Cutthroat trout waters are my favorite. All the times I’ve had the privilege to target cutthroat trout on a fly rod happen to be in cold, mountain streams with beautiful views and wildlife surrounding me. I will never tire of their aggressive and temperamental tendencies.
Steps for Catching Cutthroat Trout with a Fly Rod
- Use Midweight Fly Equipment. Generally, cutthroat trout don’t grow to be very large! The majority of the fish you’re going to catch are somewhere between 8-16 inches. As a result, you need a 3-weight to 5-weight rod with a matching reel and fly line! Also, the leader and tippet doesn’t have to be overly heavy.
- Find highly oxygenated and cold water. Like most trout, cutthroat need water that is less than 65 degrees for them to thrive. Anything over 65 degrees puts them in danger of not surviving through spells of hot weather.
- Look for slack water and cover. Cutthroat don’t like to be vulnerable or waste energy. As a result, you’ll find them in slack water in pools, under cut banks or hanging out under fallen trees or large rocks. They want to be in comfortable conditions and save all of their energy to feed.
- Take time to see what the fish is eating. When you head to the water, take a look under rocks, locks or in trees for insects that the fish could be eating! Also, look to see if there are any crustaceans or baitfish in the area.
- Put yourself in position to make an accurate cast. Fly fishing is heavily dependent on the position you put yourself in to catch fish. You want to be able to make casts that are 15-20 feet long on average when targeting trout. Anything more than that can be hard to control.
- Make sure you mend your fly line to keep everything in the right position. Cutthroat trout won’t go for your fly unless it’s accurately presented. If you’re fishing moving water, you want to put yourself in position to mend and adjust your fly line to make sure it’s leading the charge downstream.
My cutthroat trout experience primarily comes in the beautiful state of Wyoming. I’ve spent time targeting them all the way from the Bighorn Mountains down to the Snake River near Jackson. For whatever reason, I’ve found that no other trout reward anglers for good fishing more than cutthroat. Rainbow, brown and brook trout all fall for poor presentations, but cutthroat trout need our best. I have an amazing amount of admiration for these fish.
Selecting Fly Fishing Gear for Cutthroat Trout
Part of being able to land cutthroat trout on the fly rod is making sure you have the best setup possible to land these fish.
Whatever fly rod you choose, you want to make sure you have full control of it. These fish are picky, so if your rod doesn’t feel natural in your hand, you may have trouble landing them. An 8’6” or 9’ 5-weight fast action rod is ideal. You can get away with a moderate-fast action if that’s more of your preference.
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When fishing the cool waters that hold these fish, you want to make sure you can punch a cast into the wind. They are picky with their hiding spots, so the more water you can cover, the better. The 5-weight has a perfect amount of backbone to handle any size of cutthroat you find.
You need to be able to throw dries, nymphs and streamers and control them all! The longer length of a rod allows you to mend, high stick and control your fly through all different types of water.
Guide Pro Tip: For setting up a fly rod to nymph fish check out 👉 How to Setup a Fly Rod for Nymph Fishing. Need some guidance for dry fly fishing? I’ve got you covered with 👉 How to Setup a Fly Rod (with Videos)
A weight-forward floating fly line is what you will need when targeting cutthroat. If you’re fishing streams and rivers, this line will work for dries, nymphs and streamers. You can set your leader and tippet length to get to the appropriate depth if you’re using wet flies.
If you’re primarily fishing lakes for cutthroat, then a weight-forward sink tip line is a good option. Cutthroat feed in all levels of the water column, but most of the time, they’re cruising along the bottom in search of food. You want to make sure your fly is able to get to the right level.
Whatever line you choose, make sure it matches the weight of your fly rod. Some anglers prefer to overline, so that’s an option as well. Overlining is using a fly line that’s one size heavier than your rod. It makes casting a bit easier.
Fly Fishing Reel
Your reel needs to match your fly rod! If you’re using a 5-weight rod, make sure you’re using a 5-weight or 6-weight reel. A balanced setup is important for casting, presenting and mending your fly. Purchasing a reel from the same brand you purchased the rod from can make the setup even more balanced!
Leader and Tippet
If you’re using dry flies and nymphs, a 9’ 3x or 4x tapered leader is a great choice for cutthroat.
