Discover the Official State Fish of Montana (And Where You Might Spot It This Summer)

© Matt Jeppson/Shutterstock.com

Written by Em Casalena

Updated: September 8, 2023

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There are a ton of very beneficial and special fish to come out of the state of Montana. However, there’s one fish that is near and dear to Montanans. And it happens to be the state fish of Montana.

Let’s take a look at what the official state fish of Montana is. We’ll also break down everything you need to know about this revered and special little fish!

What is the Official State Fish of Montana?

State animal infographic for the Montana state fish, the Blackspotted or Westslope Cutthroat Trout.
This trout gets its name from the black dots running down its back and sides.

The state fish of Montana is the Blackspotted cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii lewisi). It is also known as the westslope cutthroat trout or common cutthroat trout. The Western United States is home to this exceptional blackspotted cutthroat trout species. This unusual fish attracts the curiosity of both scientists and anglers. This is due to its distinctive physical characteristics, complex life cycle, and intriguing mating rituals. 

The blackspotted cutthroat trout differs from other trout species in a number of ways on the physical level. It gets its name from the little black dots that run down the back and sides of its sleek body. The average length of this species is between six and 12 inches. However, bigger specimens can grow up to 20 inches. During the breeding season, the males frequently exhibit vivid colors, including a dazzling reddish-orange color on their bellies.

Understanding the Subspecies

The blackspotted cutthroat trout displays distinctive traits and inhabits a certain geographic region. This distinguishes it apart from other subspecies within the cutthroat trout (a.k.a. Oncorhynchus clarkii) species. The blackspotted cutthroat trout (a.k.a. Oncorhynchus clarkii lewisi) is designated as a subspecies.

Subspecies are categorized as parts of a species that have minor differences in characteristics, outward appearance, or geographic distribution. They are often distinguished by distinctive traits or adaptations. These traits have arisen as a result of particular environmental circumstances or isolation.

The blackspotted cutthroat trout’s designation as a subspecies is mostly determined by its geographic range and distinguishing traits. Blackspotted cutthroat trout are only found in the watersheds of Montana, primarily in the upper Missouri River drainage. This is despite cutthroat trout having a large distribution throughout western North America.

Blackspotted cutthroat trout stand out from other subspecies of cutthroat trout because of distinctive morphological characteristics. These characteristics include little black spots all over their back, flanks, and fins. They are distinguishable visually thanks to their identifying features, which also contributes to their name.

Oncorhynchus clarkii lewisi or the blackspotted cutthroat trout in a pool in Montana.

The blackspotted cutthroat trout (pictured) is considered just a subspecies rather than a species.

©Wildnerdpix/Shutterstock.com

Life Cycle

The blackspotted cutthroat trout goes through numerous unique phases in its life cycle. The first stage is spawning, which typically takes place in the late spring or early summer. In the gravel banks of freshwater streams and rivers, the female trout excavates a nest known as a redd. The male fertilizes the eggs by releasing milt over them after she places her eggs in the redd. After a few weeks, the eggs subsequently hatch. The freshly born fry seek safety in the gravel until they become more resilient.

Food Sources

Blackspotted cutthroat trout fry generally eat tiny invertebrates during their early development, such as aquatic insects and larvae. As they develop, a greater variety of food is added to their diet. Such prey items include tiny fish, crabs, and even terrestrial insects that fall into the water. Because they are opportunistic predators, these trout adjust their eating preferences to the available food sources in their surroundings.

Mating Behavior

The official state fish of Montana’s mating behaviors are unusual and fascinating. The spawning run, sometimes referred to as the breeding season, usually occurs in the spring when the water temperature rises. During this time, male trout go through extraordinary morphological changes. They grow a distinctive hooked jaw, known as a kype. This kype is used to assert authority and attract possible mates, and their bodies become more vivid.

Males aggressively compete with one another for access to females by chasing, biting, and shoving them. The dominant male takes up residence next to the female during mating. The two fish make coordinated movements to release and fertilize the eggs. The female protects the fertilized eggs from predators and water currents by covering them with gravel after spawning.

Conservation

There are several obstacles and hazards to the blackspotted cutthroat trout’s existence. Their populations have suffered from overfishing, habitat loss, pollution, and the introduction of non-native species. For the purpose of protecting and re-establishing their populations, there are many conservation initiatives that have been put in place. Such initiatives include habitat restoration, fishing restrictions, and the reintroduction of captive-bred animals.

