State of Alberta’s Trout: Cutthroat Trout Pt. III

State of Alberta’s Trout: Cutthroat Trout Pt. III

What Can You Do As An Angler?

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Part 3 of this series examining the status of Westslope Cutthroat Trout in Alberta. In part one, I introduced the Cutthroat Trout and talked about one of the key factors to consider when talking cutthroat trout conservation— hybridization with rainbow trout. In part two, I did a deep dive into the threats facing cutthroat trout, as well as looked at some of the management strategies that are currently being used in the province. If you missed them, check out the links above.

That brings us to part 3, the most important post of all. In this post, I am going to discuss the role of anglers, and outline a framework to ensure you do your part. Since these steams are some of the most popular in the province, the choices we make as an angling community are very important and could have serious implications on the conservation of this species moving forward. This post will touch on many things that we talk about often here at bushwhackers, including proper catch and release, pinching your barbs, following regulations, ecetera. All those things should be considered the absolute minimum- the baseline for anglers to adhere to at all times. Most readers should already be very familiar with these things, and I won’t go into detail about them, as I know most people who support my work are experienced anglers and avid conservationists. No, the more important theme of this post revolves around ethics— doing the right thing, even when no one is watching. I will discuss some of the ethical dilemmas we may be confronted with during our pursuit of cutthroat trout and talk about what I believe the ethical solution would be. At the very least, I would like this post to spark some questions in readers and get them thinking about what conservation for the greater good looks like.

Earlier this year, I made a post that explored a similar theme, Fly Fishing Ethics: Is Catch and Release Cruel? If you missed it, check it out by clicking the link. That post also discussed the ethics of fly fishing, however, the major theme of that post revolved around whether catch and release was cruel to fish, whether harvesting might actually be more ethical, and more generally, the selfishness of fly-fishing. This post however is less about the fish and more about the angler. I will talk about sacrifices, as I believe each and every one of us will have to make sacrifices if we want to continue to have excellent cutthroat trout fisheries to enjoy. So as you read through, try to critically think about your own choices, and ask yourself… Is there more sacrifices I am willing to make? Am I doing my part?

So, without further adieu, lets get to it.

In this post, I will outline a framework to limit your impact as an angler.

To get started, I am going to say that while I condone all the things I will discuss, by no means do I expect every angler to do all of them, all the time. I will also say that some things I myself sometimes forget to adhere to. None of us are perfect. We make mistakes. We get carried away in the pursuit of trout. I have made mistakes, but as I grow as an angler I have constantly strived to improve my practices. That is the intent of this post: to improve. You might not agree with all of it, and that’s OK. But hopefully there is something here that helps you minimize your impact. That is the goal.

I will start by outlining some of the major things you can be doing to ensure you are being as ethical as possible, starting below with following the regulations.

Follow Regulations

This one is the bare minimum for anglers, regardless of what species you are targeting or what body of water you are fishing. It is imperative that all anglers read the regulations for the stream they are fishing BEFORE they head out fishing. On top of that, make sure you pick up a fishing license, which renews yearly on April 1st.

 In general, most Cutthroat steams open June 16th and close October 31st. If you see someone angling outside of this time window, you can report them by calling the report a poacher line.

Pinch your barbs and practice proper fish handling techniques

While it may not be enforced in the regulations, pinching your barbs will not only make it easier to remove the hook from a fish, but it can also save you from a nasty injury if you hook yourself, and may also save your clothing if you accidently snag your shirt or hat. It’s very easy to do with a pair of forceps or needle-nose pliers, which should be an essential item to have in your fishing kit.

Practicing proper safe fish handling techniques is important to ensure we limit the catch and release mortality from angling. If you are unfamiliar with how to handle a fish, visit our Safe Fish Handling page. In brief, this means keeping the fish wet at all times, promptly removing the hook, limiting time for photos, and reviving the fish in the water before letting it swim away when it is ready. Try to avoid squeezing it to hard, grabbing it by its gill plate, or damaging it’s eyes. All the above info is especially important when its hot outside or stream temperatures are warm.

Consider Putting the Camera Away

The angling community seems to be obsessed with photos nowadays. Photos are often the reason why anglers overhandle or damage fish— if a fish is not cooperating, a photo may not be in the cards. You may not get a photo of every fish. That’s OK. Don’t squeeze or damage a fish just to get a photo. To make matters easier, have your camera ready with the setting dialed before snapping your photo. If you are fishing by yourself, have your camera set-up on the shore or however you like to take photos. Even better— take your photos underwater using a go-pro or an underwater camera. While it’s great to capture memories on the water, don’t let photos be the reason a fish is mishandled or damaged— try to enjoy the moment and not focus so much on taking photos.

Don’t Fish when it’s too Hot!

This is the most important factor to consider when trying to limit your impact, and the perfect segway into our conversation about ethics. As we discussed in the past few posts, stream temps are higher than they used to be, and flows are lower. In hot temperatures, a fish’s metabolic rate goes up, meaning they must feed more to meet there energetic demands. This makes them vulnerable to angling. To compound issues, the dissolved oxygen in the stream goes down, meaning there is less oxygen available to meet these energetic demands. The last thing a trout needs in these conditions is to be caught by an angler, as this will drain them of all their energy reserves, and in these conditions, they may not be able to replenish them. Catch and release mortality sky-rockets in these conditions, and is the time when our angling has the highest impact.

