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Jul 24 2020

Kootenai Critters: Westslope Cutthroat Trout

Here’s what you need to know about Montana’s state fish

This is the third in a series of blogs that we’ll be publishing monthly throughout the summer to showcase the wonderful wildlife of northwest Montana’s Kootenai National Forest (KNF). The KNF houses wild places like the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, Scotchman Peaks, and Yaak Valley, and it’s also home to grizzly bears, bald eagles, bighorn sheep, westslope cutthroat trout, and so much more. 

This summer, we’re making it easy to show off your Kootenai pride, even if you don’t live in northwest Montana. Take the quiz to discover your secret Kootenai critter identity, enter the monthly giveaway to win great outdoor gear (this month’s prizes are a Kelty daypack and a CamelBak water bottle), and sign the pledge to care for the future of the Kootenai National Forest.

We’ll send everyone who completes the quiz a free limited-edition hand-drawn sticker of their Kootenai critter identity! Monthly giveaway winners will also receive an enamel pin. 


This past weekend, my partner Matt and I went on a backpacking trip to the southern Cabinet Mountain Wilderness. Our goals were to escape the crowds, slow down, appreciate summer, and practice our fly fishing skills in three of the most beautiful, clear mountain lakes in all of Montana. We were after westslope cutthroat trout – the only native trout in northwest Montana (bull trout are technically char). And we found them! We practiced catch-and-release, crimped the barbs on our fly hooks, and had an absolutely fantastic time.

A stately fish

Cutthroat trout are Montana’s state fish, and there are two subspecies here: westslope and Yellowstone cutthroats. Westslope cutthroat trout tend to be more silvery or green, and have more small spots by the tail and none by the pectoral fin. Of course, the vivid red slash near the lower jaw will tell you that a fish is a cutthroat (or at least partially a cutthroat – keep reading!), right away.

Shrinking numbers due to hybridization and habitat loss 

Studies show that while westslope cutthroat still live in the Kootenai and Clark Fork watersheds, they occupy less than 5% of their historical range in Montana. One major factor in this decline is hybridization with non-native trout species. On day three of our backpacking trip, Matt actually caught a fish in Bear Lake that featured the red jaw slash of a cutthroat trout and the beautiful pink stripe of a rainbow – this was a hybrid called a “cuttbow.”

Habitat loss and degradation have also contributed to the cutthroat’s reduced range. The westslope cutthroat trout is a fishy canary in a watery coal mine, its presence indicating pristine waters and protected habitat. These picky fish need everything just so, from gravelly stream bottoms to cold water to shaded creeks with deep pools and pockets. If cutthroat live in a stream, it’s a good bet that it’s a healthy one.

A sensitive soul

Westslope cutthroat are often outcompeted by non-native fish, especially brown, brook, and rainbow trout. They grow more slowly, eat less aggressively, and tend to be easier for anglers to catch. They also don’t handle the stress of being caught as well as other species, so please treat them with the utmost care and consideration when out fishing.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks offers these tips on releasing a fish so it has the best chance for survival:

  • Set the hook quickly to avoid deep hooking.
  • Play the fish as rapidly as possible. Don’t play it to total exhaustion.
  • Get your hands wet before touching the fish.
  • Keep the fish in the water as much as possible while removing the hook.
  • Remove the hook gently and try not to squeeze the fish.
  • Release the fish after it has gained equilibrium. You might have to hold the fish in the water for a moment and move it gently back and forth.

The size of westslope cutthroat trout ranges between 6 and 16 inches, but the record-breakers can be 22 inches long and weigh up to 16 pounds. They live around 8 years and according to three distinct life patterns:

  • Adfluvial westslope cutthroats spawn in streams and their young migrate to a lake for their adulthood
  • Fluvial westslope cutthroats spawn in streams and their young migrate to rivers.
  • Resident westslope cutthroats stay in their birth stream for their whole life. 

Adfluvial and fluvial cutthroat can travel more than 100 miles between their spawning grounds and their home turf.

Help us protect animal habitat in the Kootenai and throughout Montana

MWA works to protect Montana’s wildest places, including the Kootenai National Forest and wildlands across the state, from the rolling prairie badlands of eastern Montana to the wild and roadless landscapes of the Great Burn stretching 100 miles along the Montana-Idaho border. 

Join us in protecting Montana’s wild places and public lands. Make a donation today.

I hope that you’re channeling your own inner westslope cutthroat trout by finding your own cool, clear water to help beat the heat on these sweltering summer days!

Keep it wild,

– Allie

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Allie Maloney
Northwest Montana Field Director

Allie finds common ground with communities and individuals in northwest Montana to protect this wild and wet corner of our state. In her free time, she bakes pies, carves spoons, and plans her dream garden. She also likes to ski and hike.
Email Allie