How to Fish For the Cutthroat Trout Slam


The cuts left a mark. Twelve years now and the memories of that trout have remained strong and bright. I remember how the fish rose to my Elk Hair Caddis in the shallow Arkansas riffle. I remember how my guide, Don, knowing what kind of trout it was before I did and knowing how badly I wanted to catch that kind, said something like, “Well, look what you got there.” I remember how I cradled the small fish, gently turning it over to stare at its throat. Identical and orange as fire, the slashes measured about an inch. The fish burst from my hand on the release, leaving me both thrilled by the catch and obsessed with getting my second cutthroat trout.

A year passed before that next fish was caught. My third hammered a Woolly Bugger three months later. Then nine years escaped before I again cast into water with these memorable fish.

Snake River Cutthroats in the Tribs

This road trip started like the best ones usually do: with a friendship and a wouldn’t-it-be-wild-if-we-did-this idea. I’d met Steven Brutger the previous summer on a trip to Wyoming, where he lives and works for Trout Unlimited. I joined other outdoor writers for three days of fishing and learning about TU’s conservation efforts in the area. One of Brutger’s pet projects involved Trout Creek, a mountain stream choked with Colorado River cutthroats. For a few hours one afternoon, we had Trout Creek to ourselves, and I caught cutthroat after cutthroat—a fish I’d missed very much. Before I left for home, I thanked Brutger for taking us to Trout Creek. “That was the best day of fishing in my life,” I said.

Brutger and I stayed in touch, and later that winter he shot me an idea: “Come back next summer,” he proposed. “You and I will go for the Wyoming Cutt Slam, catching all four of the state’s native subspecies. It’ll be a blast.”

I wasted little time with my reply: “I’m there.” In late July, I landed in Jackson, tossed my gear in the back of Brutger’s gray Dodge, and rode shotgun as we pushed north toward cutthroat country.

Cutthroat trout are a diverse bunch. According to Robert J. Behnke, author of Trout and Salmon of North America, there are 13 kinds of cutthroats: the four divergent subspecies—coastal, westslope, Lahontan, and Yellowstone—and nine minor subspecies that all derived from Lahontan and Yellowstone cutthroats. Catching every species that swims is a nice life goal to shoot for, but I’d be happy if I could go home from this trip with the four required to complete the Wyoming slam: a Snake River, a Yellowstone, a Bonneville, and a Colorado River cutthroat.

Massive snowfall from winter had melted into huge runoff. The rivers, high and muddy, would stampede downstream through summer. Guides would suffer lost seasons. If Brutger and I were going to slam, we’d have to do it in the smaller tribs that cutthroats invade to spawn—starting with Spread Creek in the Gros Ventre Range.

Cicada whirs throbbed in the late-afternoon air as we rigged up. I wet-waded into the stream with a 4-weight that struggled against the wind, and my first cast ended in a mess. As I untangled my line, Brutger entered upstream, cast to the far bank, and stuck a trout on his first drift. He released the fish and asked what I was using. “A Parachute Adams,” I said. “Try one of these.” He opened his fly box to give me an extra of the pattern—a foam cicada. I’d heard the insects as we were getting ready; Brutger had listened. We threw a few more casts, then moved upstream.

Ten miles downstream, Wyoming TU had recently accomplished a major goal: the removal of a 20-foot-tall concrete dam. The thing hadn’t been used for irrigation in years, Brutger told me. It was just sitting there. The demolition effort reconnected the Snake River to Spread Creek, opening 50 miles of spawning habitat for cutts. I liked to imagine that the trout we were chasing had traveled into these waters for the first time.

A fisherman holds a Snake River cutthroat
A Snake River cutthroat trout couldn’t resist a hopper. Colin Kearns

I fired the cicada upstream, letting it drift back along a rock wall. A trout came up to eat it, but I set the hook too early and missed. I put the fly in the same spot, and the same fish surfaced, and I had it…until it came off.

Determined, I cast again. The fish rose again. And I set the hook again—this time for keeps. The trout was about 14 inches. Small black spots freckled its yellow body. Pink shined on its cheeks, and the cuts flared. Brutger documented the catch with a photo, and we shook hands.

After that fish we started to figure things out. With the current charging faster than usual, we hunted for the slower pockets where the fish seemed to be holding. We dropped dries in still pools, and fish rose. We drifted flies along willow banks, and fish rose. We landed hoppers in white-foam seams, and fish rose. Every other cast seemed to end with a rising fish, and every fish was a cutthroat. I fell in love with the trout all over again.

Brutger and I returned to his pickup around 7 p.m. and toasted the day with cold cans of beer. One down, three to go. When I tried to give back the cicada, he told me to keep it. I was about to store the bug in my box but decided instead to stick it on my hat, where I retire memorable flies.

