When Europeans arrived in the West there was only one trout, the cutthroat — more correctly, many subspecies of cutthroat trout.
Derived from a base species, these trout eventually became split into geographically isolated habitats during the last Ice Age and evolved into unique subspecies showing distinctive physical traits and coloration, but all wearing distinctive, bright namesake slashes beneath each gull plate.
The several cutthroat subspecies eventually received individual names, and anglers, like bird watchers, began to collect life lists of the species they had caught.
IDAHO: WESTSLOPE CUTTHROAT
The Westslope cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii lewisi) is the most geographically widespread of the inland cutthroats, native to streams and lakes in the upper Columbia River basin (Idaho and Montana), Methow River and Lake Chelan drainages (Washington), John Day River drainage (Oregon), headwaters of the South Saskatchewan River (Montana), and the upper Missouri River basin (Montana and Wyoming). They have also fared better than most cutthroat subspecies, occupying 33,500 miles, or 59 percent, of historical habitat.
Westslopes wear small spots situated toward the tail, with no spots on their pectoral fins, and are generally more silvery-green in color than other cutthroat species. Average fish measure 12 to 14 inches with exceptional specimens rarely exceeding 19 inches.
Of the many Idaho Westslope fisheries, the Lochsa River between Lolo Pass, Montana, and Lowell, Idaho (where it is joined by the Selway River, another fine Westslope water), offers consistent fishing success on Westslope cutts. Action starts in mid-April on lower stretches, fly-fishing with standard nymphs drfted below strike indicators while keeping an eye peeled for rising fish on warmer days. These fish are feeding on March Brown mayflies or caddisflies, with Pale Evening Dun mayflies appearing just before runoff in early June. Stripping streamers can also provide action early. U.S. Highway 12 provides access to more than 75 miles of river.
WYOMING: SNAKE RIVER FINE-SPOTTED CUTTHROAT
The Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarkia behnkei) is native to the Snake River drainage between Jackson Lake and Palisades Reservoir, Wyoming. Like Westslopes, Snake River cutts are doing well, remaining the dominant trout throughout their native range. Snake River cutts don’t readily hybridize with rainbow trout and are more resistant to whirling disease than other trout subspecies.
Snake River cutts are distinguished by smaller spots than other trout, often described as pepper generously sprinkled across the body. The lower fins are generally deeper red or orange than Yellowstone cutthroats, with brownish-yellow, greenish-bronze or even silvery coloration common to both. Gill plates are generally orange-pink. Twenty-inch, 3-pound fish aren’t uncommon.
The Snake River inside Grand Teton National Park near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, remains the go-to hotspot. This is some of the most scenic trout water in North America and holds large numbers of these natives, protected by catch-and-release regulations. Spring dates present some of the river’s most underrated fishing. Before the early May runoff, the river sees fewer visitors, though trout can be caught fly-fishing with streamers while keeping an eye peeled for Blue-Winged Olive mayflies (overcast days) or Skwala stoneflies. After runoff (usually first week of July), Pale Morning Dun mayflies and Green Drake mayflies become the main event, although fishing crowds also increase.
MONTANA: YELLOWSTONE CUTTHROAT
The Yellowstone cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarki bouvieri) is identified by its golden coloration and larger spots concentrated on the tail and its gill plates turning bright red during spring and early summer. This cutthroat is native to Yellowstone River drainages of southwest and south-central Montana. Today, pure populations are found in headwater streams and Yellowstone National Park.
Pure Yellowstone cutthroats from Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Big Timber Hatchery are stocked extensively in mountain lakes on the east slope of the Rocky Mountains and in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, some growing to 15 pounds.
Yellowstone National Park remains the most productive place to fish for Yellowstone cutthroats, with the Lamar River, Slough Creek and Yellowstone River obvious hotspots. Park fishing opens around the last weekend in May, when fishing can prove slow but still worthwhile. The best fly-fishing occurs around mid-July through September, with hatches of PMDs and drakes (green, grey and tan); terrestrial patterns becoming productive later.
NEVADA: LAHONTON CUTTHROAT
The Lahontan (Oncorhynchus clarki henshawi) is the largest cutthroat species and currently found in a handful of lakes and streams within and outside its historic range. Dark-olive backs and reddish to yellowish sides generally characterize Lahontons found in streams, while the sides of lake-dwelling fish are generally more silvery. The largest recorded Lahontan trout weighed 41 pounds.
Lahontons are native to the Lahontan basin of northern Nevada, northeast California, and southeast Oregon and are found in large terminal alkaline lakes, alpine lakes, slow meandering rivers, mountain rivers and small headwater tributary streams.
Listed as an endangered species in 1970, Lahontons were reclassified as “threatened” in 1975, which allowed sport fishing. Nevada is best known for Lahontan cutthroats, particularly the Truckee River, Pyramid and Walker lakes, all of which include special regulations.
Of these, Pyramid Lake remains most popular, due to the higher incidence of trophy fish. This is where you’ll see anglers posted atop stepladders to reach deep water and cheat insistent winds. March and April are prime months for fly-fishing, using a sinking line or shooting head and stripping black or purple wooly buggers or leeches. You’ll need a tribal fishing permit and barbless hooks, and no bait is permitted.
