Alaska Cutthroat Trout
When one says Alaska trout the first thing that pops into your mind is the mighty rainbow trout. There is another Alaska trout that is just as feisty and can be caught readily on a fly rod. A fly rod is my favorite way to catch cutthroat trout in Southeast Alaska. However, light spinning tackle is also a fun and exciting way to target these Alaska trout throughout their natural range.
Cutthroat trout are located throughout Southeast Alaska. You can find them devouring salmon fry at the mouth of a creek, tucked away in a beaver run small enough to step over or cruising the shallows in an alpine lake with no name. You can even find Alaska cutthroat trout in saltwater. Coastal cutthroat trout are a mix of anadromous, known as sea run cuts and resident cutthroat trout. This adds a bit of mystery and intrigue to the pursuit of such a ruggedly handsome trout.
Cutthroat trout that are found along the coastal waterways in Alaska are either sea-run anadromous trout or a resident cutthroat trout. They live in the many freshwater streams and lakes that are present near the coast in Southeast Alaska. Sea-run cutthroat trout in Alaska can grow much larger than their inland cousins.
Fishing for the Coastal Cutthroat Trout in Southeast Alaska: Habitats and Habits
The Alaska cutthroat trout ranges from extreme Southeast Alaska to the South Central region of the state. The Alaska cutthroat trout has adapted to many different types of habitat throughout there Alaska range. Cutthroat trout in Alaska utilize freshwater habitat that includes anything from little beaver runs barely two feet across to massive freshwater lakes tucked away in the rainforest and mountains. These places provide the intrepid angler a lifelong adventure seeking new waters to catch these feisty trout.
Some coastal cutthroat trout venture into saltwater habitats range from brackish estuaries to full saltwater. The sea-run cutthroat rarely journeys more than 10 miles from the river it was born. Thankfully these sea-run cuts are small enough to escape the many gill nets that are set to catch salmon in the Alaskan waters.
Sea-run cutthroat trout as well as freshwater residents will overwinter in streams, beaver ponds and lakes. Cutthroat trout prefer deeper pools with debris such as logs and boulders with undercut banks to hide and ambush food. Those that make their way into saltwater for a few months or even up to a year will grow a little bigger and are very aggressive upon their return to their freshwater birthplace.
The cold inflow of headwater streams with a gravelly bottom are the preferred location for cutthroat to spawn. Shortly after the spawn has ended they will move to deeper water with plenty of cover and food. With the many different species in the same streams in the fall to target cutthroat trout in Alaska requires an understanding of their habits to narrow down the search.
For sea-run coastal cutthroat trout, time spent in salt water is typically just a few months but can extend for over a year in some cases. While in the marine environment, cutthroat trout prefer estuary and near-shore environments for feeding and cover.
Coastal cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii clarkii) exhibit both resident and sea-run life history forms in Alaska and range throughout the coastal waters from the southern tip of Southeast Alaska to Gore Point on the Kenai Peninsula. There are approximately 14 subspecies of cutthroat trout (Lahontan, Westslope, Yellowstone) identified in the world. Coastal cutthroat trout is the only one found in Alaska. It is also the only one that utilizes the marine environment. It is believed that all of the inland subspecies of cutthroat trout found throughout the western United States evolved from the ancestral coastal cutthroat trout.
Coastal Cutthroat Habitat
The resident or non-migratory form of coastal cutthroat trout live in a wide variety of habitats
ranging from small headwater tributaries and beaver ponds to large lakes and rivers. Resident forms will coexist with sea-run forms in anadromous lakes and rivers. However, the resident or non-migratory form are usually confined to streams and lakes. They live above natural barriers to upstream migrations. Coastal cutthroat trout typically migrate into small tributary streams to spawn. This is regardless of their life history form.
Unlike other anadromous salmonids, the saltwater migratory form of coastal cutthroat trout does not overwinter in the ocean and only rarely makes extended migrations across large bodies of water. Their migrations in the marine environment are usually within 6 miles of land. These anadromous fish usually spend two to five years maturing in freshwater, then make their way to sea to begin the annual migration sequence. Generally, anadromous coastal cutthroat trout spend just a little time offshore during summer months. Then they return to estuaries and freshwater during fall and winter.