The Lake (Trout) Effect

The first thing I learned inside Yellowstone National Park was how to euthanize a lake trout. The ranger who sold me my license provided blunt instructions: First, puncture the air bladder. Second, drop the carcass to the deepest part of the lake. It was a fitting welcome. Before Brutger and I would fish for our next cutthroat, he’d arranged for us to have coffee with a TU volunteer who could explain better than anyone the plight of the Yellowstone cutthroat and why those other trout needed to die.

Dave Sweet first visited the park on a fishing pilgrimage in 1972. When he caught his first Yellowstone cutthroat, he thought, God, what a gorgeous fish. And that was enough to keep him coming back from Colorado every year until 1988, when he moved to Wyoming. A retired chemist turned guest ranch owner, Sweet has been fighting for the Yellowstone cutthroat full-time for the last five years. And as soon as the three of us settled down into big wooden chairs on the Lake Lodge patio, Sweet dove into his campaign.

He told me about the lake in its heyday when it held 4 million Yellowstone cutthroats and how the fish was the keystone species in the ecosystem, feeding 42 other animals. He told me about the day—July 30, 1994—when the first documented lake trout was discovered in Yellowstone Lake, and about the days, months, and years that followed when the lake trout proliferated and decimated the cutthroat population to approximately 200,000 fish. He told me about the lake, today and the reinvigorated fight to save the cutthroats.

The plan to combat the lake trout is twofold. Part one is intensive gillnetting. From the spring thaw until the fall freeze, four boats cruise the lake. In 2010, they killed 147,000 fish, and they’d finish 2011 with 220,000 dead in the nets. Part two—and what gets Sweet really excited—is a new telemetry study. Last August, 141 adult lake trout were implanted with hydro-acoustic tags, and 159 more will likely be tagged this summer. The study will last three years and once the data is sorted and analyzed, researchers will be able to track where the lake trout travel, which will concentrate the gillnetting grounds. More important, they’ll learn where the trout spawn. Because lakers spawn in massive swarms, the gillnetters can come in and make easy targets of the adults, as well as the fry and eggs. “Right now we are in the best position to solve this problem than we ever have been,” Sweet said.

Brutger and I said good-bye to Sweet and drove north from the lake to where we hoped to catch a Yellowstone cutthroat: Tower Creek. The section we fished was about 100 yards long. Upstream, pocket water swirled around half-­submerged boulders and dead timber. Midway down, the creek water calmed and carried over a gravel bottom until it deposited into the Yellowstone River.

I climbed a boulder and studied the water. There’d be no long, mended drift here. The water was moving too fast in too many directions. Twenty feet ahead, a rock wall rose from the creek, and along its edge the water was fairly still. I’d try to land the fly at the wall and hope it floated long enough to draw a strike before current swept it away. My first cast bounced the foam hopper off the wall and into the water. In seconds it was gone.

My first Yellowstone cutthroat wasn’t as long as my first Snake River cutthroat, but it was stronger and fatter—and, if I’m being honest, prettier. As Brutger got the camera ready, I kept the fish in the cool water. Even there the slashes burned bright. I could see how a fish like this could keep you coming back to Yellowstone. I could see why you’d want to fight for such a trout.

I released the fish, and on my next cast caught my second. Brutger was fighting his own. Today was off to a fast start. A half hour later bugs started fluttering over the water. They were big, black and orange. I looked at Brutger. “Salmonflies,” he said. Today was going to be epic.

The cutts couldn’t resist the giant dry fly. At one point Brutger and I formed something of an assembly line: One of us would hook a fish and walk downstream to release it, while the other stepped in behind to cast, catch, and move downstream. We must’ve caught 100 fish—including a stunning 16 1/2-incher for Brutger that drew cheers from passing tourists.

Hours later we hiked back to the truck where I caved to superstition. Two down, two to go.

A Bear to Catch

On day three, the quest seemed ready to come slamming down on us. We drove south to the Little Salt River, a tributary of the Bear River. We planned to get our Bon­ne­ville cutthroat here, and given the way the trip had been going, we expected to catch a couple right away. It’s funny how fishing can surprise you.

Spot after spot skunked us. Pockets that looked as though they should’ve held fish didn’t. Patterns that had worked for us the past two days went ignored. All we could do was continue upstream.

Eventually, more than an hour after we started, I hooked up. But the trout was so small—5 inches, tops-—that I refused to let Brutger photograph it. “I’ll catch something bigger,” I said. By bigger I meant better, as if this fish didn’t deserve to count toward the slam. The last two days had spoiled me. Here I was: pissy because I wasn’t catching trout on every cast and cocky because I believed I’d catch the biggest Bonne­ville in the stream. This was not the kind of memory I’d wished to bring home.

