A solid strip-set firmly embedded the hook, but the fish merely swam away with my fly. An instant eternity passed before the fish became cognizant of something amiss. The laborious and weighty head shakes of a fish with considerable length forced deep flex into my eleven-foot switch rod. Lahontan cutthroat are not known for blistering runs or aerial acrobatics, but they know how to use their bodies to simply avoid capture.
I never put the fish on the reel, rather tried steering it around the boat as it lazily thrashed and dogged, trying to throw the fly. A brown or rainbow of this magnitude would have had me into the backing in seconds, but this brute simply threw his weight around working to break me off. Not today.
A number of short dives and death rolls at the surface finally wore it down enough to get the net under it. Surprised, excited, and a little nervous, I marveled at the dark male Lahontan spilling out of the net basket as my friend Chas carefully lifted him over the gunnel. A slab of a fish somewhere in the mid-twenty inches peered up at me through a large, black eye. His buttery underbelly, burgundy lateral stripe as wide as a paintbrush, drab olive dorsal, and pepper-flake speckling gave the appearance of a faded, yet intricate gyotaku painting.
I went for my fly buried deep in the underside of his snout, then realized it was not mine. My streamer, lodged in its tongue. The barbless hook easily popped free. The former, losing fisherman apparently succumbed to the death rolls as a length of tippet and a small, olive, beaded streamer were wrapped tightly around its snout. I unwound the line, freed the fly, and quickly released the behemoth to dash the hopes of yet another angler who will no doubt break him off out of excitement or being too aggressive.
Lahontan Cutthroat are an Entirely Different Animal
Quintessential trout waters rarely give up fish like this on the fly and for good reason. Sought after brown or rainbow trout waters that produce big fish are generally tailwater rivers (those downstream of dams) with relatively regulated flow and temperature, rich in primary productivity and incredibly picky fish. Desert lake Lahontan cutthroat are another animal entirely.
Lahontan cutthroat can be aggressive feeders and rather impartial to the fly. Picture a submarine of a fish resembling a submerged log cruising a sandbar. Dropping a fly about five feet in front of the fish, your heart races as it lazily swims over, engulfing the fly without a second of scrutiny. The hookset is stone solid and the fish simply works to shake it off. At first. For most fly fishermen, when the action is hot like this it’s hard to break away or try a new technique. However, I spend relatively little time sight-fishing, largely dredging fish up from thirty-plus feet deep. Deep water streamer fishing has produced my biggest Lahontans and far more hook-ups than other methods.
Fly size, color (light or dark), and stripping speed have been the three critical factors in my experience. I typically fish a size ten streamer tied with black, brown, or olive laser dubbing, marabou tail, a bead head, and wrapped with a copper or gold rib to keep the dubbing in place. I fish a heavy sinking line with eight to ten feet of fluorocarbon leader (5 to 8-pound test) rather than a tapered leader. Tapered leaders have a slight buoyancy to them that keeps the fly from getting down and working just right, in my opinion.
A nine-foot, five-weight rod with slightly over-weighted line is perfect, but I often use my eleven-foot switch rod. The switch rod is particularly handy on windy days when the added length can blast a cast into a head wind, but the soft action of the rod makes hook sets more difficult.
Working the Water
Look for deep shelves or abrupt edges. In Washington State, Lahontan cutthroat lakes offer a variety of sheer rock faces, submerged benches, and offshore weed lines that drop into the abyss. Fishing approximately thirty-foot depth off rock faces and over submerged benches has proven most effective in my experience, giving up sixty-fish days averaging sixteen to eighteen-inches, and always a few over twenty inches. On less predictable, but not uncommon days, cuts up to ten pounds can be had on the fly. Drop the fly right off of the rocks and let the line sink as long as you are comfortable. I typically count it down six to ten seconds before stripping.
Strip slow starting out, pausing every few strips. This typically works best, but the fish can be frisky, chasing flies more readily with water temperature in the mid-fifties. Always be on guard. Approximately half (if not more) of all strikes occur on the pause, which is actually a good thing. Strip-sets are what you want, so if you feel any suspicious weight as you begin taking up line, strip hard first, ask questions second.
Mind the Fish
Lahontans don’t typically spit the fly but mouth it, given enough time. I always fish barbless hooks, but this situation presents a prime example of why. Fish have the potential to take the fly deep when fishing this method. Large, barbed streamer hooks that end up anywhere near the gill rakers is bad news. You may lose a few additional fish with barbless hooks, but every fish will be released in good condition.
Hit the Water
Lake access is generally not an issue on public lakes in Washington, but be sure to know where you are. Lakes on the Colville Indian Reservation, for example, are typically surrounded by private land or tribal access only. Fishing can be great from shore or any type of watercraft, including float tubes. Whatever motivates you, find the fish, float it out, sink it deep, and hang on.