The sea-run form migrates back and forth between saltwater and freshwater. They may be found in small ponds and streams to large lakes and rivers. Since sea-run and resident coastal cutthroat trout may occupy the same habitat. In lakes and streams they may successfully spawn together. The extent of what life form the progeny may adopt is unknown. There is evidence that resident fish occasionally migrate downstream. Often they migrate over natural barriers, such as a waterfall, and adopt a sea-run life history. Obviously this is a one-way street as they can not migrate back over the barrier.
In several systems in Southeast Alaska, uniquely tagged resident fish are captured above barriers then recovered below that barrier in waters suitable for sea-run migrations. The mechanism that triggers a resident fish to migrate downstream is unclear but environmental factors such as food availability, water temperature, and water quality and quantity, may play a role.
General description of the Coastal cutthroat trout are silver, brassy, or yellowish in color and have small densely packed irregularly shaped dark brown or black spots on their body, head, and fins. Juvenile coastal cutthroat trout range in size from 1 to 6 inches and have about 10 oval parr marks overlaid with small black spots and may have a faint red or pink coloration along the lateral line and possibly on the gill covers. Typically The distinguishing Cutthroat“cut-slash”is present in Alaskan coastal cutthroat trout as a red or orange band of color on the underside of the lower jaw in the skin folds.
However, not all coastal cutthroat trout have a distinct red slash, especially the silver colored sea-run fish which have just returned to freshwater. The red slash may be present but inconspicuous. Coastal Cutthroat Trout can spawn with rainbow trout and produce fertile hybrids with physical characteristics of both species. These trout are called cut-bow trout.
The cut-bow trout is found throughout southeast Alaska. As a young man traveling throughout Alaska I found myself in remote Southeast Alaska. Often I would trek into the wild in search of a stream or lake. Oftentimes, I fished small beaver runs that you could step over and they were loaded with trout. More times than not these trout were cut-bows and oh how fun with a 3wt fly rod.
Biologists often use the presence of small teeth at the base of the tongue to distinguish between rainbow trout and coastal cutthroat trout. These teeth are called basibranchial teeth. These teeth are present on the cutthroat trout but not the rainbow trout. However, the presence or absence of basibranchial teeth is not a 100% accurate. This distinguishing trait may be further complicated in the presence of hybrid trout. Coastal cutthroat trout, like other species of trout, reportedly have the ability to change the size, shape, and distribution of spots in relationship to the environment they live in.
Life History of the Coastal Cutthroat Trout in Alaska
Both resident and sea-run coastal cutthroat trout have similar early life histories. Adults typically spawn in small, isolated headwater streams. This occurs from late April through June with increased daylight hours water temperatures rise. When the water temperature reaches 43 – 48 degrees Fahrenheit the cutthroat trout will spawn. Coastal cutthroat trout in Alaska have been observed spawning in small lake inlet streams. Streams 6 inches wide and 2 inches deep. To larger rivers in approximately 5 feet of water.
While not a preferred choice, coastal cutthroat trout may also spawn successfully in lakes with suitable gravel. Selection of isolated spawning areas is thought to have evolved to reduce interaction of young coastal cutthroat trout with more aggressive juvenile steelhead trout and coho salmon. Young coastal cutthroat trout emerge from the gravel in July. By fall they may be found in the dense cover of root wads in creeks and rivers. They also love to hang around the edges of beaver ponds, sloughs, or lakes.
There may be large variation in the size and age of smolting and maturity among different forms and populations of coastal cutthroat trout. Typically coastal cutthroat trout rear in freshwater for two to five years before migrating to saltwater during April through May when they are 6 to 8 inches long. The larger Coastal Cutthroat trout are the first to emigrate to saltwater every spring. They will either migrate to a small stream to spawn or resume feeding in the rich marine environment after a long winter.
