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Fire and Smoke and a Rare Cutthroat Trout

Chasing Humboldt cutts while fleeing fire in Nevada's Great Basin.

Fire and Smoke and a Rare Cutthroat Trout

(Al Hassal art)

The following is an excerpt from chapter 4 of Cutthroat: A Journey Through the American West by Michael Graybrook (Scott & Nix, Inc, 2017).

Northern Nevada is on fire. It is night, and I am inside my tent listening to fire reports on the radio. The announcer’s voice crackles with static, and in a slow deadpan he reads a list detailing the location and description of each fire. I hold the radio up to my ear, adjust the dial, and turn up the volume. There are three new fires to the west in Humboldt County. I put the radio down, check my maps by flashlight, and draw a circle around each location. Later, two of the smaller circles north of the City of Elko become a single larger circle.

The fires have been burning across northern Nevada for days now, started by lightning strikes, fueled by years of drought and the intense summer heat. The reports on the radio reassure everyone in the towns that these are "brush fires . . . only in the remote hills." Throughout the night I crawl in and out of the tent, looking long and hard for signs of an orange glow where the night sky silhouettes the dark humps of the remote hills all around me. By the time I fall asleep I have drawn a cluster of circles on my map across the headwaters and northern tributaries of the Humboldt River system. My camp is near the center of the circles.

At daybreak I climb to the top of a small rise behind my tent, raise my head to the sky, and smell the air. There is no scent of smoke, just a slight whiff of sagebrush. The morning sky is clear blue in every direction. Relieved, I head back down the hill, shake a light coating of ash from my tent fly, lock my car, then walk west into the foothills of the Tuscarora Mountains to catch a Humboldt cutthroat trout.

My path is a dry streambed, twenty feet wide and rising gradually between whale-shaped hills. The hills are covered in sage, clumps of brittle green brush, and dry, yellow grasses. The steeper slopes and tops of the hills are gray-brown bare rock. There is not a single tree in sight.

In places I step over and around channels where the high flows of spring runoff have gouged the bedrock. But now, in August, the streambed is full of dry gray dust and loose gravel. According to a fisheries biologist with the Bureau of Land Management, there should be running water farther up, higher in the hills, and that is where I would find trout.

The Great Basin is a collection of inland drainages bound by the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the west and the Wasatch Mountains to the east. It encompasses an area of over 165,000 square miles that includes most of Nevada, half of Utah, and parts of several adjacent states. Water flows out of the mountains and sinks into dry washes or runs into lakes and playas, where it evaporates. The water in the Great Basin stays in the Great Basin.

Looking for signs of water, I keep walking up along the dry streambed. After a mile I come to a narrow strip of still, clear water, reach down and put my hand into the pool. The water is bathtub warm. A hundred yards farther up, I pass a few more unconnected shallow puddles of water. Soon the streambed narrows into a tight, dry gully choked with stunted trees. I climb out and continue walking parallel to the stream. The walking is harder here. Underneath my pack, a steady stream of sweat runs down my backbone. I see some deeper pools of still water, but there is still no steady flow.

It is mid morning and the air is heating up. A warm northwest wind drops down off the ridge and rattles the small dry leaves of the low brush. I’m not sure, but I think I smell a faint hint of smoke. Twenty minutes later I hear running water, and I forget about the smoke. Somewhere, in the last half mile, the dry gully has become a trout stream.

Scrambling downhill, I make my way toward the water. The stream below, full of cool water flowing out from the distant mountains, rushes through stretches of low bushes and small trees. Spots of sunlight flash on the water’s surface. Digging my boot heels into a patch of loose rock I stop and sit on a steep slope that slants down into a dark pool and stare into the water. Through an opening in the brush, I spot a trout suspended in the water. It works its fins slowly against the pull of the current. I watch the trout for a while, and then study the landscape around me.

Although I fully expected to find trout here, I am still stunned. A mile upstream the creek is little more than a collection of small trickles and wet spots. And less than a half mile downstream, the water runs out into nothing. There is probably less than a mile of water here that can support trout.

Creeping closer I scrunch down into the brush, rig up my tackle, and tie on a large tan foam beetle.


My father gave me this fly for my forty-second birthday. I’ve been saving it for a special occasion. The pool is about a foot deep and about the size of a small tabletop. The trout is waiting at the head of the table. It is hungry and takes my fly with a quick flick of its tail.

I feel the weight of the trout as it charges around the pool. Keeping my rod tip high I guide the trout around the brush and slide it into the shallow water at the creek’s edge. The Humboldt cutthroat is almost eleven inches long. A band of brick-red color runs along the flanks of the trout, the sign of a mature fish.

