New York Times
The Fish Whose Bite is as Fierce as its Name
February 27, 2011
by Chris Santella
The Fish Whose Bite Is as Fierce as Its Name
Larry Steagall/Kitsap Sun, via Associated Press
The best place to catch sea-run cutthroat trout is from the shoreline, though it may take more than one shore to find them.
By CHRIS SANTELLA
Published: February 26, 2011
SEATTLE — The trucks delivering produce to Pike Place Market were still being unloaded when Dave McCoy, the owner of Emerald Water Anglers, picked me up at my hotel for a day of fishing. Soon we were driving south on Interstate 5. After a quick stop for coffee, we headed west across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and then down a twisting country road. Coming around a bend, we saw the snow-covered Olympic Mountains jutting forth, resembling jagged dollops of meringue. The sea-run cutthroat trout strikes a fly with the vigor of a much larger adversary. “We get a lot of bigger fish here, and conditions are perfect,” McCoy said, easing his rig into a pullout where a logging truck sat idling. We pulled on our waders and scrambled down a steep bank, six-weight fly rods in hand, eager to feel the hard pull of a Puget Sound sea-run cutthroat trout.
Sea-run cutthroat — also known as coastal cutthroat or bluebacks — range from the streams and estuaries of northern California to the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska. Sea-runs can range in size from 10 to 24 inches, though fish exceeding 20 inches are considered trophy size. Like steelhead, another great sport fish associated with the Pacific Northwest, sea-runs start life in fresh-water rivers, then migrate to the salt where they spend much of their adult lives, returning to fresh water briefly each year to spawn.
“At the end of the day, the lifecycle of sea-run cutthroat is something of a mystery,” McCoy said, “both in terms of how much time they’re in the salt or fresh water, and how far they roam in Puget Sound.”
But there is no question about the sea-run’s appeal as a sport fish. They strike a fly with vigor, deport themselves like a much-larger adversary once hooked and are among the most beautiful members of the trout family — sometimes chrome bright with its namesake red slash marks nearly invisible, other times a blend of yellow and gold and olive green with prominent “cuts” below the gills, like their mountain stream brethren.
Puget Sound encompasses 3,000 miles of coastline, stretching from the city of Olympia in the south to Port Townsend and Whidbey Island in the north, and filling countless bays and inlets. Much of Washington’s population — some four million — live along or near Puget Sound. It is hardly pristine; the combined ports of Tacoma and Seattle are the second busiest in the country, and there are several Superfund sites within its borders. Still, with the inflow from thousands of creeks and rivers to dilute some of the effluents that reach the sound, and the tidal influence from the Straits of San Juan de Fuca to inject nutrients into the system, Puget Sound supports a healthy population of marine life, including pods of orcas, porpoises, sea lions and resident Chinook and Coho salmon.
“Puget Sound is unique for this part of the world, as it’s shielded from the rough conditions of the Pacific by the Olympic Peninsula to the west, yet has the tidal flow to support a great deal of fish life,” McCoy said. “I imagine that the vast majority of the people living here are unaware of the sea-run fishery — that you can catch native trout within view of the Space Needle.”
Sea-run cutthroat tend to be found within casting distance of shoreline, in water less than 10 feet deep. Most fishing is done from the beach. Cutts forage on sand lance, sand shrimp, eels, juvenile herring and chum salmon fry — basically any protein that presents itself. Getting them to bite is not particularly difficult, but finding them can present a challenge, especially given all that shoreline.
“On a given day, we may visit anywhere from two to eight beaches,” McCoy said. “Where we start will depend on the tides. I prefer to fish out of the wind if possible, as it’s easier to cast and spot feeding fish. If you don’t find anything after working a stretch of beach, it’s time to try a new place. The fish are always moving, and if you stay in the same spot, it’s like waiting for lightning to strike.”
At our first stop, on a bay near the south end of the Kitsap Peninsula, we waded into the sandy shallows around clam and oyster beds as seagulls dropped clam shells on the rocks behind us in hopes of securing their breakfast.
We started with short casts parallel to the beach, retrieving the fly — a Foul Free Herring — with long, fast strips to imitate a fleeing baitfish. We gradually gave out more line and directed our casts toward the opposite shore, doing our best to cover as much water as possible. Repeating the cycle, we moved west three or four steps at a time, in the shadow of stylish waterfront A-frames. The wind stayed down, and so did the fish. We returned to the truck and moved on.
Making our way north, we scouted several other beaches for signs of fish activity — the splashes of rolling or jumping cutts — but the trout seemed absent. At one point, we fished near the Southworth Ferry Terminal. The Seattle skyline was clearly in view.
After a 15-minute ferry ride to West Seattle, we tried our luck at Seahurst Park. By this time, the wind had come up from the west, and the temperature had dropped to near freezing, though the winter sun still shone. With waves threatening to top our waders, McCoy said, “I don’t think it’s going to happen today.”
I concurred. At that point, a hot cup of Seattle’s most celebrated beverage held more promise.