By Tori J. McCormick
Doing a deep dive on cutthroat trout – a fish native to the American West – is to unearth some compelling historical nuggets that likely only a historian with a yen for the piscatorial arts (fishing) could fully appreciate.
The cutthroat trout will never be misconstrued as America’s founding fish (that designation, at least to some, goes to the American shad, which helped feed George Washington’s troops in 1778 at Valley Forge), but it does have a noteworthy history. That’s one explanation why anglers have been known to travel great distances to fish for them.
Consider the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which began in 1803. The expedition team lived off of the spoils of the wild, untrammeled landscape as they journeyed west by way of the Missouri River. They ate bison, antelope, deer, elk, bear, and also fish. That included an unknown species that would later be named the cutthroat trout, which were caught with horse-hair line and hooks for recreation as well as for food.
“Cutthroats have a compelling history, which endears them, I think, to a certain segment of anglers,” said cutthroat lover Jeff Erickson, 65, of Helena, who moved to Montana from Golden Valley, Minn., in the early 1990s and hasn’t looked back.
Cutthroat trout, like rainbow trout, are freshwater fish from the family Salmonidae. While they inhabit clear, cold streams in their native range throughout western North America, cutthroats have become a popular and sought-after sportfish from Wyoming to Oregon and several states in between.
They’re so popular, in fact, that cutthroats have been stocked as part of federal water projects in the American southeast, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Cutthroats once were the most common fish – let alone trout – species in Rocky Mountain and Pacific Coast rivers. Due to geologic shifts, many cutthroats became isolated and evolved into different lineages – native lineages that have been lost in some states due to non-native trout stocking.
A certifiable trout bum, Erickson grew up fishing Minnesota’s varied trout waters, from the freestone rivers of the North Shore to the spring creeks of the Driftless Area.
“It was mind-blowing for me when I first got here, fishing the Missouri River,” said Erickson, describing what it’s like to catch large trout on small flies – a common occurrence for years along the river’s tailwater section.
Erickson eventually learned about, and became smitten with, cutthroat trout. He’s more or less been on safari chasing the aesthetically striking fish, of which there are as many as 14 subspecies, ever since. He’s traveled the American West far and wide, to Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. “I love exploring new country for cutthroats,” Erickson said. “One of the things I marvel at is how beautiful cutthroats are in general, but how subtly different they are within their subspecies. Some are drop-dead beautiful.”
Erickson said a major attraction to taking a cutthroat-fishing trip is that they’re found in beautiful, and often über-remote, places. “They often live at higher elevations that are incredibly scenic and secluded,” Erickson said. “They are a good excuse for taking a road trip. They live on public lands like national forests – and there’s a lot of public land in the West.”
And if you’re a backpacker and camper, all the better. “There’s a natural marriage between fishing cutthroats and wilderness camping,” he said. “That said, you don’t need to backpack to find cutthroats. There are plenty of streams that are accessible by road.”
One of the most iconic, easy-to-access destinations, Erickson said, is Yellowstone National Park. Fishing pressure can be heavy. Take the Buffalo Ford section of Yellowstone. According to the Wild Trust Foundation, cutthroat trout have been caught and released an average of 9.7 times each.
“It’s crowded there, but you can always find a spot to fish, especially if you’re willing to hike in,” he said. “There’s camping there, too. And the wildlife viewing can be spectacular. It’s like visiting Serengeti.”
For fly fishers, cutthroats aren’t exactly the Rhodes scholars of the fishing world. In general, cutthroat trout like to ambush their prey, including on the water’s surface. They often lie in wait under or behind any structure (logs, log jams, rocks, etc.) or beneath a cut bank.
“They’re generally not that smart and pretty easy to catch,” Erickson said, although that can change from watershed to watershed and on prevailing stream conditions. “In summer, they eat big terrestrials, so you can fish with bigger attractor patterns, which is really fun. They’re just very opportunistic fish.”
If you’re planning a trip to cutthroat country, pick a state and/or watershed and start doing some research. State agencies have more and better online resources every day, including interactive maps and other resources. Fly shops are hubs of quality information, especially as it concerns where to fish, insect hatches, and flies to use. A day of guided fishing is also another wise option. To learn more about the various subspecies of cutthroat trout, Erickson said Robert Behnke’s book, “Trout and Salmon of North America,” is must reading.
“It’s sort of the bible for learning about cutthroats,” he said.
Many watersheds are catch-and-release-only fisheries, although some allow for fish harvest. Cutthroats, in general, are considered, like other trout species, fine table fare. “I haven’t taken many, but when I have, I’ve enjoyed them,” Erickson said of eating cutthroats.