The cutthroat trout has long been a favorite fish of mine. Cutthroat trout are the only native trout in Utah and many other western states. Of the 13 surviving cutthroat species, four are native to Utah, including the Bonneville cutthroat which is the Utah state fish. The Bonneville cutthroat trout was the very first fish I caught as a child. I was very young and my father took me to my uncle’s ranch on Chalk Creek. He taught me how to read the water and avoid rattlesnakes. It wasn’t long and I had my very first fish on the line. The aggressiveness and colors and unique spotting of this species of fish has kept me chasing them all of my life.
In an effort to raise money for cutthroat trout conservation projects in the state, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR), created the Cutthroat Slam in April of 2016. In order to try to achieve the Slam, I had to register with the state and pay a $20 entry fee. Then I would need to catch all four native cutthroats, photograph and release each fish, and submit the photos to the UDWR. There are four unique native cutthroat trout in Utah: Bonneville cutthroat, Colorado River cutthroat, Bear River cutthroat and the Yellowstone cutthroat. After registering for the Slam, I began planning and researching to see where the species could be caught.
Cutthroat Slam Quest #1 – Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout
I determined that the Yellowstone cutthroat would be the most difficult to catch based on its current habitat. The only place in the state where fishable populations of Yellowstone cutthroats still exist is in the Raft River drainage in northwestern Utah. The UDWR website listed some of the best places to fish for them and I decided that One Mile Creek would be were my Slam adventure would begin. I called my friend Ross Downard, who also happens to be a talented fly fishing photographer, and he immediately registered for the Slam and we set the date to seek out the first of four catches.
The Raft River drainage is a part of the Sawtooth National Forest, and from my house it is a three-hour drive each way. As we neared the river, the City of Rocks became visible in the distance. Ross told me quite a few stories about rock climbing there, even though I’m not a climber myself.
The dust seemed to follow us as we left the highway and made our way to the headwaters of One Mile Creek. We dropped into the next canyon as a small pond came into view. Fish were rising and the water was covered with waterfowl in their spring mating colors. Surrounding the pond, and creek that flowed into it, were numerous “No Trespassing” signs. We followed the stream down and finally found an area that looked like it was public. Exploring the tiny trickle of a stream we quickly realized we were not in prime trout water. Back in the truck, we drove over more dirt roads, and then we crossed the Raft River.
Even though the river was not as large as I expected, we geared up and headed into the first run with dry/dropper rigs to see what we could find. The water was a little off-color, due to rain and runoff, and the banks were well developed, so that soon I had a take on the dropper. Just as I was thinking it all seemed too easy, was when I set the curse on us. I landed a fish. A beautiful brown trout.
We had high hopes at this point and worked hard to find more fish. A couple hours later as we were losing hope, a UDWR truck drove by followed by two more. We almost ran to our truck to beg information off of the local fish cops. We caught up to them a few miles down the road and when we asked where we could find some cutthroats, the gentleman gave us a funny look. He said while there may be some hold-over fish in the Raft River, that most moved up out of the Snake when the water got high or are found way up in the high-country beaver ponds. Not to be dissuaded, we headed to an area he suggested to try again.
As we drove away both Ross and I had the feeling we were now on a wild goose chase. We followed the directions and found a small stream that seemed like what the UDWR man described. We fished and fished and finally decided to go back to the Raft. We fished lower on the river and got into some beaver ponds that were in the middle of some big fields and had lots of small minnows that were aggressive on the flies. We caught a lot of these and they quickly became annoying. As luck or the fish gods would have it, the earlier brown was the only trout of the day. Tired and dusty we threw in the towel and cursed the Yellowstone cutthroat as a myth.
Cutthroat Slam Quest #2 – Colorado River Cutthroat Trout
Two weeks later we decided to go look for a Colorado River cutthroat. We read on the UDWR Cutthroat Slam website that this species was native to the eastern side of the state. Since Current Creek was the closest location to our homes, we made that our destination and brought a third friend and novice fly fisher along to sacrifice to the fish gods if needed.
Even though we fished some great water, the weather was bizarre. We had sun, rain, hail, snow, and wind to contend with, but as we approached the creek fish were rising to a Blue Wing Olive Hatch. Ross went scouting for fish and I set up our rookie, Brendan, on a dry fly rig to see if we could net some fish. Cast after cast was denied and Brendan was struggling to see the fly, so we switched to a bigger Parachute Adams and a dropper. The next cast had the fish on the big dry and we landed a great brown trout, but no Colorado River cutthroat. Rarely in my life have I been so frustrated trying to catch trout on dry flies. The Cutthroat Slam was getting under my skin.
