Flyfishing novice crushes the Utah Cutthroat Slam

By Paul Thompson

I have spent my entire career working on and fishing for native cutthroat trout (see previous cutthroat blog post). The one thing I will remember the most looking back on my career is working with Trout Unlimited to help get the Utah Cutthroat Slam off the ground.

This program has become very successful in helping people understand where native trout occur in Utah, the challenges those fish face, how beautiful they are and the joy of catching them.

I have registered for and completed the Utah Cutthroat Slam three times, but I have completed it many more times over the past five years just for fun. And not a single one of those completions even compares to the three days this summer when my daughter tackled the slam.

Quite a surprise

I feel fortunate to have a career that I love as a biologist, and I have been able to get my family out with me in the field, especially as my girls were growing up.

One of their favorite activities was helping me catch boreal toads so we could tag and track them. While they enjoyed getting outdoors with me, they really had no interest in fishing, and even less desire to fly fish, which is my true passion.

So, you can imagine the shock I felt when I heard my daughter Sierra recently say, “Dad, I think I would like to try to fly fish.” I really couldn’t believe what I was hearing!

I started thinking about where I could take her that would be very open for casting and would have fish eager to take her fly. But my selfish side quickly took over and I said, “Would you like to complete the Utah Cutthroat Slam?”

Before I even finished the statement, I knew this was not a good idea. Many of the streams are small and brushy, and they would not be good for someone beginning to fly fish. But she said that sounded like fun, so I quickly renewed her fishing license and registered her for the Utah Cutthroat Slam.

I figured we would tackle the slam slowly, and if she caught one or two of Utah’s four different cutthroat trout this summer, it would be a success. Part of me wondered, though, if we would even get out fishing that many times before she lost interest.

Day 1: Learning the basics

Pioneer Day (a state holiday on July 24 in Utah) was the perfect day to start, and we headed up to a small stream I know near Ogden that has a population of Bonneville cutthroat trout. The stream is quite small, and I knew it would be a challenge. (Heck, it’s a challenge for me, and I’ve been fly fishing small streams for 25 years!)

We didn’t get the earliest start, so it was our only option for the day. We were on the stream by noon, and it was already getting hot. During the first hour of fishing, I was just trying to get Sierra to read the water and understand where a trout would be in the stream. We also went over some small-stream fishing techniques like dropping a fly over the bank into a pool without spooking fish or feeding some line out while the fly floats downstream.

The stream was very brushy, but there were a few places where we worked on short casts. Within an hour, she started getting cutthroat to hit her fly, so now came the next lesson — setting the hook. She really wanted to set the hook like she was bass fishing, so she kept pulling it out of their mouths.

Sierra must have missed more than a dozen fish, and after 4.5 hours, we were running out of fishable stream. I was quite disappointed, figuring that even beginner’s luck should have resulted in one fish.

She missed another fish in the last pool, and I told her we needed to leave. She really didn’t want to go without catching a fish, but I told her that she had learned a lot today and this experience would help her the next time out — such a typical dad thing to say.

She knew there was a fish in that pool, but I explained to her that once a fish felt the hook, it wouldn’t take a fly again right away.

I turned to walk out of the stream, when I heard her yell. I turned to see what she was doing, and I saw her slowly lifting a small Bonneville cutthroat trout from the water. She’d finally figured out the gentle hook set of just raising the fly rod!

I took some pictures of one happy girl and a beautiful native Bonneville cutthroat trout, and she quickly released the fish.

We were talking as we walked back to the truck, and I complimented her on her patience and persistence. She really didn’t even get frustrated after four hours of not catching anything, and I hadn’t seen that level of patience from her before!

She indicated that seeing the fish come up to take the fly that she had put in the correct spot was so exciting that she just couldn’t help but react with a bass set. She said, “Dad, I wasn’t going to leave until I caught one!”

We both laughed and commented on the fact that it felt like we had only fished for a couple of hours, not almost five. She now understands why I am always late coming home from a day of fly fishing!

Girl holding Bonneville cutthroat trout

Day 2: Persistence pays off

That night, Sierra asked when and where our next fly fishing trip would be. I wanted to keep her interested, so I decided we could go again the next day. We were going to chase the Colorado River cutthroat trout, and I had the perfect stream for a beginner — Henry’s Fork on the north slope of the Uinta Mountains.

This stream is larger and more open for casting and best of all, it is loaded with native cutthroat trout and they are always willing to take a fly. We left the house earlier, but with the drive time, it was still around noon before we started fishing the stream.

