Having grown up in New England, I did not lay eyes on a cutthroat trout until I was twenty-eight years old. During a week of training to be a fly-fishing guide in Montana’s Paradise Valley, I caught my first cutty on a Yellowstone River float trip with my fellow guides, and I was immediately smitten. Over the course of that summer, I fished for the species across Big Sky Country and throughout Yellowstone National Park, and I’ll never forget how along one particular bank on the Lamar River, the cutthroats would rise excruciatingly slowly to inspect a hopper or Pale Morning Dun. I’d find myself holding my breath in anticipation of the strike, which sometimes wouldn’t come.
More than a decade ago, I introduced my two brothers to the cutthroat, when we spent a week completing the Wyoming Cutt-Slam, landing all four subspecies native to the Cowboy State. Not only was it a great fishing trip—which took us from Cody to Jackson to Kemmerer—but it was also a fascinating way to see first-hand the importance of protecting native subspecies from habitat destruction and hybridization. To many anglers, a cutthroat is a cutthroat, but the subtle and not-so-subtle differences among subspecies become stark when you are focused on catching each one on consecutive days.
So when my friend Brett Prettyman–Trout Unlimited’s Intermountain Communications Director and former Trout Bum of the Week–told me last April that his native Utah was launching a similar program, I knew that I wanted to participate. I talked my high-school buddy Fred Hays into joining me, and we flew out to Salt Lake City in early August. Over the next six days, we pursued the four subspecies that make up the Utah Cutthroat Slam—Bear River, Bonneville, Yellowstone, and Colorado River cutthroats—focusing on the headwater streams that provide the best spawning habitat for these native fish. In the process, we explored some of the most remote, beautiful trout waters that the Beehive State offers and learned about several important native-trout conservation projects.
A Long Time Coming
The Utah Cutthroat Slam is not a new idea. Wyoming celebrated the twentieth anniversary of its Cutt-Slam in 2016, and for nearly as long, Prettyman and Northern Region Aquatics Manager Paul Thompson had been pushing the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to emulate their neighbor’s success. They were finally able to get the program off the ground by forging a first-of-its-kind partnership between Trout Unlimited and UDWR, in which the state agency provides photos, videos, maps, and information on where to find each native subspecies, and TU manages the Utah Cutthroat Slam website. According to Prettyman, the program’s focus on the value of native fish and educating anglers about the unique characteristics of each subspecies is right in line with TU’s mission.
The Director of UDWR, Greg Sheehan, had also supported the idea since he took office in 2012, but he wanted to ensure that the Cutthroat Slam’s conservation commitment was made explicit to those who participated. So, whereas the Wyoming program is free for anglers, Sheehan pushed for a $20 registration fee in Utah, with 95% of those funds going to cutthroat conservation. “I wanted to make sure that the fly fishermen who came here to fish for these native trout had some actual skin in the game,” he told me. By paying money into the system, Sheehan believes, anglers become active partners in the conservation process, which makes them more engaged and focused on the efforts to restore the four subspecies to their original ranges.
Getting on the Board
The first subspecies on our itinerary was the Bear River cutthroat, so Fred and I drove east out of Salt Lake and then traveled the stunning Mirror Lake Byway into the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. There we met Jim DeRito, Bear River Project Leader for Trout Unlimited, who navigated a series of dirt roads to show us a fascinating fish screen on a lovely freestone section of the East Fork of the Bear River. Installed at the head gate of an irrigation canal, the screen keeps trout from being carried into the canal system, from which they can’t escape. The water flows across a long screen, which keeps the fish on top and deposits them back into the river, while the water for irrigation falls through the screen and empties into the canal. It’s a great system for preserving the needs of both the water users and the cutthroats.
Finally, it was time to wet a line and get our Cutthroat Slam underway. I tied on a bushy PMX dry fly and waded in just a few feet from the fish screen. On my first five casts, I got three strikes, finally connecting on the third. As I brought the five-inch trout to hand, I could see that the Bear River subspecies features sparse, small spots on its sides, with the spots growing larger and more numerous as you move toward the tail. It’s a beautiful fish.
