Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cutthroat Slam Quest #2: Green With Envy

I have no idea why I want to catch all 14 subspecies of our native cutthroat trout. It's not like I'm a great flyfisherman. I'm not. I don't live in the heart of cutthroat country, I live in Oklahoma, where a cutthroat is what happens when you come between a redneck and his beer.

Hell, I don't even know my trout very well. Three years ago I (and I'm not making this up) probably couldn't have told you the difference between a cutthroat - any cutthroat -  and a brown. I knew what a rainbow looked like, and that was about it.  Again, please refer to my geographical location and distinctly warmwater redneck upbringing if you find that hard to believe.

But about three years ago, I started reading about our native cutthroat trout species, the tragic arc of their story, which is so goddamned familiar to anyone concerned with our fast-disappearing native species, and what can I say? The doomed little bastards drew me in. The cutthroat is, in so many ways, the lesser prairie chicken with gills, and with only slightly better long-term prospects.

So two years ago I decided that in order to raise public awareness of the cutthroat's plight I would buy myself a three-weight rod I couldn't cast for shit, a bunch of flies I couldn't identify, and boldly announce to the world that I was setting out on a quest to catch every subspecies of cutthroat trout in North America.

OK, so maybe it didn't go down quite like that. In truth, one day a couple years back, in response to a Field & Stream blog I had written, I got - out of the blue -  an invite to go fishing for Rio Grande cutthroats from a then-unknown-to-me Greg McReynolds, who worked (and still does) for Trout Unlimited.

So we met up in southern Colorado, spent a few days exploring and fishing, and Greg put me on my first-ever cutthroat. It was, I have to say, something of a Harry Middleton moment for me, holding that fish and everything it represents, in my hands.

That's when I decided that, as far as bucket lists go, that you could do a helluva lot worse than trying to catch all the various cutthroat subspecies before you die. At the very least it beats the living shit out of golf, baseball or any of those other stupid "Fifty Ego-Driven, Self-Indulgent Things For the One Percent To Wank Off To Before Passing Their Offshore Tax Shelters On To Their Children" books that are so depressingly prevalent these days.

So I decided that I would. Try, anyway. I have no specific timeline to this quest. I am, quite frankly, too poor to. I have neither the time nor the money to actively pursue each individual subspecies. Rather, I just have to sort of catch them as catch can, so to speak, which means I may very well kick off before actually holding this particular Grail in my hands. But that's OK. It's the journey, not the destination, right?

Which brings me to the fish in the picture. As luck would have it, my wife's family has a long-standing tradition of spending a week in Estes Park every summer. As luck would have it, I'm now a member of the family, which means that, for better or for worse, I spend a week in Estes Park each summer. As luck would have it, one of the rarest of the cutthroat subspecies, the greenback cutthroat, resides within the high-altitude confines of Rocky Mountain National Park, which, as luck would have it, sits right smack next to Estes Park.

But as my luck would have it, I have whiffed in spectacular fashion the past two years trying to catch one of the elusive little bastards. This is quite an accomplishment, because cutthroats are not (or at least so I've read) a particularly sophisticated fish to catch. Which makes sense, because I'm not a particularly sophisticated angler. Nevertheless, the last time we were up there I caught browns. I caught brook trout. I caught rainbows. Lots of them. But I caught no greenbacks.

So this summer I revamped my strategy, and decided that if I wanted a greenback I was going to have to earn it by leaving the easy fish far below and hiking up to where the greenbacks - and greenbacks only - reside.

And whaddya know, all it took was six miles of hiking in, a couple thousand feet of elevation, a dozen lost flies, an entire dictionary of new curse words and the humiliation of having an oxygen-bottle toting grandmother, a group of schoolchildren and some dude in jorts, high tops and an Iron Maiden concert t-shirt with the sleeves cut off pass my wheezing, flatland ass on the trail up the mountain.

But when it finally happened, when I finally slid that first jewel-like trout into the shallow water at my feet to take a quick photograph before release, it was all worth it. That wasn't just a fish lying there glinting in the sun, it was a little bit of American history, and a living, breathing cautionary tale about why we should never stop giving a shit about such fragile treasures. What a beautiful thing, huh? (The second pic is actually a different fish...)


  1. Oh, h*ll yes, it was worth it. Also, heavily fished fish, no matter what the species are harder to catch. Try Flat Creek here in Jackson for "easy to catch" cutthroat. Taku

  2. Does our mongrel "Snake River cutthroat" as raised in Colorado state hatcheries count as a subspecies? :)

  3. Nice article, excellent pics and good looking fish!

  4. Beautiful fish and great story. The next 12 are going to be a piece of cake. Congratulations and good luck on your quest!

  5. Being an eastern flatlander I had no idea there were so many subspecies of cutthroats. The eastern flatlander part is really just a thinly-veiled excuse for my ignorance. Thanks for the educational moment this morning.

    By the time you catch #13 they'll be naming flies after you.

  6. A noble quest indeed. There's just something about cutties.

  7. Really enjoyed reading that piece. I to have often found myself on some unknown trail in God knows where trying to find an open meadow to fish. But you are right in that the result most certainly justifies the means and in your case, a small but significant self goal was accomplished. Congrats my friend. Until your next conquest, I wait with earnest to read about your tale.