Cutthroat in Utah

In April of 2013 work called my wife and I out to Denver, CO for a week. Considering we’d never really explored UT or CO together we figured a road-trip was in order. Knowing that we’d be passing through very fishy water I mapped out some options for where we could find new (to us) species of native cutthroat. There would not be time to fish in CO as the workload was simply too much. However the drive out and back had a bit of flexibility. I studied the maps for UT and hoped to find smaller water that held pure Bonneville Cutthroat in remote waters to ensure their genetic integrity remained intact. To the west and south of the state, there are enough qualifying waters. However, access to them in April was not guaranteed due to the relatively high levels of snow. The limited rains in CA blessed UT and CO with incredible levels of powder. With my heart set on fishing the very first day of the trip we loaded the car the night before and by 5:30am were off from SoCal. After a few hours we safely reached Las Vegas. My wife had never visited to we pulled off the highway and drove the strip south to north. “That’s what the fuss is all about?” was all my wife had to say. I let her know that LV does look better at night but truthfully it’s neither of our scene.

After another few hours on the road we finally crossed into Utah. We made a stop in St. George at the Sportsman’s Warehouse to pick up the licenses…I wasn’t sure where else to get them nor if there would be another vendor closer to the identified streams. Twenty minutes and a Dr. Pepper later we were back on the road heading north and a bit east. It wasn’t too long before we found the turnoff for the first targeted water. We drove up the mountain on a dirt road quite a ways without really seeing much water. There were a couple “crossings” that didn’t give me much hope for anything of reputable size but I knew it was too early to disqualify the stream. After what felt like about 25 minute we pulled over and decided to bushwack (primarily comprised of carefully navigating around cactus) our way down toward the thin blue line. As we approached we could hear a decent volume of water moving across was sounded to be boulders and small “falls.” The reeds and grasses began to thicken and the ecosystem quickly (and drastically) changed. From keeping an eye out for rattlers, tarantulas, and spiky bushes to swatting away mosquitoes and stepping around frogs…I didn’t know where I was or what just happened.

I really didn’t care though because the water looked very healthy. It wasn’t long until the outline of a few nice-sized bonnies could be seen holding at the back of runs. I strung up the tried-and-true elk hair caddis and flicked it into the center of the run. It drifted slowly and perfectly to a waiting cutthroat. Nothing. I stripped it back right over the head of the trout….nothing. I thought that perhaps I missed the sight line and flicked the fly out once again letting it softly land a few feet further upstream. The perfect drift cruised just to the side of fish. Nothing. I saw another trout stacked up a couple feet behind and let the drift continue. Nothing. WTF.

My wife looked at me just as puzzled. It wasn’t like this stream gets tons or pressure at the peak of fishing season let alone right now. Certainly these native trout are not accustomed to power bait and salmon eggs. It wasn’t a full moon last night. WTF. I pulled in the line and switched to a size 18 mosquito. Nothing. A size 18 knat…nothing. Seriously, WTF. Nypmh? Why not? I pulled out a size 16 bead-headed prince. Holy mother of the trout gods. The two fish I saw and a beast I didn’t tore after the nymph like kids run downstairs on Christmas morning at 6:30am. ┬áThe largest of the trio absolutely slammed (and I mean slammed) it. The fish breached completely out of the water and landed a good foot and a half downstream setting itself on the line.

We just looked at each other and laughed out of amusement, surprise, and excitement wrapped into one. Then the adrenaline hit and I was terrified to lose this “small-stream version” trophy of a bonneville. I carefully played the fish and worked my way around a couple small boulders. The Mrs. worked her way around me and sensibly placed the net behind the trout. I released a bit of line and BINGO.

What a gill-plate. What a beautiful fish. What a native trout. Not a bad way at all to be introduced to my second species of cutthroat. We marveled at its pattern and coloration. I couldn’t believe the lack of parr marks not the orange belly. I later talked with a ranger who informed me that a number of streams had already spawned but that many of the fish were still dressed to the nines. Boy was she right! We quickly returned this looker to the water and carefully resuscitated him in the quick-moving and highly oxygenated water. After two or three minutes this brute was back in the same whole in which I found him. Cast after cast brought incredible cutthroat after incredible cutthroat to hand.

In retrospect what amazes me about these fish is that they seem to perfectly fit the visual space between Yellowstone Cutthroat and Colorado River Cutthroat. After countless fish and knowing that we still had a pretty good drive to reach out overnight destination we packed it up and made our way slowly back to the car as we navigated the cactus we forgot all about while fishing. Back in the car we enjoyed the rest of our Dr. Peppers, reclined the seats, and took a short 15 minute nap. I cannot overstate how valuable it is to nap if necessary. Driving when over-tired is dangerous. Extremely. The sound of the alarm woke us back up and we set off back down the dirt path toward the highway.

