A Recipe for Catching Trophy Cutthroat in the High Country

I really do think one of the greatest things about fly fishing is getting to share it with the people you love. So, when my girlfriend, Anna, asked me for some casting counsel, I was eager to help. She was standing fifty feet or so to my right, perched along the edge of a large rockslide that fed into the alpine lake we had just started fishing. After a couple of hours of tough hiking, I could tell she was eager to get to the fish. I had actually just hooked my first fish of the day, a bright red 10” cutthroat that ate my size 16 Purple Haze. The cutties in this particular lake have never been much in terms of size (rarely ever see one over 14”), but with the right set up, they can certainly make for a fun fight.

I was mid-fight with this one when Anna called to me. She asked if I thought there was anything wrong with the way her flies were landing, and how come so many fish were coming out of seemingly nowhere on a beeline for her flies, only to turn away at the very last second like these picky lake fish so often do. I watched her cast, watched a refusal, then told her to work her way over to me so we could change her flies out for something smaller. When I finally turned back to the little guy I had on my own line, he had taken advantage of my lapse in attention and made a run down into the dark blue drop off. My eyes were following the line down into the deep when I noticed what looked almost like a big piece of wood circling around in the dark water below the edge. I can’t perfectly recall what went through my head at that moment, other than a couple of short expletives and a small sliver of hope, but I do vividly remember mumbling to myself “there’s no way that’s a fish.”

Aside from their beautiful patterns and coloration, I think cutthroat trout appeal to most fishermen for their location and generally aggressive (hungry) nature. Hiking up into a beautiful alpine basin in the heat of summer and throwing double dry rigs at eager fish is about as good as it gets, and on top of that, it’s generally a numbers game. During the right time of year, it’s not uncommon to hear of 50 to 100 fish days from some anglers in the right spot. But even with the great scenery and high quantity of willing fish, an angler can often wonder if there’s any size to be had. If there are so many healthy fish in some of these alpine lakes, odds are there has to be a big one somewhere, right?

The honest answer is yes, there are big ones out there, but the even more honest answer is that they are very few and far between. Signing yourself up for a day of fishing high alpine lakes for cutthroat trout should not bring thoughts of consistently netting monster fish. If it does, you might be setting yourself up for disappointment. More often than not, big cutthroats are just happenstance. A byproduct of luck, timing, and more luck.

For the angler who has caught their fair share of small cutties and might be willing to sacrifice a day of numbers for a slight chance at some size, there are some things you can focus on to better your odds at running into that random beast. I’ve narrowed my personal focus down to three.

1. Focus on Drop-Offs and Shelves:

I like to think of big cutties as celebrities (and I think they do too). They usually like to keep to themselves and try to have their privacy, but they also don’t like being too far from the public. Drop-offs and shelves provide just that. While most fish you’ll find feeding in these alpine lakes are cruising the flats and rocky structures along the edges, the big boys are usually down below, hiding away from the crowds. When summer spawning comes around, you might find some of these bigger fish up in shallower water with the rest of the fish, just like you might see a big-time celebrity come out of hiding for the right party. But you can’t always count on it. Drop-offs and shelves are a welcoming structure to all trout as they provide a variety of depth, temperature, and bug life, but they are particularly appealing to these large lake fish as they provide an easy escape from predators and pressure (and eager fishermen).

2. Use Bigger Flies:

Most people seem to think that as a cutthroat gets bigger and older, it loses its aggressive, predatory nature in exchange for more patience and intelligence. While this thought does add some romanticism to the allure of a big cutty, it’s just not the case. Big cutties are still just as aggressive and hungry as little cutties, they’re just a pickier with what they eat. Think of your local gym. Some of the biggest and baddest guys and gals you’ll find in there are also likely to be on some of the strictest diets you could imagine. That doesn’t mean they don’t eat, it just means they eat with a purpose. Big cutties are no different than big bodybuilders. When it comes to food, they know what they want, and it usually isn’t just your average snack. While summer fishing on mountain lakes is generally synonymous with small dry flies, I’d challenge any alpine angler to consider switching things up and throwing some bigger, more intimidating stuff.

A cutty with an appetite!

Big dries are the first obvious route to take. I’ve seen several small cutties inhale purple and black chubbies half the size of their body, so don’t be afraid of going too big or too flashy. In fact, it’s often the “splat” of the fly on the water that gets some of these bigger fish to come up out of the deep. In the streamer department, I’ve found that there’s something special about a little flash and some eyes. I’ve tried dark and natural, I’ve tried bright and super flashy, but my personal favorites all share the common thread of eyes and just a touch of flash. Most of the time your big streamers will only generate follows and a handful of eats from willing fish, but if/when you run into that monster, I can promise you’ll be glad you tied on something big and meaty. If you’re wanting a do-it-all fly that can keep you ready for the big fish but also keep the numbers coming in the meantime, I’ve found stripping leech patterns to be extremely effective (sometimes even more so than dries). Stripping a dark (I prefer black) leech with some weight to it, just like you would a streamer, can drive cutties wild. In the photo above you’ll see a cutty I caught with a leech pattern that ended up partially regurgitating a mouse as I brought him in (remember what I said about cutties and big meals?). All that being said, I have caught a handful of larger cutties by throwing your conventional small dry patterns (Elk Hair Caddis, Parachute Adams, etc.), so don’t leave those at home if you’re going hunting for big fish. Every lake is different and will require different approaches.

