Fly Fishing for Cutthroat Trout in Colorado

Colorado Cutthroat Trout

Colorado is home to three species of native Cutthroat trout:

The state offers excellent fly fishing for these beautiful homegrown trout that are eager to eat a fly. The Greenback Cutthroat was once thought to be extinct but now thrives in several Front Range fisheries. Rio Grande Cutthroats can be found in the drainages of the San Luis Valley. Finally, the Colorado River strain of Cutthroat Trout is native to the Western Slope of Colorado and is quite common in many high country fisheries and occasionally is caught in larger, lower elevation streams like the Eagle River near Vail. In addition, a fourth species of Cutthroat found in Colorado, the Yellowfin Cutthroat, was native to Twin Lakes Arkansas River Headwaters area of Colorado is now extinct. This species commonly grew to over ten pounds!

According to the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife:

Cutthroats are the most diverse trout species in North America. The historical distribution of cutthroat trout covers the broadest range of any stream dwelling trout in the Western Hemisphere. The rugged topography of their range has lead to isolation, which in turn has given rise to fourteen recognized subspecies. Many of these strains of trout are now managed as species of special concern. Some strains are even considered endangered species. Cutthroats do not compete well with other trout. In much of their historical range, loss of habitat has had a very negative impact on some populations. Some rare strains of cutthroats are found in only a single watershed drainage. Unfortunately, these trout are at extreme risk of disappearing altogether without proper protection and management.

All 3 of Colorado’s strains of Cutthroat Trout are similar in appearance:

The trout are similar in appearance with large black spots, orange to red throat slashes, and body colors ranging from olive to yellow. Cutthroats were originally named by  William Clark on the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition. Additionally, the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife may occasionally stock non-native fine-spotted Snake River Cutthroats, common in Wyoming and Idaho, into some fisheries. In Colorado’s lakes and streams most Cutthroats average 9 to 16 inches, with the occasional monster reaching over 20 inches. My biggest Colorado River Cutthroat was caught in the Frying Pan River. This fish was taped at 25 inches and weighed over six pounds.

Cutthroats tend to be eager and aggressive when eating flies:

They are especially fond of dry flies and terrestrials and bushy attractor dries are usually the most effective cuttie patterns. Many anglers make a point of attempting to land as many different strains of cutthroats as possible. Making a bucket list fly fishing trip for Cutthroats will take you to some fantastic fisheries across Colorado and much of the Western United States. There are even sea-run cutthroats that can be caught in shallow saltwater estuaries in the Northwest and Alaska. Next to my favorite, the Colorado River Cutt, I’m especially fond of the big, rosy-colored Westslope Cutthroat found in northwestern Montana.

Most larger river systems in Colorado such as the Eagle and Colorado River are now home to thriving populations of wild but non-native trout species like Brown Trout and Rainbow Trout. Cutthroat Trout tend to do better with less competition from their more aggressive cousins. Additionally, pure strains of cutthroat trout are also threatened by hyridization with rainbow trout since the two species may crossbreed during their shared spring spawning season. These fish are called “cuttbows” and area a frequent catch on the Eagle River.

Final Thoughts:

As a result, more pure cutthroats are  found in high country fisheries such as small mountain creeks and alpine lakes. Even at higher elevations, however, cutthroats must often compete with non-native brook trout which are more aggressive and breed prolifically. In fisheries with a population of both native Cutthroats and Brook trout, anglers are encouraged to harvest a few brook trout in order to help out Colorado’s native trout.

Fortunately, for anglers in Central Colorado near the Vail Valley Anglers Fly Shop in Edwards. Colorado there is no shortage of places to catch the Colorado River strain of Cutthroat Trout. Most high elevation streams and lakes in the Holy Cross and Eagle’s Nest Wilderness hold cutties. The Flattops Wilderness Area is also home to many excellent cutthroat destinations with Trapper’s Lake being a top choice.

Anglers interested in learning more about Colorado native Cutthroat Trout population should check out the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife at . For more specific information on each species of cutthroat take a look at ,, and .

For more information on where and how to catch cutthroat trout on a fly in Colorado, ask the experts at Vail Valley Anglers and check out our High Country Fly Fishing Report.

-Brody Henderson