Cutthroat Trout | - July 7, 2008

Trout of Enchantment

To most people familiar with the cutthroat trout, the fish is the embodiment of the pristine, the quarry that lures us beyond our cities, to the ends of dirt roads, miles upon miles up forested mountain creeks where the likelihood of meeting a hungry bear surpasses our chances of encountering another human being. This jewel of a fish—with color variations of an almost infinite blending of orange, yellow, red, turquoise, maroon, and green—may be the ultimate proof of nature’s superiority as an artist. As though bent on driving this point home, our state fish seems happy to take an angler’s every offering, if only to display its colors to the sunlight.

The cutthroat trout was once the only extant trout species in the Rocky Mountains, ranging from there to the eastern fronts of the Sierra Nevada and Cascades. The cutthroat was king. It was still a wilderness fish, but wilderness in those days was all there was. Then Europeans from the eastern seaboard and from Mexico began settling the western continent, and they brought intensive grazing, logging, farming, mining, and fishing activities with them. Streambanks were trampled down. Water temperatures rose, and streams filled with silt. Cutthroat populations, requiring ample amounts of clean, cold water and sediment-free spawning gravel, plummeted. In the late 1800s, non-native rainbow (native to the Pacific slope) and brown trout (from Eurasia) were introduced into the intermountain west. The rainbows hybridized with the cutthroats and competed for their food supply. The browns were harder to catch and ate young cutthroats. Both rainbows and browns could better withstand the human-caused high water temperatures. The cutthroats didn’t stand a chance.

This is why you find cutthroats where you do, places that in some significant way are out of reach of the things that put this species in its current pickle. In Yellowstone National Park, the world’s largest population of cutthroat trout lives unmolested, above two towering waterfalls. In New Mexico, populations exist in the Pecos Wilderness, Jemez Mountains, and in the mountains north and east of Taos. The Chama area also boasts several cutthroat fisheries. What our viable cutthroat fisheries have in common is difficult to define, but again, there is usually some element of isolation involved.

Headwater streams are ideal cutthroat habitat. They are either steep and fast (spring runoff) or steep and shallow (fall low water), which makes them difficult for other trout species to ascend. They are usually lined with thick brush and are cluttered in many places with big logs and rocks, inhospitable terrain for cows and most fishermen. Strangely, another reason why you’ll find cutthroat trout in headwater streams is their beauty, which usually leads to protection by state or federal governments.

New Mexico streams known for good cutthroat fishing include the Rio Costilla in Valle Vidal, the Rio Santa Barbara near Peñasco, the Pecos River above Pecos Falls, and the Rio Hondo near Taos Ski Valley. The Rio de las Vacas and Rio Cebolla in the Jemez Mountains have their fair share of cutthroats too. The exact type and purity of fish in these streams is not clear, given the presence of rainbow trout and introduced forms of cutthroat (historically, wilderness lakes throughout the Rockies were stocked by helicopter with cutthroat fingerlings, usually the Westslope or Yellowstone variety). No matter what species one finds, however, it will bear the cutthroat’s calling card, the two parallel, bright red marks or “slashes” under the fish’s chin.

As far as catching these fish, one needs only a hook and a line, since the cutthroat is famously easy to catch. The reason for this is obvious: confined to harsh headwater environments with short growing seasons, food is not something a cutthroat trout can take for granted. Whatever floats by must be sampled, or a fish runs the risk of starving. I prefer catching cutthroats on dry flies, because I can see them surface to my fly. Worms work well too, though since bait is real food, a fish will often swallow the hook. A throat-hooked fish almost always dies, so if you intend to release some or all of your catch, use spinners or flies.

A few points on specific New Mexico cutthroat streams. Cutthroats on the Rio Costilla strike and spit a fly faster than any fish I’ve ever seen, and I’m not the only person who thinks this; you must be faster on your hook sets. The cutthroats high on Rio de las Vacas are abnormally large for the volume of water they inhabit, though this may have changed since 2005, when a dry spell caused dewatering of long stretches of the stream. The most beautiful cutthroats in New Mexico are, in my opinion, those inhabiting the Rio Hondo. Their backs seem to have taken the silver turquoise hue of the stream water; mix that with an orange belly and you have a sight you won’t forget. And the award for the hardiest cutthroats goes to the cuttys in the Rio Santa Barbara, who must brave not only poaching and irrigation, but competition from rainbows and browns, against which they more than hold their own. You’ll catch most of these fish in the areas of highest traffic.

When fishing any of these streams, one always hopes that the fish on the line will not only be a cutthroat trout, but the increasingly rare Rio Grande cutthroat trout, New Mexico’s state fish and only native gamefish. The creeks I’ve listed certainly once harbored Rio Grandes and probably still do, but the chance of a pure fish is very slim indeed. To find Rio Grande cutthroats of the highest purity, one has to explore the headwaters of the Rio Chiquito near Taos, or Rio de la Olla, or Alamitos Creek near Mora or the highest headwaters of other cutthroat streams.

Great efforts are being made by citizen groups such as Trout Unlimited and New Mexico Trout to restore the Rio Grande cutthroat to much of its New Mexico range. Indeed, with the possibility of the fish being listed as a threatened or even endangered species, we’ll either save the fish voluntarily or have restoration forced upon us by law. Either way, restoring our very own cutthroat trout is one of the worthiest goals New Mexicans could embrace. This wonderful tiny fish—olive green on the back with a yellow and orange belly and a smattering of big black spots near the tail—has the power to not only deepen our sense of history, but to make that history meaningful through the many years to come.