DILLINGHAM’S DRIFT - Crazy for Cutthroats

DILLINGHAM’S DRIFT - Crazy for Cutthroats

I may not know you personally, but if you're a fly fisher I at least know something about you. You are head-over-heels in love with cutthroat trout…and so am I. While some anglers regard golden trout as the handsomest of trouts, they’ve likely never beheld a Lamborghini-red Colorado River cutthroat buck adorned in spawning colors. They’re simply an avalanche of beauty. Of course, a cutthroat trout’s most infamous feature is the colorful throat slash on either side of the lower jaw, which gives these trout their twisted name. Or to describe the matter a bit more darkly, as troubled 1960s poet and novelist Richard Brautigan did in his essay The Hunchback Trout, when he said, "Under their throats they fly the orange banner of Jack the Ripper."

     Before the term “cutthroat trout” was coined in 1884, these fish were known by several names including red-throat trout, Clark's trout, Rocky Mountain trout, black-spot trout, speckled trout, or simply native trout. Four different subspecies of cutthroat trout, Colorado River, Rio Grande, greenback, and yellowfin cutthroats were originally found in Centennial State fly waters. Yellowfin cutts, which were only found in Twin Lake between Buena Vista and Leadville, are now extinct. Colorado River cutthroat trout inhabit the western slope of Colorado, and along with greenbacks are regarded as the most heavenly-hued subspecies of cutthroat trout. Colorado’s three existing types of cutthroat trout generally can’t be differentiated by outward appearance alone.

      In his enlightening book, Many Rivers to Cross, acclaimed angling author M.R. Montgomery mused, "If the fishing is hard, its not the real West." Simply put, the fly fishing is generally pretty easy in cutthroat country. This is certainly true in moving waters, but cutts can be frustratingly finicky in still waters. Casting to cutts in flowing headwater streams scattered throughout the hinterlands of the high country rewards anglers with the mesmerizing grace of free-spirited cutthroats greedily rising to an attractor dry fly. Stalking visible cutthroats on high alpine lakes is similar to saltwater flats fishing and casting streamers to cruising high lake cutts is a reasonable stand-in for chasing bonefish. It provides the same intoxicating elation as a fish alters course, homes in on its newly acquired target like a piscine submarine, and opens its jaws to maul it. And it risks the same soul-crushing defeat of a heartbreaking last second refusal.

     Cutthroat trout finning in headwater streams are gullible for attractor flies — a stimulator, Royal Wulff, H&L Variant, Irresistible, or Renegade — a murderers' row of familiar fly box fodder. However, solving the cutthroat conundrum on high lakes can oftentimes be much more puzzling than you'd expect, especially considering the object of your affection possesses a pea-sized brain and an IQ of eight. Slow-stripping a tandem of beadhead nymphs is always a high-odds proposition, while floating nymphs under an indicator can also be productive, especially when wind bullies some chop into the water. But perhaps the best catnip for cutthroats I've ever found is a #14 brown or black Mayer's Mini Leech. Casting Mayer's masterpiece to cutts can be so effective it probably should be criminal. Truth be told, while cutts in flowing water will embarrass you with their naivety, their still water counterparts can be so uncooperative and tight-lipped that trying to force-feed them faux flies can be an effort in futility.

     While Colorado River cutthroat trout have been reduced to 14% of their historical range, quality angling for cutts can still be found if you know where to look. Cutthroats still thrive in western slope streams such as the upper Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, upper Cochetopa Creek, Fall Creek, and the various forks of Cimarron Creek. The high alpine lakes of the Fossil Ridge Wilderness — Upper and Lower Lamphier, Crystal, and Mill Lakes —host big, bold, and beautiful Colorado cutts. With the Centennial State’s population expected to burgeon to 8 million potential anglers by 2040, remote cutthroat waters are more valuable than ever. This begs the question, “Will Colorado’s backcountry be the next resource to be assaulted by the masses?” I certainly don’t believe so. Homo sapiens are a slothful species and reliably eschew vigorous hikes into the backcountry for the promise of easier and potentially larger trout in famous rivers near the road. I, for one, won’t make the same mistake as the rest of the race.


Doug Dillingham is the author of “Fly Fishing the Gunnison Country” which is available in store and online at Montrose Anglers and at www.gunnisonflyfish.com.