The incredible blackspotted cutthroat trout has an interesting life cycle, unusual mating rituals, and flexible dietary preferences. Its unique physical characteristics and behavioral characteristics make it a subject of interest for academics and environmentalists. It’s up to us to assure the survival of these fish so that future generations can enjoy them. We can do this by understanding and safeguarding the environments that sustain them.

History of the Blackspotted Cuttthroat Trout

In appreciation of the cultural and ecological value of the blackspotted cutthroat trout, the fish was named the state fish of Montana in 1977 by Governor Thomas Judge. This honor highlights the trout’s status as a recognizable representation of the state’s many aquatic habitats and recreational options. The blackspotted cutthroat trout has a long history and has a special place in Montana’s natural heritage.

Blackspotted cutthroat trout are associated with Montana because several Native American tribes. The Salish, Kalispel, and Flathead depended on them as a primary food source centuries ago. The history and culture of the area have been influenced by the existence of trout in the pristine alpine streams and rivers of Montana.

The History of Fishing for Blackspotted Cutthroat Trout in Montana

Anglers and naturalists who noticed the blackspotted cutthroat trout’s outstanding beauty and unusual adaptations eventually became interested in it as well. The coveted trout’s reputation as a top sport fish was cemented when anglers from all over the world rushed to Montana’s waters in search of the cherished fish.

The state’s dedication to conservation and appreciation of its natural resources may be shown in the choice to choose the blackspotted cutthroat trout as its official fish. The blackspotted cutthroat trout is a crucial indicator species of the health and integrity of these habitats. It may be found in abundance in Montana’s rivers, lakes, and streams, which are home to a variety of aquatic ecosystems.

As the state fish of Montana, the blackspotted cutthroat trout serves as a reminder of the value of protecting and re-establishing the fragile balance of its aquatic habitats. The designation serves as a reminder of the need to safeguard water quality, preserve riparian areas, and keep fish populations in good shape.

There have been countless initiatives made by governmental bodies, environmental groups, and private citizens to preserve and restore the blackspotted cutthroat trout’s habitat. This shows how popular the fish is in Montana. These include measures to restore habitat, stocking plans, fishing restrictions, and educational activities designed to increase public understanding of the trout’s conservation requirements.

Where to Find Blackspotted Cutthroat Trout

Many fishermen and environment lovers looking to track down the rare blackspotted cutthroat trout. Montana offers exceptional prospects because of the availability of pristine rivers, lakes, and streams. This well-known fish may be found in several areas in the state. Each area offers distinctive fishing opportunities and magnificent natural surroundings.

For example, the renowned Madison River in southwest Montana is one of the best places to look for blackspotted cutthroat trout. These trout have plenty of habitat thanks to the Madison River, which flows through the lovely Madison Valley. Its crystal-clear, swiftly flowing waterways support thriving populations of blackspotted cutthroat trou. It is a great place for anglers to test their prowess.

Yellowstone National Park

The Yellowstone River, particularly in the area around Yellowstone National Park, is another well-known blackspotted cutthroat trout fishing location. The Yellowstone River offers spectacular scenery, a variety of fishing options, and is the longest undammed river in the continental United States. Blackspotted cutthroat trout may be found in the river’s sections within the park as well as further downstream in Montana.

Numerous alpine streams and lakes across Montana are known to be home to blackspotted cutthroat trout, in addition to the Madison and Yellowstone Rivers. For example, the Gallatin River, close to the city of Bozeman, provides fantastic trout fishing chances as well as spectacular mountain vistas.

The Big Hole River, Bitterroot River, Rock Creek, and the numerous high-mountain lakes tucked away in the state’s picturesque mountain ranges are other famous locations to catch blackspotted cutthroat trout.

It is important to remember that different regions and rivers may have different fishing laws and seasons. Before setting out on a fishing expedition, it is recommended to verify with your local fishing laws and get the required licenses or permits to ensure that you are in line with the law that the blackspotted cutthroat trout numbers are preserved.

Anglers and nature lovers may go on thrilling fishing expeditions while taking in the state’s unrivaled natural beauty thanks to Montana’s various water ecosystems, which offer the blackspotted cutthroat trout a variety of habitats. Montana is a refuge for anyone looking for experiences with this majestic fish, whether it be in the state’s famous rivers or remote mountain streams.

Madison River at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming

There are many lakes in Yellowstone National Park (pictured) where blackspotted cutthroat trout live.

©NaughtyNut/Shutterstock.com

Blackspotted Trout Outside of Montana

Native mostly to Montana as well as Canada, blackspotted cutthroat trout are strongly linked to the state’s watersheds. To further angling and conservation efforts, this species has been introduced to waterways outside of Montana.

