Cutthroat Chronicles: UNSPOKEN

There is something about cutthroat trout.  They are the trout that won the West.  They have overcome near insurmountable odds to survive, and have persisted despite the extensive introduction of non-native species.  It is said that trout don’t live in ugly places and chasing cutts takes that statement to another level entirely.  It is not uncommon to find them at elevations well over 10,000 feet, and many times, there isn’t a trail leading the way to them.  While there are numerous places where cutthroats reside just a short walk from the truck, the destinations that are difficult, taxing, and off the beaten path intrigue me most.  There is something about searching for your next breath with your heart pounding and legs aching, that makes you feel alive – or severely out of shape. 

If you choose to involve yourself in this pursuit of typically small fish in hard to reach places, be aware:  it is likely that you will not be understood by your peers.  While some will be intrigued, your interest will only strike a chord with those who share in the same passion.  Few anglers will take the time to search, explore, and research enough to find something truly monumental.  When I look at a map, I am drawn to the blue ribbons that carve their way through the high country.  Those winding blue lines hold possibilities.  Possibilities that can only be unlocked at a cost.  The value of any object is determined by what people would pay for it.  The same can be said of cutthroats.  I have paid in bodily injury, lost sleep, late nights, early mornings, countless hours of study, immeasurable time at the tying vise, and in many other forms of cutthroat currency.  The biggest cost; however, is that once you have partaken in an experience that is truly legendary, it will ruin the rest of your life.  It will ruin you for anything less. 


The costs are high, but the reward is beyond comparison.  I find it incredibly ironic that the Rio Grande Cutthroat was discovered by Spanish explorer Francisco de Coronado during his search for the mythical city of gold.  Thankfully, my personal experience has proven slightly different than Coronado’s quest, as the ethereal treasure that I seek can actually be found, and its beauty is indeed beyond compare.  While Coronado never found his golden city, he did document the first trout found in North America – the Rio Grande Cutthroat of the Pecos River basin. 

Some say the definition of insanity is: “doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.” If the quote is indeed true, then I believe that I have fully embraced cutthroat insanity.  I dream of visiting the same creeks each year and I expect completely different results each trip.  The uniqueness of each fish, the ever changing nature of the forest, and the simple reality that water itself never remains the same, continually draws me to journey into the mountains.  I go expecting to extract difference from sameness each year.  Where is this difference found?  It is found as I push just a little harder, and hike just a little longer, in an effort to breech the boundaries of years passed.  The difference I seek occurs within my own soul, as no one can walk into the unknown and re-emerge unchanged.

The journey alone is its own reward, and any cutthroats caught are merely an added blessing.  Standing atop the world, surrounded by steeples of stone, I find myself in the midst of nature’s great cathedral.  It is here that fears vanish and cares dissipate. I am baptized anew in the grandeur of moments such as these, and glory in wonder of my Maker.  I am made painfully aware of my own insignificance, while simultaneously acknowledging my importance.  Such realizations restore a healthy perspective of the Almighty and allow peace to settle in the depths of one’s soul.  The statement:  “time stands still for no one,” has been rendered a fallacy on many a mountain stream.  Time itself is simply the seamless connection of still frame memories.  Portraits of life that when joined, create a story well worth telling!


Each year, at journey’s end my emotions are the same.  The drive home is long and somewhat melancholy.  It’s as though I have left a piece of myself behind.   An expedition of this sort costs me more than sleep, time, and thought.  It costs me a piece of my soul.  I leave a trace of it, hidden behind curtains of aspen and buried beneath shimmering headwaters.  It is this piece of myself that I am reunited with, sometimes only a precious few days each year – but oh, how sweet the reunion!  While, the hugs of family and the comforts of home are just beyond the horizon, there is still an ever present draw within me to return from whence I came.  However, this is not the moment of response.  This is the beginning of another chapter!  For it is this innate longing that drives me to prepare for yet another journey.  If I listen closely I can still hear it, the faint cry of something familiar, yet far off, echoing through every fiber of my being:  “Go West young man!”

Weeks give way to months, seasons pass, and time brings its myriad of change.  However, each year my internal compass again points toward cutthroat country.  As I drive familiar roads that lead to sacred places, I immerse myself in a flood of remembrance.  Memories as fresh as the day they occurred.  I remember the rocks underfoot, the wind blowing through seemingly endless aspens, the kaleidoscope of wildflowers, the smell of spruce, and the sound of water tumbling its way down to the valley floor.  I remember the hue of blue that the sky was clothed in, the bird calls echoing at timberline, and the way time stood still as I stood atop the world.  I recall every labored breath, every aching step, every hardship, and every victory.  I can feel that little fly rod bowing to each fish in protest, the stinging cold water numbing my hands, and the colors that adorned every cutthroat.  I can remember the feeling of each fish slipping from my trembling hands only to vanish in plain sight.  Every smile, every drop of sweat, every fly tied, and every tear cried – I still remember.  I remember it all.


In light of all that has been said, my hope is that you find your own treasure.  A place beautiful beyond description, and hidden from the unworthy.   A place that is most traveled in your daydreams and cherished in your thoughts.  A place teeming with inherent awe and wonder.  A place that for all practical purposes, and the overall inadequacy of words themselves, is better left…UNSPOKEN.

Tight Lines,
Chris Johnson
Living Waters Fly Fishing