Sight-fishing to selective, western cutthroat in pressured, shallow water is a thrill—if you know what you’re doing.
[by Boots Allen]
I GREW UP FISHING IN CUTTHROAT COUNTRY and have always been enamored with this beautiful species of trout. Rainbows and browns and lake trout were certainly nearby, and I loved casting to them as much as anything. But it was the slow, measured rise of a cutthroat to surface flies that captured my imagination, and it’s a big reason why I continue to call cutthroat country my home.
With all the love I had for these fish as a youngster, it is easy to understand my surprise when I first heard other fly fishers talk in demeaning terms about cutthroat. “They are too easy to catch and they don’t fight,” was a constant refrain. As I grew older and began to fish other waters around the globe, I came to understand another constant—those who spoke ill of cutties actually had little experience with the trout that I love, and the archaic view of this fish has been circulating for over a century. Some had caught a couple here and there, but most had not really fished for cutthroat, and instead focused on the rainbows and browns that dominate the trout fishing scene worldwide. It’s
understandable, considering that cutthroat trout now dominate only a few drainages in their historical range.
But in my experience, none of the old-school convictions held about any trout—be it rainbows as solely nymph eaters, brown trout as the ultimate prey on streamers, or brook trout not growing to large sizes—is true across the board, and I’ve fished for trout throughout North America and in many places around the world. Variations based on subspecies, geographic locations, and particular waters exist everywhere. For no fish is this more true than the cutthroat trout.
Rather, it’s my wish to discredit the view that cutthroat trout are purely an opportunistic fish and easy to hook. The truth is, cutthroat can and do feed selectively. They can be exceedingly tough to catch. Refusals are often the norm. As outdoor writer Paul Bruun has said, “I can show you some cutthroats that are going to be pretty damn selective about what they are not going to be selective about.” These types of fish are out there and they provide a unique challenge for other cutthroat fans, but to catch them, you need to target the right kind of water and the right subspeices.
I am a big believer that stream gradient dictates all in fishing. Different gradients offer unique challenges. A high-gradient stream requires a certain type of technical approach, wherein the trout a fly fisher is targeting generally hold on a very tight and narrow current line. That current line can be on a seam, a riffle, a confluence point, in an eddy, or along banks and structure. Being off that line by even a few inches can be the difference between a hookup and a strikeout.
High-gradient streams equate to energy-depleting currents, moved faster along the surface than anything natural ever could. The same has occurred on the Bear Trap Canyon reach of the Madison River in Montana.
But cutthroat trout also reside in low-gradient streams, and many anglers associate low-gradient streams with spring creeks and spring creek–like waters. Spring creeks and low-gradient streams present their own challenges. Currents are typically substantially less than high-gradient streams, so trout of any species have a greater chance to detect imperfections in an offering, including everything from the fly to the leader to the knots. Low-gradient streams also allow fish to better see potential danger above the surface. This includes angler movements as well as the rod and the line during a cast. This is what most fly fishers think of when the term technical fishing is invoked—spooky fish, super-imitative patterns, a pictureperfect cast and presentation, and a light leader.
Spring creeks also tend to have high biomass levels with both an abundance and diversity of forage available to resident fish. That means less competition between resident trout for available food because there is a lot of it to go around, even on those creeks with large numbers of fish. All of this collectively can make low-gradient streams, and especially spring creeks, the most challenging cutthroat water an angler can fish.
Trout can simply afford to be much more selective than they can on high- or even moderate-gradient streams. Cutthroat trout love this kind of water, and they can and do feed selectively in it. On my home waters in the Jackson Hole area, streams like Flat Creek, Frustration Creek, and Black Tail Pond Creek—all tributaries of the high-gradient Snake River— are famous for fine-spotted cutthroat that feed selectively, are easy to put down, and amazingly hard to hook. These waters do not open to fishing until the first of August each year, and close on the last day of October. Because of the low gradient, fly fishers can easily see most cutties under most natural-light conditions. I have guided anglers who have spent one to two hours working to one large, 20-plus-inch cutthroat, often without success. I can remember a well-known fly fisher from the United Kingdom who had a poor opinion of Flat Creek cutthroats for the first time one year in early September. He was sure he was going to have a double-digit day. But at the end of a six-hour session, he had only two hookups, though the fish were 18-inchlong cutties, and both came only after he reduced his leader size and approached with a low rod angle as stealthily as he could.
