Cutthroat Trout fish identification, its habitats, characteristics, fishing methods.
Cutthroat Trout is one of the many fish species colloquially known as trout. All subspecies of cutthroat trout are sought after gamefish, especially among anglers who enjoy fly fishing. However, several native subspecies of cutthroat are currently listed as threatened, generally due to loss of habitat and introduction of non-native species.
The cutthroat species has evolved through geographic isolation into many subspecies, each native to a different major drainage basin. Native cutthroat species are found along the Pacific Northwest coast, in the Cascade Range, the Great Basin, and throughout the Rocky Mountains. Some coastal populations are anadromous, living primarily in the Pacific Ocean as adults and returning to fresh water from fall through early spring to feed on insects and spawn. Most populations, however, stay in freshwater throughout their lives and are known as non-migratory, stream-resident or riverine populations.
The cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki) is a species of freshwater fish in the salmon family of order Salmoniformes also known as Salmo clarki or Cutthroat Trout, Coastal Cutthroat, Yellowstone Cutthroat, Red-Throated Trout, Clark's Trout, Lake Trout, Sea Trout, Short-Tailed Trout. Cutthroat trout are native to western North America.
There are two forms of this species, the Coastal cutthroat trout and the westslope or Yellowstone cutthroat trout. The Coastal and Yellowstone varieties are separated by a central area in which the rainbow trout occurs. The inland form lives in western Alberta in the headwaters of river systems.
Coastal Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii) occur as sea-run or resident (non-sea run) forms in streams and lakes along the coastal range from lower Southeast Alaska to Prince William Sound and are the most common trout species in the region. Sea-run cutthroat are usually found in river or stream systems with accessible lakes.
The resident form lives in a wide variety of habitats from small headwater tributaries and bog ponds to large lakes and rivers. In some watersheds, the both species are found together. The extent of breeding between the two forms is unknown, and the reason that some fish migrate to sea while others stay in fresh water remains an intriguing question.
The average length of cutthroat trout is 12-15 inches and generally one-half to 17 pounds. A short, conical head with a somewhat pointed to rounded snout and a rather large mouth with well developed teeth on both jaws characterize the fish. In breeding males the kype is slightly developed in the anadromous population and the lower jaw appears extremely long. One of the main color characteristics is two yellow or orange to red lines in the skin folds of each side of the lower jaw. The coastal cutthroat trout is colored dark to olive-green with numerous black spots and may appear more blue with silvery sides. The interior cutthroat trout (Yellowstone/Westslope cutthroat) has a body of yellow-green with red on the sides of the head and front of the body and the belly.
Cutthroat trout vary widely in size, coloration, and habitats. Though their coloration can range from golden to gray to green on the back, depending on subspecies and habitat, all populations feature distinctive red, pink, or orange marks on the underside of the lower jaw; usually the easiest diagnostic of the species for the casual observer. As adults, different populations and subspecies of cutthroat can range from 6–40 inches (15–100 cm) in length making size an ineffective indicator as to species.
Cutthroat will readily interbreed with the closely related
rainbow trout, producing fertile hybrids commonly called "cutbow". Cutthroat will also hybridize with the O. gilae subspecies, the
Gila trout and
Juveniles are 1 to 6 inches long and silver or yellowish, with about ten oval parr marks overlaid with small black spots. Some juveniles will have a faint red or pink along the lateral line and on the gill covers. Adult coloration varies widely with habitat and life history: resident fish living in bog ponds are 6 to 16 inches long, are golden yellow with dark spots on the body, dorsal, and caudal fin, and have a vivid red slash mark under the jaw (hence the name cutthroat); free-swimming residents in large landlocked lakes can exceed 24 inches long, are uniformly silver with black spots, rosy gill covers, and a faint slash mark. Sea-run cutthroat are smaller, seldom more than 18 inches long. They are bluish-silver with dark or olive backs and less conspicuous black spots-the characteristic slash is a faint yellow. Lack of a distinct slash mark in sea-run and resident forms has led anglers to confuse the fish with rainbow trout. Cutthroat can be positively identified (though with difficulty) by the presence of minute teeth between the gills behind the base of the tongue.
