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Ben Swigle
"Swigs" - Guest Blogger

History, High Mountains, and Cutthroats!

Guest Blog by: Ben Swigle 6/28/2013

I’ve been getting a great deal of correspondence regarding what is a true greenback trout.  In addition many folks appear to be gearing up for some fishing in the higher elevations.  I responded to several emails on this topic over the past few weeks so I thought I would share some perspective.

Fisheries management in Colorado’s high mountain streams and lakes began about 1860, 16 years before Colorado became the 38th state.  Early fish management in the high country generally focused on the production of self sustaining, easily harvested populations of sport fish.  In the minds of our ancestors, stocking brook trout filled this void.  Brook trout, native to northeastern North America, were intentionally introduced into Colorado waters in 1872 by a gentleman who imported and hatched 10,000 brook trout eggs from Wisconsin at a rudimentary facility 10 miles south of Denver.  Following the completion of the intercontinental railroad, rainbow trout rainbow, now the most abundantly stocked trout in Colorado, were imported from California.  Early fish stocking was completed by carrying large milk cans filled with water and fish on the backs of horses and early settlers.  The philosophy of early fish managers was simply to stock as many waters as possible and determine at a later time what worked or “stuck”, so to speak. 

Mentality slowly began to change in the 1970’s as a movement toward species conservation and production of specific trophy trout fisheries gained momentum.  Although natural reproduction continues to sustain a fair number of brook trout fisheries, stocking of this species essentially ceased in 1977.  From 1978 through 1996, most high mountain lakes in NE Colorado were almost exclusively stocked with Pike’s Peak Cutthroat Trout, a fast growing sub-species of trout that closely resembled the greenback cutthroat trout.  Greenback cutthroat trout, Colorado’s state fish, was considered extinct by the 1930’s, however a small number of populations were found in NE Colorado in the 1950’s. 

With so few individuals available to propagate other waters, the Pike’s Peak cutthroat trout we’re favored over the greenbacks.   Finally in 1999 hatchery production allowed Colorado Park’s and Wildlife to exclusively stock what was thought to be pure-strain greenback cutthroat trout on the east slope.  Despite being a physical match to early 1900’s museum specimens of greenback cutthroat, advances in genetic technology revealed that the greenbacks were a genetic mix of greenback and Colorado River cutthroat trout; east meets west slope so to speak.  Historians began digging deeper and what had been occurring at a much higher rate than thought was the transfer of Colorado River cutthroat to the west slope by early settlers.

With the average angler not exactly concerned with state of the art genetic findings, many high mountain lakes and streams on the East slope of Colorado contain cutthroat trout which are nearly a 100% visual match to what a greenback looks like. Despite looking like a chicken, tasting like a chicken, and “baaaking” like a chicken, so to speak the search for a genetically pure population of greenbacks did not end once the convoluted genetic findings were revealed.

A single population of greenback cutthroat trout that genetically matched the museum samples was recently located near Colorado Springs (Bear Creek, no fishing allowed).  The story will continue to unravel as biologists determine what the next step will be regarding the Bear Creek fish but where does that leave the anger who simply wants to catch a native cutthroat trout (I intentionally left out greenback) in Colorado?  Fortunately if you live along the East slope of Colorado and plan to keep your genetic sampling kit separate from your tackle box, there are several locations to land a native cutthroat trout.  I recommend the following:

1) Rawah Wilderness, 2) Indian Peaks Wilderness, 3) Rocky Mountain National Park (managed by US Fish and Wildlife Service), and 4) State Forest State Park just to name a few.  

There are hundreds of additional waters with native cutts, I'm simply more familiar with the NE region of the state.  Use the CPW fishing atlas to located a cutthroat water near you:

The native cutthroats stocked in these waters are the offspring of wild cutthroat collected from the East Slope of Colorado.  I’ve had the chance to handle a number of these fish, what they may lack in genetic integrity is certainly not evident in their beauty. Go fish Colorado!

Ben Swigle is an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife stationed out of the Fort Collins office. Ben holds a BS in biology from the University of Notre Dame and a MS in fisheries science from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. After working 2 years as a fishery biologist with the USGS in Oregon, he joined Parks and Wildlife in 2005. Ben specifically manages lakes, reservoirs, and streams within the Big Thompson, St. Vrain, and Boulder Creek watersheds.
Native cutthroat from Skyscraper Lake (Indian Peaks).
Blog content © Ben Swigle
Blog Comments
NativeCuttie, 6/28/2013 3:23:16 PM
Awesome! I'm going to get into some next week in the Park.
opencage, 6/28/2013 4:43:50 PM
Yep, real pretty fish. The history is cool too. My Colorado fishing bucket list just seems to get longer the more I learn about all the great fishing opportunities this awesome state has to offer. Looking forward to going up to RMNP this summer, camping and chasing some native cutthroats. Thanks for the great write up Ben. Fun fishing!
JKaboom, 7/1/2013 8:30:50 AM
That was a ton of information in a short easy to understand BLOG. Thank you very much :)
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