Jackson Hole News and Guide
Sea-Run Cutthroat are an unnoticed treasure.
January 12, 2011
by Paul Bruun
One would think that while motoring west across the roomy confines of Washington, a Sunday driver could easily nab a fishing license. But in Seattle by dark, after failing to license at four fly shops and two sporting goods centers, we determined that getting invited to dinner at Bill Gates’ might be easier. In the hotel, even our recommended online license quest crashed and burned.
So a desperate Monday morning hunt for non-resident licenses resembled a Pacific Northwest “Smokey and The Bandit” excerpt. Dave McCoy’s Yukon had been nabbing instructions from Starbucks, U-turning into tastefully hidden shopping centers, crossing and recrossing the toll bridge to Gig Harbor and at last … colliding with a open Fred Meyer super store. Everybody but Fred Meyer refuses to deal with the rigmarole of Washington license sales!
Already this was resembling every other anadromous angling nightmare I have suffered, and for what?
Sea-run cutthroat trout are native to streams from northern California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska and are regular saltwater residents near river mouths and estuaries. Washington dictates catch-and-release and barbless hooks when fishing for sea-runs in Puget Sound. DAVE McCOY / EMERALD WATER ANGLERS
A Northwest quest
All Jean and I wanted was to catch a nearly ignored strain of cutthroat trout that headquarters in the Northwest. The sea-run or coastal cutthroat gets little acknowledgement among the Spey rod and Northwestern wool-jacket crew posturing for takes from sleek winter steelhead, bruising chinook and acrobatic coho salmon that cruise the same area.
As a group, the 14 or so cutthroat subspecies have never shared equal prominence with native rainbow and brook trout on this continent. Various strains of cutthroat only arrive as angling destinations when their unique traits are understood and cultivated by sensitive anglers. Similarities in cutthroat species are enjoyable to behold. Identifying subtle differences is just as entertaining.
Several ironic aspects surround this coastal variety, the greatest of which is their widespread range from northern California all the way to Alaska. Yet, whenever famed left-coast trout experts are pressed about a good window for a saltwater cutthroat expedition, they retreat — hemming and hawing — to the “unpredictable” gambit and whining, “They’re here one day and gone the next.”
Nobody stepped up to the sea-run cutthroat plate except Dave McCoy of Emerald Water Anglers (www.EmeraldWaterAnglers.com) a Seattle guide service. A chatty and entertaining character who specializes in regional salmon/steelhead/trout, McCoy embraces all fly fishing — normal to the exotic — and takes it in stride.
“Your early November Seattle visit plan is a bit late for numerous Puget Sound sea runs, but I’m sure we can find a few,” he admitted. “We’ll have a great time and explore the sound from a lot of beautiful beaches.”
After “License Quest 2010,” a fascinating experience unfolded. Despite Seattle’s often choking freeway traffic (happily always flowing the other direction), McCoy slickly maneuvered us onto a dozen pristine beaches — at the right tide phases — during several days of productive urban angling. We were introduced to challenging fish, superb seascapes, exceptional wildlife and a crash education in coastal cutthroat schemes.
Where did we fish? I couldn’t begin to tell you except that we began along a brushy gravel and sand beach facing Vashon Island. The tide was rising and it was calm — too calm, Dave opined. But as Jean and I waded into knee-deep water and began casting while sidestepping toward a prominent point that created a substantial current reversal, onshore breezes and ongoing ferry boat wakes mixed up the surface.
“A majority of the various baitfish, squid and shrimp have vacated by November,” Dave explained as he shadowed along to insure my occasional tailing loops didn’t leave a wind knot that would encourage a break off on the 2X tippet to a tiny olive/silver fish-hair streamer. “Coastal cutthroat can be pursued in the saltwater all year, and they prowl relatively close to the shorelines. Right now, most cutthroat head into estuaries and retreat to their natal streams and rivers for the winter and spring spawning.”
Casting as a couple
Those seeking an anadromous trophy should ignore these cutthroat, because in Puget Sound they average about 10 to 16 inches. A year earlier, during prime summer feeding periods along the beaches, Dave was hosting Kevney Duggan, a one-time Jackson Orvis store fishing manager, who landed a 23-inch sea-run, a true trophy.
Dave turned his attention to Jean, whose floating line and streamer were sailing out of sight via her 9-foot, 6-weight Sage Z-Axis. Noting a tiny disturbance in front of her, Jean quickly recast and drew her first sea-run cutthroat. “These little guys are simply beautiful,” she yelled, delighted.
After my macabre personal history involving steelhead and salmon, this was the first anadromous trout trip I had ever dared as a couple. Success was looming with that fine cutthroat. So when Jean beached a second fish within a few casts, my breathing became easier.
Having examined Seattle area fly shops, Internet and magazine literature, and studied Les Johnson’s several Amato Publications’ sea-run cutthroat books, it was still surprising exactly what attracts these handsome little fish in saltwater. They eagerly eat natural baits of salmon roe, herring slices and sea worms. Trolling and casting tiny Flatfish, Rapala and flashy spoons such as the Triple Teaser and Mepps spinners also work.
Flies range from traditional trout wets and small steelhead patterns to size 6, 8 and 10 baitfish-like streamers. Sometimes, small shrimp flies are their favorites. Dave McCoy rigged one of the odd looking wooden dowel surface chuggers I’d noticed in Kaufmann’s Seattle fly shop on a new Winston rod he was sporting. Even with a lack of baitfish, it wasn’t long before a cutthroat blasted this noisy contraption, which appeared more suited for a bluefish or backcountry bass or snook.
During our coastal meandering we were treated to seal, cormorant and sea lion fishing antics and shadowed by loons, gulls, blue herons, bald eagles and mergansers. Shy coastal blacktail deer appeared and evaporated in the dense blackberry bush underbrush and in the yards of quaint waterfront homes. We experienced the full gamut of November weather in Seattle: bright and shirtsleeve-warm one day then regressing to a bone-chilling maritime drizzle the next.
Unlocking the mystery
The more casting I did, the more enthusiastic I grew over these mysterious cutthroat. McCoy was an excellent mentor, pointing out tiny snags, disruptions and bottom changes that all appeal to sea-runs. Although I expected to use a slow sinking intermediate line on my 9 1/2-foot, 6-weight Sage XP, our guide emphasized floating lines would keep even these diminutive flies above shallow barnacles, logs and the netting that protects clam beds from seabird predation.
“Search for any tiny ripple or swirl,” Dave explained, “and cast ahead of it immediately. It is very rare that you’ll see these fish before they strike or follow your fly.”
Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train had just rumbled behind us on its daily journey between Seattle and Los Angeles when I noticed a swirl nearby. My cast was toward Seattle’s panoramic port and downtown, which lay ahead. After two strips, the fly slammed into something so solid that it had to be a rock. A recast to the same spot, however, touched nothing. Another swirl and a new cast. Again, a smash so hard that it had to be something sturdier than a cutthroat. Five explosive jumps later, a silvery trout of no more than 13 inches arrived at hand. Wow!
Saw two other anglers. More sea-run cutthroat plans are in the future.
Paul Bruun writes weekly on his adventures and misadventures in the great outdoors.