Timing Can Be Everything:

If there were an equation for catching a monster cutthroat, time would be a multiplier. That may not be the sexy thing everyone wants to hear or read in an article, but time (unfortunately) is the biggest factor in catching any big fish, and it’s worth reiterating even though everyone has heard it before. Most lakes aren’t just crawling with monster cutties, and most days you may cast to hundreds of fish without seeing one that’s much bigger than the rest. The biggest piece of advice I can give in regard to time is to just enjoy yourself, and know that every day you spend in a lake full of cutthroat is a day you’re at least giving yourself a chance at a big one. This is also where I might suggest bringing two rods or fishing alongside a friend. Stay in the small fish game and enjoy it for what it is (because it’s honestly a blast) but also stay ready for when you get your shot. The outcome of the story I’ll continue below was a product of nearly 8 years of fishing this particular basin, with roughly 10 separate trips to this particular lake, all without ever knowing anything of this size ever existed in these mountains. Time is everything.

So, if you’ve been following along up to this point, I’ll repeat myself briefly in saying that the equation for a big cutty (for me at least) looks a lot like this:

(Drop-Offs + Big Flies) X Time = Big Cutthroat (eventually) 

Now here’s what happened to that big chunk of firewood.

When I finally came to terms with the idea that what I was staring at might actually be a fish, I yelled across the lake to my friend, Max Westheimer, and told him I had a monster in front of me. Max and I have done a lot of fishing together over the years, and he knows just as well as I do that when I say “monster” I could mean anything within the 16” ballpark, especially in this lake (again, still a pretty big fish as far as cutthroat are concerned). “Yeah, I’m sure there’s a couple in here,” he unenthusiastically responded as he kept fishing. At the same time, Anna had finally crawled her way through the rocks between us and stood at my side. “See a big one?” she asked. Without another word, I immediately handed her my rod (with the fish still on it), clipped off the rig she had on, and tied on a pretty large (about the size of my hand) rainbow streamer. By that time I assumed the fish would be long gone, likely somewhere down deeper than I could imagine and well out into the middle of the lake. And I was right. When I looked back up from my pack, Anna was back to casting my rod to the rising 10” fish in front of us, and the fish of my dreams was nowhere in sight.

For the next hour or so I stood by Anna’s side and watched her fish. That alone is something I always enjoy, but I’d be lying if I said my eyes weren’t glued to that deep drop-off every time she hooked a fish. Now and then I’d cast to some cruising fish, but every cast was met with either a discouraging refusal or a spooked fish as soon as the big streamer smacked the water. Doubt began to sink in, and I started to consider switching back to my beloved dries. I climbed back to the top of the rock where I had seen the big guy. I remember telling myself that if that fish came back by and I had anything smaller than a size 10 hopper to offer, I would undoubtedly miss my shot. He was just too deep. Deciding that was a chance I couldn’t live with taking, I held tight with my streamer and kept watching Anna from a distance. Clouds came over, things got quiet, then chaotic all at once. He showed back up.

Mouse Cutthorat

This time he was cruising from the edge of the drop-off to my right and down into the crazy deep stuff to my left. One false cast and I had the streamer about 20 feet in front of him along the path he appeared to be taking. Even though I had an obnoxious amount of split shot on my line, my biggest fear was that the fly wouldn’t get down deep enough before he was down and out of sight. I let it sink for three seconds, then gave it two quick twitches. He turned briefly, gave it a quick look from a distance, then got back on his path and kept on sinking down into the deep again. “Well,” I thought, “that’s usually the way it goes with these kinds of fish. At least I got to see him.” I let the fly continue to sink as his tan hue slowly disappeared into the dark blue water. Then, just as he was about to leave my sight entirely, I saw his shape turn. The fly was now even with his depth. His shape began to grow as he swam closer and closer to me. I gave the fly a few more light twitches, pulling it up and away from him in the water column. As he gave it a pretty somber approach, I let it drop again. When he was finally just about face to face with the fly, I gave it one last twitch, and he gulped it. The fight was on.

The biggest cutthroat I could have ever imagined seeing face to face matched up against me and my girlfriend’s Redington Crosswater setup. To say I was on edge would be an understatement. After a tense five-minute fight, we got him in (thankfully Max made a long run around the lake to meet me for the net job). All I can say about getting my hands on that fish is that moments like that one don’t come often in fly fishing (at least for me), and I’m incredibly grateful that God allowed those stars to align on a day when I was in good company. Sharing that moment in that place with those friends is certainly something I won’t ever forget.

Article and photos from Garrison Kinsel, an avid angler based down in Austin Texas. Check out his fishy feed at @garrison_kinsel.

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