Species #34 — Cutthroat Trout

Coastal Cutthroat Trout are some of the most beautiful creatures on God’s Green Earth.

Species: Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii)
Location: Big Butte Creek, Butte Falls, OR
Date: August 14, 2010

I debated how to record this species. The reason being that there are 10-to-14 living subspecies of Cutthroat Trout, and many anglers document and note each subspecies separately. Obviously I do.

And while I’d like them to be classified as separate species for my own purposes, they aren’t. So what I’ll do is tell you the stories of the subspecies of Cutthroat Trout I’ve caught so far.

Unlike my other individual species posts, I’ll add to this one every time I catch a new subspecies. So here it is: a chronological list of the all of the Cutthroat subspecies I’ve caught, beginning with the first one (Coastal), the one that made Cutthroat Trout Species #34 in my #SpeciesQuest.

Coastal Cutthroat TroutMary’s River in Corvallis is one of the best year-round fisheries for Coastal Cutts. This fish was
likely a Cutbow, though. 

Speed limits are the worst. I openly oppose highway speed limits and long for the days of old where motorists could careen down the highway at absurd speeds, using only their forearms as seat belts for children bouncing around in the front seat of the car.

I kid a little, but I still think speed limits are dumb.

Unfortunately, the officer didn’t agree with me, and I was cited for doing 70 in a 55 as I made my way to Fourmile Lake to chase some of the massive Brook Trout I’d seen caught there in years’ past.

My mood was further soured when I was skunked at Fourmile Lake, beginning a lifelong hatred of a place so beautiful, yet so unproductive as a fishery (disgusting Hatchery Rainbows aside).

***

I decided I’d go to my  native streams, making my way to Little Butte Creek. I landed a bunch of little brookies and met a guy who told me he’d caught a bunch of Westslope Cutthroat Trout in nearby Big Butte Creek earlier that day.

I didn’t think Westslope Cutthroat Trout were found West of the Cascades (in actuality, they’re not), but I hopped back into my car and drove.

***

Trout in streams fish the same almost everywhere, and I quickly landed small rainbows and a fish that bore faded red slashes below its jaws but otherwise looked like a Rainbow. It was, in fact, a Cutbow.

Where these species in the same genus overlap, they often hybridize. Rainbow-loving anglers have transplanted these fish all over the West outside their native range in Northern California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. While they provide great fisheries if and when the populations establish wild populations, they often out-compete native Cutthroats and/or hybridize them out of existence in much the same way invasive Brook Trout have overtaken Bull Trout.

Calling a Rainbow Trout invasive would cause most flyfishermen to have a conniption, but they are often true invasive species.

Nonetheless, both species are native to the Rogue Watershed where I was fishing, but Rainbows were just more aggressive, I guess.

When I moved upstream of a small dam between the Butte Falls Fish Hatchery and the town of Butte Falls, the small yet deep impoundment there looked perfect for a Rapala.

The respectable, 10 1/4″ Cutthroat Trout that smashed my Countdown Rapala agreed. The fish was more than half a pound and remains one of the larger Cutts I’ve ever caught.

For awhile I believed it had been a Westslope Cutthroat, but I eventually learned it was a Coastal Cutthroat Trout.

These elongated, piscivorous silver bullets are heavily spotted everywhere except their bellies and have much longer heads and larger mouths than comparably-sized Rainbows.

Lahontan Cutthroat Trout

Color variability between Cutts is tremendous. Note the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout buck on the top and the hen on the bottom.I first tried to catch Lahontans in Willow Valley Reservoir, a reservoir in Klamath County along the California border during the summer of 2016 (some six years after first catching Coastals). Unbeknownst to me, it had dried up the year before, and I was left catching Yellow Perch in the middle of the desert.

***

My second try came later that summer. On my way to fish the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge’s short carp season, I decided to take the back roads to Burns. That took me through Denio, Nevada then north to the Alvord Desert.

Once you hit the Alvord Hot Springs, the pavement ends, and you’re left on a northbound gravel road. It’s easy to drive too fast on a road that wends its way between two massive mountain ranges.

