Miracle Fish

By ROB BREEDING for the Flathead Beacon

I caught a trout the other day. Then another, almost.

That second fish exploded out of the water, holding itself above the Flathead River by the fury of its beating tail. The fish succumbed to gravity, then reappeared a few feet upstream, repeating the dance.

This time the tactic worked and the line fell limp. I had been fishing a nymph with a couple split shot pinched to the leader to keep the fly on the bottom. That seemed the most likely place for a trout to hang out on a bright July morning. The extra weight had done its task in delivering the fly to the desired depth, but then worked against me when the fish took to the air with head shaking fury, helping to pop the fly free.

I was fishing a run less than 20 feet downstream of the boat ramp at Kokanee Bend. We’d just finished a fairly unproductive float from Teakettle, and I was getting a little casting in while my buddy handled the shuttle. My first hookup was a nicely colored fish, still sporting the orange belly I usually associate with prespawn cutthroat. That fish fought as cutthroats usually do, bulldogging out into the current for a couple of runs, then tuckering out enough so that I could net it in the shallows where I unhooked and released the 16-inch fish without lifting it from the water.

I picked up the second fish in the same spot a few casts later. I assumed that fish was a cutthroat as well, as in those brief moments the fish took to the air it appeared darkly colored, just like the one I’d brought to the net.

Cutthorat trout by Curtis FryBut that was the last trout I caught. If there was a pod of fish there, they’d either moved on or developed a serious case of lockjaw.

When I got to work that afternoon I shared the story with a buddy who seemed certain, based on my description of the airborne fish, that the cutt was instead a rainbow. It’s true that rainbows are known more than any other trout for leaping clear of the water when hooked. It’s also true that cutts rarely put on such displays. That’s one of the reasons early settlers to the interior west were so eager to bring their favorite fish along. They released rainbows on top of native cutthroat populations at least in part because they missed the showy theatrics.

I’ve learned over the years that as soon as you try to categorize behavior as the province of one species and not another, the excluded species will let you know you don’t know as much as you think you do. I’ve heard the same thing said about brown trout not being leapers. I bought that one up until I had a 20-inch brown leap clear over my head while I was fishing in a lake out of a float tube years ago.

The only rule about wildlife behavior is unpredictability. That goes double for cutthroats in the Flathead River. I know dudes who have spent decades trying to figure out these fish, which seemingly appear out of the blue as did that brace of cutts did that day at Kokanee Bend.

You can’t predict cutthroats in the Flathead the way you can in other rivers. There are floats on the Bitterroot I know well enough that I can name a dozen or so spots where — during the prime fishing weeks of early summer at least — you can count on strikes from feeding fish. Heck, we practically name some of those cutts the fish are so predictable.

On the Flathead guides tell of miraculous cutthroats that appear at random, in spots no serious fly fisher would take, well, seriously. I used to act as surprised as my clients when these fish would appear.

I soon learned clients don’t want their guides to be totally honest. So I started playing along as if I’d expected it. Who could blame the sports? They wanted to go home with tales of the cagey guide who knew all the best holes.