Healthy cutthroat trout populations are indicative of healthy rivers. The more we can do to help them survive, the better. Photo Credit: Spencer Durrant

Man, that was a helluva winter.

It wasn’t even that bad from a weather perspective (which isn’t good, but that’s a topic for another day). Mother Nature just couldn’t make her mind up on whether Utah got a real winter this year, but it looks like she’s finally given up. Spring is in full force across the state, and I’m hearing tales of the first great blue-winged olive hatches of the year in Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado, too.

Aside from the first real hatch of the year, spring signals the annual cutthroat trout spawn. Most anglers don’t have to worry about avoiding spawning cutts because those fish are usually in water that’s inaccessible until the beginning of June. But a few major rivers – the Greys, Gros Ventre, and South Fork of the Snake – see big spawning runs.

These are arguably the most important runs of the year after salmon and steelhead. Why? Healthy cutthroat trout populations are indicative of healthy rivers, so the more we can do to help cutthroat survive, the better.

During spring, you can do your part to help cutthroat trout, mainly by avoiding their spawning grounds. Here are three tips to protect cutthroat – and promote healthy river ecosystems.

Spencer Durrant, fly fishing writer and guide, is pictured above with a cutthroat trout. “Cutthroat have always been my favorite trout,” he said. “But I don’t mess with them when they’re spawning because I want that tradition of hunting for a big cutthroat to exist as long as anglers can serve as its stewards.” Photo Credit: Spencer Durrant

1. Find the Redds

This is the only time I’ll tell anyone to look for cutthroat redds.

Find them, then stay away. Or, at the very least, don’t walk anywhere near them. Watching cutthroat spawn is a magical experience. Every angler should see it once in their life, I think. It gives you a sense of the blue-collar attitude cutthroat have, and of their willingness to do what it takes to survive in the arid deserts of the Western United States for thousands of years – despite humanity’s best efforts to wipe them out.

Cutthroat need clean, cool water, which is why they’re still predominant in the high country where rivers are not infected with stunted brook trout. You’ll find spawning cutthroat in these locations, and until the middle of June, it’s best to leave these rivers alone entirely.

Here in Utah, two of my favorite creeks are closed from January 1 to the second Saturday of July every year, just to protect spawning cutthroat. Some creeks are closed completely to fishing because the cutthroat populations are so fragile.

I know it feels counter-productive to tell you to avoid cutthroat trout by looking for them, but that’s honestly the best way to stay away from their redds. Avoiding spawning runs is second nature for us anglers during the fall brown trout run, and I’d wager that’s due to our familiarity with where the browns spawn year after year.

Most anglers don’t have that level of familiarity with cutthroat. So if you see these iconic fish, tip your hat to their heroic efforts to continue their species, and find a different stream to fish.

2. Release them in the water

You’ll probably end up with a cutthroat or two this spring, especially if you live in the Rockies. They’ve been stocked in so many odd places, and they tend to show up in full force this time of year. Every spring we’ll see a nice cutthroat come from the Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam. But I’ve yet to see a redd full of nothing but cutthroat on the Green. Even if you’re avoiding redds, you can’t avoid cutthroat entirely.

So on the chance that you do hook into some cutts this spring, I recommend taking a page from John Gierach’s book. I was fishing with John and renowned sporting artist Bob White on a tiny spring creek this March. John caught the first dozen or so fish of the day (no surprise there), and he didn’t take a single one out of the water. He just reeled them in to his ankles, bent over and popped the hook free.

That’s a great way to release fish year-round, but it’s a must for cutthroat. The hens are so delicate this time of year; it often feels like a stern glance in their direction will cause them to drop their eggs.

If you hook into a cutthroat trout during the spring spawning season, release it into the water. Bring it in quick, minimize or eliminate its time above water, and let it go as quickly as possible. Photo Credit: Spencer Durrant

3. Handle with care

Sometime towards the end of Obama’s first term in office, I was up in Idaho with a few buddies. Though with the amount of rain and permanent soggy feeling permeating the place, we could’ve easily been in Washington state.

Anyway, we heard from a friend of a friend who knew an old farmer who used to catch big lake trout in the spring. The lakers would come from the depths to feed, but they’d follow cutthroat into one lake’s tributaries, gorging on the roe.

The tributaries are closed to fishing – and rightfully so – but we figured the deltas where they dumped into this lake could hold some big ol’ lake trout.

After hours of fishing in an endless storm, Mike, our buddy Sheldon and I hooked up consecutively with big fish. Mike and Sheldon didn’t land theirs. Mine got in the net through sheer dumb luck – Mike happened to be ten feet away from the fish when it took my fly, and I fought it for all of 30 seconds until Mike scooped it up.

To our surprise, the fish wasn’t a lake trout. It was a giant cutthroat. A quick measurement taped it at just over 26 inches, and we didn’t measure the girth. The fish stayed with us for just enough time to have its picture taken, then it went back to the lake.

Fly fishing, especially in the Rockies, has an ability to surprise the hell out of you. If that happens to you this spring and you find yourself eye-to-eye with a brute of a cutthroat, treat it like a steelhead. Bring it in quick, minimize or eliminate its time above water, and let it go as quickly as possible.

Cutthroat have always been my favorite trout, and I spend a few weeks each year dedicated to chasing the big ones I know are out there. But I don’t mess with them when they’re spawning. Why? I want that tradition of hunting for a big cutthroat to exist as long as anglers can serve as its stewards.

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. He’s also the Managing Editor of The Modern Trout Bum and Owner/CEO of Cutthroat Creative Media. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, Hatch Magazine, TROUT Magazine, Sporting Classics Daily, and other national publications. Find him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.