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Hope and Humboldt Cutthroat Trout

A forest service road in the Humboldt-Toiyabe national forest, northern Nevada

“The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.” - John Buchan

“This is not good.” I muttered to myself as I turned off the highway onto the narrow forest service road. My map had to be wrong; the clear, cerulean line between the elevation markings clearly indicated a river, but the dry landscape outside the dust rimed window indicated something else altogether, and it wasn’t encouraging.

I got out of my car and walked over to where the creek bed passed beneath the highway. I beheld a dry wash at my feet – nothing but parched earth and rock.

I probably shouldn't have been surprised. I was in Nevada, after all. It’s an area not exactly known for its vast water resources, and it had been a dry summer besides. An omnipresent haze from countless western wild fires hung in the sky in mute attestation of that fact.

Northeastern Nevada is a place few people would consider a destination fishery. It’s relatively empty, where miles of high desert and craggy peaks stretch from horizon to horizon. Moving water seems all but non-existent in this part of the world, and the pervasive dryness of the air is noticeable to anyone not acclimated to it. A middle-aged Midwesterner, I was acutely aware that moisture was being pulled from body almost as quickly as my flagging optimism.

In retrospect, it seems a bit crazy that I would even think of fishing here, yet the trout were here, I had been assured. They’ve persisted for centuries, even in the most hostile and degraded stream environments. I just had to cling to some hope that I would find them.

I had come to this corner of Nevada to catch a Humboldt cutthroat trout, a subspecies of the Lahontan cutthroat trout.

As an angler who enjoys pursuing rare trout in wild places, I had been eager for the opportunity to pursue this elusive fish from the moment I had first heard of them.

Nevada anglers are well aware of the Lahontan cutthroat. It is Nevada’s state fish, after all.

Native to the Great Basin, Lahontan trout are famous for their predatory nature and their propensity to grow to incredible sizes, particularly in the alkaline waters of Pyramid Lake, near Reno.

The Humboldt trout subspecies is not as grand in size as its Pyramid Lake cousin. Actually, it’s quite a small fish due to the constraints imposed by its habitat, but it’s just as worthy of pursuit.

Much of the Humboldt trout’s allure to the angler is derived from its scarcity; it’s found only in headwater streams of the Humboldt River, which originates near the towns of Wells and Elko, Nevada. Rarely wider than a city street in its upper drainage, the whole river eventually dessicates or disappears into the Humboldt sink in north central Nevada.

There are approximately 70 tributary streams in the Humboldt drainage that could hold these rare fish, many of which have - to varying degrees - ephemeral flows that fade into dry gullies, connecting with the rest of the river only in years with high snowmelt. In total, there are only about 179 stream miles in normal years.

Further complicating the picture, non-native trout introduced by well-intentioned, but misguided stocking efforts years earlier have further reduced the habitat of this trout to a fraction of its historic range. Nowadays, either hybridized with non-native rainbow trout, or forced out of the best habitats by more competitive species, they cling to existence in marginal waters - those areas too turbid or too variable in temperature for other trout.

I did the math; it should have been painfully evident from the start that these fish live in a tenuous position. I wasn’t guaranteed success. I was going to have to make the best of the situation and maintain hope that it would come out alright in the end.

I walked back to the car and looked again at the map. My guess was that I was going to have to gain a good amount of elevation and luck to find these fish. The forest service road that I was on appeared promising. I continued on.

A few miles of gravel road eventually yielded to a sandy two-track, and then to a deeply rutted two track, before deprecating altogether to faint tire marks on boulders as I ventured deeper into the unbroken sage and sand of the Humboldt-Toiyabe national forest.

My pace was glacial, but deliberate. The rugged trail dictated the pace not exceed five miles per hour lest I cause serious damage to the car I had been lent. I could have gotten out and walked faster.

About 7 miles and a little more than 90 minutes later, a glimmer of hope – willow trees on the valley floor and…cows.

A whole herd of ungulates from a nearby ranch were grazing on the valley floor below me, and I couldn’t have been happier to see them. In most angling contexts, particularly in Wisconsin, cattle don’t exactly make for great fishing – they eat stream side vegetation, erode stream banks, chase anglers, etc. – but on this day, they indicated the presence of water, and I took that as a good omen.

It was another 5 miles and more than an hour before I was able to reach the valley floor and survey conditions on foot. By this point, a deteriorating trail pocked with boulders, washouts and coyote dens made continued driving foolhardy – my choice was clear: either stop here or risk a busted suspension.

