Cutthroat will always be the exciting, temperamental and fashionable fish in the trout species. My first experience with these fish were in the Bighorn Mountains in central Wyoming, and they gave me a run for my money. Regardless of their size, they hit hard and fought harder! As long as my flies had a bit of flash, they were on it.
1. Black Woolly Bugger- Size 6
If you’re looking for a consistent option for Cutthroat, the Black Woolly Bugger is perfect for you. It’s nothing glamorous but it works. Cutthroat love everything from minnows to crayfish and the Woolly Bugger is a perfect representation.
Since cutthroat love a bit of flash, make sure you have something tied into the tail. You can swing these streamers or dead drift them and the cutthroat are going to have a field day with them. If the black doesn’t work, choose an olive or white option. Either one of these is going to catch fish!
You can fish these in pools, riffles and eddies!
2. Pale Morning Dun- Size 14
Few dry flies are as productive as Pale Morning Duns. Whether you’re fishing for Snake River Cutthroat in Idaho or Yellowstone Cutthroat, you’re going to find that these flies work quite well. Pale Morning Dun slowly work their way to the surface and often spend time in slower moving water. They’re a mayfly representation, so they hatch all over the country!
These are larger dry flies, so they aren’t overly challenging to see! Eddies and pools are favorites for these flies. You can fish this alone or on a dry-dropper rig. Either option is going to catch plenty of fish! Wait till you see a rise and cast it there. It won’t take long.
3. Elk Hair Caddis- Size 16
Another good dry fly option is an Elk Hair Caddis. As soon as the temperatures begin to warm in the spring and summer, the caddis patterns begin to emerge. These are smaller dry flies, so you’re likely going to fish them alone! Elk Hair Caddis hatches occur in the mornings and the evenings, so keep that in mind.
Do some research on the area you’re fishing to determine if caddis hatch there. It’s also smart to bring a variety of sizes of Elk Hair Caddis. You can find them from size 16 to 24. If the fish aren’t hitting them, don’t be afraid to switch up the size before you decide to switch the fly entirely. Elk Hair Caddis aren’t as flashy as other flies that Cutthroat like, but they are well-known to do the trick!
GUIDE TIP: Cutthroat trout populations can be found in high numbers in the Snake River in Idaho, Yellowstone National Park and the rivers surrounding Grand Teton Park in Wyoming.
4. Royal Wulff- Size 10
If you need a fly that is going to convince the flies to come to the surface, then use the Royal Wulff. This is one of the best attractor patterns that you can possibly use. It’s flashy, bright and the perfect fly for those lazy fish. Sometimes, you have to avoid trying to match the hatch and coax the fish out of their hiding places. Royal Wulff patterns are perfect for all types of water! If you’re fishing some moderate chop, this fly is going to still stick out and give you a chance.
Riffles, pools and seams are all a perfect place to fish these flies! They aren’t overly complicated to fish! If you don’t find a rise, don’t worry. These can coax the fish out of anywhere. Learn the techniques to read a river and catch more 👉 Reading Moving Water
5. Hippie Stomper- Size 12
The Hippie Stomper is another attractor pattern. There are few flies that float better than the Stomper. It’s entirely made of foam, so it sits high on the surface and is easy for the trout to see. Anglers choose to fish this during a salmonfly or stonefly hatch! While it’s not an exact representation, it’s close enough and will fool the fish. Where it makes its true living is during the terrestrial season in the late summer!
Fish this alone or as the top of the dry dropper, and you’ll find that you will have a blast fishing it. During hatches, the cutthroat are like hungry teenagers, and they will eat whatever they can find. You can find it in all black or with hints of orange or green. The Stomper is a beautiful, versatile fly.
6. Tungsten Flash Prince- Size 14
As mentioned earlier, Cutty’s are suckers for a little bit of flash. The Flash Prince is a perfect combination of flashy and realistic. Prince Nymphs are generally a buggier looking fly, and buggy flies are always going to catch fish. The red, gold and green colors stand out in muddy and clear water, so it can be used any time of the year and season.
The beadhead gets this fly deeper in the water column where Cutthroat spend the most of their time feeding. Many anglers choose to fish it below an indicator and bounce it along the bottom. As long as you’re able to get the depth right, there’s no reason you shouldn’t catch fish with the Flash Prince. It also pairs extremely well with a large foam dry fly. Those quick flashes are too much for the fish to handle.
7. The Muddler Minnow- Size 6
The Muddler Minnow was designed in the 1930’s by a man named Don Gapen from my home town in Minnesota. The streamer was originally supposed to imitate a bullhead baitfish, but it didn’t take long for it to rise in the ranks and become a favorite for trout anglers in coldwater streams. Now, Cutthroat and Brook Trout anglers can’t get enough of this pattern.
