Note: The following was originally published in Mountain Country: Summer Guide to the Tetons & Yellowstone magazine
What Moab is to mountain biking, what Washington is to politics, what the Rolling Stones are to rock and roll, so is Jackson Hole to western fly fishing. Centrally located in one of the most diverse trout fishing regions in the world, Jackson Hole, steeped in history and lore, epitomizes angling paradise.
One of Jackson Hole’s greatest natural treasures is a unique sub-species of trout known as the fine-spotted Snake River cutthroat. Originally found nowhere else in the world, the Snake River cutthroat inhabits one of the last strongholds of the cutthroat species. While doing well in Jackson Hole, the cutthroat has been wiped out throughout much of the Rockies.
Fly fishing pioneers like Bob Carmichael and Boots Allen helped foster the creation of a fly fishing sub-culture that lead to the development of techniques, tactics and fly patterns whose influence reaches far beyond the spectacularly mountain-girdled valley. Wetting a line in Jackson Hole places you in the company of some of the greats of the sport – men like Lee Wulff, Ernest Schwiebert, Joe Humphries, Dave Whitlock, and Stu Apt (to mention but a few) – all of whom have made the pilgrimage to the “required reading” of fly fishing.
Ernest Schwiebert, in his encyclopedic classic Trout, recalls a “conversation” with the feisty Bob Carmichael, “who reigned for years as the fishing sage of Jackson Hole from his fly shop at Moose Crossing.” (Today known as Moose.) In the years following the end of WWII a young Schwiebert “expressed disappointment over the lack of brown trout in the Teton country, and ventured a faintly negative opinion about cutthroat fishing.”
Such talk easily got under the skin of Carmichael who roared, “Young man, when you know enough about this part of the country to have an opinion about the fishing – you’ll know there’s cutthroats and there’s cutthroats! These fish ain’t no pantywaists – they’re Jackson Hole cutthroats!”
Anyone who has spent much time on the Snake River in pursuit of “Jackson Hole cutthroats!” will understand what Carmichael was getting at. Larger cutthroats possess a behavioral distinctiveness separate from their smaller counterparts. Failure to recognize this fact is probably the foremost reason why anglers who find plenty of small cutts are often at a loss when it comes to the big ones. These thoroughbreds of the trout world have a different agenda.
In short, big cutthroats are often found in different holding lies and prefer their meals supersized. Most Jackson Hole fishing guides would agree that large flies are the best bet for inducing a strike.
Realize that these behavior patterns are deeply rooted in, and dictated by, the trout’s natural environment. Jackson Hole cutthroats live a rugged life where survival of the fittest is much more than a cliché. Long harsh winters, low winter flows, a short growing season, and a myriad of predators conspire to shorten the potential life span of trout.
In order to survive, Snake River cutthroats must adopt a certain code of conduct, if you will. Faced with a biological imperative to “fatten up” for winter and with a limited time to do so, cutthroats must be opportunistic and feed aggressively. And much to the delight of dry fly purists they will often do so on the surface. Of all the trout species, the cutthroat is the most likely to rise to a dry fly, making it the technique of choice for Jackson Hole anglers.
But the presence of ospreys, eagles, herons, pelicans, otters, mink, larger trout, and bears – not to mention man – creates a dilemma for an animal that needs to consume as much food as possible during the relatively short summer growing season. Large cutthroat adapt to the profusion of predators by, not surprisingly, hiding whenever possible. Whether it is experience or instinct that tells them what to do, if they don’t hide, they don’t get big.
Deep holes, especially alongside fallen trees, undercut banks and bouldered runs are among the favored holding lies. But there’s another type of water, usually overlooked, that the lunker hunter would do well to devote some fishing time to – fast heavy current. In heavy current large cutthroats will position themselves in small sanctuaries of calm water, perhaps in a depression along the riverbed or behind a rock. After all, these zones of turbulent rushing water provide much of what a trout needs…food, oxygen and a degree of inaccessibility from critters that would have them for lunch. Look for areas where the river gradient drops through a fast narrow chute. Cast directly into the throat of the chute as well as the edge of the fast current.
But not every angler is fixated on large trout. For those who are more interested in action than size, cutthroats will be found in large numbers in: riffles, rocky runs, log jams, seams and eddies.
For all their eccentricity, or perhaps because of it, cutthroats still manage to dumbfound even the most seasoned observer. Unlike the acrobatic rainbow trout, cutthroats rarely break water, much less jump, when hooked. Except, that is, during the summer of 2000. It was as though an evil scientist, for his own mad purposes, was dumping trout steroids into the water supply. That summer, and that summer only, trout were flying out of the water like they’d just discovered a new sport – the cutthroat high jump. Go figure.
Due to the aggressive feeding patterns of cutthroats, and thus the relative ease with which the small ones are caught, it is imperative that anglers practice catch-and-release techniques. While slot-limit regulations permit the harvesting of some trout, it is recommended that all cutthroats be released. Every reasonable effort, such as fishing with barbless hooks, should be made to minimize handling and promote a clean release.
One final word of caution…local rivers (the Snake in particular) are deceptively powerful. Such high-energy rivers command respect and mistakes in judgment can have deadly consequences. When wading, be wary of sometimes unstable cobblestone bottoms and recognize that deep wading is hazardous and rarely necessary. When floating, good route finding skills and quick decision making are mandatory. While certain sections of the Snake are more technical than others, no matter where you float, you’ll need solid boat handling skills to negotiate the numerous obstacles you’ll encounter.
Be safe, and have a great time in this beautiful and unique valley in pursuit of “Jackson Hole cutthroats!”