For your streamers, use a 7’ 2x or 3x leader! This is plenty strong to keep your streamers attached and fight any of those larger cutthroat that you happen to find.
Tippet comes in handy for both nymph and dry fly fishing! Make sure you have 4x and 5x nylon tippet. The nylon is plenty strong and will stay inconspicuous enough that the fish aren’t able to see it in the water.
Favorite Flies for Cutthroat Trout
Black Woolly Bugger- Size 6
Woolly Buggers work in all types of water and will land cutthroat trout all year. A black size 6 bugger is the perfect size and color because it can imitate small baitfish, leeches and Stoneflies. You’re able to dead drift, swing or strip this fly depending on what the fish are wanting! Versatility matters when fishing for cutthroat trout.
Come July, lakes, streams and rivers are filled with fish expecting to feed on grasshoppers. The Chubby is the perfect representation! Throw these in the slack water near a grassy shoreline or use it as the top of a dry-dropper rig. Either way, you’re going to catch cutthroat trout with a Chubby!
Elk Hair Caddis- Size 16
The Elk Hair Caddis is consistently one of the best flies for cutthroat trout. Cutthroats are aggressive topwater feeders, and with the prevalent caddis hatches across the United States, you can guarantee that the cutthroats are eager to eat them. A size 16 is on the larger side, so feel free to use a smaller fly if needed.
Royal Wulff- Size 10
If you aren’t quite sure what the cutthroat wants, the Royal Wulff is the ideal searching pattern. Attractor flies are meant to be used as tests for the fish. Even if you aren’t seeing rises, throw the Royal Wulff all over the water, and see if you can get anything to bite! It likely won’t take long to attract a curious cutty!
Pheasant Tail Nymph- Size 18
Early in the spring, the Pheasant Tail should be your main fly choice! Blue-Winged Olive hatches occur in the spring, so cutthroats feed on as many BWO nymphs as they can. A size 18 beadhead pheasant tail is the ideal choice for any water and weather condition.
Tungsten Flash Prince- Size 14
Sometimes you need a buggy looking nymph. The Prince Nymph fits that bill. Bounce this along the bottom through riffles, pools, pockets, eddies and seams, and you’ll likely find a cutthroat eager to eat. These work great as the bottom fly in a dry-dropper rig.
How I Like to Set Up my Fly Rod for Cutthroat Trout
My cutthroat trout setup isn’t entirely different from the rest of my trout setups that I use. The major changes come when I fish different water and weather conditions. I do, however, have a go to set up for those Western Wyoming rivers that are filled with Cutthroat!
I use a 9’ 5-weight fast action Moonshine Vesper Fly Rod (👈 shortcut link to Amazon). I have found this rod to be perfect for a variety of situations. I’m able to make casts ranging from 10 to 60 feet in decent winds, but I’m also able to control how my fly lands on the water. I have a great feeling with this rod! As mentioned earlier, cutthroat trout are temperamental and expect a quality presentation.
When I use dry flies, the 9’ rod allows me to lay down the flies softly. I can make my line unfurl on the water, so it lays down gently like a real dry fly. If I need to make a quick mend when my fly lands, I can.
The 9’ length also works great for when I’m nymphing. If I’m standing a few feet away from a riffle or seam, I can make my cast upstream, strip in the excess line and high stick my way through the strike zone. I’ve found that any rod shorter than 9’ can make it hard to be as efficient with my nymph set up as I would like.
For streamer fishing, the 5-weight option has plenty of backbone. I can launch my streamers and make any mends if needed. 3-weight and 4-weight rods work for streamer fishing, but the 5-weight is strong enough that you always feel in control.
I use a matching 5-weight large arbor Creede Reel from Moonshine (👈 Amazon shortcut link) for my fly rod setup. The Creede reel is able to hold my 30 yards of fly line plus 150 yards of backing. It’s plenty big, and balances out my rod better than any other reel I’ve tried to use.
Cutthroat trout aren’t going to likely pull you into your backing, but if they do, it has plenty of room. Plus, the fully-sealed drag system is plenty strong for whatever size cutthroat you find.
I stick with a 6-weight RIO Trout floating fly fishing line! I like to overline my setup because I find it easier to cast and control than the 5-weight options. It doesn’t matter if I’m fishing in lakes or rivers, the floating line option works for me. I find it easy to maneuver and it has very little stretch, so it responds well to any of your strip sets.
