Most people think that native cutthroat trout are delicate--that they only live in pristine, high elevation, mountain streams. That they’re small fish.
These certainly were some of my own preconceptions when I moved from Colorado to Utah 15 years ago to start a graduate research project on Bonneville cutthroat trout in the Great Basin. Up to that point, my experience with native trout had been chasing greenback and Colorado River cutthroats—both as an angler and as a technician for a Colorado State University study to determine why some populations failed and others thrived. I would have been the first to argue that cutthroat trout prefer Rocky Mountain streams above 7,000 feet. In fact, one of my favorite things about working with cutthroat trout was that in doing so I figured I would always end up in pristine country. I was wrong.
I showed up at my project site in southeast Idaho in August. The stream—a tributary to the Bear River—was a stagnant cesspool. The water was murky, and floating mats of algae covered the surface. There were carp everywhere. Big ones. It appeared from their somewhat frenzied surface gulping that even they weren’t that keen on the conditions. Clearly, I was in the wrong place.
I’d driven for most of the morning to get to this spot, and I wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. I knew this couldn’t possibly be my ‘cutthroat stream’; but, then again, the idea of hooking into a 10-pound carp was sort of exciting. And I did have my 5-weight in the truck. I grabbed my rod and walked upstream 100 feet to a large irrigation diversion dam that was intercepting a lot of the floating algae. I tied on a small black woolly bugger and cast it out into the middle of the large scour hole that had formed below the dam. I saw half a dozen big carp daisy-chaining around in the hole, but I’d always heard they were tough to fool. I figured I was in for some work. On my second strip, I got the tug. The fish pulled hard and then headed right at me…and breached. It was no carp. It was a 20-inch trout. Must be a brown, I thought. Sweet! But as I fought the fish in closer I saw that it did not look like a brown trout. It had rosy gill plates, a yellowish belly, and those telltale bright red slashes under its chin. It was my first ‘Bonnie’. So began my love affair with desert trout.
The desert trout as I call them, can include Bonneville cutthroat, Lahontan cutthroat, and redband rainbow trout. They occupy some of the harshest—and, arguably, least ‘trouty’—habitats in the arid West. The Bonnevilles in the Bear River share large, main stem rivers with carp, in places where rainbow trout haven’t been able to survive; Lahontans and redbands in Nevada live in tiny streams where water temperatures approach 80 degrees during the summer, and can survive for weeks in small isolated pools waiting for September rains to restore surface flows that dried up in July. These are not delicate fish. I call them ‘desert trout’, and they are special. They have adapted to tolerate warmer water temperatures and to occupy marginal habitats. For me, they provide some hope that other native fish might be able to do something similar as climate change begins to warm things up and dry them out. But desert trout also are on the front lines in that climate change battle, and they are vulnerable. They exist at the very edge of suitable habitat, where even slight changes in temperature and streamflow might push them to extinction.
Trout Unlimited is working across the Great Basin to make sure that this doesn’t happen. We are working every day to protect, reconnect, and restored thousands of acres of watersheds and hundreds of miles of streams to build resiliency in desert trout populations and ensure that these unique fish are still around—and taking woolly buggers—for future generations of anglers.
--Warren Colyer, Western Restoration Program Director