NEW MEXICO: RIO GRANDE CUTTHROAT
Historically, Rio Grande cutthroats (Oncorhynchus clarkii virginalis) occupied all cool tributaries of the Rio Grande River, including the Chama, Jemez and Rio San Jose rivers drainages, plus suitable waters of the Pecos and Canadian rivers drainages. Today they’ve been reduced to about 100 headwater streams in 10 percent of their historic range.
They are distinguished by yellowish to green-gray bodies with scattered black spots and densely spotted tails. Adults are normally 12 to 13 inches long. Their high-country habitats make them opportunistic feeders, living largely on aquatic and terrestrial insects. If you want to add a Rio Grande cutt to your life’s list, you should visit the Valle Vidal Area of northern New Mexico, namely Costilla and Comanche creeks. Not far away in the Taos area, the Rio Chiquito River holds a nearly pure population of Rios, while farther south in the Jemez Mountains, the Rio de las Vacas and Rio Rito Peñas (a Rio de las Vacas headwater) rivers and Peralta Creek are worth investigating.
UTAH: BONNEVILLE CUTTHROAT
Bonneville cutthroats (Oncorhynchus clarki Utah) were historically found in the Bonneville Basin within portions of Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada. For many years, scientists believed pure strains of Bonneville cutthroat were extinct, but in the 1970s remnant populations were discovered in Utah and recovery became priority. Following aggressive recovery efforts, there are now no fewer than 202 Bonneville populations occupying more than 2,728 miles of streams in 21 watersheds in Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming, preventing the subspecies from being listed under the Endangered Species Act of 1968.
The Bonneville cutthroat’s coloration is less vivid than other cutthroats, and it wears large, evenly distributed spots. Utah offers many places to catch Bonneville cutthroats, usually in catch-and-release waters where trophy-sized fish are more common. Some popular hotspots include the Weber, Provo, Jordan, Spanish Fork and Sevier rivers. A great source of information on exactly where to go can be found at utahcutthroatslam.org.
COLORADO: COLORADO RIVER CUTTHROAT
Colorado River cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarki pleuriticus) historically occupied cool-water habitats of the Colorado and Green rivers watersheds in Colorado, southern Wyoming, eastern Utah, extreme northwest New Mexico and northeast Arizona. They’ve been reduced to about 16 percent of their historic range, most now found in small headwater streams. Many label the Colorado River cutt as one of the most spectacular cutthroats and one of the most beautiful fish in North America.
Historical accounts describe Colorado River cutts weighing up to 7 pounds, inhabiting the larger rivers of the Upper Colorado River system, but most of these populations were lost to the usual suspects. What remains are isolated resident populations found in high-country streams, many above 8,000 feet sea level. Low water temperatures at altitude can push spawning back as late as July. Geographically isolated waters mean Colorado River cutthroats vary widely in coloration and spotting, lake fish often differing from stream fish, for example.
High-country habitats make Colorado River cutts opportunistic feeders willing to take any reasonable offering. These habitats also mean their growing season is short, making a 12-inch trout a trophy, though in lower-lying rivers and lakes, they often grow to several pounds. Relatively limited aquatic life in high-country waters makes fly-fishing with terrestrial patterns most productive, especially ants, beetles and small hoppers, with caddisfly patterns always worthwhile.
One of Colorado’s most productive hotspots is 320-acre, 180-foot-deep Trapper’s Lake, located in northwest Colorado’s Flat Tops Wilderness. Fishing is excellent in the lake itself, commonly producing 12- to 15-inch, with a few up to 18 inches landed. A 5- to 6-weight rod is recommended for fly-fishing here due to incessant winds. Scuds, various mayflies and midges, and caddisflies are common bugs and fly patterns here. Backpackers can also explore surrounding creeks to enjoy more solitude.
COLORADO: GREENBACK CUTTHROAT
Found on the opposite flank of the Rocky Mountains, the Greenback cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki stomias) is native to the Arkansas and South Platte rivers basins on Colorado’s Front Range and some South Platte River tributaries in extreme southeastern Wyoming. Colorado’s state fish, the Greenback was listed as endangered in 1973 but down-listed to “threatened” when recovery efforts began in 1978. Greenback cutts will reach 18 inches in suitable habitats, and they wear the largest spots of all the cutthroats — although, despite its name, the Greenback isn’t particularly green.
Alarmingly, until only recently just one pure population remained, in Bear Creek near Colorado Springs, an isolated, self-sustaining population found above a natural waterfall in just 4 miles of habitat. These fish constituted the breeding stock used to re-establish populations within their native South Platte River basin.
To catch a Greenback cutthroat trout, head for Estes Park/Rocky Mountain National Park, where 24 lakes and creeks — waters nestled into some of the most breathtaking beauty Colorado has to offer — hold pure greenbacks (others Colorado River cutts). Fishing for these natives isn’t demanding, as like most cutthroats they are opportunistic feeders and will generally take any reasonable offering, particularly dry flies. Productive fly patterns include Royal Wulffs, Orange Stimulators and Yellow Humpies. When plying still waters, try Zug-Bugs, Hare’s Ears nymphs or orange-hued Montana nymphs stripped erratically.