Friday, August 23, 2019

The Utah Cutthroat Slam (and more)

In September of 2018, the Fly Fish Food gang invited me to Utah to film some fly tying tutorials and fish with them for a day.  The trip, my family's first to Utah, was incredible.  As soon as I returned, I was already plotting a way to get back there to explore more of the state and fish for species I had never caught, specifically cutthroat trout.  I was also highly intrigued by the Utah Cutthroat Slam program.  Flash forward a few months, in the spring of 2019, I booked airfare back to Salt Lake City and began to plan my trip through the state.

When I notified the Fly Fish Food guys about the return trip, they wanted me to come fish with them again in a stillwater fishery for brook trout and splake.  This left me with most of the day Thursday after my flight in, Friday morning, and Sunday morning to knock out the slam.  Along with my own research, I was coordinating with a local cutthroat expert I knew via social media, named Pete.  Even though I had a lot of information through research and local knowledge, I was still pretty unsure of how the slam adventure would unfold.  How long would it really take?  What if I struggle to knock off a species?  All that research means little if I can't put the fish in the net.  Due to the location of some of the subspecies, the Cutthroat Slam was going to be geographically challenging.

The first part of the journey went well, and the flight arrived in Salt Lake City on time.  In short order, I had my luggage and rental car.  As it turns out, the fortunate free upgrade to a small SUV with a GPS would come into play later in the trip.  Before noon, I had met up with Pete to pursue the Bonneville cutthroat.  Although we both struggled a little early to get eats in a small pool full of trout, once we hit the flowing portion of the creek we quickly found action on the surface.  The biggest of my Bonneville cutthroats that day was a real bush rodeo after the fish dove into a snag.  I traced the leader and tippet with my hand and was able to free the fish that somehow remained hooked.  Pete also picked up a few nice Bonneville's.

Then, the driving began.  A lot of it.  The Yellowstone cutthroat was by far the most isolated of the four subspecies, and that was my next stop.  The drive was going to be about three hours, but fortunately most of the trek was highway until the last ten miles or so.  I briefly entered Idaho for a few minutes before dropping back into Utah.  This stop felt like the most isolated location I had ever fished in my life.

Pete had warned me that the creek I was going to fish might be the smallest trout stream I have ever fished, and he was correct.  It was small water that you could step over without even a hop in most places I saw.  The trout were there, though.  I spooked a fish almost immediately upon getting to the stream and that gave me confidence that the fish were there.  The next juicy little bucket I came to I had a nice (for the stream size) Yellowstone cutthroat rise to my Bionic Ant and eat, but I lost the fish before I could get it to the net.  A short while later, I connected with a smaller fish and was able to cross the Yellowstone off the list.

Now it was decision time.  The day was still relatively young, as I had only fished the creek for about 25 minutes.  After such a long drive to get there, I could turn and burn for the next stream and try to knock off three of the four subspecies on Day 1.  I made the decision to go and quickly hit the road, setting course for the Bear River cutthroat.

The drive past Logan went smoothly until I hit the canyon road and became stuck behind a slow moving semi.  With my patience (and daylight) wearing thin, I took advantage of a good looking pull-off near the Logan River and abandoned the additional few miles to reach the spot that had been suggested to me.  With light fading in the canyon, I switched to a very visible tan size 10 Chubby Chernobyl.  After a few drifts down a really juicy looking run with no takers, I added an 18" dropper and a tungsten jig Red Dart nymph.  Ironically, on the first drift with the dropper attached, a solid Bear River cutthroat rose and ate the Chubby.  Go figure!  A sense of relief rushed over me when I netted that fish because I more or less knew completing the slam was going to happen.  I picked up one smaller fish on the dropper before I headed back for the car, then to my hotel room for the night. 

There would be little rest for the weary, though.  I had a long drive in store in the morning and I hoped to get there early enough to have several hours to fish.  I was on the road Friday morning by 4:30AM with an ETA to fish the Colorado River cutthroat stream by 7:30AM.  I needed to be back in Orem to meet Curtis and Cheech by 3PM or so, and that left me plenty of time to fish in the morning.  The rental car upgrade helped a lot when I reached the forest service road I needed to take to reach the stream.  There were big ruts, large rocks in the road, and even two prairie dog dens IN the road.  When I finally arrived, I felt like I was truly in the middle of nowhere.

