Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout
SLASH OF RED
The cutthroat is considered the Ancestral Trout of the West. It was once found in major watersheds on both sides of the Continental Divide, whereas other Western trout were native only to the Pacific drainage. The natural range of the cutthroat is greater than that of any other American trout — from California to Alaska in the North and West, to Colorado and New Mexico in the East and South.
Of all native Western trout today, the cutthroat is the least common.
The southernmost subspecies, maintaining a tenuous existence today, is the Rio Grande cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki virginalis), the official state fish of New Mexico. This cutthroat has a yellowish-green to gray-brown body, peppered with black spots, including the fins. It is more densely spotted toward the tail. Its abdomen is creamy white and, during breeding season, the males’
undersides turn a flaming reddish-orange.
FISH IN PERIL
During the 20th Century, a ‘one-two punch’ was dealt the Rio Grande cutthroat trout: one being habitat degradation, the other being the introduction of other trout species, including rainbow trout, into its ecosystem. Eventual recovery from these dual blows remains uncertain.
Early logging, grazing, and mining practices altered hundreds of cutthroat streams. Timber was cut in river drainages, and the resultant run-off created silty conditions. Early settlers often diverted trout streams for irrigation.
Stream banks have been trampled by overgrazing livestock, destroying riparian vegetation, which alters stream temperatures, nutrients, and sediment loads.
COMPETITION FROM OTHER TROUT
At one time, the Rio Grande cutthroat was the only trout in many New Mexico waters. However, over-harvest lead to the stocking of aggressive rainbow, brook, and brown trout during the 1890s. In turn, this action decimated the original population of Rio Grande cutthroat, forcing them further upstream to high-mountain head-waters. This fragmented the Rio Grande cutthroat’s range and separated their gene pool into tiny pockets — a detrimental situation for the future of a species. In the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests in New Mexico today, Rio Grande cutthroat occupy only about 5 to 7 percent of stream miles
Since they are both spring spawners, cutthroats can, and do, interbreed with hatchery-stocked rainbow trout. Hybrids of the two, called cutbows, look like rainbows but with the orange slash of the cutthroat. As hybrids interbreed with rainbow trout, eventually the cutthroat traits disappear, and rainbow traits predominate.
FEEDING AND SPAWNING
Cutthroat are opportunistic feeders. Terrestrial insects and underwater insect nymphs account for most of their summer diet, until the caddis flies hatch — their favorite food. Aquatic invertebrates are most abundant and diverse in riffle areas. Trout will feed heavily in, and downstream of, these areas. They also feed on zooplankton and crustaceans.
It takes a Rio Grande cutthroat about four years to mature enough to spawn, which it does March through July. Females produce from 200 to 4,500 eggs, laid on a gravel nest in flowing water where high levels of dissolved oxygen exist — a requirement of developing embryos.
Small remnants of native populations of Rio Grande cutthroat trout still live in isolated headwaters of four major drainages. Of these, the Rio Grande drainage has the most populations with 23 in the Sangre de Cristo range, 13 in the Jemez Range, 4 in the San Juan Mountains, and 1 in the Black Range.
In an attempt to increase cutthroat in New Mexico, a subspecies from Wyoming,
the Yellowstone cutthroat, was widely stocked between 1902-1939. Statewide introductions of Snake River cutthroat, another subspecies, began in 1976 with mixed results.
During the middle 1980s, a new stocking program was initiated, using native Rio Grande cutthroat fry from New Mexico headwaters. Transplan-tations took place at Nabor Creek and Nabor Lake in the Sargent Wildlife Area near Chama, as well as Rio de las Vacas and Rito de las Perchas in the San Pedro Parks Wilderness in the Jemez Mountains. More recently, successful transplants have taken place at the upper Pecos River in 1991, nearby Jack’s Creek in 1993, Rio Cebolla in 1995, and Doctor Creek in 1996. Other streams are slated for future stocking. Once cutthroats are transplanted, they are checked periodi-cally to determine numbers and breeding success.
HOW A TRANSPLANT WORKS
First a clear, cold stream or small lake is selected, one with pools,
riffles, and cover — preferably once historic cutthroat habitat. Biologists first relocate as many non-Rio Grande cutthroat from the waters as possible.
Typically, they use portable electro-fishing wands which stun fish temporarily.
Biologists probe under rocks, logs, and banks — typical trout hiding places.
Low doses of antimycin are released in the water to remove any fish remaining above a barrier, such as a waterfall or screen. The compound quickly dissipates and poses no risk for other wildlife or humans.
Meanwhile, back at the ‘donor’ stream, 200-600 transplants and many gallons of water are collected in a special tank box, fitted with extra oxygen. The tank box is air-lifted by helicopter to the recipient stream. Transplanted trout survive best if they are taken from stream water for the shortest time possible.
