Discovering Utah Through the Cutthroat Slam
After fishing the Arizona Wild Trout challenge I was eager to find similar programs. One that stuck out to me was the Utah Cutthroat Slam because I had never fished for any Cutthroat species before. It took awhile for things to come together but when a good friend I made from my fly fishing writing invited me to come out and fish Utah with him I jumped on the opportunity. The goal of the Utah Slam is to catch the four native species of cutthroat in their historic range.
#Matchingthehat with the Rep Your Water X Western Native Trout Initiative collab hat.
Anthony Guerrero is a Las Vegas local that is just as addicted to chasing native trout species as I am. From reading my Arizona Wild Trout Challenge posts we became social media friends and talked a lot about our love for these fish. It wasn’t until after I moved away from Arizona that Anthony had been going out there to complete his own wild trout challenge so our paths had not crossed. He linked up with a few of my friends there and we began planning a trip to fish together in the future. That time had come and I found myself at the Las Vegas airport wandering around 3 levels of confusion hoping to find a friend I had never met in person. Anyone as crazy as I am about these fish can’t be all that bad right? Luckily I was right and didn’t end up in a bathtub full of ice with a missing kidney or something.
We started off by heading to Arizona to meet up with my good friend Ricky Furbee. My last trip out there we had struck out on native trout so we decided to give it another shot. At the end of the day we were all pretty exhausted and our legs barely wanted to move but we did get to catch some pure strain Apache trout. The intention of this trip was to focus on the Utah slam so after being sidetracked in Arizona we made our way to camp near the first species on the list.
As we drove down the moonless dirt road into what seemed to be the middle of nothing all I could think of was a warm fire and getting some rest. As the car came to a stop it wasn’t the tents or fire wood we went for but straight to the tumbling sound of water. With only a small head lamp and cell phone lights we checked out the pool close to camp which fueled our excitement for the next day. After a few cold drinks and food by the fire, I climbed into my tent falling asleep almost the moment I zipped up my sleeping bag.
The next morning anticipation of our first Bonneville Cutthroat was all the wake up call we needed so we skipped coffee and went straight to rigging up our rods. The stream was our ideal set up since we all love the small stream style of fishing. After a few minutes of walking we spotted the surface rings of a rising fish and set up to get the best angle to present a fly in front of the fish. Of course the excitement of the perfect situation got the best of me and my hopper was tangled in some grass rather than being eaten by the fish. Luckily I was able to crawl down to retrieve the fly without blowing up the spot and got my second cast right where it needed to be. I watched as the small cutthroat aggressively confused my fly for easy breakfast and instantly felt the bend of my fiberglass rod. I scooped the fish up and was relieved to know the rest of this creek would be completely about enjoying my time on the water. The first spot was not the only one that was holding hungry fish and we continued up stream as everyone caught their fair share. Everyone was pretty happy with how the day had gone so far and we decided to head back into town for some lunch before driving to the next spot. On our way out Ricky and I got to see what we had missed on the dark drive last night. The road was pretty mellow and good at hiding the fact that we had traveled through a large mountain range with amazing views. A few stops to take it all in and shoot photos was a must then back on our way we went.
Southern Utah has some pretty incredible places, and our next species was right in the middle of a handful of them. The drive on Highway 12 through Dixie National Forest, Bryce Canyon National Park and past Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument was far more impressive than I was expecting. I had heard how beautiful this area was but words cannot paint the picture properly.I was glad Anthony was behind the wheel, so I could rubberneck the whole time and take photos. Utah is one of my favorite places I have been. The smooth sound of the tires on a fresh asphalt road ended as we headed up mountain to our next stream. Ricky and I had never seen any of these places and I feel at this point the trip really changed for us. Most fishing trips are about catching fish and this one was no different at the start. We came so I could complete the slam but at this point that all seemed a little less important and the overwhelming beauty of Utah filled my mind. My focus shifted towards enjoying a new love for these lands and a craving to see more. Utah easily became one of my favorite places I have been over the next few days. The smooth sound of the tires on a fresh asphalt road ended as we headed up mountain to our next stream.
This water was similar size to the previous spot but the scenery was completely different. The previous desert mountain was replaced by pine trees and a woodsy outlook. Wild turkeys crossed the road, deer paused in caution as we drove by and cattle stood in the road as if we were in their way. We found a place to camp for the night, got geared up and headed off looking for Colorado River Cutthroat trout. This mountain range was much cooler than the last which had us all hoping we would not get too cold over night. One of the first pools I walked up to I could see some trout actively feeding. The bright coloration of one fish had me convinced it was a colored up Colorado and I sent my fly out right in front of it. Another fish was more enthusiastic and took my fly right from the one I had hoped to catch. Before I could set the hook the fish had already shook the fly and returned back in line to feed. The next cast was in the same place but this time the colorful fish rose and was on the line. From the original distance of the cast I could only see a colorful fish but during the fight I had a feeling this was not a new species to me after all. This particular section of the stream I was told only held Colorado’s but the fish on the end of my line proved otherwise. A fall colored Brook Trout was not a disappointment but seeing it above the barrier was. I returned the fish downstream and continued up looking for natives.