It’s also easy to hit one jackrabbit every two miles. I hit 13 (not intentionally) of the eared plaguebringers. I wondered if that was unlucky…

My destination was Mann Lake. While Apple Maps had Mann Lake and nearby Juniper Lake swapped, I eventually course-corrected.

I parked on the north shore and proceeded to fish my way around it. Seriously. Wading in the wet mud and shallow water, my legs were assaulted by some unseen menace. I’m still not sure if it was bugs or the alkalinity or what, but my legs were raw after I’d finished my loop.

It was weedy and shallow, and though I had a single trout chase a spoon up to the end of my rod and actually come out of the water after it, splashing just a yard from me, I got skunked. You can read about that trip at Mann Lake here: Taking the road less traveled from Herald and News. 

Lahontan Cutthroats are truly beautiful.

***

The third time proved to be the charm. My friend Ben Fry and I were invited to join a group of Insta-famous anglers, including Bryan Glass (@wildtrout) and Brier Kelly (@brier_kelly).

This strain of Lahontan Cutthroat Trout almost went extinct before rebounding to become a success story, and you can read my article Second Chance at Survival from Herald and News here.

I won’t go into too much detail about this trip on my blog, because I already wrote about it. Check out Fishing Pyramid Lake — in pursuit of Lahontan Cutthroat Trout from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and Getting Reel with Bryan Glass from the Herald and News.

Bear River Cutthroat TroutThe pink-on-brown coloration of these fish is really unique. Coloration is one of the reasons Bear River Cutthroats are worth the trip to Utah or Wyoming.

My third subspecies of this fish was a surprise. I was hoping for a number of other Cutthroat subspecies as I traveled across Utah, Wyoming, and Nebraska on my way to Officer Training School in Alabama during the summer of 2017, but the Bear River Cutthroat was the last fish I expected to catch.

I actually wrote a pretty in-depth article about Bear River Cutthroat Trout for the Herald and News last year, so if you’re in the mood for an interesting, science-heavy read, check out Testing the waters of Wyoming — Bear River Cutthroat.

Like I said, I love these fish, and as I catch more subspecies, I’ll add to this post.

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Buffalo Sculpin.

Species #7 — Brown Trout

Why this Eurasian import, the Brown Trout, is nicknamed the “German Brown,” is not verified, but I believe it’s because (1) it’s native there, and (2) the Red, Yellow, and Black spots are the same as the colors of the German flag.

Species: Brown Trout (Salmo trutta)
Location: Confluence Hemlock Creek and Little Deschutes River, OR
Date: August 28, 2004

Boats have nightmares about this place.

Hundreds of sun-bleached lodgepole pines crisscross the small stream, connecting two grassy meadows split by the crystal-clear water that gives life to an otherwise desolate place.

Native Bull and Redband Trout have long since been out-competed by the invasive Brook and Brown Trout that call the waters of the Little Deschutes and its numerous tributaries home.

It was opening day of bow season, and my dad and I decided to flee to the microclimate of the stream during that hot summer day, knowing full-well the deer would be bedded down anyway.

Using small Panther Martin (Size 2)  spinners, as we always did in those days, we caught a number of fish that looked immediately foreign to me. Dad identified them as Brown Trout, and I quickly became enamored with the idea of another new species.

Before we decided to get back to hunting (I still prioritized hunting in those days), I tallied 10 Browns to 10 inches and an additional 30 smaller Brook Trout.

I haven’t had many days with double-digit numbers of Browns since. Coincidentally, the Cleveland Browns haven’t had many double-digit days since, either.

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #8 — Black Crappie.

Species #3 — Bull Trout

Since catching his first Bull Trout in early 2004, the author has caught just a handful of these highly endangered fish. (Photo: USFWS Flickr).

Species: Bull Trout (Salvelinus confluentus)
Location: Various Southern Oregon Streams
Date: May 29, 2004

This isn’t my photo. I desperately wish it were, but I haven’t captured a Bull Trout on hook and line since high school, and the few populations remaining in Southern Oregon are heavily scattered and/or inaccessible to anglers.