Once fish are removed from a donor stream, it can take up to five years for the fish population to regain their original numbers.
‘WHAT ABOUT HATCHERIES?’
THE FUTURE OF CUTTHROAT
IN NEW MEXICO
Why not just raise young Rio Grande cutthroat in hatcheries and stock them?
Wouldn’t that be easier? Yes and no.
No, because ‘wild’ cutthroat are extremely sensitive to stress and artificial conditions, such as those found in hatcheries. In a typical hatchery, the mortality rate of wild cutthroat is rapid and about 99 percent — most certainly, insufficient numbers and time for these fish to spawn naturally.
But the hatchery answer may someday be a Yes. The Department is developing a new program to collect eggs and sperm from various wild populations and fertilize them together, right at the hatchery. Newborn trout, hatchery born and raised, knowing no other home, typically thrive.
is also recognizing the importance of broadening the Rio Grande cutthroat gene pool. Instead of direct transplants of the same tiny genepool material from stream to stream, someday they may be able to transplant hatchery-raised trout with a strong new mix of genes.
The Department is striving to make the Rio Grande cutthroat a major componentof New Mexico’s trout fishery. For more information about Rio Grande cutthroat trout, contact the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Northwest Area Office, 3841 Midway Place NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109, (505) 841-8881, ext. 721.
COLD WATER GIANT
Speckled all over with dull white spots, this silvery-green fish is full
bodied with a strongly forked tail. Because lakers seek waters less than 55 degrees F., this species usually remains on or near the bottom.
Although its natural range is the cool, shadowy depths of the big lakes of the Far North (where the lake trout is known as the mackinaw), it’s been introduced into Western reservoirs, including three in New Mexico.
At this time, it is not known whether or not New Mexico’s lake trout population is spawning naturally in all waters stocked. Heron lake has been stocked twice, and they are known to be reproducing there. Unlike other North American trout that construct ‘redds’ (spawning beds or nests), lake trout spawn in fall or early winter over rubble or gravel, usually at night. Several males fan a section of lake bottom clean of fine silt. One to three males court a single female, nudging her body to cause release of her eggs. Collectively, the males release milt over the eggs which fall to the swept lake bottom. Because of low water temperatures, the unattended eggs usually take 4 to 6 months to hatch over the winter.
Newly hatched lake trout feed on plankton. As they grow, they switch their food preference to small bottom-dwelling invertebrates, especially midges. By the time they’re 15 inches or so, lakers have become opportunistic feeders and will snatch any fish they can find.
STOCKING OF LAKE TROUT IN NEW MEXICO
Lake trout were introduced in the 1970s and 1980s into reservoir waters at Heron, Eagle Nest, and Abiquiu. Today, catches at Abiquiu and Eagle Nest are rare. By far the most abundant population today is at Heron Lake, since it has the habitat lakers prefer — large, deep, clear waters with plenty of dissolved oxygen in the depths and a good supply of forage fish. Most lake trout caught at Heron Lake are about 2 feet long, from 5 to 12 lbs. — if they’re caught at all, that is. Catching a lake trout is no easy business, especially when depth finders may not be operative in Heron’s ultra-deep waters
SPRING LAKER FISHING
Just after the ice clears, lake trout are feisty and full of spirit. In early spring at Heron, anglers have a good chance of hooking a lake trout just about anywhere on the lake. Try shallow trolling along the shore or deep trolling 30 feet or more in the main lake. Use a combination of very large lures and worms fished off a downrigger or with lead core line. Check with local anglers or tackle shops for advice on depths. Catches from the bank are possible at Heron Dike, west of the dam.
SUMMER LAKER FISHING
In summer, lakers go deep and, at Heron, that can mean as much as 200 feet.
Now the fish are quieter and much less full of fight. When they are deep during summer, the changing pressure as they’re brought to the surface makes them sluggish. Troll deep with a downrigger or a lead core line, or jig deep with a horsehead jig. This will put your lure at the specific depth you choose. (Be aware that the use of minnows as bait at Heron is illegal.) Also try a spinner or spoon, any sort of revolving attention-getter. Use a reel that can handle
lead core line on a stiff rod.
FALL AND WINTER FISHING
As cold weather returns, so does the laker’s fighting spirit. Once more, lake trout are found in shallower waters. Troll the shoreline with a big lure at depths between 5 and 30 feet.
BEST LAKE TROUT WATERS
Fly Fishing For Stream Trout
Fly Fishing For RAINBOW TROUT
Millions of dollars are spent annually on the raising and stocking of rainbow trout throughout New Mexico. America’s most spectacular contribution to the sport-fishing world, the rainbow trout has been transplanted from its home in the Pacific Northwest throughout the world. To identify a rainbow trout, look for a dark back, polished silvery sides, a red band along the lateral line, shimmers of green and blue in the sunlight, and black specks from head to tail.