Large woody debris and in-stream structures play an important role in providing valuable habitat for coastal cutthroat trout. In freshwater, adult cutthroat typically reside in large pools while the young reside in riffles, most commonly in upper tributaries of small rivers. Coastal cutthroat trout utilize a wide variety of habitat types during their complex life cycle. They spawn in small tributary streams, and utilize slow flowing backwater areas, low velocity pools, and side channels for rearing of young. Good forest canopy cover, in-stream woody debris, and abundant supplies of insects are crucial for the young cutthroat's survival.
During the estuarine or ocean phase of life, the cutthroat trout utilizes tidal sloughs, marshes, and swamps as holding areas and feeding grounds. These tidal areas are also very important for the survival of the prey fishes that the cutthroat depends on for food. Healthy estuaries with abundant supplies of small schooling fishes and young crustaceans are necessary for the cutthroat's survival.
The coastal cutthroat trout occupies many different habitats: from coastal marine to freshwater rivers and streams with gravel substrates
The coastal cutthroat trout is unlike most of the other salmon Species, because it may spawn more than once. Adults commonly enter streams during the fall and feed on the eggs from other salmons' spawn. Like other salmon, the female cutthroat digs a nest or redd and the male fertilizes the eggs. Spawning can occur from December through May, dependent upon the water conditions. The female cutthroat can lay from 200 to 4,400 eggs, which hatch in about 1 month. The young spend 1 to 2 weeks in the gravel before emerging. Young cutthroat can spend 1 to 9 years in fresh water before they migrate to the estuaries and ocean in the spring, most commonly three years from emergence. Coastal cutthroat trout usually spend less than 1 year in salt water before returning to spawn. The age of adults can range from 2 to age 10, with first time spawners usually being 3 or 4 years old. After spawning, the 'spent' or spawned adults, now called 'kelts', often return to salt water in late March or early April. Juveniles and adults are carnivorous, feeding mostly on insects, crustaceans, and other fish throughout their lives.
Adult anadromous forms return to freshwater spawning streams in late autumn and early winter but spawning takes place there in February to May. In both forms of cutthroat trout spawning takes place in small, gravelly streams where the male courts the female by nudging and quivering. The female prepares the redd where she lays 1100-1700 eggs. Hatching occurs 6-7 weeks later.
Resident and sea-run coastal cutthroat trout have similar early life histories. Adults spawn in small, isolated headwater streams from late April to early June, and young cutthroat emerge from the gravel in July. Selection of isolated spawning areas is thought to reduce interaction of young cutthroat with more aggressive juvenile steelhead and coho salmon. Later, the young occupy beaver ponds, sloughs, or lakes. Sea-run juveniles can be displaced to downstream mainstem and estuarine areas where they reside for the summer, then migrate back upstream with the onset of winter floods. Sea-run cutthroat rear for three to four years in fresh water and migrate to sea during May when they are about 8 inches long. Time at sea varies from a few days to over a hundred days before they return to their natal stream. During their migration, they follow the shoreline and do not cross open bodies of water and seldom venture farther than 30 to 45 miles from their home stream. In the fall they return to their home stream where they mature during the winter months. Homing is very precise; cutthroat can return to the same tributary stream where they emerged and reared. Fish mature at 5 to 7 years and live to be 9 to 10 years old. Survival through the winter and return to salt water is about 40 percent. Furthermore, about 60 percent of the migrants are sexually mature, a characteristic that tends to limit egg deposition and reproductive potential. Resident coastal cutthroat remain in fresh water after emergence and live in streams, beaver ponds, sloughs, and lakes. In lakes, smaller cutthroat hide among lily pads, sunken logs, or rubble from which they dart out and seize insects and small fish. Some fish abandon this "sit and wait" feeding strategy when they reach about 14 inches and become cruisers, pursuing and eating other fish. Cutthroat that adapt this feeding strategy can grow from 24 to 28 inches, weigh 8 pounds, and live to be over 12 years old. These trophy-class cutthroat are always found in large landlocked lakes with populations of kokanee (landlocked sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka)).