Resident forms may reside and feed in the main stem of rivers or lakes and then migrate to small tributaries to spawn. This is similar to the sea-run cutthroat. Larger bodies of freshwater are utilized instead of marine waters. While in the marine environment, sea-run coastal cutthroat trout do not stray far from the shoreline and rarely if ever cross large, open bodies of water.
During their marine migrations coastal cutthroat trout may enter several freshwater bodies. They might also hold in various intertidal areas. These sea run cutthroat trout are thought to stay within 50 miles of their natal stream. Time in saltwater may vary from a few days to over a hundred days before they reenter freshwater. They are either following the salmon migrations to feed on salmon eggs or in the fall returning to a lake system to overwinter.
Homing appears to be very precise as coastal cutthroat trout can return to the same tributary stream where they emerged and reared. The size at which female coastal cutthroat trout first reach sexual maturity may vary greatly. In some populations mature fish as small as 5 to 7 inches have been observed. On average, most female coastal cutthroat trout reach sexual maturity by 11 to 12 inches. However, females in some populations may not become sexually mature for the first time until 13 inches or larger.
Like all species of trout, coastal cutthroat trout spawn in the spring. However, due to cold water temperatures in Alaska their gonad development must be in an advanced stage going into the fall in order to ensure successful spawning. Mature coastal cutthroat trout caught in the fall. Sometimes they are dripping eggs or milt which has lead people to believe they are spawning during the fall.
There is evidence to suggest that some coastal cutthroat trout may not spawn annually. They may skip a year before spawning again. The fertility of coastal cutthroat trout is low and ranges from an average of 100 eggs for a 6 inch fish to just under 600 eggs for a 14 inch fish.
The oldest and biggest coastal cutthroat trout are the resident lake cuthroats. Resident lake cutthroats will live 15 years or more. They reach lengths over 27 inches and can weigh nearly 8 pounds. One tagged fish in Turner Lake was recaptured 12 years after being tagged. It had grown from just under 7 inches to over 23 inches. Trophy-class coastal cutthroat trout more than 20 inches are only found in large landlocked lakes in Southeast Alaska.
These lakes contain good populations of kokanee or landlocked sockeye salmon. Sea-run coastal cutthroat trout tend to have shorter life spans. They rarely survive more than 10 years. Generally they only reach a maximum length of 16 to 22 inches. If these coastal sea-run cuts were able to survive the 15 years like their land locked cousins, they would reach enormous size.
I have a few friends that have cabins on Admirality island. I have deer hunted there but there is a lake that I have always wanted to trek to in search of giant cutthroat trout. It is a blue ribbon trout lake located across the bay from one of my friends cabins. The name of the lake is Hasselborg. I used to dream of fishing there when I lived on my boat in Southeast Alaska but never made it there. It is now on my bucket list.
Coastal cutthroat trout are highly predaceous. They may feed extensively on small fish. Coastal cutthroats have a higher percentage of fish in their diets compared to either rainbow trout or Dolly Varden. Coastal cutthroat trout in lakes may hide among lily pads, sunken logs, or rubble. They use this cover to ambush insects and small fish. Coastal cutthroat trout in streams may establish a territory and adopt a sit and wait feeding strategy. Some fish become “cruisers”when they reach about 14 inches. They pursue and primarily eat other fish.
Sport fishing for Coastal Cutthroat Trout in Alaska
Coastal cutthroat trout are a wonderful angling fish as their aggressive behavior lends itself well to a variety of tackle and techniques. Casting small spinners, spoons or lures along banks and lake shore lines is highly effective with spinning tackle. Fly gear is also used to catch coastal cutthroat trout. Cutthroat trout in Alaska will take either wet or dry fly, but the wet fly like most other times will outperform the dry.
Some of the best wet fly patterns imitate large aquatic insects or small fish. Dry fly fishermen can do well by imitating flying insects. Coastal cutthroat trout are very susceptible to bait. The mortality of fish caught with bait and released is high. Thus, the use of bait for coastal cutthroat trout fishing is prohibited throughout much of its range in Alaska.
Catch And Release Cutthroat Trout
Throughout much of Alaska, minimum size and bag limit regulations for coastal cutthroat trout fishing means that many of the fish captured will subsequently be released. Anglers are encouraged to practice proper catch-and-release techniques. Catch and release helps protect and preserve this beautiful trout.
