SHADY COVE — While fly-fishing the steelhead riffles of the upper Rogue River during the late 1980s, Dave Roberts occasionally caught a fish so dramatic and remarkable that it brought him both joy and lament.
The aggressive bite, rousing fight and its bold black blotches and stunning pink and purple hues jumped out as much as the bright orange slashes that give the cutthroat trout its name.
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Salmo clarki — after Capt. William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Its common name comes from the tell-tale orange or red slashes beneath the lower jaw.
SIZE: Can grow to about 30 inches long and 17 pounds. Rogue River fish have been reported up to 8 pounds in recent years.
SPAWNING: In small tributaries from December through April, with adults usually surviving the spawn. They tend to spawn higher in Rogue River tributaries than other salmon or trout species Can cross-spawn with rainbow trout, producing a hybrid sometimes called a "cutt-bow."
VARIETIES: In the Rogue, some sea-run cutthroat are in lower river, but no sea-runs have been documented above what was once Gold Ray Dam. The middle and upper Rogue populations are "fluvial," meaning they spawn in main tributaries such as Elk and Evans creeks, then use the mainstem Rogue the way sea-runs use the ocean. Those above Lost Creek and Applegate lakes are called "adfluvial" because they use the lakes like sea-runs use the ocean. Some resident cutthroat live year-round in Rogue River tributaries.
ANGLING: Good fighters, often caught by summer steelhead anglers from July through December. Aggressively bite dark flies, worms, small pieces of roe and a variety of plug lures.
— Mark Freeman
Beautiful, yes. But so rare that those few moments cradling a cutthroat in the water before releasing it made 1980s upper Rogue anglers wonder whether that cutt would be their last.
"Twenty-five years ago, if you caught a cutthroat in the river, you'd think, wow," Roberts says. "And then you'd think, OK, I guess we still have a few of them around."
Then something happened on the way to the cutthroat's wake.
Cutthroat trout apparently have made an astounding rebound in the upper Rogue over the past two decades — to a point where not only are they commonly caught by summer steelhead anglers, they are being targeted by trout anglers.
"Now we're seeing tons of them," Roberts says. "Some days you'll catch a dozen fish. Sometimes 25, especially in the winter, when they're taking dries (surface flies)."
The cutthroat fishery, which was once on life support, is in full swing on the upper Rogue. Anglers are mixing steelhead and cutthroat fishing floats into combo drifts, with cutthroats sharing many of the same upper Rogue runs as their more famous cousins.
And cutthroat largely have steelhead to thank for their epic upper Rogue rebound.
Changes to angling rules two decades ago, coupled with recent removals of mainstem Rogue dams and the notching of Elk Creek Dam, appear to have reduced bottlenecks that kept cutthroat numbers down here.
While there is little data on upper Rogue cutthroats, what's there seems to show that cutthroat numbers here are up substantially.
"Certainly, we don't have a lot of data," says Jay Doino, a fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "It's not out of the question that those dam removals have helped cutthroat."
Upper Rogue cutthroat are an unusual trout species that live a different life cycle than their more famous Oregon brethren — sea-run cutthroat.
Like their name implies, sea-runs are born in freshwater and migrate to the ocean then return to spawn, much like steelhead do. Upper Rogue cutthroats are called "fluvials," meaning they use the mainstem Rogue like the ocean, and they use spawning tributaries the way sea-runs use coastal streams.
While in the river, they are very aggressive feeders and territorial, so they used to be easy pickings for anglers adding 15-inch cutthroats to their fish boxes without them counting against their two-fish steelhead limit.
In 1991, worries over a depressed run of wild summer steelhead in the upper Rogue triggered new catch-and-release rules that were written in a fashion that lumped the all-wild cutthroat trout population into the mix. That came on the heels of agency biologists closing several main upper Rogue tributaries to angling, where the aggressive cutts were quite vulnerable.
In 1992, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began trapping migrating salmon and steelhead below what was then half-built Elk Creek Dam and hauling them to upstream spawning habitat. Technicians also hauled what cutthroat they caught in the trap.
That first winter, only nine cutthroat were trapped. Three years later, the numbers grew to 68, and by winter of 2001-02 crews were capturing and hauling triple-digit numbers of cutthroat to spawning grounds.
"We were seeing a pretty clear trend," Doino says. "The numbers were going up in Elk Creek. Does that mean the same for the rest of the tributaries on the upper Rogue? We don't know, but that's my guess."
Fish-haulers weren't the only ones seeing an increase in cutthroat numbers.
"We started really noticing that there were more cutts out there 10 or 15 years ago," says Roberts, an Eagle Point fly-tyer and guide. "We started thinking, hey, maybe we can start targeting these things."
Roberts began tying steelhead stalwart patterns such as Royal Coachmans and Red Ants, but in smaller sizes, with No. 8 or No. 10 hooks.
He started swinging these flies in the slightly slower water near where steelhead would typically lie or in 3-foot-deep glides under the shadows of Rogue-side trees. And trips where cutthroats became the target instead of the accident began taking place.
The years 2008 to 2010 were big ones for upper Rogue migratory fish. The removal of Savage Rapids and Gold Ray dams from the Rogue and the notching of Elk Creek Dam turned migration bottlenecks into freeways.
"Maybe now we're seeing the benefits of those removals," Doino says.
Roberts certainly thinks so.
For the past five years, Roberts has kept cutthroat catch logs and has studied their progress.
The age structure of upper Rogue cutthroats is diverse, which is evident from their sizes. Anglers catch 6-, 12-, 15- and 20-plus inch fish now with regularity.
"Over the past four years, I've caught 41 cutts over 24 inches," Roberts says.
"I think we'll see them getting better and better," he says.
Doino considers the upper Rogue cutthroat to be one of those unproven success stories documented more by day-to-day anglers than biologists skimming Excel sheets of data — which simply doesn't exist.
"It's good to hear people are catching lots of cutthroats," says Doino, a fly-fisher himself when off the clock. "Anecdotal evidence is important.
"I plan to collect some anecdotal evidence myself," he says.