I had easily caught cutthroats my whole life! Why now were they being so elusive? I left Brendan to fend for himself and went downstream to find some virgin water. Brown after brown was landed. The fishing was great but the specific fish we came for was evading us.
After a couple hours we decided to drive around the reservoir and see how the stillwater looked. Fish were rising on the same hatch at the lake, so we grabbed our rods and headed down the steep bank to the water’s edge. My first couple of casts got looks but no takes, so I changed to a streamer to see if they would follow and Bam! a hard hit that produced nothing on the end of the line. The next cast had a fish chase and grab right at the end of the rod which after a short fight produced a healthy tiger trout. Tigers are a crossbreed of brown trout and brook trout. Very pretty fish, but again not what we were after.
An hour later with our hopes dragging in the mud we all made our way to where a small stream was flowing into the reservoir. The water was moving enough to produce a fishable current with a nymph rig, so I switched up to a fly and worm combo. Hit after hit ensued but no fish made it to the net until finally I had a good hookup. My catch was a Rocky Mountain whitefish, one of the most misunderstood and unfairly hated fish in our waters, but I was not happy to see it on the end of the line.
Then it hit me, “Stop caring about what you catch and just fish.” I settled in and caught a couple more whities, when all of a sudden, the next hookup was a different kind of fight. Head shakes and barrel rolls made me think that it was a trout immediately. One more hard run and the fish broke the surface, definitely a trout. With my heart rate rising and doubts beginning, I looked in the net and saw black spots and an orange throat slash with a feeling of elation. Finally!
I yelled to Ross and he came down to snap the picture of my Colorado River cutthroat. The curse was broken after some 12 hours of chasing cutthroats. Ross fished the same run for another hour, but we just land more whitefish. We made plans to fish again the following week in hopes of catching what should be the easiest of the bunch, the Bonneville cutthroat trout.
Cutthroat Slam Quest #3 – Bonneville Cutthroat Trout
As often happens on my days off from the fly shop, I had errands to run and a meeting to attend, so Ross and I couldn’t meet up until almost 10 am. We dumped a truck in Kamas and headed up to the headwaters of the Provo river. The water was high and cold. At this point, it had been a month since we started this adventure called the Slam, and we were hoping to cross another one of the cutthroats off our list.
I spent the first hour rigging inline rig after inline rig only to lose them to the rocks and sticks of the Provo. At some point I switch to the staple highwater run-off San Juan Worm and stonefly combo and began catching browns. These were quality fish that fought hard and got me excited for another day on the water.
I thought back to when we first started to wader up. I actually said out loud, “Wow it is warm, I think I will leave my jacket in the truck.” The others agreed and so we hit the water. Karma caught up to us less than an hour in, as the clouds darkened and a wall of rain came over the peak moving right toward us. A mad scramble to the truck was in order. Once in the dry comfort of the rig we hit the Cutting Board in Kamas for an amazing sandwich to energize us for the rest of the day.
From there we ventured to the headwaters of the Weber River. Again the water was cold and fast and storm clouds continued to harass us. With jackets on and full stomachs, we hit the water. Brendan struck first with a nice Bonneville cutthroat and followed it up minutes later with another. I left him to his new addiction and headed downriver to throw streamers.
It wasn’t long before I had found some fish holding in the slow water close to the cut banks. At first I missed a few, but then I connected on a beautiful Bonneville cutthroat of my very own. I yelled up to Ross and after a couple pictures, I handed him the rod and within a matter of minutes he had the biggest cutthroat that we landed that day! Such a relief to finally have all three of us on the board for a single species of the Slam. Following that,we didn’t want to tempt the weather or the fates, so we headed for home.
Along the way we crossed a tiny little creek that I spent many a day fishing after school when I was a child. Knowing it was full of cutthroats I talked everyone into a quick session. Ross had a hard hit on a streamer but couldn’t close the deal. I worked my way under an overhanging bush and was able to drop a small San Juan on a red hook behind a rock. In one of those moments that all fishermen experience if you spend enough time on the water, while I was looking at the mountains I felt the line tighten. It was a short fight and I netted myself a Bear River cutthroat. What a day!
That morning I had started out with only one out of four of the fish in my Cutthroat Slam and by the end of the day I had three out of the four species to my credit. I had fished almost a dozen different rivers and streams chasing these elusive fish. Was it all glamorous? No, but it was all fun and very worth it. I fished stillwaters, rivers, streams and trickles. I tied on flies I haven’t used since last summer and got out in weather probably better left to the fish, but hey I am three quarters of the way there. On the way back to the truck Ross said to me, “So I guess this means we better head back to the Raft River.” I just smiled.
Travis Jay Vernon, Fly Fishing Guide & Fly Shop Co-Manager, Jans Park Ave