How to Catch Cutthroat Trout: Tips for Fly and Lure Anglers

Catching cutthroat trout doesn’t necessarily require any different methods than what anglers would use to land other trout species. The main challenge comes in trying to locate the fish. Due …

Catching cutthroat trout doesn’t necessarily require any different methods than what anglers would use to land other trout species. The main challenge comes in trying to locate the fish.

Due to their high level of fluctuation in population, having a chance to catch a cutthroat can be rare. However, once you find cutthroat, you have a great shot at landing them due to their aggressive behavior.

In this article, we’ll cover different tips and tricks to help you have a chance to land cutthroat whenever you get the chance to target them.

Cutthroat Trout Facts

Cutthroat trout 1
Cutthroat Trout is a species of freshwater fish found in western North America, known for its distinctive red-orange slash mark under its lower jaw and its popularity as a game fish for anglers and indigenous peoples.

Cutthroat trout are an interesting species that average 12-20 inches in length and grow to an average of 2-5 pounds. They live in lakes, rivers, and streams with the world record cutthroat coming out of Pyramid Lake in Nevada. In the proper conditions, these fish are extremely healthy and thrive. However, they’re susceptible to a shrinking population if other trout species are too heavily populated.

Scientific Name

Cutthroat trout are known as the Oncorhynchus clarkii. They’re a member of the Salmonidae family and native to waters all over the Midwest and Western United States. There are even coastal cutthroat trout that spawn out of the Pacific Ocean.

Habitats

Cutthroat trout are aggressive feeders and they live in traditional “trout water.” They need highly oxygenated water that’s cold and clear. They do not thrive in water that is over 65 degrees Fahrenheit. In rivers and streams, they prefer gravel bottoms and deep holding areas that provide them with a chance to hide and escape any predators. They’ll live near large rock piles, fallen trees, cut banks, and heavy vegetation. High mountain streams and rivers are some of the best places to find them.

In lakes and ponds, cutthroat trout spend most of their time near structures. They’ll find large rocks, trees, drop-offs, vegetation, and a variety of other pieces of structure to spend their time. As they wait near structures, they’ll be searching for food. They don’t sit as deep as lake trout, and they prefer water that’s 5-25 feet deep.

If the water is clear and there is a healthy insect population, cutthroat trout will be able to survive.

Distribution

As mentioned earlier, cutthroat trout are found all over the West Coast of North America, throughout the Rocky Mountains, and in small pockets across the East Coast of the United States.

The coastal waters of California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska are filled with cutthroat trout that move from saltwater to freshwater each year to complete the spawning process.

Inland cutthroat trout are found in rivers as well as reservoirs and alpine lakes in the Rocky Mountain region. The Snake River in Idaho and Wyoming is one of the most famous places to find cutthroat trout. Snake River cutthroat are some of the most beautiful of the cutthroat trout species. Yellowstone National Park also has a high number of cutthroat trout due to the nearly 800 million cutthroat eggs that were distributed in the park between 1900 and 1955.

Other hot spots include Pyramid Lake in Nevada as well as Weber River in Utah. Ontario, Canada also has a high population of cutthroat trout spread throughout their lakes and rivers due to the cold waters and lack of invasive species that have been introduced to their waters.

Fishing Methods

The two most common types of fishing methods for cutthroat trout include fly fishing as well as spin fishing.

Fly anglers use artificial dry flies, streamers as well as nymphs to try and land cutthroat. Rods ranging from 3-weight to 6-weight are used to try and catch these fish. Many anglers use similar methods they would catch brook trout, brown trout, and rainbow trout.

Spin anglers will use artificial lures as well as live bait to try and catch cutthroat. Many rivers and lakes are artificial lures only, so live bait isn’t always something that is legal to use, so be sure to check regulations before you attempt to use it.

Types of Cutthroat Trout

Cutthroat trout 2
Cutthroat Trout is a species with several subspecies, each with unique characteristics such as coloration, size, and range. These subspecies have evolved to thrive in specific habitats and are valuable components of their ecosystem.

North America has 10 different subspecies of cutthroat trout spread across the continent. Each type of fish is unique in appearance.

  • Lahontan Cutthroat- These fish are found throughout Eastern California and Western Nevada in bodies of water like Pyramid Lake and the Truckee River. These have red sides and large black spots.
  • Colorado River Cutthroat- Anglers will find Colorado River cutthroat in the Colorado and Green River Basins across Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. These fish have deep red bellies and small black spots.
  • Bonneville Cutthroat– These trout are found in the Great Salt Lake tributaries as well as the Great Basin area in Utah. These have red gills and one red stripe on their side with black spots.
  • Greenback Cutthroat- Greenbacks can be found in the headwaters of the Arkansas and South Platte Rivers in Colorado. These fish have literal green backs and bright red coloring with black spots.
  • Coastal Cutthroat- The Kenai Peninsula in Alaska all the way down to the Eel River in California has populations of Coastal Cutthroat. These fish are darker in color and almost look like rainbow trout besides the bright red near their gills.
  • Paiute Cutthroat– These fish are found in Silver King Creek in California. These cutthroats have no spots on their body and are a soft orange and tan color.
  • Rio Grande Cutthroat- Anglers will find these fish in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. A large number of black spots and orange coloring near the gills give these fish away.
  • Westslope Cutthroat- Westslope Cutthroat are found in British Columbia, Montana and Idaho. These are classic cutthroat with a red belly, orange gills, and black spots.
  • Yellowstone Cutthroat– Yellowstone cutthroats are found all over Yellowstone National Park as well as in the Snake River in Wyoming and the Tongue River. These are bright yellow and red colors with black spots.
  • Snake River Cutthroat- These are native trout in the Snake River in Wyoming. They have red fins, red gills, and classic black spots.

