The Ultimate Cutthroat Trout Fishing Slam

The plan started simply: catch all four sub-species of native cutthroat trout in Wyoming to qualify for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Cutt Slam. But hundreds of people had caught all four species, and Trout Unlimited’s Steven Brutger and I wanted a challenge. So we gave ourselves a parameter: catch them all in 24 hours. The simple part ended there. Each strain of cutthroat trout lives in a separate drainage, which meant driving over multiple mountain ranges and swaths of Wyoming's iconic wide open spaces. Last year, Brutger, Josh (my husband), and I finished our goal. What was the next logical step? Make it even harder. In August, we tried repeating the venture, but on waters with state-owned in-stream flow rights. That meant no cheating by finishing in a stocked lake as we did last year. We had to find, and catch, fickle fish in their original, relatively undisturbed waters. Our luck barely held last year, each one of us doubted it would hold again.
When I pitched the new idea to Game and Fish’s chief of fisheries last year, he laughed at me. We faced multiple challenges: finicky fish, hundreds of miles of ground to cover, slick, muddy roads, and the sheer number of participants. One person might finish, but three? He didn’t think so. When we upped the challenge this year, we included photographer Ryan Dorgan and his little brother—who had never touched a fly rod before. Each understood he, or she, would drop out if needed.
The author (left) eats dinner by headlamp with Patrick Dorgan, Steven Brutger, and Josh Peterson. We camped the night before near the East Fork of the Wind River outside Dubois, Wyoming, in the northwest corner of the state. Last year, we started in the southwest corner and targeted Bonneville cutthroat trout. We each crossed it off in less than 30 minutes. Our first fish this year would be a considerably larger challenge.
Yellowstone cutthroat are native to the far northwest corner of the state, making it the farthest outlier of the species. For practical purposes, we only had a few rivers within reasonable driving distance. Last year, we resorted to fishing a lake, which still resulted in hours of slapping the water before learning what the fish wanted. The East Fork of the Wind River didn’t prove to be any easier. Bugs weren’t hatching in the early-morning air, and few fish were biting. By 11:30, after more than three hours of trying, four of us had caught fish and Brutger had dropped out. There was no way it would work in one day, we agreed. Perhaps this would have to be a “Cutt Slam in 48 hours” instead.
Trout Unlimited's Steven Brutger (left) helps Patrick Dorgan with a snag while trying to catch a Colorado cutthroat trout in North Cottonwood Creek in western Wyoming. We piled in our vehicles and headed over Union Pass, the first mountain range crossing of the day. Storms brewed on the horizon as we dropped down near a cow town-turned oil and gas mecca called Pinedale. Our next fish, the Colorado Cutthroat trout, would prove to be the gift that put us back on track. Last year it took us 12 minutes to each catch a Colorado cutthroat in North Cottonwood Creek, a thin sliver of water snaking out of the Wyoming Range. Both Trout Unlimited and Game and Fish have done restoration projects in the area, making it one of the last bastions of habitat for the subspecies. Colorado cutthroat are restricted to about 14 percent of their native habitat. They’re also hungry. About 20 minutes after we poured out of our cars, we climbed back in, grinning. The four of us were still in the game.
The author's husband, Josh Peterson (left) helps Patrick Dorgan catch a Snake River cutthroat trout in the Greys River in western Wyoming. By the time we crossed yet another mountain range, time was starting to slip. Snake River cutthroat trout would need to be kind to us, or we certainly wouldn’t make it in 24 hours. Fortunately, the Greys River offers an unparalleled 30 or so miles of fishable water, with a dirt road traveling its banks. Opportunities to catch a Snake River were endless. Ryan, Josh, and I caught ours, but Patrick Dorgan, who caught the first two, would ultimately bow out of the quest.
Cutthroat trout are named for a bright orange gash along the bottom of their jaw. While each strain can hybridize with the other or rainbow trout, they have distinct markings in their purest forms. The Snake River cutthroat, shown here, has fine, concentrated spots. The Bonneville cutthroat, on the other hand, has fewer larger spots and elliptical par marks along its sides.
With one last cutthroat trout to catch, and a few hours of daylight, we felt cautiously optimistic. Our journey to catch a Bonneville cutthroat, found in the southwest corner of the state, would require another long drive over yet another pass. The quest requires not only patience and focus, but a stomach for gas-station corn dogs, an ear that can handle static-filled radio signals, and the willingness to drive almost 300 miles to catch four fish.
Patrick Dorgan watches Bonneville cutthroat trout rise in Salt Creek in the southwest corner of Wyoming. The sun was well into setting when we reached Salt Creek. Ryan needed to catch his first if he wanted to take photos of the rest of the team. The small trout rose everywhere, creating ripples in the dark pools. One struck, and he missed. Another struck, he missed again. Frustrations grew.
Then, with barely enough light to see the water, Ryan caught his Bonneville cutthroat. Our mission, however foolish, was doable for at least one angler. Josh and I eventually reeled ours in, beams from our headlamps helping verify the species. Luck, naïve determination, and about 14 hours of fishing and driving carried us through.
Even the most dedicated anglers occasionally need a nap after that many hours fishing. The next day, I hit the dirt for 15 minutes on the bank of the Greys River while waiting for Patrick Dorgan to catch a Snake River cutthroat trout, one of two subspecies he missed the day before.
For those who might want to try a similar quest, in a day or multiple days, here are a few tips: —Plan ahead: The journey requires hundreds of miles of driving on long dirt roads. Plan your route ahead of time and check road conditions and weather. —Try mid-to-late summer: Most of the fishing will be best after spring run-off is finished, especially since many of the creeks and rivers are small. But that doesn't mean you can't give it a go another time of year. —Check with locals: Call the local Game and Fish offices at 307-367-4352 in Pinedale, 307-875-3223 in Green River, 307-733-2321 in Jackson and 307-332-2688 in Lander. —Bring plenty of flies: We used primarily small dry flies like parachute Adams, but come prepared with a selection of dry flies, hoppers, and streamers. Most of the fishing is a long way from any store, and you don't want to burn daylight standing in line for the cashier.
Patrick Dorgan casts into Salt Creek in the southwest corner of Wyoming. Wyoming isn’t the only state with a fishing challenge for native trout. Since trout rarely live in ugly places, you won’t be disappointed with the venture. For more information on a quest near you, contact your local fisheries department or check out Wyoming or California’s competitions: Wyoming Game and Fish Department Cutt Slam
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Five anglers tackle Wyoming’s cutthroat trout fishing challenge in free flowing streams in just one day. Story by Christine Peterson, photographs by Ryan Dorgan.