Rich Landers: Timelessness of cutthroats lures all anglers

An angler releases a cutthroat trout while fly fishing just after spring runoff on the Coeur d'Alene River. (Rich Landers photos)
An angler releases a cutthroat trout while fly fishing just after spring runoff on the Coeur d'Alene River. (Rich Landers photos)

The westslope cutthroat trout is like chicken soup for the fly fisher’s soul.

Angling for this native of the mountain streams in Idaho and Montana has been passed down through generations. It’s a go-to species for anglers whether they’re on top of their game or down on their luck.

Few fish are as willing as a cutthroat to take a fly.

Some people call them dumb, but that’s naïve talk.

“They’re opportunistic because they’re so well adapted to cool, clean waters,” said Jim Fredericks, Idaho Fish and Game Panhandle fisheries manager.

“They don’t see that much good food coming at them during the day, so they can’t be too picky. That’s what makes them so popular with people learning to fly fish, and experienced anglers, too.”

To a fisheries biologist, the cutthroat is special for another reason: “They belong here,” Fredericks said.

In other words, cutts are the fish God put here in the first place, engineered to fit the niche as originally designed. It’s hard to argue with The Architect of that fisheries plan, although everyone who wants to will eventually get the chance.

Meanwhile, most anglers are content to catch them, and most often release them immediately.

Idaho has found cutthroat trout to be much more valuable in the streams taking flies, than in skillets frying in butter.

Year-round catch and release regulations have maintained the St. Joe and Coeur d’Alene rivers among the best cutthroat trout fisheries in the world despite heavy fishing pressure.

Fisheries managers have landed overwhelming popular support for no-kill rules. They’re here to stay, and so are the cutthroats.

“They’re synonymous with the crystal clear water of Idaho mountain rivers,” Fredericks said. “I grew up fishing for cutthroats in the Clearwater drainage. One of my most vivid memories is the image of a cutthroat coming up from the dark blue of a deep stream hole to take a dry fly floating on the surface. There’s nothing else quite like it.”

Portions of many prized cutthroat streams are paralleled by roads, including the Joe, Coeur d’Alene, North Fork Clearwater, Kelly Creek, Selway and Lochsa in Idaho, as well as fisheries in Montana and British Columbia. Every road turnout along these streams seems to be near a deep, good-looking pool that obviously holds fish.

“But if the river is busy, walk an extra 50 yards or so up or downstream and you often can find some riffly runs that are waist- to neck-deep and holding some fish,” said Sean Visintainer of Silver Bow Fly Shop in Spokane Valley.

Cutthroats have their standards. They tend to be wary of the big flashy stuff that attracts a rainbow, the way country folk are skeptical of snake charmers.

Certainly they can be as cold-hearted as they are cold-blooded, but never for long.

While fishing my favorite hike-in sections of what I’ll call “Cutthroat Creek,” I occasionally have hit fishing conditions in which the cutthroat were feeding like pigs at the trough.

I devoted two afternoon hours during one such episode researching whether there was a fly pattern in my box that would NOT take a cutthroat.

Answer: No.

People who have read stories about these trips over the years have often asked me for directions to Cutthroat Creek.

I tell them to keep fishing.

At some point, you’ll hook another cutthroat, release it into the clear water and wade out to simply sit by the stream and soak it all in – even though more of the agreeable natives are still rising.

That’s when you’ve arrived.

Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email richl@Spokesman.com.

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Rich Landers

Rich Landers

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