The First Cutt Is The Deepest: Pursuing Rare Sierra Trout

The following appears in the October issue of California Sportsman:

The Sierra’s Lahontan cutthroats are ready strikers, put up a hard fight and are exceedingly beautiful. They can be targeted in a handful of fisheries around the Lake Tahoe area. (CAL KELLOGG)

By Cal Kellogg

It was my first visit to Prosser Reservoir. There seemed to be nobody around and the thick fog promoted a feeling of foreboding. The water temperature was in the middle 60s, while the air temperature hovered in the high 30s. This disparity caused the fog to form overnight.
I estimated the visibility to be about 25 feet and that may have been generous. I had no idea where I was. When I pedaled the kayak away from the launch ramp, the plan was to head for the dam, but a minute or two later, Lucy the Labrador and I were disoriented and lost.

I worked the pedals slowly and watched the screen of the sonar unit. One moment I was in 20 feet of water and next the bottom plunged away to 60-plus feet deep. Immediately, three arches appeared on the screen 30 feet down.

A couple minutes later, I had a copper death prism Trigger Spoon working off the downrigger approximately 25 feet below the kayak. Since I couldn’t see anything to aid in navigation, I fell into a pedaling rhythm and pushed the kayak forward at 2.5 mph and locked my eyes on the sonar unit’s screen.

For five minutes nothing happened, but then four good marks appeared on the screen – again at 30 feet. Were they trout? A beat later the downrigger rod started bouncing and the line released from the clip. Fish on!

I was hoping to catch Lahontan cutthroats, but the lake also holds rainbows, browns and a sleeper smallmouth population. I could tell from the quick runs and vicious headshakes it wasn’t a bass, but was it a cutthroat?

Seconds later as I slid the fish into the net, I got the answer. It was a sleek 16-inch Lahontan, gunmetal gray up top, silver-white down below with a salmon-colored midbody stripe and a smattering of black spots increasing in number as the body gave way to the tail.

I slid the battler back into the water, redeployed the spoon and blindly pedaled into the soupy fog. The report I’d gotten about solid cutthroat fishing at Prosser Reservoir near Truckee seemed to be true. Little did I know that I was about to enjoy a day of absolutely wide-open cutthroat action. I lost count of how many trout I ultimately landed, but it was close to 30!

Prosser Reservoir is jam-packed with dandy cutthroat trout like this 17-inch battler the author landed while trolling a Trigger Spoon near the dam on a late summer afternoon. (CAL KELLOGG)

I ADMIT IT, TRUE to my California roots, I grew up a rainbow trout junkie and remain one to this day as I explore the northern half of the state in search of the holy grail of rainbow fishing – a wild rainbow over 10 pounds. I’m not talking about a round-tailed planter, but a genuine squaretail that achieved its bulk gobbling bugs and baitfish rather than hatchery pellets. The closest I’ve come so far is a 7-pound, 10-ouncer from Almanor that fought like a steelhead and tasted like salmon.

Over the early years of my trout fishing career, I’d caught browns and brook trout in addition to rainbows, but I didn’t catch my first cutthroat until I visited the Yellowstone region two decades ago. I’d been curious about cutthroats ever since I read an account of a soldier who explored the Black Hills with George Custer. He related that the cutthroat trout were so thick in some Black Hills streams, the men actually caught them by hand!

My first cutthroat was a handsome 12-inch fish that had enthusiasticaly smacked a dry fly in a tributary of the Yellowstone River. Over the next week, I caught cutthroats in various waters from Wyoming to the Canadian border; they quickly became my second favorite trout species. I found them to be enthusiastic biters and strong determined fighters.

FOR A LONG WHILE, the closest cutthroats to my California home resided in Nevada’s Pyramid Lake. I’d occasionally make the pilgrimage to the big desert lake to scratch my cutthroat itch.

Then, probably 15 years ago, I got a press release from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife detailing the agency’s efforts to restore Lahontans to Lake Tahoe, Fallen Leaf Lake, the Truckee River and other waters in the species’ native range of the Sierra.

When the first settlers arrived in what is now California and Nevada, cutthroat trout were widespread in the lakes and streams of the Eastern Sierra Nevada and throughout the Great Basin. Overfishing, habitat destruction and the introduction of non-native species gradually destroyed the native cutthroat population.

When I read the CDFW press release, I knew the department was embarking on an uphill struggle and wondered if the program would be successful. A handful of years later while fishing for kokanee at Stampede Reservoir, I caught my first ever California cutthroat. The fish wasn’t big, but it confirmed the reintroduction of cutthroat trout to Northern California waters was gaining traction.

Since hooking my first Golden State cutthroat at Stampede, I’ve encountered them at Fallen Leaf Lake, the Truckee River and Jackson Meadows Reservoir. When my buddy Abdul told me about a recent trip he’d taken to Prosser Reservoir and the knew I had to give Prosser a try.

While Prosser Reservoir – located north of Truckee – is small by California standards, it is an exceptionally beautiful high-mountain impoundment. (CAL KELLOGG)

PRIOR TO MY PROSSER visit, Jackson Meadows was my go-to California cutthroat destination. I’m not going to say Prosser has eclipsed Jackson Meadows in that regard, but Prosser does offer the opportunity to experience epic cutthroat action.

