Thursday, November 10, 2016

Cutts to the Core (or gill rakers, I guess)

Montana has two magnificent subspecies of cutthroat trout: Westslope and Yellowstone. Which would you rather have in the net?

Click here to learn more about where these were caught. 
The subtle differences:
  • They are very difficult to tell apart based on appearance (without counting gill rakers*). I've found a fair number of mountain lakes where you'll find both, and there's no real way to know which is which. But if you insist on trying, Yellowstones tend be a bit more bronze, while westslopes are more often chrome-ish, and tend toward pink-ish purple bellies. But to be clear, either can have any of these characteristics (other than the gill rakers thing). 
  • Yellowstones are likely the most storied of all subspecies of cutthroats. They are much easier to find information about than westslopes. 
  • Westslope cutts own the largest native range of all the cutthroats, stretching from the Gallatin Crest south of Bozeman well into Oregon and British Columbia. The range of Yellowstone cutts is only the Yellowstone River drainage (unless you count those screwy "Yellowstone" cutts native to the South Fork of the Snake River - don't get me started...**)
  • Yellowstone cutts are known to have a faster growth rate than westslopes. Which makes trophy Yellowstones more common, but trophy westslopes more prized. A true trophy Yellowstone cutt, in my opinion, is 25 inches or more and are almost exclusively found in and around Yellowstone Lake. A trophy westslope, however, could be a fat 20 incher. 
But really, why have a preference? Each one is a privilege, inspires awe and is a reminder why we do what we do. 

*Yellowstone cutts native to Yellowstone Lake have 20 to 22 gill rakers on their anterior sides, while Westslopes only have 18 or 19 (whatever that means). But you weird-ass gill raker counters probably already knew that.
**You got me started. Apparently, Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout are genetically identical to Yellowstone cutts, but the cutts in the South Fork of the Snake River (which is actually the mainstem of the Snake River, not a headwater tributary or anything) have bolder spots than other Snake River fine-spotted cutts - spots more like Yellowstones. And since they are genetically identical, they just call them native Yellowstone cutthroat. In the Snake River. And Henry's Fork of the Snake River. And elsewhere in the Snake River drainage...
Not only that, but Clearwater and Salmon Rivers in the Snake drainage, randomly have native westslopes. Those rivers should either hold Yellowstones (due to the above anomaly) or Snake River cutts. It's not a perfect system.