The cutthroat trout in Alaska is a tough trout. It can not only live in some seemingly uninhabitable waterways but it can thrive there. I have literally started walking through the muskeg bottoms in Southeast Alaska and thought Wow! I’ll never get through this to the lake that I want to fish. So I began casting into the little water holes and channels and began catching cutthroat trout as well as rainbow trout and cutbow trout. I could not believe it. We had been walking right through prime cutthroat waters without even knowing it. The trout were not all that big, but they were fun to catch on a 3 weight fly rod.
Have you ever dreamed of a remote Alaska fly fishing trip where the experience was the number one goal? If so, I would have to suggest the Alaskan cutthroat trout as that trip for you. The Alaska Coastal Cutthroat trout and the Arctic Grayling, a whole other article, are two species in Alaska that would offer the most secluded angling opportunity for you.
Accessing the cutthroat trout in Alaska can be an adventure in itself. Whether you want to hike into remote lakes that dot the landscape and spend a day using a float tube to catch cutthroat or head to the estuaries where sea-run cutthroats are moving into the creek or stream following the spawning salmon, it is all a great experience. There is way more places to explore than one could do in a lifetime if you live in Alaska. If you want an annual destination to get away and enjoy a relaxing time away from it all the Southeast Alaska cutthroat is the answer.
Trophy Cutthroat Lakes in Southeast Alaska
Trophy Cutthroat Lakes
Thirteen lakes in Southeast Alaska have produced cutthroat trout that qualified for entry in the ADF&G Trophy Fish Program. Anglers in a 1993 survey said that the opportunity to catch trophy-size cutthroat trout is important to them. Our research shows that cutthroat don’t reach the 3-pound trophy size for about 12 years. No bait is allowed in trophy lakes. They all have a minimum size limit of 25 inches. Except Turner Lake, which is catch-and-release only for cutthroat trout. Five lakes in Southeast Alaska are managed to produce ‘trophy’ cutthroat trout. These lakes are Lake Guerin, Distin Lake, Turner Lake, Hasselborg Lake, and Jim’s lakes. These trophy cutthroat lakes have a minimum size requirement of 25 inches and a bag and possession limit of one fish.
High-use Cutthroat Waters
Areas with developed access have more intensive fisheries—28 lakes and the Juneau roadside waters are in this category. The minimum size limit is set at 14 inches. This protect local populations of cutthroat by allowing all female cutthroat to spawn at least one time. Bait is prohibited in these lakes year-round. In addition, steelhead fishing in Juneau road system streams is catch- and-release only.
Small Cutthroat Lakes
Buck Lake and Lake 436 (Baranof Island). Long Lake (near Wrangell). Lost Lake (near Skagway). Noname Lake (Prince of Wales Island). Shelter Lake, near Juneau. Sukoi Lake on Kruzof Island. These are small lakes that don’t produce fish that meet the 11-inch regional minimum size limit. Each of these lakes has a 9-inch minimum size limit, and bait is prohibited. Regionwide limits of 2 per day and 2 in possession apply.
Beaver Run Cutthroat Trout
Beaver runs are small creek like travel routes for beaver. These runs are used by beavers to traverse their intricate beaver dam community. Full disclosure: This is my definition. Many beaver dam communities never get to grow. They cause problems for people that live or work in the areas that are dammed. Beaver runs are often demolished before they ever get started. These beaver runs are plentiful in remote or protected parts of Alaska. I was fortunate enough to work in the remote Alaskan bush where beavers abound. So do beaver run cutthroat trout. However, remote Alaska is not where I learned about fly fishing beaver runs for cutthroat trout.
The way I learned about fly fishing cutthroat trout in beaver runs while fly fishing for Dolly Varden in Juneau Alaska. I spent a year or two searching for cutthroat trout with no luck. I asked locals and they gave me nothing telling me that I had to find my own cutthroat trout. The only thing I was assured of was that there were cutthroat trout in the area. And I wanted to catch them. Then one day I was fortunate enough to find a few cutthroat trout in some local lakes as well as a few remote lakes where I worked throughout Southeast Alaska. Finding beaver run cutthroat was a complete accident. Here is the story.