I’m sure there are plenty of California trout anglers reading this who would love to get in on some cutthroat action here in the north, so I’ll give my impressions of both lakes. This way you can determine which one best matches up with your fishing style and expectations.

Like Prosser, Jackson Meadows is located near Truckee. Formed on the Middle Fork of the Yuba River, Jackson Meadows is the larger of the two, with 1.5 square miles of surface area and about 52,000-acre feet of water when at full capacity.

Jackson Meadows has a smaller cutthroat population than Prosser Reservoir, but Jackson’s fish grow larger. Cal Kellogg caught and released this 5-pound Lahontan on a trolling fly during a midsummer outing. (CAL KELLOGG)

From what I’ve seen, Jackson Meadows offers more variety in terms of its trout population. Rainbows to 3 pounds are the species I catch most frequently, but I also hook cutthroats and browns.

As an aside, a friend of mine showed me a photo of a 21-pound brown his daughter landed and released at Jackson Meadows. They hooked the monster while pulling a small spoon hoping for rainbows.

The cutthroats I’ve caught at Jackson are often large fish in the 20- to 29-inch range. I’ve always released these large cutts. During a typical kayak session at the lake, I usually catch one or two good-size Lahantons. For me, flies and large spoons trolled from 2 to 3 mph have been the most consistent producers of cutthroats at Jackson Meadows.

During Kellogg’s first outing to Prosser Reservoir, he kept two 17- to 18-inch cutthroats for the table. As you can see, they produced beautiful orange filets. (CAL KELLOGG)

PROSSER CREEK RESERVOIR IS just over half the size of Jackson Meadows, with about 30,000-acre feet of water when at capacity. I’ve only fished Prosser four times, but I feel I’ve spent enough time there to draw some basic conclusions. While the reservoir holds browns, rainbows and cutthroats, the cutthroats seem to be the dominant trout species.

I’ve landed over 100 trout at Prosser and they have all been cutthroats. I’ve gotten a few 6- to 8-inch fish, but the average is 12 to 14. Cutthroats to 18 inches are common, but that seems to be close to the top end.

I’ve caught a dozen Lahontans at Prosser right at the 18-inch mark, but none bigger. Do larger models exist? Probably, but I don’t think you’ll encounter the 25- to 30-inch cutthroats you’ll find at Jackson Meadows.

In addition to the cutthroats I’ve caught at Prosser, I’ve landed a handful of robust smallmouth bass in the 1.5- to 2.5-pound class. I caught these fish while trolling and they put up a determined fight.

I’ve tried a variety of offerings at Prosser, but it seems to be a spoon lake. I have not been able to get the cutthroats to go on flies or soft plastics, but they’ve enthusiastically hit a variety of spoons trolled from 1.8 to 3 mph.

While I’ve never kept a cutthroat at Jackson Meadows, I have harvested a few at Prosser and found them to be very good-eating fish, thanks to their firm, mild-tasting pink flesh.

All too often trout fishing information is focused only on boaters. Outdoor writers often overlook the bank angling fraternity. I’m not going to do that here. While Jackson Meadows does offer decent bank angling access, I think a lot of the most productive water is best accessed by a boat or kayak. Prosser is just the opposite. It offers great access for shore anglers at several locations and if you are willing to hike a bit, you can fish virtually any area of the lake.

On my first trip to Prosser, I chatted with a couple bank anglers near the dam who scored limits tossing spoons. The cutthroats were deep, so the anglers made long casts and counted their spoons down before beginning the retrieve.

I imagine the bank fishing at Prosser is outstanding during the spring and fall months, when the water is cool and the trout are near the surface. I’m sure they are responsive to bait fishing tactics, but at this point they seem so willing to smack spoons, why soak bait?

I plan on taking my wife Gena to the lake this fall for a session of bank fishing. My plan is to roam the area around the dam while fan casting with a variety of spoons.

JACKSON MEADOWS AND PROSSER are good starting points for the aspiring NorCal cutthroat angler. If you really catch the cutthroat bug, Fallen Leaf Lake and the Truckee River are destinations you’ll want to visit too, but these spots are not as user-friendly as Jackson and Prosser. Access is tougher at Fallen Leaf. To really fish the lake effectively, you’ll need to work from some sort of watercraft.

The Truckee River is an exciting destination offering rainbows, jumbo browns and cutthroats. And the river offers easy roadside access. You’ll need to bone up on the regulations before wetting your line in the Truckee, since there are several areas that fall under gear restrictions. Wardens do patrol the river and they will write you a ticket if they find you soaking a nightcrawler on a baitholder in one of the artificial-lure- and barbless-hooks-only zones.

If you make it up to the Truckee area and you see a guy in a big Hobie kayak with a yellow Labrador on the back deck, it’ll likely be me harassing the local cutthroat population. I hope to see you out on the water or hiking the bank enjoying some exciting Golden State cutthroat action! CS