My grandpa, born in 1911, used to tell me stories of bounties paid for Bull Trout in his native Wyoming with the then-more-desirable Rainbow, Brown, and Brook Trout (none of which are native to Wyoming) quickly replacing native Bulls and Cutthroat Trout in much of their range before a policy reversal saved these species.

Oregon’s Bull Trout faced a similar fate, with the “harder-fighting” and “better eating” Brookies quickly rising up the Oregon angler’s target species list.

That fish I caught in 2004 would prove to be just one of six Bulls recorded to-date, and I remember marveling at the size of its mouth compared to its relatively small body.

Today, the only sustainable population of Bull Trout that allows harvest in the Lower 48 resides in Lake Billy Chinook, about three hours north of where I landed this Bull so many years ago.

This spring, I plan to chase these Lake Billy Chinook Bulls for a chance to relive that feeling I first experienced 15 long years ago.

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #4 — Bluegill.

Species #2 — Brook Trout

Invasive Brook Trout were a staple in my childhood fishing pursuits.

 

Species: Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis)
Location: Various Southern Oregon Streams
Date: May 29, 2004

I caught dozens of these between my first fish and 2004; however since I didn’t keep records and don’t have pictures, I must defer to the journals I started in 2004 to determine species order.

Brook Trout were widely introduced to Oregon nearly 100 years prior, and they slowly encroached upon the territory of native Bull Trout. Even 15 years ago, I remember catching stringers full of Brookies with my dad and younger brothers on tiny Panther Martin (Size 2) spinners.

Limits on Rainbow Trout dropped from my early childhood 15 to 10, then to five, then ultimately down to two fish in streams before I got out of high school, but there remains no limit on Brook Trout in much of Oregon to encourage anglers to fight back against this invasive, East Coast char.

The tiny streams we fished weren’t conducive for three young boys and a their father, given the lack of fishable water, limited visibility surrounding the water, and the competitive drive I shared with my brothers only when it came to fishing.

Still, we caught fish. A 14-year-old me concluded the journal entry with “We did well today.”

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #3 — Bull Trout.

Species #1 — Rainbow Trout

The author isn’t sure if his first fish was a hatchery Rainbow Trout (pictured)…
…or a wild Redband Trout.

 

 

 

 

 


Species:
Rainbow Trout (Oncorynchus mykiss)
Location: Howard Prairie Reservoir, OR

This is hazy. I’m not sure what day or even what year it was that I caught my first Rainbow Trout, but I have a picture, and I have a memory.

My dad used to take me fishing with him, using an old canvas baby carrier with an aluminum frame attached to his back. He told me about all of the times I drooled or spit up on the back of his neck while he chased the wild Redband Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss newberrii) native to Southern Oregon.

He is some strange combination of trout purist and spinfisherman, never using a fly rod but only seriously targeting trout. He preferred wild fish in small streams to hatchery fish in lakes, but that didn’t stop him from chasing the latter.

I distinctly remember reeling in a small wild ‘Band that he’d hooked while we took a break from the family camping trip/reunion we’d taken to Howard Prairie Reservoir in Jackson County, Oregon. I also distinctly remember fighting a big, hatchery ‘Bow on what I’m pretty sure was the same day.

The former was nothing to write home about, but it was eight inches long, so it went on the stringer.

The latter was about 16-18 inches in length. It hit Power Bait and started running. Not knowing what to do, I just started reeling as I walked slowly back up the hill upon which we were fishing. Dad grabbed the fish, and we put it on the stringer like we always did with trout in those days.

***

Nearly 25 years have passed. I no longer keep wild trout, and I almost never fish for hatchery fish of any creed, but I still love stalking wild ‘Bands in tiny streams during the heat of summer, and I hope I can carry my son or daughter on my back someday to carry on the tradition.

Regardless, Redband Trout became my soulmate that day. I just didn’t know it yet.

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here Species #2 — Brook Trout.

Hook #7: Danger

Klamath River, OR
Trip Date:  October 12, 2014

At the Klamath River, it seems the wetter you're willing to get, the more likely you are to get a nice fish, like this 20" 3.625 pounder.
At the Klamath River, it seems the wetter you’re willing to get, the more likely you are to get a nice fish, like this 20″ 3.625 pounder.

The Klamath River is magical in October.

