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 #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 6: Highs & Lows

Klamath River, OR
Trip Date: October 3, 2012

Tennyson remains one of the most popular British poets of all time.
Tennyson remains one of the most popular British poets, largely for the relatable nature of his works.

Alfred Lord Tennyson once said: “Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”

Well, Tennyson was obviously a fisherman, because anyone who has fished enough understands just how painful fishing can be. It doesn’t stop at painful. In fact, at times, it can be downright cruel.

***

I’d long known fishing had a dark side, but it wasn’t until my second trip of the fall season to the Klamath River that I first experienced the painful, gut-wrenching misery that my lifelong passion could wreak.

After powering through classes and an ASOIT (Associated Students of Oregon Institute of Technology) meeting, one of my best friends, David Clarke, and I performed our weekly ritual. We quickly changed into old clothes, grabbed a few McChicken sandwiches and iced teas, then headed to the water.

I’d been unable to fully celebrate my favorite holiday — the October 1st Klamath River Fall Season Opener — two days earlier, and though I’d spent a few hours on the water before school that morning, I was desperate to get down there “for real.”

We caught a few of the healthy Redband Trout that make the Klamath Basin famous almost right away.

The fish of the Klamath are all deep-bodied, healthy fish which range in coloration from chrome-bright to more colorful fish, reminiscent of the Shasta Strain Rainbow Trout that many hatcheries raise for state stocking programs.

While the average size has since declined in the Klamath, during that year and the five years prior, fish averaged about 15 inches long and about 1.5 pounds.

David Clarke posing with one of the many fish we caught that day.
David Clarke posing with one of the many fish we caught that day.

That day, we were all about numbers, wanting to catch as many fish in the one-to-three-pound range as we could — not really hunting for trophies. Our lures of choice were Size 3 Blue Fox Vibrax Spinners.

So, when my lure stopped in the current, I assumed it’d snagged one of the countless rock altars submerged in the river, on which I’d sacrificed hundreds of dollars’ worth of gear over the years.

I assumed rock, until it moved.

The fish was big. Really big.

The river was only at about 800 cubic feet per second (CFS), which falls within the ideal range of approximately 400-1200 CFS, but this meant that the current wasn’t doing much of the pulling; it was mostly the fish.

We were wet-wading, as I usually do when fishing there, meaning we were fishing from a rock in the middle of the river, surrounded by water on all sides, and about 50 feet from the nearer shore.

The fish ran, jumped, and dove until I was finally able to bring it to net. Since David was on a rock a little distance away, I tried to net it myself.

I did everything right, too:

  • The fight had lasted several minutes, and it was tired enough to handle, but not too tired to be released.
  • I fought it to the sheltered water behind the large rock I was standing on, taking the current out of the equation.
  • I led it headfirst into the net.

The only problem was that it didn’t fit.

It ran away into the current again.

I was dumbfounded. I’d never had this problem before.

I tried again, easing it into the net, but it got free again.

Horrified that it would throw the hook, I improvised the third time.

Propping the rod beneath my arm, I again led it into the net headfirst, but this time, I grabbed it around the tail, sort of bending it into the net. Both its head and tail stuck out of the net several inches, but I’d done it. It was landed.

For some reason, at this point my brain shut off.

Of the hundreds of fish I net from this river every year, I normally keep about five for the table. This one was by far the largest I’d ever caught, and that’s why it’s now hanging on my wall — or, at least, why it should be.

It does reside in my bedroom. Unfortunately, though, it’s haunting my dreams, not adorning my mantel, because what I did next, I still lose sleep over.

Rather than try to get to shore to weigh, measure, and photograph it, I tried to do that stuff right there. In the middle of the river. On a rock with a surface area the size of a doormat.

Somehow, it let me measure it with the retractable cloth tape measures I use that serve a purpose without hurting fish: 29 inches.

Wait. That can’t be right.

I measured again.

29 inches.

29 inches!

29 INCHES!!!

My longest Redband up to that point had been 22 3/4 inches, and I’d landed that fish almost eight years earlier.