Even though the temperature and scenery had changed the fishing was about the same. We found ourselves throwing dries to eager fish and before long we all had another species checked off our list. The original pressure of completing the slam seemed to have faded and I began to get distracted by my surroundings. Instead of going back to camp we decided to go further into the mountains and check out a reservoir said to hold large brook trout. We ran short on daylight but got a few casts in watching fish run down streamers but nothing made it to the net. As the sun set the temperature seemed to dramatically drop. The frigid cold, difficult fishing in erie darkness and the sound of angry territorial beavers sent us back down the hill to camp. We got a fire started to warm up then began setting up the tents. As Anthony was setting up his tent he noticed something weird hanging above him and shined his light up into the tree. We must have been in someone's old deer camps because multiple bones were hung from string around the tree. At that point I think Anthony decided he was sleeping in the car and would later blame it on the low temperatures. To top off the creepy tree of bones we were picking up wood to throw on the fire and grabbed something that didn’t feel like wood onto the pile. He immediately dropped the stack of wood with a frightened yell and looked down at what he had picked up. Four deer legs had been placed neatly in the wood pile. Maybe the hunter thought it would be funny when this exact situation were to happen. It was a cold and windy night so we bundled up, climbed into our sleeping bags and tried to stay warm through the night.
We woke up and said goodbye to Ricky who had to head back to Arizona. Anthony knew I had been wanting to fish for Tiger Trout so he suggested we hike up to a reservoir that held Tigers and Brook Trout. To stay focused on the Cutthroat slam for this article I will keep it short but after a nerve racking battle I caught my first Tiger and a dang nice one. Anthony had caught some nice Brookies, we both lost some good fish and on the hike out we both caught a few Rainbows. On our way out of the mountains we celebrated with some food in a small town then headed North towards the next fish on the list.
This state continued to show me how great the sites were as we made our way into the Wasatch-Cache National Forest. I couldn’t help but smile each time I was greeted by signs that said now entering your public land. This area was swarming with people but lucky for us they were only interested in deer season leaving the Bear River Cutthroat trout to us. The stream flows through a rolling meadow with a plentiful population of hoppers. We spotted some fish early on but the low clear water gave them the upper hand. Anthony headed upstream to check out a spot we had heard about but I couldn’t stray from a small pool where I spooked an easily fourteen inch fish. I walked down stream a ways to take in the view and let the pool rest. After a while I crept through the tall grass positioning myself in a spot where I could get my fly in front of where I had seen the large fish. False casting to a previously spooked was too risky so I set up for an uncomfortably long bow and arrow cast. Right as my hopper landed it was submerged by a quick take. I watched as my line tightened and headed straight under the overhanging bushes, I quickly got to my feet applying pressure to the fish in the opposite direction. Even with my speedy reaction the fish was able to tangle up on some fallen branches causing me to worry. I was able to grab one of the branches and pull it towards me starting the fight where it left off. The fish was finally in the net and not the one I had originally seen but still of good size. I snapped some quick photos released it back into the pool. Anthony had found a few eager cuttys without me so we fished our way up stream landing a couple more before the hike out.
With a little sunlight left we explored a larger river that also held Bear Rivers and sight fished a few good ones. Anthony lost a large fish right off the bat and we each landed a couple in the medium range. The golden hour fueled some hatches along the river and I snuck up on a rising trout. Anthony was to the left of me filming with my phone as I threw a pretty close match in front of the ring left by the fish. The first drift passed but untouched so I tossed it in again. We both watched in anticipation as a fish peeled off the bottom towards my fly. Fully committed it took the small dry but immediately shot down stream. I yelled “no no no!” while watching my line drag across rocks before finally being broken off. On that note we made our way to a hotel, picked up some sushi burritos and got cleaned up.
Sleeping in a bed was a little too comfortable so we missed our wake up call by about an hour. Rotating waffle makers, instant oatmeal and hot coffee provided us with a warm wake up before getting back into the car heading to the Raft River Mountains for our last day of fishing. Anthony had warned me that this last spot could be tricky due to it’s abnormally small size and he was completely right. We past multiple cars stuffed with people in orange and camo on our way into the mountains. Deer season was bringing a lot of traffic to an otherwise quiet area. When we drove over a culvert trickling with what looked like some run off Anthony pulled to the side of the road. I asked why we stopped and he told me this was the spot. Pictures online couldn’t prepare me for just how small the creek was. I knew I would be spending a lot of time on the ground if I wanted to catch my first Yellowstone Cutthroat and complete my slam.
Right off the bat we saw a fish that didn’t even look like it could survive in this size water. Small stream trout have an amazing ability to hold in the smallest of pools and survive low water. Typically in this style of water if you can see the fish they can see you so your better off sneaking up on the next ones. The large fish ran down stream never to be seen again which prepared us to being stealthy the rest of the day. This area was no joke for technical fishing and it took me a while before I got it together and got my fly in front of some fish without spooking them. After losing a few we found a nice looking pool with no clear shot of even a bow an arrow cast. Anthony and I crawled down under a tree and I laid sideways pulling back my fly to shoot it into the water. The plan was if I did get a fish on to crawl up to the end of the water, pass my rod back to Anthony while grabbing my line and swooping up the fish with my net. It sounds pretty good when I type it out like that but the reality was a little more hairy involving tangled line, tree limbs and some inappropriate language. As this fish entered my net the feelings of accomplishment and appreciation were overtaking. Walking away from that spot the trip had become a success so anything more was just a bonus. I couldn’t help but think about the bigger picture of how much I just enjoyed being in the mountains for the last 4 days.
This trip was supposed to be about a challenge but it never really felt like one. The fishing was tough at times and I lost a lot of good trout but being back in the mountains meant more to me than they ever could. The old saying you never really know how much you love something until it's gone hit home as I boarded my plane back to Michigan knowing it would be a while before being surrounded by such great sights. This was the first time I really understood just how much I would miss being out west in search of wild trout.
Thank you to Anthony for making this trip happen and Ricky for coming along to hangout. A big thanks to Utah DWR, Trout Unlimited and Western Native Trout Initiative for your involvement in protecting these great Native Trout so people like me have the chance to see them in real life. If you haven’t had a chance to check out the