What do you get when you cross an adventurer, a lover of beautiful places and a fly fisherman? You end up with me, who some have called a Don Quixote of trout fishing. And perhaps they’re right. Of one thing I’m sure, one of the perfect places to go questing is Wyoming in search of the state’s four beautiful native subspecies of cutthroat trout. Stream Side Adventures calls it the Cutthroat Adventure. Back in 1996 Wyoming established the Cutt Slam program to recognize anglers who catch all four cutthroat subspecies. To date less than 500 certificates have been awarded.
The distribution map makes it look like a simple task to catch all four of the state’s cutthroats. Each one covers a relatively large, but distinct area of the state. When Louis and Clark first visited the area cutthroat trout were everywhere. In fact in each basin, they were the only trout and often one of only a few total species of fish.
Today it is a very different story. In most streams of the four basins these beautiful native fish have been driven out by the introduction of exotic species. Over a century ago well meaning fisheries managers thought that the introduction of different species of trout would only enhance the fishing opportunities. We have learned a lot since those days. Today we know that the exotic Rainbow Trout from the Pacific coast will hybridize with the Cutts, Brook Trout transplanted from the Appalachians out compete them, and Brown Trout from Europe will both out compete and devour the young.
But there are still remnant populations or areas where populations have been re-established by resource management agencies. The trick is to find these areas. Do that and you can become part of an elite group of anglers.
The most widespread yet hardest to find is the Yellowstone Cutthroat. During my first quest in 2007 I fished many streams in the Yellowstone’s supposed native range. In most of what should have been prime Yellowstone Cutt habitat the only trout to be caught were rainbows. When finally I found a stream with Yellowstones it was in the extreme eastern portion of their range and a long way from the other three subspecies. When time is of the essence, it is too far to travel.
On that first quest, I purposely avoided fishing in Yellowstone Park, but this year I was being joined in the quest and time was a limiting factor for my companions. Since many of the headwater streams of the Yellowstone River basin within Yellowstone National Park have good populations of Yellowstone Cutts we would fish there. Without any fanfare we got our Yellowstone Cutts and a grizzly bear as well!
The next prize in the quest was the Bear River Cutthroat. While having a relatively wide distribution in Utah, the Bear River Cutthroat’s range in Wyoming is restricted, making this subspecies probably the most difficult in the Wyoming Cutt Slam. Many of the streams in the Bear River Cutt’s native range have been degraded by abstraction and over grazing. The best locations for finding Bear River Cutts are deep in the Bridger Teton National Forest. The more miles of bone jarring dirt roads you travel the better the likelihood of finding the quarry. This year’s approach into the basin was from the middle rather than coming down from the headwaters. Once well back into the national forest we found perfect Bear River Cutthroat habitat and within just a few casts the second prize of the quest was secured. No one said that only one fish was allowed. With water this beautiful it’s hard to tear yourself away. And we didn’t!
As the afternoon shadows grew longer it was time to head on for the third prize of the quest, a Snake River Fine Spotted Cutthroat. Last year the Fine Spotted had been my hardest fish to catch. For the better part of a day I moved from one location to another without even a rise. Finally I pulled into to a small clearing above the river for one last look. A fish was rising. Two casts later I had a Fine Spot and 20 casts latter had several more. Knowing I would be back again, I put the location in my mental GPS. My mental GPS served me well this year. I drove right to the spot. While I set up our camp for the night my companions fished. As if on queue, just as I was finishing preparing dinner, in they walked with tales – and pictures – of 13 to 16 inch Snake River Fine Spotted Cutts. Since I’d been busy as the “Camp Guy” and hadn’t had a chance for my third prize of the quest; following morning I fished just long enough to catch it.
Three down – in just two days! Only one to go – the quest was nearly over. Our spot for the Colorado River was only about twenty miles away as the crow flies but unfortunately we had far more bouncing dusty mountain road miles to reach our location. Twenty five miles down the river valley and turn right at Forest Service road. Follow it up through the mountains and over McDougal Gap. Go down the other side until you can turn right. Follow the right hand turn until you can’t go much further. Then you are there. As with the other three prizes we didn’t have to fish very long before landing the fourth of the quest.
Finally we had time just to relax and enjoy an afternoon of fishing, a chance to contemplate the beautiful areas we had seen and the adventure we had shared. Our race against time had made the trip more of a scavenger hunt than a true quest. Next year it will be different. These Wyoming jewels and the areas they live in are too precious to do justice in a flying visit. Each stream deserves a day of its own. Besides, we know where a few more bragging sized fish live. They will be there even bigger and, unfortunately, smarter next year. But then again, that’s what a quest is all about, isn’t it?