Tom Ross

Tom Ross

Tom Ross: Peek-a-boo cutthroats, I see you

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

— Rumors of winter’s demise proved unfounded Sunday with brisk winds and freezing temperatures pummeling the high country above 9,000 feet.

We launched a little off-trail bushwhacking expedition in spite of the weather forecast that called for high temperatures in the valley to remain in the low 60s and got more than we bargained for.

At 10:30 a.m. in the Park Range, the temperature still was 31 degrees. There are more snow banks persisting on north-facing slopes than one would guess from the vantage point of the valley floor. And on Sunday, those snow banks were frozen so hard that they were dangerous on anything above a 10-degree slope. I only fell down twice.

More surprising was the fresh coat of breakable ice on the boggy areas. So not only did our feet get wet, but the mud was icy cold.

Frigid weather or not, the rituals of early summer also were in evidence; brilliantly colored cutthroat trout were slipping up tiny creeks barely 18 inches wide in their annual spawning run. The golden brown of the trout and the irregular spots on their backs would make them perfectly camouflaged in the sun-dappled creeks were it not for their hot pink pectoral fins.

The Colorado River cutthroat deserves respect as Colorado’s only native trout. Last year in June, we watched large cutthroat doing their best imitation of spawning Alaska salmon in Little Trappers Creek, where they struggled to leap up a 4-foot waterfall.

The range of the Colorado River cutthroat is relatively small; the fish, which are believed to be a variant of Yellowstone cutthroats, have stuck primarily to the high mountains of Colorado, Wyoming, eastern Idaho, Utah and the northwest corner of New Mexico.

In the late 1800s, they lived in the big rivers of the region and might grow to 5 or 6 pounds. But the cutthroats cease to thrive where European species of trout like rainbows and brown trout are introduced.

Sunday’s trout had no need to match the athletic feats of salmon. The creeks in the high country are already quieting down, and the 14-inch cutthroat that were the biggest we encountered were cooling their jets in little runs where they could dart under a small log anytime an unexplained shadow fell cross their lie.

I can’t say for certain if they spawn successfully in the smallest of creeks, but it was easy to see from their varying sizes that several age classes were present in the nearby lakes.

I can’t even swear that these were Colorado cutthroats — the appearance of the fish varies across their range.

But I can say that watching a cutthroat trout from close up in clear water with their two crimson gill plates standing out against the gravel is just as good as good as catching them on a fly rod.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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