An angler uses one fly, drives 600 miles and completes the Utah Cutthroat Slam before the sun sets
By Jeff Bringhurst
Downtown Salt Lake City was quiet at 4:30 a.m. as we stood in front of a camera explaining our plan. The sun was just starting to illuminate the peaks of the Wastach Mountains. It was one of those moments I would normally savor, but all I could think was that the clock was already ticking. We had a 2 ½-hour drive to get to the first stream. I wondered what the day would hold as we climbed in the truck to start our attempt to catch the four subspecies of Utah’s native cutthroat trout in their historic range before the sun set.
I am a waterfowl hunter. I began waterfowl hunting with my father when I was 12 and it has helped to shape my life. I also had many opportunities to go fishing with my father and grandfather in my childhood. In fact, bait fishing occupies some of my earliest memories. Yet, as I grew older, I developed a new love affair with fly fishing. Fly fishing, like waterfowl hunting, suits me as I am not the type to sit idle for long.
I started fly fishing about a decade ago as a way to pass the summer days while waiting for waterfowl season to open. I quickly became hooked, as they say. I soon realized whether I traveled a few minutes from my driveway or a few hours into the backcountry, the fly fishing in Utah was exceptional. I also began to realize that fishing and waterfowl hunting are similar in many ways.
Bait fishing from shore is similar to pass shooting ducks and geese, while trolling for fish is akin to jump shooting ducks. Fly fishing feels much like decoying waterfowl, and because there is nothing else like luring in a wild animal with an artificial attractant, decoying and fly fishing have become my favorite ways to enjoy the outdoors.
I suppose that is why when, two years ago, when my buddy James Young presented me with an opportunity to do the Utah Cutthroat Slam, I was keen to try it. While fishing waters I had never fished before, I was able to land the Yellowstone, Bear River and Bonneville cutthroat in the same day. I finished the slam a few weeks later with help from a buddy who sent a pin drop that led me right to where the Colorado Cutthroat were stacked thick. At the time, I was the 351st person to complete the Utah Cutthroat Slam, an accomplishment I’ll always be proud of.
Utah Cutthroat Slam By the Numbers
- Launched in April of 2016 by Trout Unlimited and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
- 600 completions as of this week
- 2,628 anglers have registered for the slam
- $49,590 has been raised for conservation as part of the program
- Restoration work has benefited all four subspecies of cutthroat
- Anglers from 41 states and one Canadian province have registered
- 347 youth have registered for the slam
- 317 women have registered for the slam
- 45 anglers have competed it multiple times
- 1 angler has competed it 8 times
After completing the Slam I believed it could be done in a single day, so I began hatching a plan. I chose June 19, 2020, the closet day to the summer solstice that I could manage. I did so with the intention of maximizing the long daylight hours. My next step was to convince a friend or two to join me on this ambitious adventure.
My buddy hosts the KSL Outdoors with Adam Eakle television program here in Utah. Adam was already familiar with the Utah Cutthroat Slam. He actually beat me to getting his first slam and was the 132nd person to get the certificate and medallion that comes with completion. Once I pitched my plan to Adam, he was an easy “yes.” We knew from the get go we could not accomplish this grand feat without help from others so Adam made a few phone calls to Trout Unlimited and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources officials for suggestions on where to go. We also spent some time on Google Earth as well, planning our route to our eventual fishing locations.
KSL Outdoors show producer Jared Hargrave joined our quest and was excited to finish his Slam as he still needed to land a Bear River and Bonneville to complete it. We were educated, we were determined, we were ready.
We discussed our goals for the day while heading to the first fishing hole. I had three main goals: complete the Slam; complete the slam in a single day; and use the same, single fly to catch all four fish.
Yellowstone cutthroat trout
There was a palpable air of anticipation and excitement in the truck when we approached the Raft River Mountains of northwestern Utah, the only native range for Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Utah. We arrived at 7 a.m., quickly assembled our rods, did a little filming, then hit the stream. Our first stop would prove to be our most challenging and technical, based on the fact that the banks and stream were overgrown with grass and trees. These conditions left us with only two viable methods for finding fish — dabbing our flies or bow-and-arrow casts.