The red lateral band varies from faint in lake fish to brilliant in stream fish.
Fly Fishing For BROOK TROUT
Native to the East but widely transplanted throughout the West, this handsome trout thrives and reproduces in small, cold streams and spring-fed waters. Less fussy about its diet than other trout, the brookie will snatch at almost any natural-appearing bait. It has a squared tail, pale, wormlike mottlings (‘vermiculations’) over its back, and seldom grows to more than 10 inches. Brookies also make
Fly Fishing For BROWN TROUT
In the 1880s, brown trout eggs were brought to this country from Europe, and, by 1926, wild populations of browns were thriving throughout New Mexico. The brown trout is a predator that eats fish as readily as it eats insects. It can live in waters that are a little warmer, slower, and siltier than those of other trout. It is sleek and colorful with an olive-brown body tinted faintly with gold. The upper sides are dotted with black and sprinkled with blue-haloed red and orange spots, although the tail is spot-free. Browns continue to thrive and reproduce naturally despite heavy fishing pressure.
More money is spent in raising, stocking, and managing trout than any other game fish in New Mexico. Classy, wily, and challenging fly fishing sport, trout are members of the salmon family. They have specific habitat requirements which include cold, clear, clean water with a high amount of dissolved oxygen, and plenty of cover.
Fly Fishing For Brook: During wet years, spring and fall, all day: Sacramento creek and dam near Cloudcroft; in summer, at dawn and dusk. Hopewell, Bonito, and
Cabresto lakes year-round.
Fly Fishing For Brown: Spring, Fall, and Winter: slow trolling at Navajo reservoir; Wild Rivers Recreation Area at the Rio Grande Gorge, just below the junction of the Red River. Summer: San Juan River (below Navajo dam), Rio Guadalupe, Rio Chama (above town), Cimarron River (below Eagle Nest dam), the Mora-Pecos River system, and the Jemez watershed.
Fly Fishing For Rainbow: Spring, summer, and fall: Rio Chama (above and below El Vado Dam), San Juan river (below Navajo dam), Pecos river, Rio de los Pinos, and the Jemez watershed. Eagle Nest, Blue-water, Canjilon, and Fenton lakes. Winter: Jal, Bataan, Carlsbad, Eunice, Green Meadow, Bill Evans, Bear Canyon, and Carrizozo Lakes, among others.
FLY FISHING FOR RAINBOWS
Rainbow trout are stocked annually throughout New Mexico. They’re predominantly insect feeders but will readily rise to the new trout dough baits, artificial flies, salmon eggs, or flashy minnow imitations. Where a battle with a brown consists of getting him hooked, with a rainbow it’s hanging onto him at all. If you’re after sport, look for lakes and streams stocked with rainbow fry and fingerlings where the fish have had time to grow and become feisty, such as those at McAllister Lake. Most rainbows caught in New Mexico are between 10 to 14 inches long.
FLY FISHING FOR BROOKIES
Brook trout are a favorite with early spring anglers. It is believed brookies can see colors — try bright, colorful flies on them right after ice-out or in mid-autumn. They’ll bite at almost any-thing, so they’re good sport for the beginning fly fisherman. Dawn and dusk are best fly fishing times. Dark lures work best for the spinning rod angler. At Cabresto lake, try a No. 12 scud fly, fished slow. In summer, work the deep cold waters.
FLY FISHING FOR BROWNS
While all trout are cautious, brown trout in streams are even more so. Browns tend to stay put. The ideal brown trout stream has a prey base of fingerlings and insects, numerous undercut banks and fallen logs in the water providing good places to hide.
Trout Fly Fishing: Pointers from the Pros
Cast behind rocks, brush piles or logs, anyplace that slows water and gives trout a place to hide.
Trout find about 90 percent of their food — ants, worms, salmon eggs, etc. –in the water. The other 10 percent consists of emerging flying insects on the surface of the water.
For consistent results, use salmon egg bait in a natural drift pattern.
Never let trout see your shadow or any movement whatsoever. They’ll be gone in a flash.
Whether bait, lure, or fly, if the trout doesn’t rise to it right away,
repeat your cast again and again. Sometimes it takes two, three, even four tries.
Try natural baits: worms, hellgrammites, grasshoppers, and grubs.
If you’re fly fishing, be sure to “match the hatch”.
Sockeye salmon are anadramous — that is, they are born in high-country river headwaters, travel downstream to the sea, spend much of their life in salt water, then return to their freshwater origins to spawn and die. Kokanee have instincts to follow this pattern too, but they can’t because they’re landlocked.
Eons ago, due to shifting land masses, erosion, and other earth changes, certain sockeye populations became landlocked in freshwater lakes from which riveroutlet had been diverted or otherwise eliminated.