If you’re fishing areas with high populations of sculpin, you’ll find that it’s especially successful. Sculpin sitting in pools and eddies are favorites for trout, so be sure to dead drift or swing this streamer through some of that deeper water and see what you can find. Odds are, there’s a large Cutthroat lurking for a meal that looks just like the Muddler Minnow!
Streamers will always be my favorite flies to use when I’m fishing for Cutthroat due to the aggression that they have when they hit them!
GUIDE TIP: When fishing with streamers, don’t underestimate those final strips at the end of your cast before you pull the fly out of the water. A couple hard strips near your feet are still known to get the cutthroat to chase! Don’t bail on your flies too early. Learn how to use floating fly line to fish streamers in this article. 👉 How to Use Floating Fly Line for Streamers
8. Gray Ghost- Size 6
The Gray Ghost streamer is another that anglers should be sure to have in their cutthroat boxes. It’s a minnow representation, but it can also look like a leech and a variety of other prey. Some anglers choose to use the Gray Ghost without the beadhead to keep it higher in the water column, but that’s up to the angler to determine where the fish are feeding.
You can even use the non-beadhead version with a split shot tied a few inches above the fly! This fly looks best when you’re giving it action, so don’t be afraid to swing and strip in this pattern. Cutthroat will chase down their prey from their hiding spots, so drift it past trees, pools and large rocks.
9. Pheasant Tail Nymph- Size 18
Early season cutthroat trout are obsessed with Blue Winged Olives. The Pheasant Tail nymph is a perfect representation of these flies. As soon as that warm weather hits and streams are on the verge of runoff, the Blue Winged Olives are out in full force. An hour or so before a hatch begins, start drifting these. Fish are beginning to feed and aren’t quite looking towards the surface.
As long as you’re able to put these flies in the right place in the water column, you’ll be good to go. Fish them with an indicator or below a dry-dropper and it won’t take long for the fish to strike. There are few flies in the industry that are consistently as successful as the Pheasant Tail. If the initial size you chose isn’t working, switch up the sizes before you choose to change flies entirely.
10. Chubby Chernobyl
The mention of a Chubby Chernobyl gets a fly angler very excited. These flies can be successful all throughout summer, but they really become popular with the Cutthroat when the terrestrials arrive in July. The Chubby can imitate hoppers, beetles and ants. It’s one of the more versatile dry flies on the market! Even if the terrestrial flies aren’t quite there, the fly can still work as the top of a dry-dropper rig. You’d be surprised at the bites you can get on it in June.
Choose a chubby with a little bit of flash, so you can be sure you’re capturing the attention of the Cutthroat. Fish it in slack water areas near reeds and heavy grasses. Most terrestrial flies fall off these grasses right along the bank and the fish wait anxiously for them!
GUIDE TIP: Cutthroat trout absolutely love dry flies. They hit them with reckless abandon, so always make sure to fish for them during the hatches. Check out the hatches in Colorado 👉 Colorado Hatch Charts
11. Stimulator- Size 12
If you aren’t quite sure what to throw and you’re seeing rises, throw the Stimulator. It’s the ultimate attractor and searching fly. While it wasn’t designed to imitate anything in particular, most anglers choose to use it during a stonefly or salmon fly hatch. The larger size and deep red colors do a fairly good job of representing these patterns.
You can even use this fly when you aren’t seeing rises. You’d be surprised what a large, attractive looking fly on the surface can do for a trout especially since cutthroat trout are more than eager to eat a bright colored fly. Find a fishy area and make some casts! You’ll be surprised at what you find.
As always, you can use it as the top of a dry-dropper.
12. Creek Crawler- Size 4
If you’re fishing a smaller creek for cutthroat trout, you can almost guarantee that there are crayfish as well. The Creek Crawler is one of the best imitations of crayfish that you will find. It’s big and heavy, so you don’t have to worry about it getting lower in the water column. If you’re fishing fast moving riffles or pocket water, let this bounce around on the bottom. It likely won’t take long for a fish to find it and feast.
The rubber legs and realistic looking “eyes” make this fly a wonderful option for all things crayfish! It’s absolutely one of my favorite streamer patterns.
13. San Juan Worm
Never ever underestimate the power of a worm. The San Juan worm is the perfect trailer fly on a nymph rig. Have your two or three nymphs tied on and let this one float behind it. You’d be surprised at how well this fly does. Too often anglers forget to even consider using a worm pattern because they’re so busy trying to match the hatch. The San Juan can be used in lakes, rivers and streams.
