It’s not summer until there’s a cutty on the line

Cutthroats and mountain lakes go together like sandals and a sunny beach.

July 25, 2013 

A ring on the surface was an unmistakable sign that a trout had risen and grabbed an insect, and my fly landed near enough that my fly disappeared into a second ring.

My three-weight fly rod wavered like a willow in a gale as a cutthroat tried to dash to the safety of the dark, green water in the mountain lake I was fishing.

We played a short game of tug of war before I reeled it in. I dislodged the hook and gently held the fish until it swam away and melted into the blurry water.

It was my first cutthroat of the season, and for me, cutthroats are an indelible sign of summer.

They thrive in the upper tributaries of rivers and in mountain lakes that aren’t accessible until summer.

That makes them a special summer treat.

If I want to catch rainbows, they’re available in the Boise River five minutes from my front door year-round.

Rainbows living in local rivers and streams often become cagey, finicky and elusive because someone is constantly tempting them with bait, hardware or feathers dangling in front of their noses. They quickly learn to sniff out a fake offering.

Cutthroats spend months in backcountry seclusion going about their lives without anglers like me pestering them.

It’s not that they’re dumb. They still have to avoid everything from ospreys to bull trout to otters to survive while also enduring a short growing season in an unforgiving environment with a limited food supply.

That means they’re hungry most of the time, and much less reluctant to grab a meal, or something that resembles one.

Besides their gullible nature, there’s a beautiful symmetry between cutthroats and the backcountry they inhabit.

Their green backs are like the forests that shade the lakes and streams. A cutthroat’s golden sides are like a July sunset. Their namesake crimson slashes are the color of ripe elderberries.

Yeah, they’re poetic, but there’s more to the story. I also like cutthroats because they’re a reward for hard work.

Hike to a mountain lake, and it’s like they’re as eager to grab a fly as a Lab after a slimy tennis ball.

Before my recent trip into the Seven Devils Mountains, I selected about a dozen flies specifically for the trip.

First, I grabbed a few woolly buggers in the unlikely event I had to go subsurface to entice a cutty. I knew I probably wouldn’t need to, they were just an insurance policy.

Then I rummaged through my large, plastic, segmented boxes that hold dozens of flies with all the organization of an earthquake at a Jelly Belly factory.

I found a couple royal Wulffs. Where did these come from? That fly was a popular pattern in the fiberglass fly rod era, but I couldn’t figure why I would buy them in the 21st century.

Perfect.

I rooted out a bunch more orphaned flies and put them in the box.

I don’t want to disparage my loyal cutties, but it’s safe to say they wouldn’t be too picky. That’s part of their charm.

Getting to them is more of a challenge than actually catching them, so I work hard so I don’t have to work hard.

The initial rings I saw on the mountain lake were nearly within spitting distance of camp.

I had just rigged my rod and set it by tree while I was tending to something around camp.

I picked it up, stripped some line and with a couple short false casts I landed the fly on the surface a couple rod lengths away.

You already know the rest.

The cutty was about 12 inches long, coal-black splotches on his back, a hint of red on its belly — probably from late spring spawning season — and it had those brilliant crimson slashes beneath his jaw.

This fish came from a jade-green water sparkling in a granite, glacial cirque lake beneath a brilliant blue sky.

On another trip, a cutthroat may come from a cool, clear stream where a fish appears like an apparition to snatch a fly from a dappled riffle and flashes like chrome when it realizes it’s been duped.

Most of the cutthroat I catch are a modest size — about the same as the rainbows stocked in the Boise River or a local pond.

But the experience they bring belies their modest size, and they always seem willing to add a highlight to a perfect summer day in the mountains.

Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoors

Statesman outdoor writers Pete Zimowsky and Roger Phillips alternate columns on Thursday. Look for Zimo next week.

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