These beaver runs are small. So small I stepped across many of them before I ever considered casting a fly. One day as I made my way to my favorite estuary to catch Dollies until my arm ached from casting and catching I decided to stop. I was heading down a boardwalk trail to get there. I decided that I wanted to cut across a muskeg meadow to my favorite creek. On my way I ran into these beaver runs. They led to a lake where I had caught some cutthroat trout in the past. I thought wow I’m going to try this little run with my 3 wt Loomis and an olive egg sucking leech.
Plenty Of Trout Living In The Beaver Run
It was quickly evident that there were plenty of cutthroat in this little run. The water was flowing well. The little cuts were tucked under the grass that overhung the beaver run. The golden grass still dead from winter was the perfect hideout. The cutthroat trout were stacked. They literally fought over my fly as soon as it hit the water.
The beaver run was much larger than it looked. Upon close inspection I found a great ambush point in the run. It was a cut along the length of the run underneath the grass. This cut also provided a place for many cutthroat trout to live. This is why there was a fight for the fly. These cutthroat trout live in these runs all summer long. They ambush bugs and fry as they swim or drift by.
I also found that beneath the dark colored water the depth was much deeper than I expected. I stepped into the run. Instead of the 1 or 2 foot depth I thought it was it was actually 3 to 4 foot deep. Needless to say this became one of my favorite places to fish throughout the Southeast Alaska summers. The cutthroat trout that lived in these beaver runs were not going to break any records. They were not trophy size trout but they were plentiful and fun to catch.
Cutthroat Trout Leave Beaver Runs In The Winter
There were several beaver runs in the area. They all meandered into one lake where the cutthroat trout resided in the winter. I knew this because as winter approached the cutthroat trout would disappear from the runs. I would find them in the lake. When they migrated into the lake in the fall they were very aggressive. I could walk around this small lake and catch cutthroat trout for hours. Fall was my favorite time of year in Southeast Alaska. While the coho salmon was my number one target I always carried my little 3 wt. I loved to fish this small lake, especially when the sun was shining and the snow was creeping down the mountains surrounding it.
Best Flies For Cutthroat Trout In Beaver Runs
I hesitate to point out, once again, that in Alaska fly patterns are just not as critical as in highly pressured waters. I hesitate, but I must not tell a lie. When it comes to these beaver run cutthroat trout flies you can throw whatever you enjoy fishing. The cutthroat in Alaska are hard to find. They also are not the target species for most anglers, even near populated areas. These cutthroat have seen very little pressure, if any. For this reason they will aggressively and willingly pounce on a fly. Seemingly before it even has time to check it out. While saying this I will list below a couple of my favorite cutthroat trout flies or at least styles of flies for you to try.
Dry Fly Cutthroat Trout
It sure didn’t take me long to figure out that these beaver run cutthroat trout would take a dry fly. These beaver runs are usually a concentrated flow and have some swift current. These runs I always found in remote Alaska where there were no humans for many miles. Where the beavers had the run on beaver runs. They dammed up small creeks and streams. With the number of beavers present there was many runs branching off the lake that the dam forms. These lazy beaver runs are still moving even if it looks like they are not. You will notice it when your dry fly hits the surface.
Elk Hair Caddis Fly For Cutthroat Trout In Alaska
My favorite dry fly in Alaska for trout was always the elk hair caddis. The elk hair caddis fly is just a great buggy looking presentation that any fish that eats bugs on the surface will love. This is especially true of the beaver run cutthroat trout, they are great for the dry fly angler. I love the elk hair caddis fly for sight fishing for arctic grayling too. That’s another article and a good one. The elk hair caddis is the best all around dry fly for Alaska grayling, Dolly Varden and rainbow trout.
While the elk hair caddis is the go to dry fly there are others that work just as well. The elk hair caddis is easy to find at fly shops and online. That’s why they find their way into fly angler’s box. I tied flies to sell with my custom fly rods back in my Alaska days so I used several other dry fly patterns as well as sub-surface flies. Sub-surface were deadly and you could still see the strike as the fly was just beneath the surface.