How to Catch Cutthroat Trout

Landing cutthroat trout doesn’t have to be overly complex. They respond well to traditional trout fishing methods. Their spawning and feeding habits aren’t very different than other trout species, so if you have a general knowledge of how to catch brown, rainbow, and brook trout, you’ll be okay.

Where to Find Good Cutthroat Water

Good cutthroat water is usually around 50 to 60 degrees, highly oxygenated, and filled with plenty of places to hide. Cutthroat trout like to be able to watch food pass by from the comfort of structure. They don’t want to be out in the open for predators to attack them.

In rivers, look for deep pools, cut banks, eddies, seams, and deep runs. All of these types of water generally have structure and some more slack water that allows cutthroat to sit and not exert too much energy. Even small things like a fallen tree or a large boulder in the middle of the water will hold fish. They’re fairly territorial, so once they claim a spot, they’ll eat any smaller fish and fight off anything else that tries to take their area.

In lakes, find weed lines, drop-offs, and any rock piles or fallen trees. Fish will spend most of their time near these hiding places and then venture out to find food. They’ll hunt in shallower places throughout the mornings and evenings and move deeper in the middle of the day.

Wherever you’re fishing for cutthroat, you must find structure and transition places from deep water to shallow water. They enjoy ambushing their prey, so they want to be able to see as much of the water as possible from their hiding place.

Cutthroat Fishing Tips and Tactics

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Cutthroat Trout fishing requires understanding the fish’s feeding habits and using appropriate gear, lures, and fishing times, as well as fishing in prime habitat and practicing catch-and-release.

If you’re fishing moving water, you want to make sure you present your bait as accurately as possible. To accomplish an accurate presentation, you’ll want to cast upstream of the water you’re hoping to fish. By casting upstream, you can give your bait (lure or fly) a chance to settle and give you a chance to mend the line or make adjustments before it gets to the “strike zone.” As it drifts through the strike zone, be prepared for the fish to hit.

Another tip is to look for slack water near faster-moving water. The slack water is where the cutthroat are going to sit as they observe the faster-moving water waiting for food to drift past them. The slack water can take shape of an eddie or a pool on the edge of a riffle.

It’s also important to vary the retrieve of your lure or fly. Stripping or reeling in your bait at the same pace the entire day isn’t always going to produce results. Sometimes you’ll want to retrieve slowly and other times you’ll want to increase the speed that you retrieve.

When you hit the water, look for hatches of insects. Large groups of insects near the surface of the water are a sure sign that cutthroat are going to be feeding. When insects are hatching, feel free to fish with topwater baits. If they aren’t feeding on teh surface, fish with subsurface baits.

Fly Fishing for Cutthroat

Fly fishing for cutthroat trout is best done with a 4-weight through 6-weight rod. These rods are strong enough to land the majority of cutthroat you find and they can throw nymphs, dries, and streamers.

When fishing moving water, pair your 4-weight through 6-weight rod with a matching reel and floating fly line. If you fish nymphs or streamers, your leader will be deep enough to get to the bottom.

When fishing with dry flies, look for anywhere you see a fish breaking the surface. Cast your fly near the “rise” and wait for the fish to strike. Effective dries are Elk Hair Caddis, Chubby Chernobyls, Pacahute Adams, and Royal Wulffs.

When fishing with streamers, you can either swing or strip them. To swing, you’ll cast up and across stream towards the opposite bank and let the fly drift downstream across your face. As it moves downstream, it’ll start swinging across the water toward you. When it’s directly below you, start stripping.

The stripping method is a bit less technical. Cast upstream and as soon as your fly gets in the fishy section, begin to strip towards you. This is perhaps one of the most effective methods when landing cutthroat. The best streamers for cutthroat are Woolly Buggers, Closuer Minnows as well as any crayfish or leech pattern.

Nymph fishing is one of the most effective methods. Cast upstream, let the fly drift towards you, and begin to strip in the slack. Also, raise the rod tip so your fly drops in the water.

Lure Fishing for Trout

Cutthroat anglers can use a 6′ or 7′ medium light or light rod paired with a spinning reel. You want the ability to make finesse casts into tight spaces when fishing for cutthroat. Use a 4 to 8-pound fluorocarbon line when fishing for them in lakes and rivers.

When you’re lure fishing for trout, you have a bit more freedom. Cast into the pools, cut banks, seams, and runs, and begin to retrieve your lure. You don’t have to worry as much about drifts or perfect casts since the lures you use to create quite a bit of action.

In lakes, cast your lure near the structure (weed lines, fallen trees, rock piles) and begin your retrieve. Feel free to vary your retrieve from fast to slow and everything in between.

Some of the most effective cutthroat lures are the Panther Martin, Rooster Tail, C.P. Swing Spinner, and the Mepp’s Spinner. All of these lures create a ton of movement in the water and attract any nearby fish.

Best Time to Catch Cutthroat Trout

The best time to catch cutthroat trout is in the mornings and the evenings. This is when the hatches occur and light is low enough to give cutthroat trout the courage to be more bold in their feeding tactics.

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Danny Mooers is a passionate fly fishing and angling writer from Arizona. Danny loves sharing his passion for fly fishing for trout and other species through his work for Tackle Village.
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