I like to mend and move my line around, so I need something that immediately responds to the flicks of my wrists and the movements I make. Many anglers choose Scientific Anglers of Airflo, but I personally prefer RIO!
Guide Pro Tip: Read my article 👉 The Best Fly Line for Trout to get some insight into selecting fly line.
If I’m fishing with dry flies, I like a long, 9-foot leader. I find that it’s enough length to get away from my fly line, and easily float along the banks and through seams without being noticed. I generally use a 3x or 4x tapered leader when fishing with dries. I still like to use tippet to give myself an even better advantage when I’m throwing the dries.
If I’m fishing with nymphs, I use a similar setup to when I’m fishing with dries. The 9’ leader works well to get to the bottom of the water column when I’m fishing somewhere a bit deeper. If I’m using a tapered leader, I won’t use too much tippet when I’m nymph fishing, but I will use a little. Too much line under the water leaders to flies getting easily tangled.
For streamers, I stick with a 7’ 2x or 3x leader. The weight of my fly pulls my floating line under the water a bit, so I don’t feel the need to use a leader that’s over 7 feet. Plus, I feel like the shorter leader gives me a chance to give a strong strip set.
I generally stick with 12 to 16 inches of 4x or 5x tippet whenever I choose to use it. I attach it to my leader with a surgeon’s knot. The surgeon’s knot is strong and I find that the knot doesn’t stick out too much or get too weak over time. These knots can take a bit of time to learn how to do, but once you have learned, you’ll find yourself using it in a variety of different situations.
My cutthroat trout fly choices generally fluctuates between Pheasant Tail Nymphs, Chubby Chernobyl’s, Caddis and Woolly Buggers. These are versatile and work in a variety of situations. However, I also make sure to visit local fly shops before I start fishing. I like to learn what local patterns are working well for cutthroat trout! You cannot beat local knowledge.
Additional Gear is Great to Have When Fishing for Cutthroat Trout
Besides the normal fishing gear that you need, there are a few accessories that you need when fly fishing for cutthroat trout!
Split shot are always necessary when you’re fly fishing. If you’re fishing fast moving water for fish that are sitting deep, a split short or two is going to give you the added weight that you need. It’ll drop quickly in the water column and get the fly in the strike zone!
When you land the cutthroat, you’ll need to remove the hook with forceps. You don’t want to have to use your fingers to get the hooks out of the mouths of these fish. They have delicate mouths and the more you put your hands on them, the more protective slime you’re going to wipe off of them.
Also, forceps can be nice to crush your barbs!
Where to Find Cutthroat Trout
Sadly, Cutthroat trout populations are fairly volatile. Each year, the populations fluctuate, so it can be fairly hit or miss. However, western states like Wyoming, Idaho and Montana have good cutthroat populations thanks to major efforts from local anglers and state programs.
If you want sea-run cutthroat, Washington and Oregon each get runs throughout the year. Catching a sea-run cutthroat is a bucket list item for many anglers!
When you’re fishing in moving water, cutthroat trout are going to hide in fairly traditional areas. While they are an aggressive fish, they don’t like to be too vulnerable if they don’t have to be. There are a few places you can guarantee cutthroat are always going to be in moving water!
Cut banks will always hold fish. Whenever I see one, I immediately get excited. I know the main challenge is going to be getting my fly far enough under the bank, but once I do, I know that I’m going to catch a fish.
Cut banks are often found in areas with dirt and rocky banks. The water will erode the dirt and rock further and further until there’s a ledge overhanging the river. This ledge goes further back than you would think and fish find it to be the perfect place to hide. You want your fly as far back as possible, so the cutthroat sees it as an easy meal.
Eddies, like cut banks, always hold fish. Eddies can be a little difficult to fish because the depth is often a challenge to determine, but once you can find that ideal point in the water column, you’ll catch fish after fish.
Eddies are another name for a bend in the stream or river. These bends in the river are deep and they trap food. Plus, the water is also fairly slow moving, so fish don’t have to exert too much energy when they sit in them.
You want to make sure you start your fly above the eddy, and let it drift along throughout it. Fish know that bait gets trapped in eddies, so a dead drifted fly will definitely capture their attention.
