Ditching the masses for native cutthroat and bull trout.
[Story and photos by Greg Thomas]
IN THE PAST 20 YEARS, Montana’s main rivers, along with those elsewhere in the West, have become clogged with driftboats and rafts, not to mention throngs of splash-and-gigglers, who launch their pink flamingos and paper-thin plastic rafts as a seemingly organized armada bent on ruining an angler’s day.
It’s not always that way, and you can lessen the madness by fishing shoulder seasons, meaning spring and fall, when the weather gets “nipply” and many potential anglers are in the field, hunting birds, elk, antelope, and deer. But overall, no matter the season, the West is feeling a little crowded these days and I’m always looking for a way out. Lately, that relief arrives when fishing native cutthroat and bull trout.
There are several detractions to this mindset. First, you can’t carry as much beer in a backpack as you can in some goliath Orion cooler that fits nicely in the driftboat. Second, as much as I detest those splash-and-gigglers, I do live in a college town and make the best of the available scenery, especially when the fish aren’t rising. You won’t see that in the backcountry.
But to me, having grown up in a remote portion of Alaska— and after spending some of my most rewarding time in the high alpine country, where people are few and the views are grand—I still relate the most unique experiences to a sense of solitude. In other words, I don’t like sharing.
This comes at a cost. Like most of us, when I got into fly fishing, I just wanted to catch fish; at some point, that agenda switched to catching quality fish; and finally, I sought the most difficult western streams to challenge my techniques and hatchmatching abilities. The Henrys Fork and, especially, Idaho’s Silver Creek were instrumental in that process, and for a long time, a 20-plus-inch brown sipping size 20 emergers off a flat surface was the ultimate thrill.
That’s the knock against cutthroat, especially the westslope cuts finning in Montana’s and Idaho’s heavily forested rivers—they’re easy. Truth told, they’re opportunists living in a rough environment, and they must feed when the opportunity arrives; they are easy compared to those heavily fished browns and rainbows you might find on the big-name tailwaters, such as the Missouri, Madison, and Bighorn rivers, among many others. But … there’s something else.
Few would argue that seeing a fish rise to a dry fly isn’t the ultimate angling thrill. And that’s what you get with these cuts—they’ll chow all the terrestrials, plus the big attractors, such as Chubbys, Turks, Trudes, and Elk-Hairs. Sometimes they’ll demand a Baetis or a P-chute Adams, but not often, and only on waters that have easy access along their banks. Fact is, often these cuts are easier to take on drys than they are on nymphs. I usually end up taking the whole thing to an extreme: instead of fishing the easily accessed cutthroat waters, I focus on the very upper reaches of the larger rivers, and their tributaries, which are farthest away from roads and people. In my mind, I picture when and why the highly migratory cutthroat might be somewhere. It’s all a puzzle. Where are the cutthroat during late spring, when they spawn? The tributaries? The mainstem? Could a big cut be in a small tributary during summer, using it as a coldwater refuge? Would a big cutthroat stay low in a system during winter, in the big water and deep pools, because forage fish and midges abound? Is timing everything? I wonder. This hunt is no less challenging than choosing the right fly for a particular stage of the hatch, with a big brown rising beyond.
This I know: Cuts move high during summer and drop back to the mainstem sections, especially the broad lower portions of these rivers, as soon as fall really hits and air and water temperatures drop, usually sometime in mid-October. At no time are these fish unwilling to eat.
As much as I like seeing these cutthroat rise for drys, there’s something missing—I’ve always liked headhunting, and these fish average only about 12 inches long, with the largest rarely stretching past 16 or 17 inches. I can catch 30 a day on the best days, but that big-fish element that makes a day stand out for the rest of your life just isn’t there. Or maybe I just don’t know where the giants live and how to catch them.
FORTUNATELY, there’s a wild card to play. When fishing westslope cuts, anglers often encounter bull trout, sometimes first noticing them when one of those beasts shoots to the surface to take a hooked cut in its mouth. I’ve had these bulls repeatedly slam cutthroat attached to my line and even take them underwater with them, like a shark slamming a hooked tarpon. It’s quite a show, and always a shock to see, although the cutthroat might respond, You don’t know the half of it.