The solution? Carry a thermometer. You can get one for a couple of bucks at the dollar store. In general, try not to fish if stream temperatures are above 16 o C, and absolutely don’t fish if temps are above 20 o C— in these temps, mortality may occur even without the added stress of angling. New daytime angling closures are in place across Southern Alberta, and its important to follow them. While I don’t love the system they have put in place- whereby all streams close based on temps in the Bow (stream specific closures would make more sense, and would only require the installations of some temp loggers)- it’s still better than nothing. Make sure you follow these closures and are off the river by 2 pm— keeping in mind stream temps may be too warm before 2 pm as well.

Try to limit your fishing when water temps are warm to ensure fish can swim away happy like this one.

Other Considerations

 Look out for Redds

Another important factor to consider is avoiding damage to incubating eggs. In Southern Alberta, the peak spawn for cutthroat is around June 13th. Angling opens a mere 3 days after this. This means that eggs will be incubating in redds pretty well throughout the angling season, and anglers wading can do significant damage and severely limit the amount of eggs that successfully hatch into fry. Try to educate yourself and learn how to identify trout redds, and avoid wading through them if you can. Redds are usually small depressions in the gravel that have been cleared of debris and sediment relative to the gravels around them. They are therefore lighter in color in relation to the nearby gravels and can be anywhere from football size up to a couple meters. Cutthroat spawn primarily in small tributaries, so this point is especially important if you spend a lot of time fishing small creeks. I’ve provided some photos of trout redds below to help you know what to look for.

The clear patch of gravel in the center of the frame is a trout redd.
At least three redds are visible in the above image. Learn how to recognize them and avoid them.

Ditch the Hopper Droppers

Oh, the good ol’ hopper dropper. A favourite of many anglers, but also a significant nuisance for trout. While people love to fish their hopper droppers in this province, consider sticking to a one fly set-up when targeting cutthroat. I can’t tell you how many dropper rigs I had to untangle from trout last summer when electrofishing. They were often wrapped around gill-plates, stuck in fins, and often causing infections and damage. They are tangle machines, and more prone to snapping during the hook-set. I get it. They are effective. But most other jursdictions (ie. BC) have single barbless hook regulations for a reason. They do less damage to trout.

On that same line of thought, oversized streamers are also more damaging compared to smaller flies. If you are targeting Bulls and are catching large cutthroat as a by product, I can live with that. But when fishing areas with high densities of small or medium cutthroat, try to use a hook size that is appropriate for the size of fish you are likely to catch, which will limit the chance of foul hooking a small fish with a big appetite.

Do the right thing— even when no one is looking

The points above should give you a great starting point to think about trying to limit your damage when angling. For each point, you should be able to think of a sacrifice you could make that would minimize your impact. I don’t expect people to do everything, every time, but its important these things are in the back of our minds when angling.

This is where ethics come into play. For the most part, no one is going to enforce any of these rules or ideas. It’s up to you. For example, you COULD go fishing for cutthroat on a hot, low water day in mid-august and be off the river by 2 pm. But that doesn’t mean you SHOULD. You could head to an alpine lake instead, or find a stream fed by glaciers, or go fish for non-native species like rainbow or brown trout (which are also more heat tolerant). Or, as a compromise, you could still go fishing but maybe limit the number of fish you catch, avoid using a dropper set-up, or avoid taking pictures that day. The point is, there are always sacrifices you can make. Don’t compromise on them, and don’t just do them when others are watching. Make them habits, and together we can build an angling community that is ethical and sustainable, whereby those who don’t play by the rules are the outcasts and feel alienated to the point where even they might be willing to change.

One Last Point… Get Involved!

The final thing I’d like to add to this post isn’t about angling at all. It’s about being part of something bigger, standing up when you need to, and advocating for a resource you care about. I am talking about charitable donations, volunteering, and getting involved politically.

A perfect example of this took place last year when our cutthroat streams were threatened by coal mining. While many user groups took a stand and advocated against this, among the loudest was the angling community. Many of you wrote letters to MP’s, signed petitions, and spread the word via social media. We will need more of this in the years to come. We are the fishes lobbyists— for they do not have a voice of their own. So when the time comes… Stand up and fight!

There are many organizations you can make donations too that will have meaningful impacts on native trout— CPAWS Southern Alberta, Trout unlimited, Alberta Conservation Association, to name a few. Most of them also have need of volunteers, to assist with things like river clean-ups, fish salvage, and habitat restoration. Getting involved in these initiatives is a great way to give back to the fish we care about.

Becoming a Patron of Bushwhackers Fly-Fish will also contribute to conservation. Every year, I make a donation to CPAWS Southern Alberta using funds raised from my generous patrons who are kind enough to pledge $1/ month (or more!) to help support my work and want to contribute to conservation in our province. This year, my donation goal is $250 dollars, but I am hoping we can surpass that and donate even more. If you are looking for an easy way to give back, consider becoming a patron today.

That brings us to our conclusion. I hope you enjoyed this 3 part series, State of Alberta’s Trout: Westslope Cutthroat Trout. Thank you so much for reading, I am sincerely grateful to each and everyone of you who have taken the time to learn more about cutthroat trout and want to be part of the community of anglers that is passionate about protecting them moving forward. I hope you enjoyed. Please reach out if you have any questions or want to chat.

Tight lines,


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