Why Utah's native cutthroat trout might not be as dumb as some anglers think

Utah's state fish, the Bonneville cutthroat trout, is often put in the category of "dumb trout" by anglers, but maybe it's getting a bad rap.

Utah's state fish, the Bonneville cutthroat trout, is often put in the category of "dumb trout" by anglers, but maybe it's getting a bad rap. (Shutterstock)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Anglers often discuss how smart or dumb a fish might be, and different species of fish are often assigned an intelligence status.

Sometimes the terms "easy" and "hard" are used to specify a fish's intelligence based on the difficulty in catching it with fishing gear.

For instance, anglers generally categorize trout as such: Brown trout are the "smartest," followed by wild — as opposed to hatchery-planted — rainbow trout, brook trout and then cutthroat trout. This is a pretty simplified measurement, and at certain times and situations each trout species may fall into a different intelligence category, especially if an angler spends a good portion of his time trying to catch a particular species with little to no success.

The Bonneville cutthroat

Utah's state fish, the Bonneville cutthroat trout, is often put in the category of "dumb trout" by anglers. Many point to the fact that cutthroat are easy to catch, and that they do not fight as hard as brown, rainbow and brook trout; therefore, they are weaker and less intelligent trout. In fact, some anglers are upset when efforts to restore Bonneville cutthroat to its native habitat include the removal of established wild populations of non-native trout like brown and brook trout.

But maybe the Bonneville cutthroat trout is getting a bad rap. Here are a few reasons to consider the Bonneville cutthroat a real gem — a trout with the ability to survive, and possibly displaying intelligence worthy of anglers' respect.

In geologic earth time, it was not long ago that the Bonneville cutthroat thrived in Lake Bonneville. It grew to large sizes and was the only native trout in Utah.

The late Robert Behnke, professor emeritus of fisheries and conservation in the Department of Fishery and Wildlife Biology at Colorado State University, wrote a book called "Trout and Salmon of North America." In it, he explains that about 14,500 years ago, the Bear River cut an outlet at Red Rock Pass, in Idaho, causing an event known as the Bonneville flood. A great deal of water left Lake Bonneville — dropping the lake level some 350 feet. It is estimated that over the next 7,000 years the lake level continued to drop.

Eventually, Lake Bonneville vanished, leaving only the terminal Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake. Bonneville cutthroat continued to survive at Utah Lake, Behnke says, until settlers in the mid-1800s depleted the population as a food source and its water quality eventually deteriorated to a point where trout could not survive.

Bonneville cutthroat is a survivor

In the 1970s it was feared that the Bonneville cutthroat was extinct.

Behnke's book provides information about a form of Bonneville cutthroat trout found in the Thomas Fork and Smith Fork drainage in Wyoming. Both of these waters are tributaries to the Bear River. "A long evolutionary history of existence in semi-arid watersheds subjected to great environmental extremes of floods, droughts and high sediment loads endowed the Bear River fluvial form of cutthroat trout with superior survival capabilities," Behnke writes.

In the early 1970s, several wildlife agency biologists made an effort to document every plant and wildlife species in Utah. In 1974, during this effort, biologists found a remnant population of Bonneville cutthroat trout in two small streams, Birch Creek and Trout Creek, on the east slope of the Deep Creek Mountains near the border of Utah and Nevada. From those remnant Bonneville cutthroat trout, efforts were made to help establish and propagate the Bonneville cutthroat, as explained on RedRockAdventure.com.

Richard Hepworth, a fisheries biologist out of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources office in Cedar City, says remnant populations of Bonneville cutthroat trout have been found in several southern Utah locations, such as Water Canyon and Reservoir Canyon on the Pine Valley Mountain. "They were also found in some headwater streams on the Beaver (Tuscher) Mountain, Cedar/Panguitch Mountains and Dutton Mountain," he said.

Though Bonneville cutthroat trout don't usually compete well with brown and brook trout, Hepworth said these different species can coexist.

"In most cases, cutthroat trout do not compete well with brown and brook trout because cutthroat trout spawn in the spring and the other species spawn in the fall," he said. "To explain it simply: Brown and brook trout are slightly larger in the spring when these fish (Bonneville cutthroat) start their lives and have a competitive advantage for collecting and eating food. Rainbow trout and cutthroat trout are fairly similar and I am not sure if one has a competitive advantage over the other. The problem with rainbow trout is they hybridize with cutthroat trout."

Opportunistic, selective feeding habits

It's true that cutthroat trout can be easy to catch, especially for fly-fishers. In creeks, streams and rivers where cutthroat trout are found, they can be opportunistic feeders. This means they will feed on any available food source — mostly aquatic and terrestrial insects — that happen by. Part of the reason is that in many waters where they are found, the growing season is short. The time of abundance of food is limited to the warmer months so the cutthroat will take advantage of the opportunity.