I got out, assembled my gear, and walked to the nearest stand of willows, fully expecting fishable water.

Thick meadow grasses carpeted the valley floor. It was, perhaps, the lushest landscape I had seen during my entire time in Nevada.

As I approached the greenery, I could hear the song of moving water. I probed the thicket and a few ducks took wing; that was encouraging. I pushed the willows aside and saw…a trickle of water. No more than 4 inches deep, and perhaps 18 inches wide. My heart sank. The groundwater seep before me barely held enough water to support anything but the smallest aquatic life.

I had wasted my time.

I shuffled back to the car, sat down and examined my map again. There had to be more. I had found water, but perhaps in my haste to get here I had overlooked something.

It turns out I had overlooked something. A more careful examination of the map revealed another tributary just up around the next hill. I couldn’t drive to it, but I could get there on foot. Perhaps, I thought, I could salvage this trip after all.

Having lost any sense of shame years earlier, I figured I had nothing to lose. I grabbed my gear again and set forth towards the hill.

A hot, dry mile later, I crested the hill and gazed upon the valley floor below me. I’ve heard stories of pioneers enduring long treks across arid wastelands to find their earthly paradise, but I could never relate to such feelings of Biblical deliverance until this moment. Below me, an emerald necklace of pools and braided rivulets wound its way through stands of willow and aspen. It was an honest-to-goodness forest oasis and I whooped for joy.

I picked my way down to the stream with renewed purpose, nearly stepping on a large, surly, gopher snake in the process. The first pool was an old beaver impoundment with plenty of depth, but the crystalline water revealed a tableau devoid of fish.

I poked through some more brush toward the next three pools; these were silty and shallow, but growing ever larger.

I was still out of luck, but a surge of optimism gave me energy. I had found some water, it was cold, and it was moving – a holy trinity for trout fishing.

After another half-mile of busting through tinder-dry willow and sage, I came to a wall of packed sticks and mud as high as my forehead and, behind it, a much larger pool with considerable depth, weed growth and some current at the head.

This pool had to hold fish.

A pool on a Humboldt cutthroat trout stream in northern Nevada

A bit fatigued and dehydrated, I sat on a log at the edge of the dam, partook in some refreshment, and waited. An old friend once told me that the secret to successful fly fishing is to slow down and take some time to observe. To be honest, at this point, I was too warm and too tired to do otherwise.

Minutes bled into a half hour. Then…a subtle dimple broke the water’s surface, then another, and another.

I had feeding fish in front of me.

No icy freshet could feel as invigorating as the relief that broke over me in that moment. I had found the fish. Now I just had to get one to hand.

It may be somewhat anti-climactic to say that Humboldt trout aren’t particularly fussy. For that, I was relieved. A few well-placed casts with an attractor pattern brought several fine specimens to hand, where I could admire them.

The Humboldt trout is a fish entirely worthy of admiration. Its flanks are a canvas of rose gold and bronze interspersed with violet parr markings and fine, dark spots. A distinctive orange slash at the jaw line perhaps the most vivid coloration on its otherwise subtle palette.

Humboldt cutthroat trout

I paused momentarily to reflect on my good fortune. Though very little came easily on this day, I realized that perhaps even though I had ventured forth on a fool’s errand, with hope and perseverance, I had attained the elusive.

If You Go

The upper Humboldt River and its tributaries are located in Elko County, Nevada.

Both the city of Elko and the nearby town of Wells offer restaurants, hotels, casinos and retail establishments to meet your travel needs.

I recommend dining at the Star Hotel in Elko. It serves huge, family style meals in the Basque tradition. Bring your appetite and an extra stomach if you can.

I also highly recommend stopping in at the Elko Fly Shop. Not only are they great folks with a ton of local knowledge, they can outfit you with everything you need for Humboldt trout. In addition, they provide knowledge and gear to help you improve your catch on other area waters. Be sure to call before you go, and check the store hours.

Speaking of which, be sure to take some time to explore some of the other area waters - Angel Lake, near Wells, is an easily accessible, beautiful alpine lake offering great fishing for some feisty little rainbow and tiger trout, and there are other nearby lakes in the Ruby Mountains. For the more intrepid angler, the Jarbidge river to the north offers miles of pocket water fishing for red band trout, whitefish and exceedingly rare bull trout. For those seeking larger quarry, Wild Horse Reservoir offers anglers another opportunity to chase a mixed bag.

#flyfishing