Cutthroat Trout

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Cutthroat Trout
Coastal Cutthroat
West Slope Cutthroat
Lahontan Cutthroat
Yellowstone Cutthroat
Sinking Tips
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Cutthroat Trout
Scientifically called Oncorhynchus clarki,
these heavily spotted fish are so closely related to steelhead/rainbows that they readily cross in the wild and their offspring are fertile. This has been the demise of many wild cutthroat stocks throughout their range when hatchery rainbows were planted in cutthroat waters to provide sport fishing diversity. The rainbows, which are genetically dominant simply bred the cutthroats out of existence. At present, 14 subspecies of cutthroats are recognized. Three of these subspecies are listed as threatened and at least one is extinct. Four of these subspecies are of special interest to Northwest fly fishers. They are listed here for your entertainment. Mark Bachmann with a Coastal cutthroat caught from Oregon's South Coast
Coastal Cutthroat Trout
Searun Cutthroat.  Photo by Josh Linn. Cutthroat are found in four more-or-less distinct areas correlating to the four major cutthroat subspecies. They are: 1) The Coastal Cutthroat, found along the Pacific Coast to about 100 miles inland from the Eel River drainage in California to Prince William Sound in  Alaska. 2) The West Slope cutthroat, found in parts of Alberta, British Columbia, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. 3) The Lahontan Cutthroat found in central and north central Nevada. 4) The Yellowstone Cutthroat found in the interior
Rocky Mountains from Montana to New Mexico.
Although there are variations among the subspecies (and among races within the subspecies), cutthroats usually have greenish backs with yellow or silver sides showing many dark gray or black spots, and a slash of red on the lower jaw, which inspired it's name. Where cutthroats cross-breed with rainbows, the rainbow's markings dominate, making hybrids difficult to distinguish from pure rainbows.  Cutthroats are generally considered the most easily duped trout, but at times they can be difficult Resident mountain-stream cutthroat.  Photo by Mark Bachmann.
to catch and generally provide enough of a challenge to offer good sport.  Although the world-record cutthroat caught in 1925 weighed a whopping 41 pounds, that particular race of fish was determined extinct in 1945. Today, with variations among subspecies and habitat, the average stream cutthroat will be between 9 and 11 inches, and one over 16 is a beauty. In lakes and ponds they vary widely and can grow up to 6 pounds. The real charm, however, of catching a pure, native, cutthroat lies not in its size or in the difficulty of catching it, but in both its beauty and relative rarity. 
The Coastal Cutthroat (
Oncorhynchus clarki clarki) is native in Oregon in all watersheds west of the Cascade Mountains.  Coastal Cutthroats like Rainbows generally become sea run where they have access to the Pacific Ocean.  It is well known that introduced rainbow hatchery trout have interbred and destroyed many interior region Cutthroat populations.  However, in most of our Oregon coastal and Willamette Valley streams, Rainbows (steelhead) and Coastal Cutthroat inhabit the same watersheds in apparent harmony.  Some cross breading seems to occur, but pure strains of both species have been able to survive for many generations.  Both species do inhabit the Sandy River basin near our store in both resident and sea run forms.  At present Cutthroats seem to prefer the smaller headwater streams and the resident Rainbows like bigger water.  Even though the two species may inhabit similar areas they do exhibit slightly different personalities.  Rainbows are less wary about the approach of people but can be very selective feeders.  Cutthroats are very shy and are quick to run and hide if your approach is not stealthy, but they are opportunistic feeders.  That has been their undoing.  Unless they are scared they tend to grab any bait or fly that is put in front of them. You need a few select patterns when fishing resident Coastal  Cutthroat.  A Royal Wulff, Parachute Adams, Elk Hair Caddis, Bees, and Ants for dry flies and gray Hackle Peacock, Hares Ear,  Prince Nymph and Shone fly Nymph for wet flies.  Lighter weight tackle such as a #1 to #3 rods balance well with the size of fish you will encounter here.

