Finding Beauty in an Ugly Trout
I’ve been lucky enough to hook and land some big trout this year, and I usually give myself 30 seconds or so to take a couple photos of the recovering fish in shallow water.
During those moments — that trout is about to rocket away — the fish always looks gorgeous to me.
Later, when I’ve gotten home and download the photos, I sometimes notice that the trout is far from gorgeous. Big, wild trout from catch-and-release fisheries are often hooked and released several times in their lifetimes.
All of those encounters leave a mark on the trout. Sometimes it’s just a little scar in the mouth. Other times, the fish has lost parts of its mouth — or even part of the lower jaw.
I’m always shocked to see how much mouth a trout can lose — and still thrive and grow past 18 inches long.
I think all of us prefer to catch perfect, gorgeous trout — sleek, strong, brightly colored fish that show no mishandling from another angler. I get giddy when I see sharp-edged, white-tipped fins on a big rainbow trout — or a thick brown trout with lots of red spots and a perfect jaw with a few sharp teeth.
I’ve always been a little bummed when I see a big, old trout that is disfigured. Trout by nature are gorgeous animals that live — mostly — in gorgeous places. A trout with a damaged mouth always seemed a little diminished — as though it made a trip to a city park pond and got in trouble.
But I’m changing my mind about scarred trout.
First, it’s rarely the trout’s fault. Careless anglers leave barbs on their hooks — or just rip the hook out. It’s easy to take a chunk out of trout’s mouth when removing the hook, especially if the trout is small. Small trout have very delicate mouths.
I’ve always been careful when removing a barbless hook, but I recall a time or two when the fish suddenly shook its head when I had the hook in my forceps or Ketchum catch-and-release tool. That sudden shake increases the force on the hook, and it sometimes takes out a part of the trout’s mouth.
Lately, if the hook is small and it’s really wedged into the corner of the trout’s mouth — or deeply embedded in the tongue or other delicate area — I’ll just snip the tippet and leave the hook in the fish. I know the hook will soon rust out.
Still, some trout get caught a lot during their lives, especially in popular catch-and-release rivers. And odds are that some of then will grow into big, ugly fish.
A Small Window to Huge Cutts
This past fall, I spent an afternoon fishing tiny nymphs to very big Yellowstone cutthroat trout on the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park. The cutthroat population is rebounding on this amazing river — thanks to a lot of people who work very hard to get rid of the invasive lake trout in Yellowstone Lake.
It’s a delight to find 10-inch cutts in the Yellowstone River, as that means more tiny fish are growing to adulthood.
I don’t fish for the small cutts. I walk and peer into the water for the big ones.
You’ve got to do a little bit of searching to find big Yellowstone cutts in the Yellowstone River in September. The search is worth the effort, as many of the cutts in the river are huge.
When I say huge, I mean thick, beefy Yellowstone cutts that reach 24 inches long — or longer.
I suspect these huge fish will fade away as Yellowstone Lake once again fills up with millions of cutthroat trout. Back when I started fishing Yellowstone regularly — in the early 1980s — the lake and river were crammed with beautiful, wild cutts, but it was rare to catch one over 18 inches long.
The average fish was about 15 to 16 inches, which is a world-class fishery.
The river seethed with nice trout that rose to flies all summer long. Then lake trout illegally planted in Yellowstone Lake began ravaging young cutts. The Yellowstone cutthroat trout population crashed by the mid 2000s. Since then, thanks to a lot of continuing work to remove lake trout from Yellowstone Lake, the cutthroat population has rebounded.
That’s a great thing — and good news in a world that often lacks good news about wild things and wild places. Yellowstone cutts evolved in Yellowstone Lake and the Yellowstone River over thousands of years. They’re a beautiful, special trout.
Anyway, the cutts that survived lake trout attacks a few years ago had tons of food and little competition for it, so they got big.
We’re not yet at the point where the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park is again crammed with cutts, but we’re getting there.
In the meantime, there are those big survivors finning away in the deeper slots of the river.
Thirty Seconds with a Fish
It took a while, but I found a pod of mammoth cutts. Smaller fish rose to a nice hatch of size 22 Blue Wing Olive mayflies, but I could see larger fish flashing on nymphs in deeper water.
Yellowstone cutts have a reputation of being easy, but these fish are pretty picky after a long summer sparring with a lot of good fly anglers. You better have the right fly — and show it to them in the right way.
These big trout wanted little bugs that matched the mayfly nymphs — not dry flies.
After a few casts, a trout ate my tiny Zebra Midge, roared out of the deep slot and rocketed downstream to another deep slot. Big Yellowstone cutts know how to use the current, and all of them have been caught before.
After about 10 minutes, the biggest Yellowstone cutt of my life wallowed in the current about 20 feet downstream of me. Then it took off in another long, lunging run.
A few minutes — and some fast wading — later, the trout was at my feet. My fishing buddy, Jeff Bernstein, took some quick shots as I cradled the fish in the gently flowing water near the bank.
My two hands, opened as wide as possible and held pinky to pinky measures exactly 18 inches. This trout made my joined hands look small.
It was thick and strong, with olive-yellow sides, lots of black spots near the tail and red gill plates. It was perfect — except for the mouth, which was missing the jaw bone on one side. The fish looked like it was grinning — or grimacing.
But it was still magnificent.
This Yellowstone cutthroat trout survived years in one of the world’s biggest alpine lakes, It dodged many attacks from lake trout. It probably skittered away from a few diving osprey — and maybe grizzly bears prowling shallow spawning riffles. It fed heavily on the great insect populations in Yellowstone Lake and the Yellowstone River — and grew into an exceptional trout. It certainly helped spawn thousands and thousands of young cutts. This very fish is one of the reasons Yellowstone cutts are recovering.
And yeah, it had met a few anglers. A few healed hook scars were in its mouth. Clearly, most of those anglers treated it well, as it was still alive and thriving.
In my 30 seconds with this fish, I felt and saw part of its story. I could never learn all the details, but I knew it was a special trout. I kept it in the water as Jeff took quick photos. I forgot about the deformed jaw and saw the majesty and beauty of survival.
“This won’t happen again,” I told Jeff.
As each second passed, the fish grew more beautiful. Its fins were perfect, and it was healthy and strong, It would probably return to Yellowstone Lake for the winter — and perhaps spawn again in 2020.
I hoped so.
Then the fish swam away and blended into the bottom of the river.