The first time you net a cutthroat will reveal the

obvious reason for its name; this fish displays a

very distinctive reddish-orange “cut” visible outside

and below the lower jaw.  There are numerous

sub-species, including the Lahontan, Piute,

Rio Grande and Westslope.  The cutthroat can be

found in both salt and freshwater, ranging in

habitat from Prince William Sound, Alaska to the

Eel River in northern California, and inland

throughout the western United States and Canada.

The freshwater cutt has historically not competed well

with other gamefish due to its tendency to hybridize,

especially with rainbow trout, as well as experiencing

over-harvesting by fishermen. While this has depleted

many wild and native populations, the cutthroat has

proven resilient in regulated water.

When compared to its trout brethren, the cutthroat does

not take to the air as a rainbow or provide a tug-of-war as with a stubborn brown, but they are still recognized as a premier gamefish.  They employ other tactics, such as twisting and turning their bodies 360 degrees attempting to dislodge the hook.  Inland cutts rise readily to a dry fly.  Often they materialize lazily under your imitation, following it down-river just under the surface before they decide to either grab it on a down-river take or opt to slowly drop back into the depths, denying you the rise.

Depending on the geographic region, cutthroat display a broad range of coloring schemes. Inland fish have body colors including cadmium to a yellowish-green, and some strains develop red tinges on the head and body as well.  Spotting can range from large and dark but few in number, to a more heavily but fine black-spotted pattern, such as found on cutts in the Snake River.  When cutthroats interbreed, their native colorings often become the less-dominant pattern.  The common cutthroat-rainbow cross, known as
the cutt-bow, appears as a rainbow, with the genetic mix sometimes only revealed by the signature orange or red cut around the jaw line.  The sea-run variety will have more of a silvery sheen and frequently display greenish-blue bodies with numerous heavy, black spots.

All subspecies of cutthroat possess the familiar redd-forming behavior pattern of the salmonid family, typically spawning in late winter or spring. Coastal cutts typically migrate to an estuary or ocean environment within their first three years of existence, usually returning to freshwater after approximately one year in the salt.  Anadromous cutts usually spawn during the first winter or spring while in freshwater; however, at times they will make a second saltwater migration before spawning. They can spawn repeatedly. Sea-run fish can live past 10 years of age, and while they can attain double-digit weight, four to six pounds is considered large.  Inland cutthroat live approximately 6 to 8 years of age and seldom exceed weights of 6 pounds (excluding the Lahontan strain), the world record hitting the scales at 14 pounds, one ounce.

The history of the Lahontan strain of cutthroat trout is especially unique. In its native habitat, this inland giant achieved weights in excess of 40 pounds.  It inhabited the Lahontan drainage, which encompassed waters in western Nevada, the eastern slope of California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range and southeast Oregon. This subspecies has a unique quality of being able to thrive in high-alkaline, desert lake conditions, waters in which other trout struggle to survive. During the early 1900s the Lahontan cutthroat was so plentiful that they were fished commercially, primarily being sold in the San Francisco Bay Area at prices of over $0.50 a pound.  However, habitat degradation, both man and drought induced, as well as over-harvesting led to a rapid decline in fish counts.  Its original habitat range has significantly dwindled, but thanks to research and resulting management plans, the Lahontan has survived in some of its native waters, such as Pyramid Lake, Nevada.

Click an image to enlarge

Don Muelrath
Fly Fishing Adventures