 Westslope Cutthroat from ODFW Regulations Book! Westslope Cutthroat
Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi naturally occurs in an area from Southern Alberta to Central Idaho to the East slope of the Rockies in Montana and into Eastern Washington.  The only known natural 
population in Oregon is in some upper John Day river tributaries.   
Having grown up in the Idaho Pan Handle on a Lake Pend Oreille tributary called Grouse Creek, a West Slope Cutthroat was the first trout I ever caught.  It was early in the spring of my ninth year.  Grouse Creek was high and dirty from snow melt.  My dad and two other fishers parked me at the Big Barn Hole and told me to stay put as they trekked off up stream to find some water that was in shape to fish.  The Big Barn Hole was so named because it was thirty feet from the back of my dad's second barn. It had formed where the creek washed around a huge submerged tree that had been buried  horizontal in the mucky bottom of some ancient glacial lake.  The trunk  and massive root wad created a swirl that had excavated a large, deep pool that was the best holding water on my dad's property.  However on this day the adult fishermen had had no luck.  Armed with a slim 12 foot long pole made from a seasoned Tamarack sapling and a Prince Albert can of angle worms, I was elated that my dad trusted me enough to leave me alone by the river.  The bottom of the pool contained large numbers of  course scale suckers and I was content to plunk my bait for them.  Anything with fins was fair game.  Then came a tug that was sharper than the bottom feeders.  I pulled back so hard that the fish was jerked from the water with enough force that it sailed through the air and hit the side of the barn.  I scampered after it and found it flopping in the grass, a spotted 16" beauty that was my first trout.  When the adults returned they were amazed. It was the only trout caught that day.
Grouse Creek in my youth had a decent population of West Slope Cutthroats early in the spring when they migrated upstream from Lake Pend Oreille to spawn.  The locals called them "Red Bellies" because the males had bright vermilion coloration.  As I remember them they were pretty gullible.  In those days every angler carried a wicker creel and you weren't much of a man unless you brought it home full of trout layered in brake ferns.  These fish averaged 12" to 16" with an occasional specimen to 18".  By mid-summer the "Red Bellies" that survived all returned to the deep cold water of the lake leaving a few rainbows and whitefish behind.
Westslope Cutthroats were isolated by the last great glacial epoch and evolved separately from other Cutthroats.  As these lakes grew and retreated with climatic changes,  these unique Cutthroats were dispersed into both the upper Columbia and Missouri River drainages.  Unfortunately Westslope Cutthroats were designed for an age before modern man.  Pure strains have disappeared throughout much of their original range due to introduction of non-native species and habitat change.  Things that are rare and exotic are always deemed of higher value.  Is that why we make the many into the few?

LAHONTAN CUTTHROAT. The Lahontan Cutthroat is native to the interior drainage basin once occupied by ancient Lake Lahontan in western Nevada and eastern California.  Ancient Lake Lahontan covered much of this area until it receded nearly 12,000 years ago, leaving Pyramid, Walker and Winnemucca lakes.
This cutthroat trout also thrived in Lake Tahoe and Summit Lake and in the waters and tributaries of the Truckee, Walker, Quinn and Humboldt rivers.  Lahontan Cutthroats were formerly trapped in great numbers during their spring (and smaller fall) spawning runs. The largest spawning run was from Pyramid lake into the Truckee River, and the Pyramid Lake Lahontans were some of the largest trout in the world. The world's angling record for cutthroat is a 41 pound fish caught by Johnny Skimmerhorn from Pyramid Lake in 1925. The last spawning of the Pyramid Lahontans occurred in 1938.   At that time the Derby Dam and its diversions were completed on the Truckee River.  Lahontans since have been restored to Pyramid Lake and a trophy fishery exists there, though the fish are not the original strain and do not approach the size recorded in the last century.  Lahontan cutthroat occupy a great variety of habitats. Populations were historically abundant in large rivers and lakes.  They also inhabit small tributary streams. These fish are unusually tolerant of both high temperatures (>27 C) and large daily fluctuations (up to 20 C). They are also quite tolerant of high alkalinity (>3000 mg/l) and dissolved solids (>10000 mg/l). 
They are apparently intolerant of competition or predation by non-native salmonids, and rarely coexist with them (Behnke 1992, LaRivers 1962, Trotter 1987).  Because of this high tolerance to alkalinity Lohontan Cutthroats have been planted in lakes which are inhospitable to other species of trout such a Lake Lenore in Eastern Washington and Mann Lake in South East Oregon. All Lohontan lakes provide exceptional early season fly fishing.  Wooly buggers, leeches and peacock nymphs are the rule.
Patty Barnes at Mann Lake Mann Lake in the 1980's.  
During the high water years of the early 1980's, Mann Lake in Oregon was incredible fly fishing for Lohontan Cutthroats.
Lohontan Cutthroat