The mornings are crisp and cold, and until the sun hits the water, your line will freeze if you take too long between casts.

The afternoons are warm enough to shed the sweater and pants in favor of Hurley board shorts and a tank top. The water, aided by thermal inertia, is still unconvinced of the changing seasons, still clinging to the last vestiges of summer, even when the air turns cold, so you can wet wade in relative comfort.

The evenings sneak up on you, and before you know it, you’re enveloped in darkness as the frost returns to the canyon.

The Klamath — in early October — is, without a doubt, my favorite place to fish.

***

I first fished the Klamath as a kid with my Dad and my brother Jake. We fished just below the J.C. Boyle Dam, and landed one nice fish apiece.

***

Years later, on the day before high school graduation, several of my senior classmates and I headed to the stretch below Keno Dam for the first time. Five minutes in, and my friend Shawn Elliott hooked into the first of many huge Klamath River Redbands to follow.

Since that day in 2008, I’ve learned so much more about the river: where to fish, when to fish, who to bring with me … and where, when, and who not to.

***

In the fall of 2014, I went further upstream than ever before, finding great success through unconventional methods.

For years I’d wet-waded, donning board shorts and Vibram Five Fingers shoes (okay, they look ridiculous, but no other shoe allows you the sensitivity necessary to safely wet wade the Klamath). I’d routinely get knee-deep in the water to access my favorite spots, but in 2014, I took it to another level by going chest-deep and half swimming, half bouncing off the bottom to get where I wanted to go.

The flows had been low, and I used the giant boulders in that stretch of the river as current breaks, so I wouldn’t be swept away.

With my rod between my teeth, I accessed parts of the river no flyfisherman in waders would dare go; places only those rafting down the river could access.

It paid off, too.

In my first four trips (October 1, 4, 5, 11) that fall, I landed 50 fish, 10 of which topped three pounds.

October can yield multiple 3+ pound fish in a day, like this 20 1/4" 3.375 pounder caught the day of this story.
October can yield multiple 3+ pound fish in a day, like this 20 1/4″ 3.375 pounder caught the day of this story.
Klamath River Redbands feed heavily on minnows during the fall, including introduced Fathead Minnows, like the one in this fish's mouth.
Klamath River Redbands feed heavily on minnows during the fall, including introduced Fathead Minnows, like the one in this fish’s mouth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, on my next trip down, October 12, I expected the same results.

I caught fish, but not as many or as big as I had the days before, so I decided to make an adjustment.

Rather than slowly work my roundabout way across the river like I had the days before, I decided to try going straight across.

I made the logical choice: cross at the narrowest part of the river where river otters always rafted down in groups. Sure, it was a fast run, but only about mid-thigh deep most of the way across, and a rock in the middle could be my checkpoint. From there, I could get to the large, weedy island that split the river in two.

Two steps out, I slipped and almost ate it, because I was sore.

Side Note: Fishing the canyon how I do is a workout equivalent to running a few miles after leg day. I run several miles down into the canyon, walk along the rough and rocky shore, wet-wade by bracing myself against rocks in the current, then hop from rock to rock and occasionally do a little free climbing on the small cliffs in the area with the rod in my teeth.

It’s a rush, but it takes a toll on your body.

Machismo propelled me forward. I made it to the rock and took a break. I let my lure hang in the current and caught a little guy. Well, he was about 1.5 pounds and 15” long, but that’s a little guy for the Canyon in October.

Strength returned to my legs, and I took a step.

I felt the moss, but overrode my better judgement and committed my weight to it.

Bad call.

As my foot slid out from under me, the current rushed along at almost 1150 CFS (about 150 cubic feet per second [CFS] faster than the day before), and pushed me over.

“Profane,” I cursed.

I’d spent enough time fishing and rafting to know what to do. I put my feet out in front of me as the current had its way with my body. I kicked hard while keeping my knees bent, pushing myself back into the current to try and steal an opportunity to get back onto my feet.

After a few tries and about 200 yards of drifting, I finally got to my feet.

I promptly fell over again, but my struggling had got me close enough to shore to flail/doggy paddle the rest of the way.

