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What is a Cutthroat Trout?

Todd M.
Todd M.

Cutthroat trout is a species of trout that is native to various cold waterways of western North America. The scientific name for the species, Oncorhynchus clarkii, is a reference to Captain William Clark of famous Lewis and Clark expedition. Nearly all subspecies of cutthroat trout are freshwater trout with the exception of the subspecies O. c. clarkii that migrates to the Pacific Ocean. The strong fight that the cutthroat trout puts up when hooked makes it a popular gamefish for anglers.

Proper identification of these types of fish can be difficult because of the different colorations and sizes amongst the 14 different cutthroat trout subspecies. Cutthroats received their common name from the bright red and orange streak that can be found directly below the jaw of most subspecies. The backs of these fish are covered in black or brown spots that are arranged in an increasingly dense pattern towards the fish's back. Cutthrout trout can be found with colorations ranging from olive and silver to yellow-green.


The size of a cutthroat trout is determined by its habitat. Different subspecies of these fish can be found in various cold water habitats in western North America and are particularly abundant in the Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin. Cutthroat trout that make their home in small bodies of water like bogs and ponds are typically from 6 to 16 inches (about 15 to 40 centimeters) long. Cutthroats that are native to large mountain lakes can reach a length of 24 inches (about 60 centimeters) or more.

Cutthroat trout do not jump out of the water when they are being reeled in, but this aggressive fish is famous for putting up a particularly strong fight as a gamefish. These fish can be caught using the same angling methods that are used for most North American trout. Light tackle is appropriate when fishing for all but the largest cutthroat trout. Cutthroats prefer to feed on flies and small insects, which makes them a popular target for fly fishermen. They will also strike spinners, spoons and baited hooks.

This species of trout is more sensitive to changing water conditions and harvesting than most other types of trout, and some subspecies have become endangered due to overfishing and pollution. There are three cutthroat trout subspecies that are listed as being threatened with extinction, as well as two subspecies that have become extinct. The threatened subspecies of cutthroat trout include O. c. henshawi, O. c. seleniris and O. c. stomias.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Cutthroat Trout?

The Cutthroat Trout is a North American freshwater fish of the salmon family, named for the distinctive red or orange cutthroat mark beneath its lower jaw. It thrives in cold, clear, well-oxygenated streams and lakes, exhibiting various life history strategies, such as anadromous or strictly freshwater residency.

Why is it called a Cutthroat Trout?

It's called a Cutthroat Trout due to the vivid red or orange streaks on the underside of its lower jaw, resembling a slashed throat. This marking is particularly prominent in males during the spawning season and serves as a distinguishing feature from other trout species.

Where can Cutthroat Trout be found?

Cutthroat Trout are native to the western United States, including the Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin, as well as the Pacific Northwest and parts of Canada. They inhabit a range of aquatic environments from coastal streams to alpine lakes, with some populations even adapting to saltwater for parts of their life cycle.

What do Cutthroat Trout eat?

Cutthroat Trout have a diverse diet that changes with age and habitat. Juveniles typically feed on small invertebrates, while adults prey on larger insects, crustaceans, and small fish. In larger rivers and lakes, they may also consume zooplankton and leeches, demonstrating their adaptability as opportunistic feeders.

Are Cutthroat Trout endangered?

Some subspecies of Cutthroat Trout are considered threatened or endangered due to habitat loss, overfishing, and competition with non-native species. Conservation efforts are in place to protect and restore their populations, with a focus on habitat restoration and the management of water quality and flow.

How can I identify a Cutthroat Trout?

To identify a Cutthroat Trout, look for the characteristic red or orange slash under the jaw, along with body coloration that can range from yellow to greenish-gray, with a pattern of spots across their back and fins. The number and size of spots can vary among subspecies, which can also be a clue to their identification.

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