For most anglers, pocket water is some of the most intimidating water to fish. Pocket water are those portions of the rivers and streams that have fast moving water with large boulders that break up the flows. If you take a look downstream of the boulders, you’ll see a few foot sections of slack water.
Fish always sit in these areas. The fast moving water is constantly washing food down, but it can be hard for fish to sit in the fast current and feed. As a result, they find these boulders to sit behind and dart in and out of the current when they find something that they want.
Cast your fly upstream of these pockets and let them drift right behind the boulders. Your fly will get sucked down and likely hit the fish in the face! They’ll slurp it up and it’s time to fight.
Pools are another common area for fish to hide. Pools are the portions of the rivers and streams that widen out and get extremely deep. The water moves at a much slower rate in these portions of the river. Fish will sit at the beginning and ends of these pools waiting for food to slowly make their way into them.
You can fish streamers, dries and nymphs in pools! Make sure you work every part of the pool. If you only fish the front end of it, you’ll miss out on the fish that are sitting near the middle or back. It takes many casts to fully work a pool, but if you have the patience to do it, you’ll take more than one fish out of it.
The shallow portions of the river that have riffles are another place fish sit. They can sun themselves and the current is usually light enough for them to cruise around and pick out any insects that are drifting downstream. Fishing a riffle before or after a pool is ideal!
Downed trees trap all sorts of other debris. They slow down the current, so fish have a good chance to rest and wait for any food that makes its way towards these laydowns in hopes of finding protection.
Fishing for cutthroat trout in lakes is always fun! They like to sit deep and around plenty of cover. In the mornings and evenings, they’ll leave their cover and go out to feed, but won’t ever be far from safety.
Structure is the most important thing you can find when fishing for cutthroat trout in lakes. Rocks and trees are the two main bits of structure that you’ll find in lakes! These are found near shore, near drop offs and low points in the water! If you can identify them, you can guarantee that fish are hiding near them.
Drop-offs will hold fish no matter where in the world you’re fishing. If you find that original down slope, fish will be sitting there waiting for anything in the shallows to get too close. They’ll hold closely to the rocks or trees that are slowly falling towards the bottom of the water column.
If you get the opportunity to fish for cutthroat trout in the bays, you want to make sure you’re fishing downwind. The fish are going to move downwind with all of the rest of the bait. They follow the food, so make sure you do as well.
Fishing saltwater for sea-run cutthroat is a blast! When the cutthroat is on the move to return back to their spawning grounds, make sure you’re fishing for them in sounds and near the mouths of rivers. Gravel bottoms and slack water are perfect! If the cutthroat is taking a break from their journey or just looking for something to eat, stick with the gravel bottoms and slack water areas.
When is the Best Time to Fly Fish for Cutthroat Trout
Cutthroat trout can be caught all times of year and day. There are, however, specific times of day and year that work better than others!
Fish Spring and Summer and Fall
Cutthroat trout spawn somewhere between February and June depending on the location! They need water right around 50 degrees to begin their spawn, so make sure you carry a thermometer with you in the spring to see when they begin their spawn.
Throughout the year, they are going to be most active in water that’s less than 65 degrees! If you find a river, lake or stream where this is the case, you’ll have success. If you find water that is over this, it’s best to avoid targeting them. They can easily overheat.
May through October is generally the best time of year to fish for them! The winter causes cutthroat trout to slow down and not feed as actively as they do during the warmer months.
Guide Pro Tip: Always check the regulations, but sometimes the best cutthroat fly fishing is around the spawning season. Check out this article 👉 When Do Cutthroat Spawn
Fish Mornings and Evenings
In the morning right around sunrise, cutthroat trout are going to be feeding. As soon as the sun starts rising, the hatches begin and they’re eager to eat! By the time mid-morning hits, they will digest their food and sun themselves. Then, they’ll head to the cooler water and wait out the warmest parts of the day.
In the evening a few hours before sunset, the feeding begins again. Hatches will be in full swing and the fish are eager to eat. Cutthroat trout will continue to feed all the way up until dark. At dark, the big cutthroat come out to play!
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Different Fly Fishing Techniques for Catching Cutthroat Trout
Depending on the method you choose, there are different techniques that work for catching cutthroat trout.
