Cutthroat but Not Ruthless

Taos Fly Fishing with Steve Morris

- | 7 min read

Go Fish

We learned on a recent outing that when it comes to fly fishing, the skill lies in taking your time and letting the fish come to you.

It was a gorgeous blue sky late spring morning as Steve Morris of Cutthroat Fly Fishing and his two pals Will and Joe piled the last of the gear into the Tacoma and the Land Cruiser at our meet up spot.  The Midtown Lounge is a vintage specimen in its own right, a Taos landmark always on the way, or way home, that has been around the block as many times as the Toyotas and in doing so, earned the kind of charm that plies immediate endearment.

If location and transportation were any indication, the company was going to make for an eye opening fishing trip. I immediately wanted to learn from the experience these anglers had accumulated in their years on the river. And in a flash we were on the road to the Colorado border to find out how much I could absorb in a just few hours to at least start my journey.

Two Taos fly fishing guides stand in a field in the mountains talking to each other.

Here Fishy, Fishy!

“Don’t be that guy running down to the river, thrashing about scaring fish” quips Will, a ski instructor in winter and hobby fly fisher year-round.

So, the fish can hear you! Noted, especially in placid waters. This being my first time, like most of the clients Cutthroat takes out to a few choice spots tucked in northern New Mexico’s wilds, I really had no idea what to expect of the experience at all — except that it would be a perfect opportunity to learn something and be out in nature. I had a hunch pretty early on that there’s a lot of playful banter that comes with the territory when you’re running with this crowd, some pretty polished ribbing and not just because our location for the morning was Costilla (“rib” in Spanish) Park! Now I knew it would also be fun.

Taos Fly Fishing

Rio Costilla Park at the base of the Latir Wilderness was an ideal location given several sections of meandering calm streams, not to mention stunning geological surroundings and lush aspen-conifer forest. Wading in a high flow can also be dangerous and sweep you away, and given the high water levels and extraordinary snow melt this year, clear, slow water is also where the fish want to be.

A cutthroat trout hides in an eddy in a stream on a Taos fly fishing trip.

“It’s energy conservation for the fish,” Steve continues. “They don’t have to fight the current as much, and they select their holding spots based on having a flow of water near them where they will hunt. Some fish can stay in one spot for long period of time. I read about a fish researchers tagged that they found in the same hold for 4 years!”

As with anything with a long history, there is a great deal of wisdom passed on, and today fly fishermen use many of the techniques used 200 years ago.  Much is anecdotal based on experiential knowledge of the natural behaviors of the fish and what it will respond to, upon which science has more recently improved.  Now there are other modern variables to consider, many of them unfortunate, not the least of which is climate change. Fishing is about water temperature as much as anything and these trout like it cold.

The Basics

The most important thing to learn on the first day is to cast a line! It’s a process that takes time in order to be good at — you’re not going be casting 90-100 ft the first time. The nice thing about fly fishing is you don’t need to cast that far to catch a fish. Fifteen feet is completely doable for almost anyone, and according to Steve, the form doesn’t need to be exact, but it will certainly be enough to get it into position!

“You land the fly in the slow current but the line is in the fast current — so we use mending and high sticking to correct the placement,” Steve says. “There are dead areas behind bigger rocks or boulders where the trout likes to sit. He also likes to be on the edges of the stream where there are eddies, and the reverse flows help push him upstream.”

A man casts a fly fishing line from the grassy banks of an alpine stream.

When you go out, you’ll be able to identify these first hand at the water’s edge and then just let the flies drift from there.

“You want the fly to drift like a dead leaf!” explains Steve. This is completely different from bait fishing where the lures are underwater, the kind of fishing I grew up with in Miami on the open ocean.

“In traditional blue water fishing you never see the take,” he continues. “Here we have one dry fly that floats, and a wet fly that is below the surface. We use flies that mimmic the natural behavior of aquatic insects whose lifecycle occurs in and on top of the water like mayfly, stone flies, midges and caddis.”

There are even flies that imitate egg patterns, because trout also feed on the larval stage. But the fish will also take a whole dragonflies.

The Play

For a fish to recognize the fly, it has to look real, so there are techniques to create a perfect dead drift. These fish go aggressively after the fly, coming out of the water and around to take the fly before going back underwater, so you need to be setting the hook when you see them coming versus waiting to feel the fish like in regular fishing.

“You won’t even feel it he is so fast, so it will miss to the side of his mouth and then that’s that,” Steve notes. “So if we are lucky enough, we will get some strikes and practice setting the hook and playing the fish.”

Turns out, we did! Steve had a young rainbow trout out of the water.  It was a more advanced take, as the fish was hanging out in a shelf structure, deep underneath the overflow under the water, another calm place they like to be.

A man holds a young rainbow trout in his hands.

“This is a small guy but the bigger fish will be better at seeing the leader, so we have to get the fly to him before he sees the leader,” Steve explains. “When the fish is bigger than the strength of the line, he will snap it. It’s a good problem to have and doesn’t exist in any other kind of fishing.  Once you have him on you let him do whatever he wants. He will bolt and you have to let him go and once he stops you can real him in. I’ve seen people fight fish for 45 minutes before you land him.”

How It Started

If Steve had us distracted thinking about lunch already, his background didn’t help matters in the best of ways. Steve moved to Taos from Texas in 1977 and never left. He first visited as a young boy with his great uncle, a musician with the Ft. Worth Symphony Orchestra who in the summer would venture west with other bohemian people.  His culinary adventure began working at Casa Cordova, where Sabroso is today, then owned by the legendary Swiss Taos Ski Valley ski instructor Godie Schutz who would hire professional chefs from Europe to run his restaurants. Mogens Hansen was heading up the kitchen when Steve dropped in for a job and started what became a life-long love affair with the kitchen, one which would eventually lead him from Michael’s Kitchen in town, to the head chef job at the Bavarian.

“Mogens would do these fancy smorgasbords and an amazing European-style cheesecake you would have to taste to understand,” Steve reflects. “I was very lucky to get to work with him, and it’s where I learned to do the desserts which made me want to learn about baking and baking bread.”

How It’s Going

He now is the pastry chef at local favorite and nationally recognized The Love Apple. He met chef-owner Jennifer Heart when they worked together at The Stakeout. The owners of local fly shop, Los Rios Anglers, used to come to dinner there all the time in the late 80s, and he would go into their shop because he had taken up fly fishing a bit, and one day they asked him to work Sundays.

“The next thing I knew, they wanted me to guide some people,” he remembers.  “I said I don’t know, I had never done that before.  They were like, ‘It’s easy you just go out with them and treat them like they are a relative or a good friend.’”

It was great advice. Steve started his own outfit shortly after and called it Cutthroat, after the trout named for the blood red slash painted under its jaw.

A fly fisherman wades confidently through a mountain stream.

It couldn’t be a more perfect time to get out on our gorgeous rivers. Let Steve lead the way. Call  575-776-5703 to make it happen.

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