October 26, 2020
We had left the pavement miles back. A dust cloud pillar followed in our wake. For once, it was quiet inside the cab of the F-150. Three days into our quest for the Utah Cutthroat Slam, we had bet it all on this one last push to get the final trout—the Yellowstone—way up in the Raft River watershed.
The tension was high. The pre-trip scouting said this stream, deep in cattle country, would pay off. But what if we had waited too long?
When I first heard about the Utah Cutthroat Slam, I looked into the future and saw myself making this trip, but what I didn’t anticipate was the level of planning that would go into it. For that I relied on my friend Jesse Riding, of Rainy’s Flies. He had accomplished the Utah Slam before and wanted to try it again.
As it turned out, we timed our trip right and everyone added a Utah Yellowstone to their cutthroat life list. A cool thing about cutthroat slams—Utah and Wyoming slams, alike—is they can be pulled off sometimes in one day by the most adventurous anglers. More commonly they are finished in three or four days of fishing, or in a season. Some anglers pick off separate subspecies over the course of a fishing lifetime. Here is what you need to know to go after two of the West’s best cutthroat quests.
Utah Native Cutthroat Slam
The Utah Cutthroat Slam comprises the Colorado, Bear River, Bonneville and Yellowstone subspecies. To qualify, the angler must register in advance with the state of Utah and then, upon completion, submit photos of each trout and list the watershed where each fish was caught. When the slam is certified, the state sends out a certificate of completion and a commemorative coin.
Our Utah cutthroat quest took us, starting at the airport in Salt Lake City, 936 total miles and three days in mid-July to complete. We held one day in reserve, in case one of the trout was hard to get. We could have based camp in one place but instead we overnighted in Park City, Brigham City and Paradise. We also built flexibility into the schedule, in case we had to spend an extra night somewhere.
We wanted to catch all of our fish from high-mountain streams. The biggest cutthroat of the trip was the first fish, a Colorado cutthroat. After we all caught and released Colorados, we began to prospect the creek and found a huge pod of up-running cutthroats that ranged in size from 15 to 20 inches. There were maybe 200 fish in one long pool, but that didn’t make them easy to catch.
We caught our first Bonneville cutthroat that evening on a pleasant little creek. After a shore lunch, we got back in the water and fished the same stretch of river over again.
The Bear Rivers and the Bonnevilles were most numerous, while the Colorados and Yellowstone cutts were bigger on average and most satisfying.
The simple act of planning and committing to the quest is sure to improve an angler’s skills. To catch fish fast requires observation of the trout foods in play, fly selection, presentation and creek-side stealth. It pays to bring two rods, both strung and ready for action, to adapt to obstacles and challenges such as willow-choked creeks or when a delicate presentation is required in skinny water.
A dry-and-dropper rig was the best play in the small mountain rivers. To run deep, I used a Hot Spot Pheasant Tail on a fluorocarbon strand beneath a bushy dry fly.
Other fish we caught included rainbows, brook trout, grayling, mountain whitefish and a cutt-bow in a braided-out section of a tiny tailwater.
With an early start on that first day, we could have notched three of the four subspecies, but we opted for two instead, getting the third, the Bear River, on the next day. To finish out day two, we caught Colorados again. On day three we punched north for the Yellowstone.
Along the way we saw parts of Utah that the average person would never see without a fly rod in hand. And more than once we had to wait for cattle to clear the trail before we could proceed. Here’s where to look for each of the Utah cutthroats.
Native to streams that flow into the Green and the Colorado rivers, the Colorado subspecies tends to be gold and crimson with dark spots like peppercorns sprinkled along its back. The Utah Department of Wildlife Resources lists 36 creeks and rivers where an angler has a good chance to coax a Colorado cutt.
Bear River Cutthroat
Native to the Bear River and its tributaries, the Bear River cutthroat is separate from the Bonneville trout because of a historic stream capture of the Bear River from the Snake River to the Bonneville Basin. An interesting twist Slam dictates that a cutthroat from the Weber River can count toward either the Bear River or Bonneville subspecies, but a person has to leave the drainage to get the other one.
Utah’s state fish, the Bonneville cutthroat, was once thought to be extinct or genetically compromised in all of its native range. But that was decades ago. Today, Bonneville cutts, what Utahns call “Bonnies,” are back. The state lists more than 40 streams, lakes and reservoirs where Bonnies may be caught by a fly fisherman.