Although officially considered a Bonneville cutthroat by taxonomists, the Bear River cutthroats have been isolated from other Bonneville populations for thousands of years, and recent genetic evidence suggests that Bear Rivers are more closely related to the Yellowstone cutthroat than other Bonneville populations. Because of this, UDWR and Trout Unlimited treat the Bear River as if it were a separate subspecies, which explains its place of honor in the Utah Cutthroat Slam.
Fred landed his first cutthroat a few minutes later, and we proceeded to leapfrog each other upstream. By the time we’d each caught a half dozen trout, including some nonnative brookies, daylight was beginning to wane. We hiked back to the truck and were treated to a glorious view of the Uinta Mountains bathed in slanted, golden sunlight. It was a great start, and we felt good about checking off our first subspecies.
The next morning, Jim took us to fish the main stem of the Bear River on a meadow section far downstream because, he said, he wanted us to see how the habitat work in the headwaters streams benefits the fishery below. Cutthroats are “fluvial,” which means that they travel within the river system as part of their life history—living in the main river but heading up small tributaries and the headwaters of the main stem to spawn. Therefore, providing connected spawning habitat is vital to a healthy population. Although the fishing was slower than it had been the day before—the cloudless sky certainly didn’t help—we both managed to land considerably larger Bear River cutts, which proved Jim’s point.
The Importance of Headwaters
Day Three started in the small town of Coalville, northeast of Salt Lake City, where we met a group of heavy hitters in Utah’s cutthroat-conservation programs: director Greg Sheehan; Paul Thompson, Northern Region Aquatics Manager; Habitat Restoration Biologist Clint Brunson; and Paul Burnett, Trout Unlimited’s Utah Project Leader. They gave us a fascinating tour of a recent culvert-replacement project on Fish Creek, part of the Chalk Creek system—one of the last strongholds of native Weber River Bonneville cutthroats. Because of a failing 100-foot culvert, covered by 35 feet of road fill, Fish Creek’s upstream spawning and rearing habitat had been cut off from the river for decades.
In 2014, a project funded by a variety of conservation organizations and government agencies removed the culvert and all the fill, rebuilt the streambed and the banks, and constructed a bridge over the creek. Weber River cutthroats now have access to seven miles of important habitat, which will help ensure the future health of the fishery. To my eye, the rebuilt stretch looked like a perfectly natural freestone stream, as well, including a couple good-looking resting pools for spawners on their way up stream.
After our tour, the two Pauls—Thompson and Burnett—took Fred and me to the North Fork of the Ogden River to catch the Utah state fish, the Bonneville cutthroat. (See “Closer Look,” June/July 2016.) This was small-stream fishing, with very little room to maneuver, often requiring a bow-and-arrow cast or dapping just to get your fly on the water. It reminded me of some of the smaller Green Mountain streams where I catch native brookies. Fred and Paul Burnett hopped in not far from the trucks, while Paul Thompson and I headed upstream. Right away, we were into fish, and once again, the PMX was the fly of choice. Most pockets that looked fishy held trout, and we caught eight or ten before things started to quiet down. After just three days, we were halfway to our Cutthroat Slam goal.
Into the Wild
Our next subspecies, the Yellowstone cutthroat, is found only in the Raft River Mountains, in the remote, sparsely populated northwestern corner of Utah. It’s the kind of place that a lifelong resident of Salt Lake City, just three hours away, has probably never visited. Accompanied by Paul Thompson, we spent the night in an old schoolhouse that the UDWR has converted into a bunkhouse, arising early to fish Basin Creek, flowing through open ranchland nearby. As Paul cooked bacon and eggs, Fred and I enjoyed the sunrise over the stark, mostly treeless landscape.
When we arrived at the meandering stream, a herd of cattle crowded its banks upstream, and the effects were immediately evident in the muddy water. None of us could draw a strike on a dry fly, so we switched over to small Woolly Buggers to score our first Yellowstones. Since the fishing was so slow, Paul suggested that we head high into the nearby mountains to fish another tiny stream called George Creek.
The terrain could not have been more different, as we traveled from arid sagebrush grassland to lush forest in just twenty miles. In fact, as we hiked through the large pines and lush vegetation, Fred turned to me and said, “This looks like prime Squatch country.” The creek itself was small enough to jump across, and colorful wildflowers covered the sunny hillside opposite the forest. The hard part was getting your fly on the water—we again resorted to bow-and-arrow casts and dapping—but each little plunge pool held a gorgeous gem of a cutthroat, and they were eager to eat our dry flies.