What, When, and Where Matter
The amount of fishing pressure a stream receives is an immeasurable determinant to the challenge it presents to anglers. That is true regardless of trout species. A friend of mine fished the Pacific Coast of Russia in the mid-1990s on an exploratory expedition conducted by a fishery conservation organization. He and his group were fishing streams with rainbow populations that might never have seen an artificial fly before. They easily caught so many rainbows that members of the party began stripping the material off a few of their flies and attaching cigarette butts to the bare hooks. Amazingly, they were almost as productive as the flies they brought over with them from the United States and Europe. So much for rainbow trout being super-selective feeders.
To the contrary, the creeks in the Jackson Hole area I mentioned above exist in a valley with only about 25,000 residents. But the valley receives about three million visitors during the summer and autumn months, and a fair portion visit the area to fish, making the area’s creeks a big draw from August to October. I admit the first few days of August can offer some “relatively” easy fishing. After the first week, the fishing becomes tougher and tougher with each passing day. The pressure these cutthroat trout receive quickly tunes them in to the dangers above the surface, and selective feeding becomes the rule. Success comes by employing the same tactics used by my friend from the UK—reduce your leader size, approach with stealth, and make a picture-perfect presentation.
Many who fish the Jackson Hole area regularly note specific differences between the Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout—one of only two native trout in Wyoming’s Snake River drainage—and other cutthroat subspecies in western North America. There are obvious physical characteristics that differentiate it from Yellowstone, westslope, Colorado, or Bonneville cutthroat, primarily the spot size and distribution on the body. But another characteristic many point to is the reaction of Snake River fine-spots after the hook set. Some say the fight is superior to any other cutthroat subspecies, and in many ways matches that of rainbow or brown trout. Jackson Hole outfitter Will Dornan often highlights how Snake River cutthroat use the current against fly fishers in ways most other trout don’t.
Some also claim that Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat feeding and foraging habits are far more selective than other cutthroat. Personally, I am not entirely convinced this is the case. I have seen Yellowstone cutties feed selectively on the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park a number of times. I can say the same for the Bear River strain of Bonneville cutthroat in Idaho and Wyoming. Nonetheless, there is something special about the selective feeding behavior exhibited by Snake River cutthroat that sets them apart. I have personally witnessed cutthroat at the mouth of the Upper Bar BC Creek suspend themselves just six inches below a dry fly and follow it downstream a dozen feet or more before refusing. I have also observed triple-nymph rigs on a dead solid drift pass several feeding cutthroat and not even turn a head. With a little experience, you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.
I get a kick out of dispelling myths about various sport fish held by many of the anglers I guide and fish with throughout each year. And nothing pleases me more than watching fly fishers struggle with the concept that some cutthroat trout can do the opposite of what they’re known to do, and feed in a super-selective manner.
At the same time, there is no magic potion for catching selective fish. It’sreally a no-brainer, so long as you don’t overthink each situation.Approach these cutthroat with the same deliberate tactics you would use with any other selectively feeding trout—an unassuming profile, a flawless cast and presentation, patterns that are truly imitative of the forage resident trout feed on, and an attention to detail regarding leader size. If you have experience with the rainbows and browns that inhabit Oregon’s Metolius River, the Harriman Ranch section of the Henrys Fork in Idaho, or the streams of the northeastern states, you will feel right at home with the cutthroats that selectively feed on the creeks of Jackson Hole.
Don’t expect a dozen or more hookups. Be prepared to work to one big fish for a couple of hours. Have fun, and realize cutthroat trout can be incredibly hard to catch if you fish for them on the right water.
Boots Allen is a fly fishing guide and writer who lives with his wife and two kids in Victor, Idaho. His latest book is Finding Trout in All Conditions (Westwinds Press, 2015).