Shocked and stupefied, thinking it was going to cooperate, I decided to weigh it. As I went to slide the scale under the gill plate, dream turned to nightmare.

The fish decided to break free.

The sheer power of this fish, this small salmon, in effect, was immense.

It’s body wriggled and pulsated as if all its demons were being exorcised in my hands.

The first thing I noticed were two of the three trebles finding purchase in the soft flesh of my thumb.

The third treble held tight in the fish, though, meaning every time it wiggled, the hooks drove deeper and deeper into my thumb.

Then the fish came out of the net, and the two hooks in my thumb held up the fish (which was, very conservatively, at least 8 pounds) for several excruciating seconds, before it threw the third hook and returned to the river, immediately darting to freedom, as I sat there, broken.

Not long after this trip, I upgraded to a much larger net.
Note the size difference between the small net (left) and large net (right). I upgraded to the larger one not long after this trip.

 

Both fish pictured here about between 20 and 21" long and about 3.5 pounds.
Both Klamath River ‘bands pictured here are about 20-21 inches long and 3.5-3.75 pounds, but were landed with different nets.

 

 

 

 

 

Dejected, we fished a little longer, but no amount of fish 16-18 inches could ease the pain.

Poor David had to hear me whine and wallow for the next hour, as we approached one of my favorite spots: The River Monster Hole.

I call it this, because you half-expect Jeremy Wade to pull an enormous, toothy beast from its depths when you first see it. You stand on a shelf at the base of a 50-foot cliff that sits just above the punishing current below, a current that has dug the hole almost 20 feet deep in the channel.

Hoping the River Monster Hole would bring a chance at redemption, I changed from a spinner to my go-to CD-9 Rapala in hopes of enticing a larger fish with the larger lure. I dropped the rod to the ground, propping it between my knees as I held the line near the lure and clipped the line further towards the rod tip.

My mistake hit me with the same slow, Earth-shattering realization I’d had just an hour before while trying to weigh my largest freshwater fish ever.

Since I was holding the segment of line I’d just clipped, I watched in helpless slow motion, groping just out of reach, as my rod leaned away from me and plopped into the rushing river below.

I’m sure my slow blinks had cartoony sound effects, as I stood there, speechless.

I was devastated. It wasn’t the same caliber rod and reel I use today, but it was still a quality setup. It was the two pieces of equipment I’d recommend to anyone starting to get into fishing who wants a good setup but doesn’t want to break the bank: an Ugly Stik Elite 7-foot Medium-Fast Rod and a Pfleuger President Spinning Reel. Together, they’ll run you about $100 and work great for the average weekender for years.

But for me, they were an extension of who I was.

David did his best to console me, but he’d fallen in earlier and was soaked head-to-toe. Well, not quite. He was in a cast and had managed to keep his arm above water and dry, despite being soaked everywhere else. The October air had begun to turn crisp, and we looked at each other with one unspoken thought in common: leave.

The walk up to the car and the drive home were both largely silent affairs as we commiserated together.

***

It took me four days of bitterness and depression to finally climb back onto the horse. I purchased a new rod, tied on a lure (very carefully this time), and returned to the same river that had rewarded and punished me so extremely earlier that week.

***

It took me almost five years, but I did catch a trout bigger than that. Then another. Then several more. I’ve now landed a lot of massive trout, but even bigger fish remain.

I know that fish and its peers still swim those waters, because in Winter of 2011, my friend Ben Fry landed this one.

My friend, Ben Fry, landed this 32" Klamath River Redband about the same time I caught mine. He didn't have a scale, but this fish was well into double digits.
My friend, Ben Fry, landed this 32″ Klamath River Redband about the same time I caught mine. He didn’t have a scale, but this fish was well into double digits.

He didn’t have a scale on him at the time, but it measured 32 inches long — even larger than the fish I’d landed. And, after a good photo, he released it back into the river, a gesture Tennyson would have applauded.

#CaughtOvgard

Read Hook #7: Danger.