Utah’s Yellowstone cutthroat are survivors. Located in the upper northwest corner of the state, the Raft River drainage is the only watershed with Yellowstone cutthroats. Best bets include Johnson Creek, Onemile Creek/Sawmill Canyon and Wildcat Creek.
Wyoming Cutthroat Slam
The Wyoming Cutt-Slam sends the angler in pursuit of four cutthroat trout from four distinct watersheds. These are the Snake River, Yellowstone, Bear River and Colorado River cutthroat varieties. There is a fifth cutthroat, the Westslope, but this trout is not part of the Cutt-Slam.
To qualify, the angler must catch each subspecies in its native range in Wyoming, complete the Cutt-Slam application and submit a photo of each fish. The Wyoming chapter of Trout Unlimited provides a Wyoming Cutt-Slam medallion, and the state provides a certificate of achievement.
To help locate cutthroat waters, an interactive guide is available at wgfd.wyo.gov. Wyoming’s fisheries biologists can also offer recommendations on waters in their areas.
Snake River Cutthroat
With numerous smaller dark black spots on its body, the Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat is easy to identify. Its home waters center around Jackson Hole and include the Hoback, Salt, Greys, Gros Ventre and Snake rivers.
Olive green to brown on their backs and yellowish brown to silver on their flanks, Yellowstone cutthroat tend to have few if any spots close to the head and heavier spotting toward the tail. Look to the northwest corner of the state and waters such as the Upper Yellowstone, Clarks Fork, Upper Wind, Little Tongue and Little Bighorn rivers.
Bear River (Bonneville) Cutthroat
Head to southwest Wyoming for the Bonneville cutthroat, which inhabit the Bear River drainage and the Smith and Thomas forks of the Bear River. Bonnies (aka Bear River cutts) boast a pattern of uniform dark black spots with less spotting near the tail.
Thought to be the most challenging of the Wyoming subspecies, the Colorado cutthroat is found in less than 20 percent of its historic range. Colorados are found in the Little Snake River drainage, the north slope of the Uintas and in the upper Green River drainage.
A Conservation Success Story
The original purpose of the Wyoming Cutt-Slam, as conceived by fisheries biologist Ron Remmick, was to encourage anglers to learn about Wyoming’s cutthroat trout. Since 1996, thousands of anglers have completed their quest, and in the pursuit have been a part of the successful conservation effort of the trout and the watersheds they come from.
You can adjust the challenge of these slams by setting for yourself more stringent “rules.” For example, you might decide that each fish has to be caught on a dry fly. Or all caught on the same fly. Or that each trout must measure a minimum number of inches. Or they have to come from headwater creeks. It’s your quest—get creative. After all, life is nothing without a quest.
These maintain websites where you can register your cutthroat slam efforts and learn more about cutthroat waters. For the Wyoming slam, go to wgfd.wyo.gov/Fishing-and-Boating/Cutt-Slam. For the Utah slam, go to utahcutthroatslam.org.
Tying J’s Purple Nurple
This dry fly, created by Jess Riding, is reminiscent of many flies in the “purple nurple” category and is designed for Utah’s high-mountain streams.
Tie this pattern on a No. 12–16 dry fly hook. For the tail, use grizzly hackle. For the tag, use fluorescent red (pink) Danville Flymaster. Build the body with purple Uni Thread and rib with the fluorescent red. Tie in a white foam indicator post and then apply a thin coat of polish to the top of the body and allow to dry. Apply pink paint to the top of the foam post. Finish with a natural grizzly parachute-style hackle.
The Deadly Dozen
Here are twelve proven cutthroat flies for September:
1. J’s Purple Nurple
2. Black Crossland’s Quadruple Double Ugly
3. Tan Elk Hair Caddis (pictured above)
4. Cinnamon Mason’s Wingman
5. Nick’s Hi-Viz Beetle
6. Tan Grand Hopper
7. BH Flashback Pheasant Tail Nymph
8. Mason’s Peep Show (dark colors, especially)
9. Loren’s Hot Intestinal Bug
10. Rainbow Allison’s Flasher
11. Olive CH Bunny Muddler
12. Autumn Offender