The opportunistic feeding habit does not necessarily mean the cutthroat will be easy to catch. On high-pressured waters, cutthroat have been known to follow a drifting fly downstream, only to turn back upstream without taking the fly upon seeing the wading angler.

Sometimes, a cutthroat will rise to a fly and sip or bump it, causing the angler to lift the rod tip to set the hook. Since the cutthroat didn't really take the fly there is no hook-up and frustrations set in for the angler, especially, if this scenario happens repeatedly.

When a hatch or abundance of a particular insect is present, cutthroat trout can become selective. This means they will focus on that one insect and most times refuse any other offering. The secret is to have an imitation that resembles the insect providing selective feeding. If you have the right pattern, then catching can be easy; if you don't, you might as well just watch the trout feed.

Gene Castellano is an accomplished fly fisher with over 50-plus years of experience. On one particular fishing trip on a local river, he caught and released upward of 30 cutthroat trout.

Later that day, Castellano came upon a nice 16-inch feeding cutthroat. He could never see what the fish was feeding on. Whatever it was it was very small. The trout would take something right under the surface, then he would see its nose and mouth break the surface. He surmised that it was taking an emerging insect just as it reached the surface.

Castellano tried several tactics and patterns but could not interest the fish.

"It was frustrating," he said. "A couple of times I thought I had the trout fooled as it moved toward my pattern, but then it would move away from my fly and take a natural nearby. I tried for about a half-hour then decided to move on. Sometimes, cutthroat trout are not as dumb as we think."

Cutthroat are weak fighters

Does the weak fighting nature of cutthroat trout make it a less intelligent or less superior species? Maybe not. Fishery biologists suggest that trout will, in most situations, only expend so much energy for a food source. That's probably why we see trout take up strategic feeding places on a river either in the water column or near seams where aquatic insects can be picked off with little movement or effort. Nutrition versus effort is critical.

Another aspect of trout survival is how hard it will fight to get away. When hooked, will a trout fight until its death? While we cannot know this answer completely, we know that some trout seem to fight harder than others. Brown and rainbow trout are given superior fighting status by most anglers. The pull, the jump, the twisting and turning, all indicate a trout's desire to get free. Cutthroat trout have the reputation of being somewhat wimpy in their fight, which is one of the main reasons some anglers turn up their noses to them.

Biologists know through studies that lactic acid is produced in the bloodstream when muscles are exercised. This acid makes the muscle-burning sensation we feel. This is a survival mechanism to warn creatures, including humans, to slow down and not overdo it.

Trout will also produce lactic acid in the blood from the muscle exertion of the fight, according to a 1982 study by Ontario's McMaster University. In trout literature, it is simply stated that a trout fighting an angler can build up enough lactic acid to produce what is called acidosis. In fishing literature, it is surmised that when acidosis occurs from fighting a trout too long, it will die even if it is released and seems to swim away normally.

While studies are being done to ascertain if it is really acidosis or other factors such as time exposure to air that kills a trout after it is released, the fact remains that a trout fighting — or in fishing terms, "played" too long, can die.

This is pure speculation, but maybe the cutthroat trout fights less to keep the threshold of lactic acid in the bloodstream at a survival level.

Regardless, it is always wise angling practice to get a trout in a net, or to hand, and back in the water as quickly as possible.

Bonneville cutthroat deserve more respect

Hepworth believes Bonneville cutthroat trout are valuable because they "fill a niche in many streams and lakes in Utah that other species of fish don't." The species also provides a "unique opportunity for anglers to catch a species of fish that is only found in the Great Basin."

"They provide diversity, and do rise to dry flies better than most other fishes," he said.

Hepworth says some strains of Bonneville cutthroat are used in places like Strawberry Reservoir and Panguitch Lake to help combat rough fish populations, and they "have proven to work better than other trout species for this purpose."

He also thinks cutthroat are betters suited for Utah's rivers and streams.

"Oftentimes, brook and brown trout tend to stunt or overpopulate streams and lakes in Utah and do not provide a satisfactory fishery for our anglers," he said. "I have never seen Bonneville cutthroat trout overpopulate a water body."

Perhaps, the Bonneville cutthroat's ability to survive, its opportunistic or selective feeding habits, and its fighting energy are actually working in the cutthroat's favor. It is Utah's native trout and for that reason alone, it should be protected and valued.

With some help from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, conservation groups like Trout Unlimited and the angling public, the future of cutthroat trout looks bright.


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Robert Williamson is a graduate of Weber State College and the author of "Creative Flies: Innovative Tying Techniques."


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