Idaho anglers complete a self-styled cutthroat slam

Sometimes the planning of a thing is as satisfying as the doing. That’s the way it was for four members of the Clearwater Flycasters.

In July, Cliff Swanson and Mark Ratzlaff of Troy, and Paul Agidius and Steve Bush of Moscow left the Palouse in pursuit of their goal — to each catch a westslope, Bonneville, Snake River fine spotted and Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

Westslope would be the easiest to check off the list. The fish are abundant in the Lochsa, North Fork of the Clearwater, Selway and St. Joe rivers and each man had caught countless numbers of them on numerous trips over the years.

The others, each occupying a small sliver of territory just inside the state line in Idaho’s southeastern quadrant, would require some serious windshield time. That’s where the three states come into play. Blame Idaho’s vertical geography and its vast wild center where there are no roads. It’s easier to head east and south and weave in and out of Montana and Wyoming instead of driving south and hooking a left at Boise when trying to reach destinations deep in the southeastern corner.

It’s a place that is as little known to some residents of north-central Idaho as the Clearwater basin is to much of the population south of the Salmon River.

A few of them had fished down there before, but never with such a single-minded goal. So they spent hours poring over maps, talking to Idaho Fish and Game and U.S. Forest Service biologists and consulting fisheries tomes to craft a strategy.

It was the planning of it that was just as much fun as anything; trying to figure out where these fish existed.

Steve Bush, member of the Clearwater Flycasters

They would also have to map out camping spots, make sure they packed the right gear and coordinate meals. This would be a college-style trip, done on the cheap. There would be a few restaurants but no hotels.

Their first stop was the Lochsa River at Powell, where two of them hooked and landed westslope cutties that afternoon. Swanson and Bush were skunked but they didn’t worry about it. They planned to come back the same way and figured they could easily finish off the slam during the home stretch.

So early the next morning they climbed over Lolo Pass and headed south before crossing back into Idaho, and after a long day made camp near St. Charles Creek in the Bear Lake drainage, which is almost in Utah.

“We fished in the morning and caught Bonneville cutthroats,” Swanson said. “We are not going to brag about size; we wanted to just catch them and go.”

That’s just what they did, breaking camp around noon and poking into Wyoming on their way north to Palisades Reservoir, where they would fish McCoy Creek for fine-spotted cutthroat.

“Absolutely gorgeous area,” Ratzlaff said. “A completely different environment than we have up here, beautiful country and lots and lots of small fish.”

One by one they each caught a fine-spotted, a fish that Idaho doesn’t officially recognize as different from Yellowstone cutthroat. But Wyoming and some fish scholars do. With another goal accomplished, the anglers were free to move onto the next destination, but they were captivated by the area’s scenery and elected to stay another day.

We think we are the first people that have done the cutt slam in Idaho in one trip. To me that is pretty cool. We are taking those bragging rights. There is a lot of people who have caught them but not on the same trip.

Cliff Swanson, member of the Clearwater Flycasters

After the layover, they headed for Bitch Creek, a popular tributary to the Teton River near Driggs that holds Yellowstone cutthroat.

“There is a reason they call it that; it’s hard to crawl down into,” Swanson said.

He, Agidius and Ratzlaff all hooked and landed fish there. But it was tough fishing and Bush was skunked. Their plan was to stop fishing as each accomplished a goal and serve as guides to those who hadn’t yet caught one.

“We were just really helping and working with each other to make sure everybody got all four species,” Bush said.

With that in mind, they decided to leave Bitch Creek and relocated to Squirrel Creek, a tributary of the Fall River that sees much less pressure. There Bush caught a Yellowstone.

“We kind of made a pact we are not leaving until each one catches a subspecies of each fish,” Swanson said.

With all three of the southeastern Idaho cutthroats accounted for, they headed back north and stopped at the Lochsa again, where Bush and Swanson each caught a westslope cutthroat to finish off their goal.

Ratzlaff said it was worth all the effort. But he has advice for other anglers who might want to try it: “I would recommend if anyone else wants to do it to take a few more days and enjoy the country.”

Wyoming has a certificate for anglers who accomplish similar cutthroat feats in the Cowboy State, but Idaho does not. So the men created their own. They were also given the CuttCatch Award by the International Federation of Flyfishers and are laying claim to holding a record of sorts.