Despite the lack of rivers from which to reach the sea, the isolated sockeye populations survived. Through time and evolution, these sockeyes became smaller, adapted to a freshwater life cycle, and became what we know today as kokanee salmon.
Newly hatched Kokanee feed predominately on plankton and immature insects, a diet that enriches their flesh with essential oils. Once they exceed about 12 inches in length, they begin to feed partially upon small fish. Since lake trout don’t eat plankton after they reach a few inches long, both kokanee and lake trout are able to coexist in the same lake without competing directly for food.
FROM SILVER TO CRIMSON
Most of the year, both sexes of kokanee are bluish-green with creamy-silver sides. Though the male is without spots, the female has a dusting of fine specks along her spinal ridge. As the spawning season approaches in mid-fall, the snout of the breeding male becomes long and hooked. His teeth increase in size and number, his back becomes arched, and his body assumes a brilliant red-orange hue. The breeding female turns a deep, steel gray with some pink or red along her sides.
In New Mexico, kokanee spawn at 3 and 4 years of age, September through January. Although kokanee no longer travel from the sea to river headwaters, they still retain a strong homing instinct. Spawning adults will normally return to the site where they emerged as larvae or even where they were stocked, if they are of hatchery origin.
The peak of kokanee spawning varies from year to year, from lake to lake.
Spawning occurs in gravel riffles of streams and in shoreline pebbles of lakes.
The female builds the nest and covers the eggs with small gravel after they are deposited and fertilized. Kokanee spawn only once during their life cycle. After spawning, kokanee live only a few days to a few weeks — the time of year when kokanee are most easily caught by snagging.
About two million kokanee fry are released in New Mexico waters annually, usually in April or May when the plankton blooms. Kokanee were first introduced into New Mexico in 1963, and regular stocking has continued ever since. NewMexico kokanee start life as fertilized eggs at the Parkview or Red River Fish Hatcheries. The eggs come from kokanee populations at Heron, Navajo, and EagleNest Lakes, caught in nets at spawning time; supple-mental eggs are occasionally obtained from neigh-boring states. Young kokanee are stocked after they absorb their egg sacks and when plankton blooms occur in receding waters in the spring.
At Heron Lake, lake trout prey upon some kokanee since they both prefer an open water habitat.
FISHING FOR KOKANEE
Spring and Summer
Key words for summer kokanee fishing are “always troll deep.” Large schools of kokanee cruise about, seeking water levels with just the right combination of daylight, temperature, plankton, and dissolved oxygen. In New Mexico reservoirs, that usually means 20 to 40 feet in fall and spring, 30 to 60 feet in mid-summer. Anglers fortunate enough to hook a kokanee will usually bring up one between 12 and 16 inches long. Smaller kokanee are seldom seen because the youngsters feed exclusively on plankton and do not bite on hooks.
Fall and Winter
Because kokanee will die soon after spawning, it is legal to snag kokanee during the snagging season in the fall. In November and December, large schools of kokanee congregate near the shoreline, seeking good spawning habitat, often in the same area where they were originally stocked. Refer to fishing regulations for dates on specific waters; some seasons vary.
Pointers from the Pros: Fishing for Kokanee
Best Kokanee lures include silver spinners with fluorescent red accents and one treble hook; ‘wedding rings’; or Christmas trees with bait, such as yellowcorn, white corn, maggots, or worms. Use with a downrigger for best results.
|Always keep a light setting on the drag.|
Use leaded treble hooks with 10-lb. test line during the snagging season.
When trolling for Kokanee, use a long flexible rod with 10-lb. test line.
The heavier your line is, the less action you’ll have with the lure.
Remember that Kokanee have very soft mouths. It’s easy to jerk the hook out if you’re not careful.
Get your Kokanee lure to the proper depth by using leadcore line,
Christmas trees with lures, cowbells, downriggers, or six ounces of lead.
Use a rubber snubber between the line and the lure. It works like a rubber band to smooth out the sharp tugs while you land the fish.
Because Kokanee flesh is rich with fish oils (a healthy addition to human diet but chemically prone to spoil easily), clean your catch as soon as possible. Get it on ice quickly for best eating.
BEST WATERS FOR KOKANEE
Heron, Navajo, and Eagle Nest are New Mexico’s best reservoirs for Kokanee. Abiquiu, El Vado Lake, and the Chama River above El Vado are also stocked upon occasion. Call the Fisheries Division of New Mexico Department of Game and Fish for specifics.
A 10 percent federal excise tax on your purchase of fishing equipment and motor boat fuel helps states individually promote sport fisheries. This includes acquiring easements or leases for public fishing, funding hatchery and stocking programs, supporting aquatic education programs, and improving boating facilities for anglers.