I did catch another, and it was bigger, but I can’t say that it brightened my mood. The fish measured about 9 inches. Compared with those on the other trout I’d caught, these cuts merely flickered. Had the slashes on the first trout been any brighter? I’d never bothered to look.

That evening we drove high into the Tri-Basin Divide of the Wyoming Range and turned down a spur road that carried us into a meadow where a bull moose was grazing. If the spot was good enough for him, it was good enough for us. Brutger cooked dinner, and we put the Little Salt behind us. Later, we relaxed in our camp chairs. We stared down the darkening meadow where we’d seen three more moose and heard a trumpeting sandhill crane.

“I feel better when I look at this,” Brutger said.

Mission Accomplished

Brutger and I were on the road by 8:20 a.m. Earlier, as I was eating breakfast, I worked to think of a way in which the slam wasn’t already over—because technically it ended with yesterday’s Bonneville. Nothing in the Wyoming Cutt Slam rulebook says you must catch all four fish in four days, or even four years. You just have to catch and document them. And counting the Colorado River cutts I’d landed on Trout Creek last summer, I’d accomplished that. But I wanted to keep going with a goal, and I justified that desire with a simple truth: I came here to catch the slam, not to finish it.

Three down, one to go.

Had we been pressed for time from the outset, the Tri-Basin Divide would’ve been the place to start. Headwaters of three of the four slam systems flowed here. We could’ve hunted a Snake in the Grays Valley, raced to the Smiths Fork for a Bonnie, and ended with a Colorado in LaBarge Creek. With some luck, all we’d have needed after one day would have been a Yellowstone.

I can’t imagine enjoying that strategy. The best parts of the trip had been experiencing the waters—taking breaks to admire the country or just to laugh at the dumb luck that brought me here. I wish I’d done more of that on the Little Salt. Before last summer, I’d caught only three cutts in my life, and cherished each more than any other trout I’d been fortunate enough to hold. But since last summer—starting on Trout Creek, and now on Spread and Tower Creeks—more than 100 cutthroats had risen to my fly. So when I arrived at the Little Salt, that fish-on-every-cast bite is what I’d selfishly come to expect. That’s what cutthroat fishing had become to me: Numbers mattered over memories. I wouldn’t make that mistake today. Today would be about catching one fish.

We pulled to the side of the road in country that displayed the other effect of so much snowmelt—one more pleasing than the muddy rivers. Surrounded by mountains, the meadow rolled wild in purple, red, and gold with the lupine, Indian paintbrush, and arrowleaf balsamroot thriving past their seasons. We geared up and approached LaBarge Creek. “If we get anything on the line,” Brutger said, “let’s document it.”

An hour later we climbed back into the truck. The creek was frigid and empty of trout. Brutger thought the fish might’ve moved to warmer water and suggested we do the same. We drove farther downstream, but the bite there was just as cold. Brutger began to wonder if we should try an entirely different spot. Buddies of his had recently caught some big Colorado cutts in Irish Canyon. That would’ve meant a 100-mile drive west, but we still had plenty of time left in the day.

Just as I was settling in for a long ride, Brutger stopped at a small wooden road sign: LITTLE CLEAR CREEK. “Let’s give this a look,” he said. We walked toward the creek and saw where a corrugated culvert ran beneath the dirt road. We peeked over the bank and there in the shallows, just downstream of the culvert, were trout. I ran back to the truck for my rod. Brutger and I stayed low as we stalked toward the fish. Once we were close enough, I dropped a Parachute Adams onto the surface. A trout rose. “Slam-a-lama-ding-dong!” Brutger shouted.

I lifted the rod tip and guided the cutthroat into my free hand. The fish was 7 inches. Its belly was faint pink, and the cuts looked as if they could smolder for years. I released my trout and gave the rod to Brutger. He hooked a fish on his first cast, too. Now the slam was complete.

“What do you say we go after some bigger fish in Irish Canyon?” he said.

“Let’s do it.”

At the truck, after I broke down my rod, I pinned the fly to my hat and glanced at my watch. As Brutger and I drove through the range, cranking Led Zeppelin and reliving the slam, I remembered something Dave Sweet had said at Lake Lodge. “Cutthroats are an unbelievable fish,” he said. “The whole family is phenomenal. And it’s the native fish. They were here before man. There were no rainbows. There were no brook trout. There were no brown trout. But cutthroats were here.”

I took to the idea of a native fish. I found it comforting—to imagine the cutthroat trout in these waters, then and now, leaving its mark.

This story was first published in June 2012.

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