In spite of the challenging conditions, Adam spotted a fish right away just steps from the truck. It was an experienced fish, however, and wanted nothing to do with an artificial fly, so we soon began moving upstream, dabbing as we went along. We continued in this fashion for 45 minutes with no luck for either of us and we began talking about moving to a different stream altogether. Without the Yellowstone, without crossing that first hurdle, the race would already be lost.
Ten minutes later, Adam landed the first fish of the day. No further talks of moving locations, we were in business, and suddenly all of the pressure was on me. A half an hour later, with our departure clock ticking, I was feeling the frustration. I was tucked into some trees, flipping my line to a small cutthroat. I am quite sure the fish was mocking my big plans by bumping my fly over and over again without actually hitting it. I finally decided to give us both a break and headed upstream again in search of a less fickle fish.
It was the right move because as I continued upstream I could hear Adam calling out that he had found a fish, tucked into the bottom of a small drop-off, under a thicket of grass and trees. It wasn’t pretty, and it certainly wasn’t easy, but with my line tangled over and over again, I dabbed and flipped my fly until that hungry little guy grabbed it. It was 9 a.m., the race was on, and it was time to get on the road to our next location.
Bear River cutthroat
Our next destination was the Logan River in Logan Canyon, a picturesque and winding river with several offshoots to explore and fish. During our preparation for the Slam we had been told Right Fork was holding a lot of fish.
Although we had planned to fish Temple Fork, since I had previously had success there, we instead, took the advice of those who were in the know, and changed course for Right Fork. Not one of us had fished this area. In fact, none of us had even been to this busy, bustling part of Logan Canyon, so we were having some serious doubts about it when we arrived to find the campgrounds brimming with folks enjoying the cooler temperatures, and especially the cool water in which we intended to try to land our next prize, the Bear River cutthroat. Our apprehension was soon forgotten as we left the pavement and traveled a dirt road parallel to the river.
We could see fish, lots of fish, right from the truck and decided any place was a good place to start. Within five minutes of throwing my first fly I landed my Bear River cutthroat. Adam was next to land a Bear River, followed by Jared who needed the Bear River to help him complete his Slam. I will not confirm nor deny that I may have fallen into the river here, I will confirm that Jared had a fish to land, and someone needed to rush to help him get the fish into the net.
Right Fork was the right choice and a smashing success for which we will be forever grateful to the guidance we received from Trout Unlimited and the DWR. Having accelerated our pace enough at this stop on the adventure, we took time to get some good footage for the upcoming show and to make our PB & Js for refueling after hours of hard work and tedious road miles.
Back on the road we had Echo Canyon in our sights, home of the Bonneville cutthroat. Echo was my guaranteed spot. I had fished there just four days prior and had landed three nice fish in less than 30 minutes and my confidence was high as we set out for our next stop. We had been awake since 3 a.m. and Adam had done all of the driving thus far so we made a couple of adjustments along the way and with Jared at the wheel, Adam and I were able to get a little rest before the next stop.
There is something disorienting about napping in the car, and in our case, a foreshadowing for the next few hours, where we would be reminded that confidence doesn’t add up to much, and fishing is exactly as frustrating as it is rewarding. After a few dabs at my guaranteed spot I could tell something was different. There were no fish. We had nothing, not a look, a swipe, a turn, nothing. My guarantee was no guarantee at all.
We discussed the possible reasons and decided perhaps it was because the stream ran parallel to the railway line where work was being done to replace ties. Maybe all the vibration and commotion had moved the fish or frightened them away. Whatever the reason may have been, I had begun to have my first real fears about whether or not I could pull this off.
We continued to cast and drift for another 45 minutes when as I was drifting along the right side of a flow, I got a hit. I set my hook, reeled her in, and there I had my Bonnie.
Adam then spent the next hour getting some looks, bumps and hits, but didn’t land anything before we decided to move down river where there was no construction. The river there looked great so Adam went to work throwing his bug, moving along, throwing, moving again, throwing, with no success.