@streamside: gallery Yellowstone Cutthroat
The Yellowstone cutthroat trout Salmo clarki bouvieri, is the most abundant and widely dispersed subspecies of inland cutthroat trout. The historic range of the subspecies included the Yellowstone River drainage in Montana and Wyoming and 
portions of the Snake
River drainage in Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, Utah and perhaps Washington.  Yellowstone cutthroat trout became isolated in the headwaters of the Snake River after the creation of Shoshone Falls 30,000-60,000 years ago. Between 8000-12000 years ago Yellowstone cutthroat trout entered the Yellowstone River Drainage from the Snake River Drainage at Two Ocean Pass in what is now Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.  Yellowstone cutthroat trout subsequently Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout feeding on Rainbow Shiners by Michael Simon.
colonized all suitable habitats within the drainage. Since the late 1800s the occupied range of stream dwelling Yellowstone cutthroat trout in the state of Montana has decreased by approximately 90%.  Current distribution and abundance of Westslope Cutthroat trout is also severely restricted compared to historical conditions.  Genetically unaltered  Westslope Cutthroat trout are believed to exist in less than about 3 percent of the historic range within the upper Missouri River basin.  Causes for the decline of native cutthroat include; competition with and predation by non-native fish species, genetic introgression, over fishing, and habitat degradation. Many of the remaining genetically pure populations are located in small isolated headwater streams and are very vulnerable to extinction through both natural and human disturbances.
Recent findings indicate grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park depend on cutthroat trout. During a 3-year research project, conducted by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team and National Park Service biologists, a minimum of 84 different grizzlies visited streams around Yellowstone Lake during cutthroat trout spawning runs.  
The gullibility of the Cutthroat trout is what initially made the Montana Blue Ribbon Stream designation so popular.  To a large degree Cutthroats, and especially Montana Cutthroats are responsible for making fly fishing the popular sport it is today.  For many fly fishers, their first trout was a Cutthroat.  Yellowstone Cutthroats feed on whatever is available and are much less selective than Rainbow or Brown Trout.  Yellowstone Cutthroats unlike Westslope Cutthroats will also eat bait fish.  In that respect they are more like their cousins to the south, the Lahoutan Cutthroats.