Early on, I lost a nice cutthroat on a dry fly take in the first run I fished.  After that, the fish seemed reluctant to come to the surface.  After I worked a few nice looking pieces of water with dry flies and no takes, I broke down and added a dropper.  That quickly got me into fish, with my best Colorado River cutthroat being the first taker of the morning.  It ate a size 14 Frenchie on a dropper.  The Utah Cutthroat Slam was complete.

I caught a lot of trout throughout the morning on different droppers, but mainly on the Frenchie and Red Dart patterns.  One particular run of deeper water I landed four fish and lost multiple fish from one small stretch of water.  The fishing was good, but I walked the stream with a level of fear due to all of the moose sign I was finding near the stream.  Tracks and trails were everywhere, and I did not want to bump into a cow moose with a calf.

I fished the stretch of this stream I had planned to fish, and decided to head out and make my way back to Orem.  Once I reached civilization, I found a car wash to rinse away some evidence of the level of roadways I had been taking with the rental car.  The back was so dusty I couldn't see through the back-up camera.  I arrived in Orem a bit ahead of schedule and met the guys at Fly Fish Food, easily the most impressive fly shop I have ever visited.

We had another lengthy drive ahead of us, an overnight stay near where we would fish, and a lengthy side-by-side ride to the lake we planned to fish the following morning.  It was truly an adventure to reach a destination that felt so isolated.  When we arrived, the morning view of the lake was nothing short of stunning.

Early on, there were some fish rising on spruce moths that were finding their way onto the water's surface.  With it being my first time ever fishing from a float tube, I struggled mightily in the early going with boat control.  Before the dry fly action began to fade, I connected with a personal best brook trout on a Fluttering Caddis with the wings splayed out wide to simulate the spruce moths.  What a gorgeous, thick, hard-fighting fish.  They don't grow this large where I fish for brook trout back east.

The surface bite didn't last long, and we switched to midge tip line presentations with weighted multi-fly rigs.  Most of the fish I caught were splake, which were a new species to me.  They were aggressive eaters and hard fighters.  Flies of the day for me were the Soft Hackle Callibaetis and the Chironomid Frenchie, but I also caught fish on several other patterns.  The action was so fast at times that it felt like every cast was getting an eat.  Early in the afternoon, a small storm rolled in and we had rain that lasted only a few minutes.  After the rain, however, the fishing nearly shut down.  The bite slowed dramatically, but I did get a few eats on a leech pattern fished deep.

Once we were all off the water and had our gear all packed back into the ATV, we made the rough trek back down the trail to the truck.  That night, I stayed in a nearby hotel in Provo and made plans to sleep in and get caught up on rest before the late afternoon flight and late arrival time back in Ohio.  Well, that didn't happen.  I was awake by 5AM Utah time.  I drove back near Salt Lake City and planned to fish the same stream I had fished with Pete on Day 1.  It was an easy stream to reach and was pretty close to the airport, making it a convenient spot for the morning.  What unfolded was one of the best three-hour small stream trout outings I have ever had.  Lots of dry fly eats, lots of Bonneville cutthroats to the net, most of them being sight-fished with bow-and-arrow casts.  The fly of the day was a size 14 tan/yellow Grumpy Frumpy.

By the end of the morning, my Grumpy Frumpy was rather beaten up.  I made my way to the airport a little early...way too early given the flight delays I couldn't have foreseen.  My 5:20PM flight turned into a 7:00PM flight, leading to a late arrival in Columbus and an even later arrival back home in Athens.  I came home completely exhausted, but it was a good exhausted.  It was the feeling of a successful execution of a plan.  By my calculation, I traveled roughly 970 miles by car in 3.5 days in Utah.  A lot of people had a big hand in how well the trip came together.  I'd hate to miss anyone, but Pete Steen, Cheech Pierce, and Curtis Fry are three guys who I couldn't thank enough.  The Utah DNR website for the Cutthroat Slam program was also incredibly helpful in planning routes to make the slam a reality for me.  There were so many sights and experiences out there in a long weekend that will stick with me for life, and Utah is always going to be a place I want to get back to whenever possible.