Suddenly I heard him exclaim he had seen a fish rise. Fortunately, he also saw the bug the fish was chasing, which prompted him to change his fly to match it. On the first cast with his new fly the fish took it and Adam had hooked the largest cutthroat of the day. This bugger was a fighter, he was large, and before Adam could get him to shore he threw the hook and got away.
He continued to fish up the river getting a few more eats but was unable to land a single Bonneville. At this point it was nearing 6 p.m. and we still needed to make it to our final destination. With much strain, sadness and a twinge of disappointment, we loaded back into the truck and got focused on completing the Slam for the two still who needed the next fish.
Colorado River cutthroat
Our last stop would be Gilbert Creek, home to the Colorado River cutthroat. At this point in the day the ride was more subdued, taking into account that we had been awake for 15 hours and had taken in too few calories. With miles and miles of road behind us and gallons and gallons of gas guzzled, we crossed briefly through Wyoming as we headed for the north slope of the Uinta Mountains to a place none of us had ever been.
Just across the Utah border, nestled in the tall pines, lay Gilbert Creek. The stream was fat with runoff and the sun was just over the trees as the cool of evening began to settle in. It was breathtakingly beautiful. It was the perfect spot to finish our day. We knew we didn’t have time to lose and as Adam began to work a deep pool at the bottom of a culvert, I started working upstream. I went more than 30 minutes without seeing even a flash of color. Then, just off a small riffle, my fly disappeared and as I lifted my rod I could see that final trophy hanging off the end of my line. The vibrant colors of the Colorado River cutthroat reflected by the setting sun through the pines was the undeniable proof that I had done it. I had managed, with much help from many others, to catch all four Utah cutthroat on a single fly, in a single day.
I looked up to realize that Adam and Jared were not within sight, I didn’t have anyone to share in my joyous moment, until I remembered I was still wearing a microphone and Jared’s camera was wired to his headphones.
“Jared, if you can hear me, I caught one!”
I whispered and screamed at the same time. I knew I needed photographic proof so I wrangled my phone from my pocket and took a few quick shots. Just as I was attempting a couple of clumsy shots, Jared arrived to do a quick TV moment before we released my prize back to his watery home.
Adam had been successful in landing his Colorado and Jared had previously been successful so we decided to fish a bit more for fun as the sun was saying goodnight and the mosquitoes were coming out to dine. It was finally time to break down the rods — the day was nearly done. We sat on tree stumps to enjoy a victory drink — ice cold cans of Uinta Cutthroat seemed appropriate — as we quietly pondered the events of the day and watched the sky turn to colors one can only witness in the mountains.
Reflections on the slam in a day
The Utah Cutthroat Slam is not just about bagging a few trophies. It is also a way to get out and enjoy all different areas of the state and fish in places you may not have fished before. An entry into the Slam helps to give back to the resources and conservation efforts that allow all of us to enjoy the unique habitat and species Utah rivers and streams have to offer. It was easy for me to understand at that point how worthwhile my participation in the Slam had been and will continue to be as registration fees go directly back to fisheries in Utah.
I encourage everyone to give the Utah Cutthroat Slam a try. If you have already done it, I encourage you to do it again. You can make it happen in so many different ways. You can do it in a year, do it in a day, do it with a single fly or a dry fly. You can do it with a friend, a spouse, a child or parent. The possibilities are endless and exciting and absolutely worthwhile.
I was prepared to sleep on the two-hour car ride home, yet, found myself thinking over what we had accomplished. We spent 20 hours on the road, drove 600 miles, fished four very different streams and shared a once-in-a-lifetime experience with the best of friends. I am a waterfowl hunter and a fly fisherman and I echo the words my grandfather used to say, “Life is short, go fishing.”
Jeff Bringhurst is an avid outdoorsman from Utah. He and his wife Kim keep a menagerie of farmyard animals. His next goal is to complete the Wyoming Cutt-Slam. He hopes to get started this month.