When I look at a cutthroat trout, I am reminded of a shy child, freckled, cast out of the mainstream because it is small, less aggressive. The name “cutthroat” is derived not from the creature’s disposition, but from its appearance. Cutthroats lack along their lateral lines the decisive red stripes of rainbow trout, wearing them instead in distilled vividness beneath their lower jaws. In fact, Alaska’s coastal cutts are particularly susceptible to bullying. When spawning they often seek tiny streams — muskeg trickles, remote headwaters, springs barely a foot wide — to avoid competition with belligerent coho and steelhead.
In some waters they are found in both sea-run and resident forms. No one seems to know exactly why one fish spends time in the ocean while another in the same stream does not. In the end cutthroats are where you find them, one day among the barnacles chasing minnows, the next sipping mayflies from a freshet.
In their own subtle way, cutthroat trout are metaphors for Alaska as I’ve long known it: beautiful, wild, innocent. Vulnerable. They are worth finding and catching and letting go, to remain in the heart like poems of sunlight, shadow, hemlock and spruce, and days spent on the water in the world’s last, great wilderness.