Kirk Deeter, editor-at-large for Field and Stream Magazine, accompanied the Sportsmen’s Conservation Project on a tour of Colorado’s native cutthroat trout country in hopes of catching all three subspecies (Colorado River, greenback, Rio Grande) in three days and highlighting the threats that face each subspecies.
In Colorado, native trout face a number of threats, including hybridization from introduced rainbow trout (and other cutthroat subspecies, like Yellowstone cutthroats imported from Wyoming), competition from non-natives (brook trout and brown trout, for instance), and habitat degradation.
As we traveled the state over the last four days, targeting specific populations of native trout, we’ve witnessed a number of very real threats, ranging from an explosion of brook trout in Rock Creek near Leadville to a natural gas drilling plan that could have devastating impacts on Colorado River cutts on the Roan Plateau.
In extreme southern Colorado, Rio Grande cutthroats face threats from invasive non-natives and, potentially, natural gas development. Efforts to protect existing populations and restore and reintroduce Rio Grande (and other native) cutthroats in the state continue, and they’ve been largely successful, but it all boils down to the availability of suitable habitat for native fish and the “perfect storm” of conditions that will allow them to prosper.
Presently, in Colorado and throughout the Intermountain West, that ideal cocktail of intact and secure habitat, the lack of invasive and competitive fish species, native cutthroat trout can not only survive, but thrive, as we learned today in a small tributary of the Conejos River.
We caught dozens of native cutthroats, and some of them were significant fish–17 inches or bigger. The stream is secure, safe from non-native trout invasion and it’s habitat in which Rio Grande cutthroats evolved. The message? When appropriate, and when habitat allows, native trout are often the best option. Throughout the country, TU chapters are working on efforts to protect, reconnect, restore and sustain coldwater fisheries habitat in their local regions, and many of those projects focus on protecting and restoring native trout populations. In Colorado, thanks to chapters like the Collegiate Peaks Anglers in the Arkansas River Valley and the San Luis Chapter in Alamosa, native cutthroat trout are enjoying a deserved comeback.
And, as we proved this week, native cutthroat trout provide unique recreational opportunities–Deeter certainly enjoyed his experience chasing cutts across Colorado. And he’s not alone–one look at a native cutthroat in full spawning regalia will earn a lot of converts.