As we continued toward Colorado and our stop-over for the night I saw a vehicle coming toward us in serious trouble. It had gone off the highway on the right shoulder which at this point was quite a steep incline/hill at perhaps a 20 degree angle. I suspect the drive fell asleep at the wheel because with a sudden jerk the car veered back at the highway. The pitch was too severe and the correction too drastic. The tell-tale dust plume of a rolling vehicle filled the air. I immediately pulled over. Having checked cross-traffic I ran across the highway and rushed to the upside down car. The driver was alive and conscious to my amazement. I was braced for the worst. She was still secured by her seat-belt but was suspended upside-down. The weight of the car was slowly crushing the roof and centimeter by centimeter my window to her was closing. Rather than try something heroic I just laid next her door and held her hand as my wife called 911. More motorists began to stop. Some directed traffic, some collected belongings that had been strewn about, and others took pictures (as you do for social media these days….). My wife and I did not leave the side of the car and we calmly talked with the driver trying to calm the nerves as best we could. A passing driver was a doctor and he was able to access the driver from the passenger window to check her vitals and help assure her of the situation: at least from the physical appearance, she would be just fine. After a few more minutes the emergency crews arrived and using airbags and the jaws-of-life they got the driver safely out of the car. We gave our statement and contact information to the police, they escorted us back across the highway, and after a couple minutes of letting the adrenaline wear off, we on our way eastward once again. Please please please, if you are tired do not push it. Pull over and close your eyes for a few minutes. It’s not worth dying for! Seriously!

Fast-forward a week. Denver was great. Work went well. Enough said. You’re here for the fish.

We decided to visit a great childhood friend of mine whose wife’s family has a cabin on Bear Lake, UT. Seeing that the best route to get there took us through Wyoming I had to see what cutthroat I might be able to find in the state steeped in so much cutthroat tradition. Good enough, my research led me to LaBarge Creek and the restored population of Colorado River Cutthroat it held. Giving it a go, we decided to brave the snow and see what we could find. The heavy winter snows hindered our progress and found us departing from the car about 2 miles from the tributary I wanted to fish. It was cold, really cold, and I knew that my wife loved me very much to put up with my addiction through those conditions. We worked our way up the stream until we found a tributary that looked promising. The water ran clear unlike the blown-out main stretch of La Barge. The only thing missing was fish. Truthfully. Hours of exploring every nook and cranny turned up nothing at all. We were exhausted, cold, and wet. Not a good (or safe) combination so we abandoned our efforts and after about a 1.5 hour slog, made it back to the car. I was frustrated that I’d wasted our time. My wife was just tired. God bless her.

As it turns out, a devastating wildfire had ripped through the watershed during the prior fall and the onset of snowmelt deposited tons and tons of ash and silt into the system. Communications throughout the season with local rangers confirmed that the fishery was near destroyed. In fact, estimates were that it would take three to four years to get back to its pre-fire quality. Lesson learned: if you go to a remote area early in the season without any trip reports, check for fire activity within the last year to determine whether or not the excursion is worth it. This one was not!

Anyways, we had a great couple days with our friends but did not fish at all. Which is fine. Their company was more important. As we departed I decided on a stream in central UT that I wanted to try for the CRCT again. We made out way through Logan, Ogden, and SLC. We continued through Provo to Scipio and turned south on 50 to Salina. After another hour or so we finally turned off tarmac the began a slow and stressful journey on rough dirt roads to an isolated stream known to hold lovely cutts. Twisting and turning, jolting and rumbling our way through nasty terrain we finally made the final turn that the cached GPS indicated was our intended destination. Battered and bruised we got out of the car and stretched. We made lunch and walked over to the stream while eating our PB&Js. The good news was that we saw fish. The bad news was that they looked like brookies. Oh well, at least it was pretty.

Before stringing up we walked up and down a bit more just to clear our minds and take in the remote country in which we found ourselves (and our abused sedan). This really is a beautiful place; regardless of the brook trout.

With the recon and lunch finished I strung up and worked a couple of the pools. I wasn’t that eager with the lack of cutthroat. Truth be told I was very disappointed. After a couple minutes I saw a smallish trout moving toward me. It looked very grey. Not the way that it should have. In fact, the fins didn’t have the classic white trailing edge. I was very confused. I crouched down to further examine the fish.

That didn’t look like a brook trout to me. I tossed out the fly and enticed a hit, but missed the set…and the fish vanished downstream. Still confused and a little excite, I had renewed vigor. Could this stream hold cutthroat after all? I worked my way to the top of a pool and tied on the same bead-headed prince that I used for the Bonnevilles a little more than a week earlier. I sent it to the back of the run and stripped it slowly toward the top. Strike….fish on! After a short battle I was carefully admiring this:

I was absolutely ecstatic. Success! Eureka! Hot diggity dog! Whatever you want to say. I was holding my first CRCT. After hours of driving while ruminating on the WY skunk and the emotional “bottom falling out” developing because of thinking I was on a brookie stream, I was on cloud-freakin nine. I was admiring my third species of cutthroat and what a looker it was. No it wasn’t a monster but my oh my those colors. The belly, the lateral line, the gill plate, and that fiery slash. What a gem. After a slow and proper release I was hungry for more…and boy did I find them.

Cast after cast brought cutthroat after native cutthroat to hand. I worked the upper reaches in the forest, the meadows with it’s fallen trees and hidden roots, and the zone in between. What an afternoon. What an incredible experience.

After a good number of hours on the water and fearing the rough road that required careful navigation we called it a day. We rewound our steps and nimbly get our little car back to the smooth chipsealed highway. What a relief for it, my wife, and my pride. We made the hopm skip, and jump to St George where we spent the night in a simple motel that did the job. A friend had told me about a must-visit cafe for breakfast. She is a professional iron-women and her suggestions are good as gold. The Bear Paw Cafe lived up to the hype, the reputation, and the line. Online reviews may leave you wondering BUT seriously the food is good. Yes, the service may leave you wanting (a little) but the food was damn good. Full of bacony, sugary, breafasty goodness, we hoped back in the car and by nightfall had arrived home. What a trip.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *