How To Fly Fish

Are Cutthroat Trout “Pushovers”?

Cutthroat trout have a reputation for being “pushovers”. The word on the stream is that all you need do is float a big, bushy fly over them to get their attention. That works some of the time, but it leaves a lot of fish untouched.

Cutthroat are native to western North America, inhabiting many Rocky Mountain streams. They often became isolated, and evolved into at least fourteen recognized subspecies, more than any other trout specie. Their coloring and markings vary so much that one often wonders if they belong to the same specie. Below is a picture of a Yellowstone cutthroat, caught in “the park”.

are cutthroat trout pushovers

The next picture is of a westslope cutthroat caught in British Columbia.

are cutthroat trout pushovers

Despite the marked variations, they all share a bright orange slash-mark below the lower jaw, as better seen below.

are cutthroat trout pushovers

Cutthroat and rainbow trout have historically overlapped in streams along the Rocky Mountains.  Although they share the streams, they distribute themselves such that they demonstrate  the balance of nature. While rainbows prefer fast, choppy water, cutthroat prefer the slower, smooth glides. Thus, each is able to occupy their preferred portion of a stream, without competing with one another.

In “American Trout Fishing“, John Merwin cites studies purporting that cutthroat are a bit more gullible than brookies, and much more so than browns. In streams shared by rainbows and cutthroat, it has been my experience that cutbows, the cutthroat/rainbow hybrid, are more gullible than either of the pure strains. Despite their relative gullibility, my take is that relying on the “big-bushy” dictum severely limits the catch.

I fish cutthroat as I would other trout. If a hatch is on, I match it, and trail an emerger as well. As I have discussed in previous blogs, emergers almost always catch more fish during a hatch than a dun imitation.  In the absence of a hatch, rather than resorting to the “big-bushy” fly, I find that nymphing works better, as it does with the other species. During the summer, in the absence of a hatch, I often fish terrestrials, especially ants. Lately, most of the western ants that I see exhibit a mix of coloring, with a cinnamon abdomen and a black thorax. Below is a pattern I tie that works well, better than plain cinnamon and much better than black.

are cutthroat trout pushovers

When fishing ants, I don’t use floatant, as a saturated, sunken ant seems to work even better than a floating ant.

So the next time you fish streams with cutthroat trout, forget the old mantra of “pushovers for the big bushy flies”. Yes, you will catch some fish. But you will catch many more if you give them some respect, and fish them as you do other trout species.

written by Al Simpson, 05/2023

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