Exhausted, wet, bruised, and insulted, I used my hands to part the thick curtain of reeds along the shoreline of the island.

Gasping and shivering, I was still hunched over, hands on my knees.

I took a step and started to look up just as I noticed a yellowjacket land on my leg.

My hand swatted it away, but I looked back down to see it had been replaced by half a dozen more.

The next second passed by slowly as I realized the gravity of my situation.

Then, they started stinging me.

Desperation replaced exhaustion as I tried to sprint away while slapping them off my legs, my neck, my ears, my cheek, my arms, and my hair.

More than a dozen stingers found purchase in my skin before I’d gotten out of the danger zone and killed them all.

I’d stripped down to my underwear in the hundred-yard run over broken, rocky ground, stubbing my toes in the barely-padded shoes, but at least I’d had the presence of mind to hold onto my rod.

My body screamed out in pain. Each step caused more pain, but more excruciating were the stings on my face, neck, and worst of all, just inside the hairline on my temple.

I was in agony as I redressed, pounding each article of clothing with my fists and shaking it out before putting it back on.

As I prepared to walk back towards the water, my feet got tangled up in fishing line. My fishing line.

I’d grabbed my rod, but somehow managed to open the bail and hook the grassy ground right where the nest was.

I pulled on my lure, but it wouldn’t come free.

The last glimmer of hope went out.

I begged, pleaded with those damn hooks, but they wouldn’t budge.

So, I snuck up to the underground nest.

A.

 

Few.

 

Steps.

 

At.

 

AHHHHH!!!

 

Just kidding. I didn’t get stung again, but I was terrified I would.

I got the lure, limped over to the far side of the island where I’d been trying to go all along and fished until the headache became unbearable, catching two more fish over two pounds.

It took two pulls with pliers to get the hook out. It was initially buried to the shank, but the first pull got it this far.

I also hooked one that would’ve topped five pounds, but it jumped, throwing the hook. Unfortunately, my line was tight, and it threw the hook right at my face. With my (dead) cat-like reflexes I was able to grab the projectile before it hit me in the eye, but it buried itself deep in my finger.

It just wasn’t my day.

This happens a lot when trying to unhook big, toothy trout, but usually they’re flesh wounds. This was deep. One of the three trebles was buried up to the shank (about 3/8″ on this specific lure) of my go-to Countdown Rapala.

Using pliers, I took a deep breath and only cried a little as I pulled the hook halfway out. I paused to brace myself for the hard part: getting the barb out, but decided to stop and take a picture at that moment, because, why not, right?

One more pull, and it was out. And bleeding. A lot.

Realizing the next injury would probably result in the loss of a valuable appendage, I decided to call it a day.

Crossing back over the river was not fun.

Each time one of the stings got wet, it was like being stung again. To make matters worse, in the hour or so I’d fished, the water seemed to be flowing even faster.

This time, I made no efforts to be cool or macho. I just put my rod in my teeth and swam across.

I sat down on the grass and tried to bleed myself to sleep, but I was getting too cold, so I began the four-mile uphill track back to my car.

***

I’d stepped on a hive at the river several years earlier (and once while grouse hunting as a kid, but that’s another story).

The lone sting from that first faux pas at the river was on my wrist, and that yellow jacket must have been in an animal carcass, because the sting became terribly infected and ended up leaving a scar I still have.

***

Mercifully, none of the stings from my terrible near-drowning, yellowjacket mauling became infected, but the headache was so intense for a week that I could hardly sleep, and typing with my impaled finger wasn’t exactly fun.

But once the headache went away, and my energy returned, I was right back out on the river. Albeit one scar — the one under my left eye socket — heavier.

Because, it was the Klamath River. In October.

#CaughtOvgard

If I hooked you here, keep reading. Check out my Species Quest!

Hook #5: 100-Fish Day

Big Butte Creek, Little Butte Creek, Medco Pond, Willow Lake, OR
Trip Date: August 5, 2011

“A good plan implemented today, is better than the perfect plan implemented tomorrow.”

General George S. Patton’s words should be taken to heart in our daily lives, but are especially true when it comes to fishing. Research and reading are incredibly important, but no matter how knowledgeable you are, you can’t catch fish from behind a computer or magazine.