Humboldt cutthroat trout are native to the Humboldt River drainage, the largest river system within the Great Basin. The Humboldt River flows over 300 miles from the northeast corner of Nevada, west to the Humboldt Sink near the town of Loveland, Nevada. As late as the early 1900s, cutthroats were still widely distributed throughout the watershed, but overgrazing and water diversions for irrigation reduced their habitat to the upper reaches of the drainage. Sections of these streams are intermittent, becoming dry in the summer, leaving the cutthroats existing as small isolated populations. In these harsh arid conditions, the eleven-inch Humboldt cutthroat trout is large and healthy, the best of the trip so far.

Reaching down into the water I turn the trout onto its side to get a better look. The water here is cool. The sun has now risen high enough in the sky that the light is at a perfect angle for photographing the fish. The light falls over the side of the trout evenly, top to bottom, and there is no glare on the surface of the water. This trout is so beautiful, and such a perfect example of the Humboldt, that I shoot an entire roll of film. Loading another roll of film into the camera, I think that tonight, back in town, I will celebrate.

Leaning over the fish to make another photograph, I hear a muffled, rumbling sound from the hills above me. The sound is far away but coming closer. I look up from the trout and scan the slopes. At first I see nothing. Then I see eight or nine pronghorn antelope running full speed down the open hillside, dust blowing like streamers from their hooves. They leap across the creek so close to me that I feel their hooves pounding the ground and I see the blackness of their big eyes. They disappear into a gully and then explode out. They are gone in an instant. I wonder if they smelled the smoke too, then I bend back over the trout for a few more photographs.

Fire and Smoke and a Rare Cutthroat Trout
(Al Hassal art)

When I release the fish, it scoots from the shallow water to the slow current in the center of the pool. It hovers here for several minutes and then slowly glides toward an undercut on the far bank. The trout fades into the background; its fins disappearing first, then the black spots of its tail join the pebbles on the bottom of the creek. The last I see of the fish is its red-colored flank.

When I look up, a smoky haze now hangs low over the hills, the sky is dull, and the fine, sharp-edged textures of the high plains have grown soft. The smell of smoke is stronger now. It is time to go. I pack my gear and head back downstream.

To a Pennsylvanian, it is an odd thing to follow water downhill and not find more water. In Pennsylvania the water keeps you company from trickles to creeks, and creeks to rivers, and rivers to larger rivers. Here the water races downhill, jumping from rock to rock, toward a long horizontal stretch where it slows into a small pool, then trickles into a smaller pool where it becomes still, and dies in the bare rock and sand. In the distance I see the top of my blue tent. The dry streambed becomes the road I drive out on.

Leaving the foothills, I turn south onto a paved road, heading for the cool hum of motel air conditioning, a real bed, cable TV, cold beer, and pork chops from the restaurant near the interstate. The two-lane road levels out and takes me between flanking north-south mountain ranges. I pass a few dirt side-roads that lead back to scattered ranches or old mines.

After driving only a few miles I notice that dense smoke is filling the valley and I close the car windows and vents. The sky is the color of charcoal. It is growing dark, and it is only three in the afternoon. Minutes later I lose sight of the hilltops, then the valley. All I can see is the road ahead—a long, thin, gray line extending straight out through the smoke. I am no longer sure where the land ends or where the sky begins, or if it is day or dusk. I see flashing lights in the distance.

The lights appear to float in space, flashing as I drive toward them. A few hundred yards away I can make out the silhouettes of a state trooper’s car, a backhoe, and a grader. Several people mill around the four cars and a truck blocked by the state trooper’s car, which is pulled across the road. The heavy equipment is scraping away the brush, creating thirty-foot-wide strips of bare dirt on both sides of the road. I cannot believe this is happening. They are making a fire barrier.

I get out of the car and mingle with the other travelers, who explain the situation. A large fire is burning over the ridge to the west, and the wind is driving the fire toward us. The state trooper will not let anyone through, and they might close the interstate.

Back inside our cars we see only smoke and the dust kicked up by the heavy equipment. We do not see fire. I sit in the car for an hour or so, then turn around and drive north to spend another night in the mountains. Not far from the road I make camp and open a warm beer. The can hisses like a pork chop on a hot grill.

In the morning I drive farther north, searching for other streams with the Humboldt cutthroat trout. Stopping at a convenience store, I pump some gas and go inside to pay. The kid behind the counter tells me that last night the fire came down the hill, jumped the road and the barrier, and then roared up the other side of the valley. Interstate 80 is closed. I get back into the car and keep driving, dodging the fires, and finding my way around on the back roads.

The trout, bound to the fragile waters, will have to ride it out. The Humboldt cutthroat trout have adapted to the extremes of northern Nevada: nine inches of average rainfall, air temperature swings from -43°F to 107°F, the floods of spring runoff, and the extended droughts of summer.

The Humboldt cutthroats have been through it all before. They will survive.

So I hope.

Michael Graybrook grew up in Pennsylvania’s Cumberland County. He saw his first trout in the fabled Letort Spring Run. A practicing architect, he now lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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