Sub-Surface Flies For Cutthroat Trout
I found that these flies worked best when the sun was bright which is not that often in Southeast Alaska. The sub-surface flies did seem to entice more strikes than the high riding caddis fly during sunny days. Another easy to tie and easy to find dry fly for Alaska cutthroat is the Royal Wulff. Just remember any dry fly will probably get the same attention. Cutthroats are hungry during the short feeding season in Alaska.
I might be wrong in my definition of sub-surface. After all I am from Lynchburg Tennessee and a self taught fly fisherman. I always referred to sub-surface flies as a fly that did not ride on the surface but did not sink either. It rode just beneath the surface within the surface film. Much like an emerger that you like to linger within this section of the water column. The difference between the muddler minnow. It is constructed to ride just beneath the surface tension and an emerger is the strip-strip presentation. The emerger is fished with a dead drift.
A sub-surface fly that I used often in Alaska for rainbow trout and cutthroat trout was the marabou muddler. The marabou muddler is the perfect sub-surface fly for beaver run cutthroat. With a little dry fly floatant you can adjust the depth that the muddler rides. With enough floatant it can become a dry fly. The muddler won’t ride high like the classic dry. These flies stay just beneath the surface. This is where timid trout feed when the sun is bright or the water is calm. This fly can be tied on different size hooks. This forms the perfect profile for the trout you pursue. I also used my larger marabou muddler fly to catch lake trout up the Newhalen River.
Sinking Flies For Alaska Cutthroat Trout
The Nymph fly is the sinking fly that I loved to use for cutthroat trout in Alaska. I used the term sub-surface flies when I was fly fishing cutthroat trout in Alaska. I used this term mostly so I had a differentiation between the high riding dry flies and the sinking flies. Like the Nymphs fly and Clauser minnows. Smaller cutthroat trout will gobble up small insect like flies with reckless abandon. However, make no mistake that beneath the surface there is a feeding frenzy going on.
During the spring and summer there are literally millions of salmon fry struggling against the current throughout the eco system. These tiny morsels are not only abundant but also vital to the survival of trout that live in these beaver dam communities. These salmon fry are mostly unseen but not unknown by avid anglers in Alaska. The salmon fry is often the cornerstone to angler success even if they don’t know it. These fry reside in beaver runs, small lakes and estuaries. The trout know this. Dolly Varden, sea run cutthroats, rainbow trout and land locked cutthroat all depend on the protein that salmon fry provide. They help to put on the fat and energy needed to survive the long winter.
Nymph Fly Presentation
So for this reason the sinking fly stripped in erratic retrieves can be deadly. From open water to tiny streams and beaver runs the nymph style fly works great. The Clauser minnow is also a great pattern for cutthroat trout. Bead headed nymphs and weighted Clausers work not only for lots of cutthroat but also bigger cutthroat trout as well. The larger trout know that they need to gain more energy than the exertion needed to catch the prey. This is an instinct that developed throughout the eons to ensure that the species survives. If the trout exert more energy than they gain from the food consumed the ratio would catch up to them. They would not make it through the winter.
Cutthroat Trout In Beaver Runs
If bigger trout is your target then you should be casting a beadheaded nymph fly or Clauser. A quick strip strip pause will keep your fly from settling to the bottom. This is important when fishing beaver runs because of how shallow they are. Keeping your minnow fly in the middle of the water column will get you more action. The bigger trout will actually fight smaller fish away to take your fly.
You will still catch small cutthroats with the minnow pattern. In many places in Alaska the trout have equalled out within their habitat. They have slowly filled the habitat with all that will fit so big could be a relative reference. When habitat is maxed out the trout tend are similar in size. Again it is all relative. After catching a bunch of 12 inch cutthroat trout a 14 or 16 inch cutthroat seems like a giant. One thing for sure though, they are all fun.
NOTE: If you are interested in information on putting together a trip of a lifetime to Alaska feel free to contact me and I can help. [email protected]