Classic Photo Essay: In Search of the World’s Rarest Trout

Written by: Frank Seifert, Orvis Roseville

This was the prize after many hours of driving and hiking. And it was worth it.
All photos courtesy Frank Seifert

Deep in the Sierra Nevada of California lives a trout so rare and unique that it has become almost mystical. The fish I am referring to is the Paiute cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki seleniris).

Considering my desire to find and catch all the native trout of California, catching this trout has been something that has been an obsession of mine for many years now. I have spent countless hours on the internet, studying maps and taking in whatever information I could.

The author heading into the mountains to try to fulfill his dream of catching a Paiute trout.

Believed to be the rarest trout in the world, the Paiute cutthroat almost became extinct before it was discovered. The story is that around 1912, a young Basque sheepherder used a coffee can to transplant a bunch of the Paiute trout upstream over a set of falls to provide more fishing opportunities for himself. Around 1925, the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) planted the section of the stream below the falls with rainbow trout. The rainbows hybridized (bred) with the Paiute until the Paiute became extinct. Fortunately, the Paiute trout above the falls were protected from the invasive rainbow trout and could become established. The Paiute have a short growing season because of the rugged and stressful environment in which they live; they seldom live past four years old and rarely exceed 12 inches long. DFG transplanted fish into isolated streams in case something happened to the original population above the falls. Of the streams that received the transplants, only a few are legal to fish and all are extremely difficult to access.

The stream was small and overgrown, and not much to look at.

To many fly fishermen, the golden trout is referred to as the most beautiful trout, but perhaps this is unfair to say because so few people have ever seen a Paiute trout. The Paiute is the only trout in the world with no spots. Its coloration and iridescent sheen provided its Latin name: seleniris, meaning rainbow of the moon. I believe that the Paiute is the prettiest of all trout.

Currently DFG allows fishing below the falls, but not above. With so many rainbow trout below the falls hybridization is inevitable, and an angler’s only hope is to catch a Paiute that has washed over the falls. I have made this trip several times without success. I think the odds of winning the lottery are much higher than actually catching a Paiute below the falls.

Careful scouting revealed a few fishable stretches.

Fortunately I have good friends who share my passion for rare trout. One friend, Mike, found a population of these rare beauties in a faraway land that would require hours of driving on a four‐wheel‐drive trail, which punished Mike’s truck severely, and a brutal hike at 9,000 feet elevation. This trip required us to park in Nevada and hike into California to get to a creek so overgrown that casting was not possible. Once I made it to the creek, it really began to sink in: I just worked so hard to get here and my chances of catching one of these rare fish is extremely slim. The chance of catching a Paiute more than eight inches long would be darn near impossible. I just kind of smiled and realized that there was no place in the world I would rather be.

Mike noticed a very small opening between the brush of this diminutive creek that would barely offer enough room for my body to squeeze through. I was able to dap my fly into a pool the size of manhole cover. I was instantly rewarded with a small but beautiful Paiute cutthroat trout. After a few photos, we revived the fish and returned it to his home.

We worked our way upstream a few hundred yards and found a few openings in the creek, but were unable to catch any more fish. This is the hardest I have ever worked for such a small fish, but this is also the most rewarding fishing trip I have ever had. I will probably never go back, but this place will always provide me with a happy memory.

Frank Seifert is a fishing associate at Orvis Roseville.

After a lot of work, they had just one fish to show for it, but they had achieved their goal.

2 thoughts on “Classic Photo Essay: In Search of the World’s Rarest Trout”

  1. That’s a great story, it was enjoyable to read. However…your hands look very dry handling the fish in the picture.

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