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Cutthroat Trout  at Cabela's

Cutthroat Trout

Author: Craig Springer

The cutthroat trout holds the distinction of being the first trout ever documented in writing in the New World.

Cutthroat trout artwork by Joe Tomelleri.
Over 450 years ago as the first European explorers pushed into the present-day United States, at least one chronicler had trout on his mind, perhaps reminiscing of brown trout in his Iberian homeland.

Pedro Casta eda, a member of the 1541 Coronado Expedition, wrote while camped along Glorieta Creek near present-day Pecos, New Mexico, that "Cicuye [Pecos Pueblo] is located in a small valley between snowy mountain ranges and mountains covered with big pines. There is a little stream which abounds in excellent trout and otters . . . "

Castaneda wrote about the only trout native to northern New Mexico, Rio Grande cutthroat trout. Another 250 years would pass before Lewis and Clark would make a serious scientific description of west slope cutthroats from Montana, a fish that would eventually be named for science in their honor, Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi.

What's the most common trout in the US? Probably rainbow trout. But that was not always the case. Cutthroat trout could make a strong showing for the widest natural distribution of any North American trout species. Thirteen varieties, or subspecies, of cutthroat trout originally ranged from southeast Alaskan lakes to high-country streams of southern New Mexico. Two subspecies are extinct and the range of many others has been greatly reduced.

By about 1900, cutthroat trout habitat began to degrade from logging, stock grazing, and mining practices. Timbering silted the waters, and streams were blocked and diverted for irrigation. Stream banks continue to be trampled by livestock, reducing the cooling effect of stream-side shade. The cutthroat populations responded in-kind and shrunk to present-day levels. But fishable populations exist throughout the West and cutthroat trout have been transplanted back in the East.

In spring, spawning fish take on a beautiful hue of colors unparalleled in the finny tribe. Though the name "cutthroat" was argued as a bad epithet in Forest and Stream and American Angler in the 1880s, the name aptly describes the trout¿s most prominent feature: a slash of crimson red on the throat. The slash amplifies greatly when fish go on the spawn. The Rio Grande cutthroat for example, is commonly covered in red from the lower jaw to the tail. The spotting pattern is highly variable among the different subspecies. Some may have only a few large spots around the tail while others may be peppered with dark spots.

Cold, clear water is a necessity for this subspecies. Since subspecies in the Rockies don¿t migrate long distances, they must have deep pools to survive the cold, high-country winters. The pools are also prime summertime lairs where they lie in wait for food. During the cooler months, the cutts rely a great deal on drifting aquatic insect larvae. But in the summer, terrestrial bugs like moths, ants, and grasshoppers are the main fare. Larger cutthroat trout may eat an occasional chub or a smaller member of their own clan.

Spawning occurs from March to July, depending upon elevation, when water temperature reaches about 45 degrees. Male fish mature at two years old and females at three, either sex being about 7 inches long. Females lay between 200-4,500 eggs in redds built over clean pea-sized gravel riffles where oxygen-rich water percolates over the developing fish. Females only become ripe every other year. The eggs hatch in several weeks and are about two and an half inches long by the following spring. Cutthroat trout commonly spend their entire lives within 250 yards of their birthplace.

Growth is slow in the high country. By their fifth year, this fish may have reached 16 inches; rarely does it live beyond seven years. Recent diet studies show that feeding, not surprisingly, slows way down in the winter months. In warmer months though, studies that followed individual fish in the wild revealed an interesting life style.

Nine Wyoming cutthroat trout were implanted with radio transmitters and followed from mid-July to late August. To get a complete picture of what the trout were doing around the clock, each fish was individually monitored for at least one minute in every hour, over a 24-hour period. Biologists noted fish behavior, such as feeding or loafing.

Instead of remaining at feeding stations throughout the day, trout in this study moved an average of 275 feet per day in July. As the season progressed they tended to move less -by late August they only moved about of 85 feet per day. Regardless of distance traveled, many of the trout were found back in nearly the same place every morning.

The cutthroats fed 15 to 19 hours each day, with only 40 percent of the fish feeding after dark. Ninety percent of fish fed at dusk and dawn, but in daylight all fish were observed feeding.

To determine their favored fare, biologists flushed out the stomach contents of 36 cutthroats. Over the course of the study, half were flushed between 7:30 and 11:30 a.m., and the other half between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. The contents were separated into aquatic and terrestrial insects.

Cutthroats consistently ate more aquatic insects than terrestrials. Nearly 60 percent of their diet was composed of the larval and adult forms of aquatic bugs, with caddis and mayflies dominating. Dry fly fishermen may be pleased to know that terrestrial insects, like moths and tiny beetles, made up 31 percent of the diet. Based on stomach flushes, trout fed more than 3 times as much in the afternoon than in morning.

--Springer is a fisheries scientist in New Mexico.

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