When I set out the morning of August 5, 2011, I had a good plan: try to break my personal record for fish caught in a single day (57).

Little Butte Creek
If the first stop, Little Butte Creek, was any indicator, I had no chance.

The two Brook Trout I caught there on my favorite small Rainbow Holographic Panther Martins were beautiful, but small, and I burned almost half an hour getting them to bite.

Running Total: 2

A particularly beautiful Little Butte Creek brookie.
A particularly beautiful Little Butte Creek brookie.

Willow Lake
Day-Use Fees are commonplace at lakes throughout Southern Oregon, including at my second stop that day: Willow Lake. Unfortunately, for a broke college student who often didn’t eat on days he went fishing to account for the gas spent driving to and from the lake, paying to park was not an option.

Since the fee is charged to park a vehicle on the grounds, and hikers and cyclists don’t have to pay, I always tried to find a free place to park and then walked in when possible.

At Willow, I always parked on the Forest Service land just outside the gate on the south side of the road, then walked in to fish the corner of the dam, where the Yellow Perch congregate.

You’ll cast in a crappie jig or worm and reel it in. Maybe one or two fish will follow and nip at it. The next cast, four or five. Then a dozen. That day, despite a small school of maybe 25-30 fish trailing my jig, I caught just three of the bait-stealing fish.

It was now late afternoon, and my chances were not looking good.

Running Total: 5. 

Big Butte Creek
A few miles down the Butte Falls Highway, I stopped at Big Butte Creek, hoping the trout there would be more compliant. While I did catch two-of-three sport species found there (Coastal Cutthroat Trout, Rainbow Trout), I only caught one of each, putting my record still 50 fish away.

Running Total: 7. 

Coastal Cutthroats often hybridize with Rainbows to produce "Cutbows," but many of the fish do retain genetic purity.
Coastal Cutthroats often hybridize with Rainbows to produce “Cutbows,” but many of the fish do retain genetic purity. The fish pictured here is likely a hybrid.

Medco Pond
Driving up to Medco Pond is kind of anticlimactic. After driving 12.5 miles on the winding, dangerous Butte Falls-Prospect Road, you arrive at a gravel parking lot with no amenities. The setting is pretty, but it doesn’t look like the destination fishing spot it really is.

Most people fish along that gravel parking area, sitting in or near their cars while soaking a worm or Rainbow Power Bait for the skinny hatchery ‘bows that rarely top 10″ in length. On a good day, these folks might catch three-to-five fish apiece.

Another group will fish with a worm or crappie jig suspended under a bobber. They will often do a little better, sometimes catching as many as 10-15 fish in a day.

With 50 fish to go, I knew it was a long shot, but I also knew I didn’t fish like either group. Using a tiny ice fishing jig tipped with the smallest piece of worm I could pinch off, I caught fish after fish.

Cast, let the lure sink, then reel up a few times and repeat. It was insanely effective.

I caught 43 quite quickly, paired with the seven I’d already caught, it made 50.

Then 57. I’d tied my record.

58.

60.

70.

80.

Then it slowed. I was already breaking my personal record with each fish, but I was greedy. This close to 100, I pushed until the bitter end, hitting the mark just before dark.

Pitch counters are a great way to keep track of how many fish you've caught. I used them for almost 10 years.
Pitch counters are a great way to keep track of how many fish you’ve caught. I used them for almost 10 years.

I don’t know if it was because I liked the movie 101 Dalmatians, or maybe just because I was compulsive, but I decided to end at 101.

It took me nearly 20 minutes to catch #101. Irritating, because there had been times that day when I’d catch five or six fish on as many casts but now that I wanted just one more … well, I really couldn’t complain.

At the time, I used a pitch counter to keep track of the fish I’d caught in a day, and few things in life were more satisfying than clicking it that final, 101st time on that balmy August night.

Totals: 
84 Bluegill
6 Black Crappie
4 Largemouth Bass
3 Yellow Perch
2 Brook Trout
1 Coastal Cutthroat Trout
1 Rainbow Trout

#CaughtOvgard

Read Hook #6: Highs and Lows.