Sinking Spey Line Tips

Because steelhead, the most popular sea run fish in our area refuse to rise to a fly unless conditions are ideal, sinking tip lines have proven more productive than floating lines for covering large rivers much of the time. The popularity of the two-handed fly rods in the Pacific Northwest is largely due to their ability to cast and fish sinking tip lines efficiently.  Steelhead guides that work within our territory all understand this. The use of sinking tip spey lines is such common knowledge within our peer group I never really considered that an article on the subject would be of much interest. That is until this past week when a client was commenting on how much he enjoyed Josh Linn's review of shooting head spey lines in last week's "Insider".  His next comment was, "Why doesn't someone supply similar information on sinking tips?"
Floating lines ride on top of the water because cells of air trapped within the polymer coating make them lighter than water.  Sinking lines use metal powder in place of the air cells. Most sinking lines on the market today use powdered tungsten which is very dense.  The sink rate of a fly line is determined primarily by its density. The more dense it is, the higher its specific gravity, the faster it will sink. Many anglers think that a heavier line will sink faster than a lighter line. This is true only if both lines are the same density. The coating mixture is one of the factors that controls density and sink rate. Metal powder is added to the plastic coating on the fly line in specific ratios.  The higher ratio of metal powder that is added to the formula the denser this fly line coating becomes.  If you had a complete tip set for an eight-weight WindCutter spey line, every tip would weigh 109-grains.  But there would be five tips in the set. There would be a floating bright yellow tip, intermediate clear tip, type-3 sinking tip, type-6 sinking tip and a type-8 sinking tip in the set. The floating tip contains air cells which are less dense than water, so it floats. The intermediate tip is coated with pure polymer , which contains no air cell or metal powder.  The polymer coating on the three sinking tips all contain metal powder in their coatings in different ratios to give them differing sink rates. Because of this the faster sinking tips are smaller in diameter than the slower sinking tips. Since polymer is slightly denser than water, the clear tip sinks at about 1.5-inches per second. Type-3 tips are designed to sink about 3-inches per second in still water. Type-6 tips sink about 6-inches per second and type-8 tips sink at about 8-inches per second. Sink rates change in moving water, because moving water creates friction which tends to slow the sink rate of any object. The faster the current, the more friction created, the slower a line will reach any depth. Usually the core of a fast sinking tip is made from braided fiber and closely resembles braided fly line backing. This material is used for tensile strength. The woven fiber have spaces between them which contribute nothing to a line's sink rate.  The fibers themselves are not much heavier than water. By and large the core within a sinking line is less dense than water so it actually inhibits sink rate. Therefore how fast a line sinks is dependent on how large in diameter the core is, and how thick the coating is over the top of it.  If the core strength remains the same in all the tips from eight-weight to twelve-weight, then the coating on the twelve weight tips is much thicker.  Even if the metal powder ratio is is the same in each weight of line, the larger one will sink faster because the coating to core ratio makes the larger one denser.  Because of larger mass and the increased energy they will store, heavier tips will turn over larger flies. That is the reason that Skagit lines have become so popular among winter steelhead fishermen, because they are able to concentrate mass and throw big flies easier and further. That is also the reason why anglers using a 500-grain Skagit head prefer to add a ten or eleven weight sinking tip, because the heavier tip sinks quicker due to the more efficient coating to core ratio and the added mass that launches larger flies.
The floating bodies on Skagit lines hold one end of a sinking tip near the surface where is can be manipulated by the angler so that fly speed can be controlled.
Water speed and fly line density aren't the only things that dictate how deep a tip will take your fly. Angle of presentation and tip length also have influences on how deep your fly will fish. Most presentations to anadromous fish in rivers start with a cast that is quartered downstream across the current. To get the line even deeper, a mend is often applied upstream so that the tip of the line is turned parallel to the current. This mend does two things. A sinking tip that is parallel to the current offers less resistance to the flow and the decrease in friction increases sink rate.  The mend also places slack at a precise position in the line to allow the tip to sink before the line regains tension. The line tip will then sink to a specific angle to the flow. The longer the tip, the deeper it will reach. The nearer to the bottom of the river, the slower the water moves within the river. Slower flows create less friction. So the deeper the line goes, the faster the very tip of the line sinks in most river conditions.  For this reason, full sinking heads will usually fish deeper than any kind of line which has a floating portion. The problem is that full sinking heads are difficult to cast and even harder to control in uneven currents. Full sinking heads usually don't cast large flies very well either. Sinking tips longer than fifteen feet are hard for many anglers to handle.
For that reason many anglers that use large flies prefer tips which are made from level sinking line such as T-8, T-11, T-14 or T-17.  The designation number is the weight in grains per each foot of the line. The most popular is T-14 which weighs 14-grains per foot.


The following table shows the length/weight for tip made from level line.
Rio Std 15' Tip Weight T-8 T-11 T-14 T-17
8wt = 109gr 13.6' 9.9' 7.8' 6.4'
9wt = 129gr 16.1' 11.7' 9.2' 7.6'
10wt = 150gr 18.8' 13.6' 10.7' 8.8'
11wt = 166gr 20.8' 15' 11.9' 9.8'
12wt = 190gr 23.8' 17.3' 13.6' 11.2'
Winter steelhead caught with a sinking tip line.

 


 

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Mark & Patty