Cutthroat trout are aggressive feeders and will hit almost any lure, spinner, or fly. Sea-run cutthroat can be taken in fresh water in the spring or during the fall when they enter fresh water to overwinter. Often they are caught when fishing for steelhead trout (Salmo gairdneri). They stay close to the bottom of deep pools or sloughs, and gear must be fished close to the bottom to ensure a hit. During their migrations, they are caught in their home stream estuary or bays and salt chucks in the vicinity. Because sea-run cutthroat smolt are large, they are often confused with mature, catchable fish and some runs have been depleted by overfishing the smolt run. Resident cutthroat can be caught with spinners, or spoons fished deep in pools or along lake shorelines, especially where there is abundant submerged debris. Dry or wet flies fished off inlet streams work well. A muddler minnow on a fast sinking line fished along shores with submerged cover is a sure bet. Large trophy-class cutthroat are best caught by trolling off steep shorelines of landlocked lakes. Coastal cutthroat trout are a handsome and exciting fish to catch. Their appeal is that they can be found in nearly any freshwater habitat. However, lakes and streams in Southeast Alaska are unproductive. Hence, cutthroat trout are slow-growing, have low density populations, and a low reproductive rate. Furthermore, sea-run forms are known from only 88 watersheds, mostly south of Frederick Sound. These factors make cutthroat sensitive to overharvest. Cutthroat populations have been protected by their remoteness where watersheds have become accessible by road, populations have been depleted. As Southeast Alaska is developed, management of wild cutthroat trout populations will become a major challenge for future biologists.
Where the river current is fast, wary cutthroats can be caught on a variety of artificial stonefly and caddis nymphs, fished slowly along the river bottom. In these faster waters, the presence of rainbow trout usually indicates areas preferred by cutthroats also. To catch larger fish, bait such as night crawlers and minnows (where legal) are effective. Interestingly, often a particular area or stream will produce fish with minnows as the sole bait, or another area with night crawlers alone.
Mature cutthroat are typically piscivorous, and biologists do not know why some fish show a marked fondness for night crawlers in some streams. In high, discoloured streams as in spring or after a heavy rainfall, try small silver spinners with bright bodies. Always fish the bait or lure slowly and along the bottom - cutthroats are habitual bottom-feeders.
In early spring, cast a small silver spoon into pockets of open water amidst floating ice. Again, let the lure sink to the bottom, then slowly retrieve it with an intermittent jerking motion, then let it sink. As the lure quivers to the bottom, anticipate a strike and set the hook at the first change in line pressure. Ensure that many spoon lures are on hand; this technique results in many hang-ups and lost lures.
In warmer waters, cutthroats swim to deeper areas off points and drop-offs. Deep troll 'cowbells' or 'Davis-rigs' - lures comprising a string of spinners and beads, attached by a leader to a spoon or bait. Rainbow trout baits such as worms, cheese, marshmallows, and minnows (where legal) are used by shore anglers in summer months.
In the cooler fall waters, cutthroats approach nearer the surface, but their natural wariness remains. Cutthroats spook easily, and spin-fishing with a small wet fly or midge and a spinning bubble work best. Tie a ten or twelve-foot leader below the spinning bubble. This rig is awkward to cast, but the long leader helps avoid alarming the fish into deeper water.
In an attempt to ensure a future cutthroat population, some fish and game departments have increased size limits and lowered daily bag limits. Anglers introduce non-native minnow species that feed on cutthroat eggs. Native cutthroat waters have been invaded by hardy brown trout that feed on young cutthroats. New dikes and dams block access to feeder streams and spawning grounds. Like the brook trout, the cutthroat population is being pushed into remote wilderness areas and isolated lakes and streams.