarkable way to turn a fly-fishing trip into a learning experience, an exploration of new waters and landscapes, and a conservation project. All of us can use an occasional reminder about the importance of maintaining native trout stocks, and were it not for my goal to catch the subspecies that make up the Slam, I’m sure I would have never visited such diverse parts of Utah. But aside from all that, completing the Slam was simply a blast—spending time on the water with friends old and new, catching gorgeous trout in pristine waters, and letting go of the “real world” in favor of vast, remote wilderness.
Phil Monahan edits the Orvis fly fishing blog (www.orvis.com/ news) and writes the Closer Look column in each issue of American Angler, which he edited from 1998-2008.