When fishing with dry flies, make sure you do it during or near a hatch. Hatches occur during the mornings and the evenings. Use a 3x or 4x 9’ tapered leader with 16 inches of 4x or 5x tippet! Dry fly fishing doesn’t have to be too complicated! When you see a rise, cast near it and wait for the fish to strike. If it doesn’t strike within the first 15 seconds, strip in and try again.
For streamer fishing, use a 7’ 2x or 3x leader. Find a pool or deep section of water to throw your streamer. You can either swing or dead drift it depending on what the fish want. To swing your streamer, cast your fly at a 45-degree angle upstream, let it drift in front of you and wait until it drifts downstream and starts moving back towards you. This is when the fish will hit!
To dead drift, cast upstream at that 45-degree angle and let the fly drift across your face. Make sure you mend your line to ensure the fly is leading the charge.
Use a 9’ 4x leader with 12 inches of 4x tippet for nymphing. To nymph, you don’t need to make more than 20-foot casts. Cast your fly upstream and let it start drifting towards you. As it drifts towards you, strip in any excess line and raise your rod tip. This will get your nymph deep in the water column. The strike zone is around 10 feet in front of you to 5 feet below you.
If you don’t get a hit in this section, feel free to strip in and try again!
5 Tips for Catching Cutthroat Trout with a Fly
- Be accurate- Cutthroat trout demand high quality casts and presentation! Make sure you’re focused on making accurate casts.
- Fish Small and Slow- If you aren’t getting a lot of action, slow down and use smaller flies. This will help!
- Time of day matters- If you spend all of your time fishing midday, you won’t catch as many fish. Make sure you’re on the water in the mornings and evenings when they’re feeding.
- Find Cold Water- Bringing a thermometer is going to give you a chance to see what sections of the lakes and rivers are colder than others. The colder the water, the more comfortable the fish will be to go after fly.
- Match their aggression- Cutthroat are aggressive fish, so if you’re fishing streamers, match that! Give your flies some extra movement and twitches.
Fighting, Netting and Handling Cutthroat Trout
Cutthroat trout are aggressive! Compared to the rest of the trout species, cutthroat are high on the list in terms of aggression! As a result, it can be a challenge for anglers to handle them with care.
You don’t want to fight the fish until it has nothing left! Obviously, the goal is to land the fish, but don’t let the fight drag out too long, especially if it’s a smaller 10–15-inch fish. Your fly rod has plenty of power to bring the fish in a realistic time. It’ll go on its runs, but do your best to bring it in as quickly as possible! These fights are extremely exhausting for the fish.
When netting fish, the old adage “scoop not slap” applies to cutthroat trout as well! When the fish is being brought in, scoop under it so you can easily pick it up and out of the water. For your net, make sure it has rubber webbing. This rubber webbing is going to help keep the protective slime on the cutthroat! Nylon nets can rub it off.
Before you ever handle a trout, make sure you’re wetting your hand. Wetting your hand will keep the necessary coat of slime on the fish. Also, when you’re getting ready to release it, make sure you don’t just toss it into the current and hope it survives. Hold it loosely in your hand, and let the water run through its goals to help it recharge.
Once it has recharged, it’ll release itself. Let it go when you start to feel it “kick” away from you.
Last Cast for Cutthroat Trout
Cutthroat trout are a piece of history that we still have a chance to enjoy. They’re a beautiful fish that give every fly angler a run for their money! Plus, you’re going to find them in some of the most beautiful places in the country. Make sure to take a look at the best flies for cutthroat trout as well as the article about the biggest cutthroat trout ever caught!
Looking to Learn the Tips and Techniques for the Fish You Love to Chase? I’ve Got You Hooked Up Below
- I love chasing brown trout, big lake run monsters, night time trophies and memories of big boys that got away. Read 👉 The Complete Guide to Fly Fishing for Brown Trout
- The Complete Guide to Fly Fishing for Rainbow Trout 👈 Steps through the gear, flies and setup for casting flies rainbow trout.
- I’m not sure if any fish is more beautiful than a brook trout. Learn how to find and fish for these beauties 👉 How To Fly Fish for Brook Trout
- The perfect evening for me is floating in a canoe on a tiny lake at that “Magic Hour” around sunset and casting to Bluegills. Read 👉 How To Fly Fish for Bluegill
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