What is a Cutthroat Trout

“Cutthroats”
by John Gierach

Excerpted from Chapter 5 of In Praise of Wild Trout, The Lyons Press (April 1998), 112 pages, hardcover

AMONG THE HALF DOZEN or so standard questions fly fishers eventually get around to asking each other is, What’s your favorite fish? Some say your answer to that will be deeply revealing — exposing you as a covert aristocrat if it’s Atlantic salmon, a closet bubba if it’s largemouth bass, or whatever — while others just think it might be interesting, but sooner or later, in one way or another, the question comes up.

For the longest time I thought I was fickle because I hardly ever gave the same answer twice in a row; it was brook trout one time, browns the next, and maybe bluegills the time after that — whatever I’d caught most recently. But then I realized I was giving the right answer to the wrong question. The fact is, it’s fishing with a fly rod I’m stuck on, but I’ll pretty much go after anything that doesn’t have legs, and my favorite fish could be a carp if that’s what’s taking line off my reel at the moment.

Still, like a lot of fly fishers in the Rocky Mountain West, I have a real soft spot for cutthroats because they’re our only native trout. When I first started fishing for them, some people around here still called them just that, natives, and knowing only that, it was possible for me to hike miles into some pretty little alpine lake in the wilderness area, catch a few ten-inch cutts, and get downright mystical about returning to the source. On those cool, quiet summer evenings when no jets passed over on their way to the old Stapleton Airport in Denver, I could drink the few warm beers I’d packed in and have myself a borderline religious experience.

I was still fairly new to Colorado then: fresh from the Midwest, young, innocent if not plain dumb, and prone to fits of romanticism, so naturally I was disappointed when I learned that the cutthroats in those mountain lakes weren’t native in the finest sense of being the direct descendants of the ancestral fish.

But then the best guess from most of the experts was that there were no ancestral fish up there. Most of the high-altitude lakes along that stretch of the East Slope, they said, were separated from the lower waters by natural barriers and were fish­less when the West was settled. The trout in them now are the results of early, haphazard stocking — official and otherwise.

On those cool, quiet summer evenings when no jets passed over on their way to the old Stapleton Airport in Denver, I could drink the few warm beers I’d packed in and have myself a borderline religious experience.

A fisheries biologist once told me that in the old days anyone with a bucket or a milk can could get a load of fingerling trout and put them wherever he wanted to, and that the first plantings done by the Division of Wildlife itself weren’t much more scientific than that. The result on the one hand was that a lot of already depleted native cutthroat fisheries were destroyed altogether by the introduction of brown, rainbow, and brook trout. On the other hand, some thriving fisheries were established where before there had been no fish at all.

You can apply revisionist criticism to all that if you want to — asking, Why didn’t those dumb schmucks a hundred years ago know what we know now? — but the fact is, it was mostly done with a good heart and, in some cases, the kind of monumental effort you only see from people convinced they’re doing the Good Work.

For instance, many of the trout in my neighborhood wilderness area were planted by an old private club that packed fingerlings in on horseback and, now and then, on the strong backs of volunteers, for no other reason than that it pained them to see pretty mountain lakes with no fish in them. They even went to the trouble of stocking cutthroats. They were Yellowstone cutts — native to the region, though not to the state — but, given the information and the hatchery stock available at the time, that’s a pretty fine point.

If there had been cutts in those lakes a century ago, they’d have probably been greenbacks. Greenback cutthroats were thought to be extinct by the late 1930s, but then the legendary Dr. Behnke at Colorado State University located a small, pure-strain population in a little creek near here, in the high headwaters of what was once their native range, and now they’ve been introduced into a dozen or so lakes, streams, and beaver ponds in and around Rocky Mountain National Park. You can fish for them on a strict catch-and-release basis (presumably, few people now living know what a greenback tastes like) and, although they may not have existed naturally in those particular waters, they would once have been found only a few miles downslope, and that’s probably close enough for government work.

I think the first pure-strain cutthroats I knowingly caught were greenbacks, and that’s only because some people who really knew told me that’s what they were. The same fisheries guys say some of the cutts my friends and I catch in the more remote streams in the area are wild greenback-Yellowstone hybrids (the old fish crossed with the more recently introduced ones) and that in some cases they may even be “virtually pure” or “grade B” greenbacks.

To be honest, I can’t always tell the difference between a pure greenback and a closely related pure Colorado River cutthroat, or either of those from the hybrids, and, when it comes right down to it, neither can most of the fishermen I know. The different races of cutthroat do have their distinctive markings — the spots on a greenback are bigger than those on a Colorado River cutt — but the kind of ironclad identification you’d be willing to swear to is just beyond most of us.

And they say the recovery team had a lot of trouble raising them in a hatchery because, among other things, the greenbacks refused to eat commercial trout food. You’ve got to admire that.

Still, greenbacks are highly regarded around here. After all, they’re a once-thought-to-be-extinct fish that you can now go and catch, which amounts to a rare environmental miracle. Another miracle is that they were brought back by a recovery team made up of several state and federal agencies that cooperated for a long time and in the end actually accomplished something worthwhile. And they’re just a delightfully wild fish: surprisingly delicate in some ways and just as surprisingly tough in others. For instance, they’re so unused to competition that they’ll be crowded out by almost any other species of fish, which is what happened to many populations of them in the first place. But then when you look at that tiny little creek where they held out until they were rediscovered, it’s hard to imagine trout making it through a single winter there, let alone countless winters.

It’s just a little trickle flowing through an aspen and willow bog, and if it weren’t for the Division of Wildlife NO FISHING signs you wouldn’t even know it was there. But if you find a tiny pool and crawl to the lip of it on your belly, there they are: miniature, jewel-like trout with impeccable pedigrees.

And they say the recovery team had a lot of trouble raising them in a hatchery because, among other things, the greenbacks refused to eat commercial trout food. You’ve got to admire that.

So anyway, I had a little crisis of faith when I found out the first cutthroats I went to so much trouble to catch weren’t quite what I thought they were, but I got over it. I mean, it wasn’t the worst case of lost innocence I ever had, and I did come out of it with the regulation western affection for cutthroats in general, not to mention respect for the tough old birds who humped those particular fish in on their backs in the first place.

Since then I’ve caught real Yellowstone cutts in the Yellowstone River a few times. (By “real” I mean pure-strain, native fish living in their historic home water.) I’ve usually ended up doing that around Buffalo Ford in a god-awful crowd of other fishermen, but the trout were big and lovely and they had flawless bloodlines, so it was still a rush.

~ref: http://www.midcurrent.com, John Gierach, Aug 2010

John Gierach is the author of many books on fly fishing, including Trout Bum, Another Lousy Day in Paradise, Fishing Bamboo, and Sex, Death and Fly Fishing, as well as countless magazine articles and essays. This excerpt is from chapter 5 of In Praise of Wild Trout (The Lyons Press, April 1998, 112 pages), edited by Nick Lyons. Copyright © 1998 John Gierach and The Lyons Press.