If needed, attach a split shot to get it lower in the water column or leave it to float freely. Fish will find it and eat it.
GUIDE TIP: On your dry dropper rigs, make sure you give yourself at least 12-18 inches of room between flies.
14. Slump Buster- Size 8
The Slump Buster is another streamer pattern that continues to find its way at the top of many trout anglers list. You can use it in a smaller, size 8 if you know the fish aren’t eager to eat massive streamers. Depending on the color you choose (I love olive), there’s always going to be a bit of flash that attracts the fish. Swing or dead drift! That’s up to you. Either method is going to work.
15. Copper John Barr’s- Size 15
Copper John patterns are great looking nymphs that work for all things cutthroat. You can fish it during a stonefly or mayfly hatch depending on what you want. These are especially productive during spring and fall hatches!
Are you looking for some great How To Fly Fish Articles? Checkout this list:
- How to Fly Fish for Bluegills – These amazing fish are all over the USA. I like to call them the “Gateway Drug to Fly Fishing”
- How to Fly Fish for Brook Trout – Find the cleanest, coldest, most beautiful streams and I’ll bet Brookes are present.
- How to Nymph Fish – Step by Step details for setting up, presenting and catching trout with nymphs.
- How to Fly Fish for Salmon – Image hooking into a +25 pound King Salmon in a river and your Fly Rod breaks! Seriously this happened to me on my first trip.
To target cutthroat trout, you don’t need a special rig. Most trout rigs will work just fine. Depending on the size of the river you’re fishing, the size of fly rod you’re using will change, but a 4-weight or 5-weight moderate fast action rod is plenty! They’re large enough to fight some of the larger cutthroats you find.
In terms of length, an 8’6” or 9’ would work well. These are long enough to make long casts, high stick nymphs and lay down dry flies.
Use a matching fly line. If you’re fishing rivers and streams, a floating fly line is going to work for dries, nymphs and streamers. When you’re fishing deeper water, stick with a sink tip or full-sink line.
A perfect dry fly setup for cutthroat is a 5-weight 9’ moderate-fast action fly rod. The moderate-fast action is sensitive enough to lay down the flies easily. The 9’ rod can make longer casts and easily make the mends to keep the dry fly in the perfect strike zone.
You’re going to want to use a 3x or 4x leader with 4x or 5x tippet! When dry fly conditions are perfect, the water is going to be clear, air temperatures warm and the fish expectant. You want to make sure your presentation is as realistic as possible. If you use a leader and tippet any larger than that, the fish are going to see it and spend time feeding on the real flies.
The goal is to stay as hidden and out of the way as possible. Let your fly and current do the work!
GUIDE TIP: Make sure you bring floatant along when using dries for cutthroat. They want to see them high on the surface. Read this article 👉 What is Floatant and How to Use It
A perfect nymphing setup doesn’t look overly different from a dry fly setup. Keep that same 4 or 5-weight moderate-fast action rod. It should also be an 8’6” or 9’! These lengths are going to allow you to high stick your way through riffles, seams and pools. That’s a must when fly fishing for cutthroat.
Depending on the depth you’re fishing, you may want to use a sink-tip line to get down far enough in 10-15 feet of water! Use that same 3x or 4x leader with 4x tippet. This is going to ensure you aren’t going to be seen! The fish are easily spooked, so it’s good to keep as small of a setup as you can.
Nymphing works all year round, so you may be fishing in high, low, dirty and clean water! Be prepared for any situation.
GUIDE TIP: Czech Nymphing is especially productive for cutthroat trout. While it’s not always glamorous, it’s going to get the job done. Find a few seams and riffles and high stick your way through them. Learn nymphing techniques with this article. 👉 Introduction to Nymphing and Sub-Surface Fly Fishing.
Cutthroat trout are a beautiful fish with an aggressive spirit. All of the flies on this list are known to catch cutthroat trout regardless of where you’re fishing in the world! As long as you present them properly, you’ll find that Cutthroat are ready to eat and give you a fight that you’ll remember! Please care for these fish because native populations are susceptible and we want to keep them around!
Do You Love Chasing Cutthroat? Check out These Articles
Danny Mooers is a high school English teacher in Arizona with a love for fly fishing. Growing up in Minnesota gave him the opportunity to experience all types of fishing and grow his skills. After living out in the Western United States for several summers in college, his fly fishing obsession grew. Having the opportunity to share in his passion for fishing through writing is a dream come true. It’s a lifelong hobby and he strives to make it understandable for people of all skill levels
Sources and Credits
- A Special thanks to UMPQUA FLIES for picture use where noted. Umpqua – World’s Best Flies