A Trout-Filled Oasis
The final stop on our tour was Boulder Mountain, a high-elevation plateau that’s an oasis of green amid the spectacular desert landscapes that make southern Utah a popular tourist destination. We picked up Brett Prettyman on our way through Salt Lake City, drove three hours south, and then met up with fisheries biologist Mike Hadley and TU’s Price River Project Manager, Jordan Nielson. After lunch at the Sunglow Café in the small town of Bicknell—I highly recommend their famous pickle pie—we headed into the mountains on a series of well-maintained dirt forest roads.
Our first destination was a lake formed by a large beaver dam, just about a half-mile hike from the trailhead. Although conditions looked perfect—overcast skies, a slight breeze, and clear water—none of us could hook up for the first hour or so. An approaching storm front seemed to have given the fish lockjaw, a situation made even more frustrating when Brett and I watched a large trout lazily cruising just under the surface right in front of us. It didn’t even spook when we cast at it; instead it simply ignored our offerings and continued on its way.
As I rummaged around in my fly box trying to find a solution, I unearthed a Soft Hackle tied on a heavy jig hook. I’m pretty sure that the pattern was left over from my trip to Slovenia two years earlier and hadn’t been in the water since. With a shrug, I tied it on, cast into the deepest part of the lake, and retrieved it with slow, short strips.
On my fourth or fifth cast, a fish hammered the fly between strips, and the game was on. After a brief fight, I got my hand around the biggest fish of the trip and the one that would complete my Slam. Colorado River cutthroats are considerably darker, with richer colors, than the other species we had caught, and I marveled at the remarkable spotting pattern and the deep red throat slash. After Mike took a few quick snaps, I released the fish and received congratulations on my slam. Fred caught his final subspecies on the outlet stream just a few minutes later.
The Utah Cutthroat Slam is a remarkable way to turn a fly-fishing trip into a learning experience, an exploration of new waters and landscapes, and a conservation project. All of us can use an occasional reminder about the importance of maintaining native trout stocks, and were it not for my goal to catch the subspecies that make up the Slam, I’m sure I would have never visited such diverse parts of Utah. But aside from all that, completing the Slam was simply a blast—spending time on the water with friends old and new, catching gorgeous trout in pristine waters, and letting go of the “real world” in favor of vast, remote wilderness.
If You Go
Travel: Salt Lake City is a major airline hub, so it’s easy to get there from anywhere in the country.
Lodging: Lodging opportunities vary widely in the different parts of the state where the four subspecies are found.
- Bear River: Bear River Lodge sits right on the main stem of the river and offer easy access to the East Fork, as well.
- Bonneville: Bonneville cutthroats thrive in the Weber River drainage, which parallels I-84 and runs right through Ogden, so there are myriad places to stay.
- Yellowstone: There are no amenities in the Raft River Mountains. The nearest town with decent lodging is Tremonton, about an hour and a half away.
- Colorado River: There are plenty of campgrounds on Boulder Mountain, or you could choose to stay in a motel in Escalante, Boulder, Torrey, or Bicknell. The Sunglow Motel offers the chance to try the pickle pie in the café.
Seasons: If you want to catch the subspecies at higher elevations, July through September is your best bet. But you could conceivably complete the slam at any time of year.
Information: Your first stop when planning a Utah Cutthroat Slam trip should be utahcutthroatslam.org, the website dedicated to the program. There, you will find descriptions of each subspecies, maps of watersheds where each is found, and more. If you plan to fish Boulder Mountain,
Gear: For headwater streams, a 3- or 4-weight fly rod will do the trick, and these are great waters to try a short fiberglass stick. If you plan to fish larger rivers, such as the Weber, pack a 5- or 6-weight, as well.
This story first appeared in American Angler magazine.
To learn more about our trip–including maps and lots more photos–check out my blog posts from last summer:
Utah Cutthroat Slam, Day One: Into Bear Country
Utah Cutthroat Slam, Day Two: Downstream Effects
Utah Cutthroat Slam, Day Three: Cutts and Ladders
Utah Cutthroat Slam, Day Four: Into No Man’s Land
Utah Cutthroat Slam, Days Five and Six: Oh, to Live on Boulder Mountain