One significant location outside of Montana where blackspotted cutthroat trout may be found is portions of Yellowstone National Park that are outside of Montana. Blackspotted cutthroat trout can be targeted by fishermen inside the park’s limits in the rivers and streams that the park provides, including the Yellowstone River and its tributaries.

To increase the range of blackspotted cutthroat trout outside of Yellowstone National Park, stocking programs and reintroduction initiatives have been carried out in other states. There are certain places where this subspecies’ populations have been reestablished or established:

  • Idaho – Blackspotted cutthroat trout have been stocked in a few streams and rivers in Idaho, mostly in the Snake River basin.
  • Wyoming – The restoration of blackspotted cutthroat trout has been proposed for several of the state’s waterways, including the Snake River, Greys River, and other tributaries.
  • Utah – Blackspotted cutthroat trout introduction efforts have been attempted in Utah, including the Logan River and other appropriate locations.

The existence and quantity of blackspotted cutthroat trout in certain locations can fluctuate, and fishing restrictions could be necessary to safeguard and manage these populations.  Overall, even though blackspotted cutthroat trout are mostly associated with Montana, imports and restoration initiatives in other states have given anglers the chance to hunt for this unusual trout species in a few particular waterways outside of Montana.

How Common Are Blackspotted Cutthroat Trout?

Populations of blackspotted cutthroat trout have significantly decreased over time in Montana as a result of a number of reasons, including habitat degradation, competition with non-native species, overfishing, and environmental changes. As a result, their population has shrunk. In Montana, they are presently regarded as a species of concern.

Although Montana’s blackspotted cutthroat trout populations used to be more dispersed and plentiful, they have now become confined and fragmented. Their range is constrained and their concentrations are often lower than in the past. However, they are nevertheless present in a few rivers, streams, and lakes across the state.

Blackspotted cutthroat trout populations have been conserved and restored in several regions. To maintain and improve their populations, conservation groups, governmental organizations, and local communities have put policies in place such as habitat restoration, stocking programs, and fishing regulations.

It’s important to keep in mind that blackspotted cutthroat trout availability and abundance might change in Montana. This depends on the area and season. These trout may be easier to meet in some rivers and streams than others. Their numbers may change in response to the environment and conservation activities.

To get the most recent information on where to find blackspotted cutthroat trout and the best places to target them, it is advised for anglers and nature lovers to research and consult local fishing regulatory authorities, speak with fish and wildlife agencies, or ask for advice from local fishing guides.

In Montana, it is permitted to fish for blackspotted cutthroat trout. But depending on where in the state you are, there can be certain rules and limits that fishers need to follow. The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ most recent fishing rules should always be consulted. Otherwise, you can get the most recent information by getting in touch with your local authorities. Fishing restrictions are subject to change.

In order to safeguard and preserve fish populations, such as blackspotted cutthroat trout, Montana has fishing rules in place. These rules may include limitations on fishing seasons, catch quotas, the use of bait and equipment, and certain locations where fishing is permitted or forbidden. Before fishing for blackspotted cutthroat trout or any other fish species in Montana, it’s crucial for anglers to become familiar with these rules and get the required fishing licenses or permits.

Information for Anglers

Through its website, Montana FWP offers thorough fishing laws and information. This includes particular rules and standards for each fishing area in the state. These materials are available to anglers to help them understand any unique rules that could apply to blackspotted cutthroat trout in various bodies of water. Some rules include fishing seasons, size limitations, bag limits, and special regulations.

Neighborhood fishing guides, outfitters, or bait stores often have useful information and advice on fishing laws and sites where blackspotted cutthroat trout can be lawfully targeted.

Anglers are urged to practice catch-and-release fishing. They are also urged to utilize suitable fishing methods and gear. It is vital to respect the blackspotted cutthroat trout’s natural habitat in order to guarantee adherence to fishing rules and help with conservation efforts.

There’s a lot to love about the state fish of Montana! Hopefully, with continued conservation efforts, fish fans and anglers will be able to enjoy the blackspotted cutthroat trout for years to come.


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About the Author

Em Casalena is a writer at A-Z Animals where their primary focus is on plants, gardening, and sustainability. Em has been writing and researching about plants for nearly a decade and is a proud Southwest Institute of Healing Arts graduate and certified Urban Farming instructor. Em is a resident of Arizona and enjoys learning about eco-conscious living, thrifting at local shops, and caring for their Siamese cat Vladimir.

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