Cutthroats were first observed by Europeans in the New World by Francisco de Coronado in 1541 in the Pecos River, in present day New Mexico. More than two centuries later, the explorers in the Corps of Discovery, specifically William Clark, wrote about the cutthroat and began the process of documenting their features. Due to the effort of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of cataloging and describing the various flora and fauna discovered in the United States, the Cutthroat was given the scientific name of Oncorhynchus clarki.
The genus oncorhynchus describes it as a member of the pacific trout group, which includes the Rainbow Trout. The range of Cutthroat Trout includes states West of the Rocky Mountains, as well as those states that the Rocky Mountains pass through (Montana, Colorado, Wyoming). Exceptions to this rule are Arizona and Texas, which don’t have native Cutthroat populations. Various Cutthroat subspecies have been introduced to Eastern and Western water systems that do not have native populations.
Due to the various subspecies of Cutthroat it is difficult to give accurate descriptions of each, however, there are some characteristics that each fly-fisherman should be aware of. Cutthroat can vary in size from 6-40 inches in length and in weight from mere ounces to 40 pounds. All of these size variations are due to the various environments that the Cutthroat is found in. Stream fish are of course smaller than those found in rivers and stillwaters. The back coloration of the Cutthroat can vary from green to golden to grey, depending on the subspecies. The back is spotted and depending on the coloration of the back of various subspecies, the cutthroat can be confused with a Rainbow.
Cutthroat spawning takes place anywhere from February to early July, depending on geographic placement of the subspecies. Water temperature is key to the spawn, it will begin when water temps reach between 43*-46*. For example, the Colorado River Cutthroat in the Strawberry river begins it spawn from anywhere between the middle of May to mid July, in which the upper Strawberry River is closed to angling. Cutthroat spawn in small to moderately large streams and rivers that are clear, well oxygenated, and have a pebble or fine gravel bottom. The female will construct a redd in the gravel and then lay anywhere between 200-4,000 eggs. After birth, the juvenile cutthroats take about 3-5 years to mature.
You can find Cutthroat in most Western States, Arizona is the only Western State that does not have a native population. However, they have been introduced into specific waterways in Arizona and some Eastern States. It should be noted that the Cutthroat is considered a Pacific trout, yet three subspecies-the Westslope, Yellowstone, and Greenback all evolved East of the Continental Divide. Because of geological and climate differences as these fish migrated, allowed for their migration across the Continental Divide, probably at Two Ocean Pass. Also, there is evidence to suggest that Yellowstone Lake once drained into the Snake River drainage. Regardless of their home, Cutthroats prefer to live in cold, clear, well-oxygenated, shallow rivers with gravel bottoms, or cold, moderately deep lakes. Stream-side vegetation that reduces erosion is great Cutthroat habitat.
The greatest concern for Cutthroats are the threats to their survival, and this is one of the reasons that these fish have become the darling of the Western Fly-Fishing culture. Cutthroat habitat has been declining for years, to the point where the natural habitat of Westslope Cutts is 10% of their original habitat. Another threat is inter and intraspecific breeding, for example Rainbow and Cutthroat trout readily breed together which have created a hybrid “cutbow” which is decreasing the genetic purity of native population of fish. This is also related to another threat to populations, the introduction of non-native species. Non-native species, as mentioned, may breed with the Cutthroat or may actually run rampant in their new ecosystem and push the Cutthroats out, which happened in Yellowstone Lake when Lake Trout were introduced and which has been an ongoing conservation effort for decades now to rid the lake of Lake trout and return the Yellowstone Cutthroat numbers.
What does this mean for the fly-fisherman. First, fish for Cutthroats as you would any other trout species in the United States. Use nymphs, wet flies, dries, streamers, whatever you have in your trout arsenal and you’ll more than likely catch a Cuttie if you’re fishing in waters that hold them. What we need to do is make sure that we’re fishing in a manner that is in the best interest of our quarry. Follow the regulations listed for the specific waterways that you’ll be fishing, they may include the immediate release of any fish with Cutthroat markings or not fishing the water during the spawn season. The Cutthroat have marked out a territory in the West and like the rail or cattle-barons of the Wild West the Cutties will fight to keep it.
As always, good luck and guid luck!
Behnke, Robert J.; Tomelleri, Joseph R. (illustrator) (2002). "Cutthroat trout Oncorhynchus clarki". Trout and Salmon of North America. The Free Press. ISBN 0-7432-2220-2.
Kendall, W. C. (1921). The Fishes of the Yellowstone National Park. Washington D.C.: Department of Commerce, Bureau of Fisheries.
"Utah State Fish — Bonneville Cutthroat Trout". Pioneer Utah's Online Library. Retrieved June 2nd, 2014.
Trout cutthroat fish oncorhynchus clarkii clarkii: This image or recordings is the work of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain. Accessed from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trout_cutthroat_fish_oncorhynchus_clarkii_clarkii.jpg
Colorado Cutthroat caught in the Currant Creek Drainage system. All rights reserved.
Oncorhynchus clarki range map: This image or recordings is the work of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain. Accessed from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oncorhynchus_clarki_range_map.JPG
Weber River Cutt: A cutthroat trout (most likely a Bonneville cutthroat trout) caught on the Weber River of Utah. Photo by Corey Kruitbosch, http://www.hivemind.com, File is available online at http://flickr.com/photos/coreyk/334714683/in/set-72157594282816025/. This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Coreyk23 at the wikipedia project. This applies worldwide.
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