Sierra was able to practice her casting more on this stream, and the challenge was adjusting the line and rod tip to keep her fly in a pool long enough for a fish to take it. Within a half hour, she was getting the hang of it and she started getting bites. After a couple of hours, she had caught seven fish and missed twice that many.

My wife Debbi and our dog Oakley had come along for the day and Oakley started losing patience, so we had to move on to find her a swimming hole. Sierra was disappointed as she didn’t want to leave biting fish, but we left. Oakley finally found her swimming hole in China Meadows on the East Fork of the Smiths Fork River, and all was well.

We decided to drive west on the North Slope Road just to enjoy the beauty of the Uintas and the fact that we were out of our house for the day. That is when I had a brilliant idea — 30 miles down the road, over Elizabeth Ridge, and we would be in the Bear River drainage. Sierra would have an opportunity for her third fish of the Utah Cutthroat Slam!

We all quickly agreed to this plan and started making our way in that direction, with many apologies to a disappointed Oakley, whose dip in the water was cut short.

We stopped at the first stream we crossed in the Bear River drainage, Mill Creek, and Sierra started fishing. She started using her small-stream fishing techniques, and it wasn’t long before she had a bite followed by a bass set. Oh, how excitement can erase all learning!

She calmed herself down and we continued fishing. Within 15 minutes, she had another opportunity. She slowly raised her rod, and a Bear River cutthroat trout emerged from the water. She had done it and caught her third cutthroat trout of the slam, but NO! As I reached for the fish, it flipped, came unhooked and fell into the water at our feet as we both dove to catch it. Without a picture, it wasn’t an official catch.

Sierra was heartbroken, but the only thing to do was to continue fishing. Getting another bite after the lost fish proved challenging, but she did finally manage to fool a nice cutthroat trout into biting, and she had her third fish of the slam!

We quickly left the stream as it was getting late. We all laughed and told fishing stories all the way back to Ogden, but all I could think of was that Sierra was one fish away from completing the Utah Cutthroat Slam. At that point, I knew what we needed to do the next day — head to remote northwest Box Elder County to finish the challenge.

Girl holding Colorado River cutthroat trout

Day 3: Completing the slam

For our third day of fishing, we finally got a good, early start and left the house by 5:30 a.m. We were fishing by 8 a.m., and Sierra had her Yellowstone cutthroat trout within 30 minutes! She had done it — completed the slam! I really couldn’t believe it.

We celebrated and then she said, “Dad, I want to catch another one.” She caught one more in the first stream, and then we headed to Johnson Creek, which is a stream that I helped restore back to native Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

It had been over five years since we had removed brook trout and reintroduced cutthroat trout. I really wanted to see how the cutthroat were doing and if they had seeded the lower reaches of the stream.

When we arrived, Johnson Creek, like all the Yellowstone streams, was small and brushy, but we were seeing cutthroat trout everywhere! If you are reading this, and you want to complete the Utah Cutthroat Slam, this is the stream you should target for your Yellowstone cutthroat trout!

I caught a few fish and then Sierra caught the most beautiful fish of the weekend, a brilliantly colored 10-inch Yellowstone cutthroat trout! What a way to end a great weekend.

Sierra received a crash course in flyfishing over the three-day Pioneer Day holiday and then completed the Utah Cutthroat Slam during that same stretch, with a fly rod, and on dry flies!

I feel that I learned as much as she did that weekend, especially not to underestimate what she can accomplish if she sets her mind to something. As I mentioned at the beginning, I really thought it might take Sierra a few years to complete the Utah Cutthroat Slam — not a few days.

After all, fly fishing isn’t easy and most of these streams are small and difficult to fish. But she proved me wrong, and as we drove home, we reminisced about all of the fish she caught and, more importantly, the ones that got away.

Girl holding Yellowstone cutthroat trout

A new fishing buddy

The best part is that I have a new fishing partner, and we solidified our next trip for the following weekend — hiking into a mountain lake in the Uintas to chase Arctic grayling.

It’s been fun to complete the slam over the years, but it was so much more satisfying to teach Sierra how to catch these beautiful fish!

So, don’t hesitate to try the Utah Cutthroat Slam, no matter how much you’ve fished in the past. Sierra is proof that even a novice can learn the basics and complete the slam.

There is great information on the Utah Cutthroat Slam website about where to catch each species of fish. There are also Utah Division of Wildlife Resources fisheries biologists who know where these fish are located. Call one or more of the DWR regional offices and ask for suggestions on where to fish in your area. The biologists will be excited to help you complete this unique fishing quest!

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