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Cutthroat trout are as sure a sign you’re in the Wild West as the smell of Copenhagen on a cowgirl’s breath. Cutthroats hold a special place in the hearts of western fly-fishers. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t go out of the way to fish a stream purported to hold a population of cutts. In my mind, streams are automatically elevated in status from trout stream to blue-ribbon trout stream when cutts are found there. I don’t presume to know what God was thinking when he created them, but I know he was having a good day.
I can imagine the delight he took choosing their dazzling colors, the care he took fashioning their delicate environment. Even the flies upon which it feeds are fragile creatures, beginning life as unassuming larva, changing at the moment of their most spectacular interaction with the trout into benign beings of color and light designed to mate, and then die in a state of sexual exhaustion. For me, catching just one cutt, even if it’s the only fish caught that day, means I’m having a good day. They leave me with a sense of pristine wilderness, a sense that all is right in the world, a sense of wonder for their mysteries.
All trout are remarkably colored, but cutthroats are truly a delight to behold—they never fail to bring a smile to my face. I believe most art to be feeble attempts to interpret the natural beauty around us, and I’ve seen artist’s renderings of cutthroats, but they fall short of my memory of them. When I have one in my hand, I could look at them for hours, but I get them back into the water as quickly as I can, so my mental picture of them is an accumulation of quick glimpses gathered over time: from the crimson slash under the rosy gill plates, which gives it its name, to the clean white underbelly that seamlessly transcends into a subtle mix of yellow, orange, pink, and bronze, forming a color that has no name, reminding me of a tequila sunrise.
Some anglers consider the cutthroat a dumb fish because of the supposed ease with which they are caught. I haven’t noticed them being any easier to catch than other trout; besides, any attempt to quantify levels of intelligence by fishermen must be viewed as presumptuous.
Survival is a full time job in the cutthroat’s environs and involves risk taking. They’re less nocturnal than most trout. They live in high-country streams where summers are short and winters are long and brutal. The time they have to fatten up for those long winters—when valleys quietly fill with snow, creeks freeze to a trickle, and trout retreat to deep pools to lie in a state of suspended animation—is short. Every opportunity to feed must be taken. I believe it’s this urgency that makes them take a dry fly with savage abandon.
Most of the time I mechanically work the water, casting to likely holds, hoping for a rise. But when I come across a pod of rising cutthroats, I sit and watch—rebuilding tippet and tying on another fly with shaking hands—until I think I’ve found their rhythm. My heart beats fast as I cast to the risers and watch my fly tip into a feeding lane, and by the time the fly is over the fish, I’m so keyed up I often jerk the fly from its mouth. It’s hard to let the fish take the fly and make its turn, but when I get it right, I become part of a beautiful scene: I’m holding a trembling bamboo rod against a backdrop of blue sage, and when the fish jumps, glittering prisms explode as the sun flashes off its wet, iridescent skin. The problems I woke up with are, for the moment, gone, and nothing matters but landing the fish.
I use barbless hooks, or mash the barb on barbed hooks. This cuts down on the panic I feel during the release. Most of the time the fish slips off on its final flip at my feet. And that’s good; I don’t have to handle them—I’m not worthy, anyway. Holding a pulsing cutthroat, working the hook from its jaw, I feel guilty. When releasing them, I catch myself commenting on their vivid colors, telling them how glad I am to see them—apologizing for the intrusion. Watching it move slowly away hugging the bottom, I feel part of my soul escaping with it.
There’s a stream where I frequently catch Cutts over twenty-inches. It’s closed to fishing for six-months a year for spawning. Opening day is a cluster.
An infestation of worm-drowning, corn-soaking, spinner-slinging Huns—the kinds of people mothers only love out of instinct or a sense of duty—descends on the creek.
I never go on opening day. By the time I get there, gut piles, fish heads, and ass-wipes line the banks of the bend pools, and the reasons I seek the cutthroat’s environs are gone.
Mostly I go to see if there are any survivors. After I’ve caught a couple, I start wondering what the point would be to catch more. After all, any season is a good season when you’ve caught a couple of twenty-inch-plus cutts. And for me, the satisfaction is in knowing they’re still there.
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