Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Sea Run Coastal Cutthroat Trout 101

Olympic Peninsula Fly Fishing Guide; Catch & Release, Fair Chase. 

Sea Run Coastal Cutthroat Trout 101

Angler and Guide Bob Triggs releasing a hefty spring sea run Cutthroat.
(photo credit Richard Stoll)
 Here on the Olympic Peninsula waters we may encounter the Coastal Cutthroat trout in some of our lakes and ponds, in most of the small streams and larger coastal rivers, in the tidewater estuaries, and just about anywhere in the marine waters of the state. The general pattern of migration is for the fish to move from freshwater into saltwater in the spring, after spawning, where they may go just about anywhere they please, feeding all summer on a broad range of forage species, and returning in later summer and autumn to the rivers and streams again. That is the general dogma regarding these fish. But there is so much variation in when some populations spawn, when they go out and return, and what goes on in between, that these fish are an extraordinary study in diversity and complexity on every level. Some of them spawn in the fall, and go back out to saltwater for much of the winter months, some of them never leave their freshwater environs, and some have been tracked covering dozens of miles in a day. As much as has been written and studied and published of their life history and range, there is yet more to learn. Once you get into fishing for these wild trout you just might become obsessed with them. They are a wonderful game fish, ounce for ounce one of the toughest you will encounter. Studying them can become a life's work. And they can keep you up at night.

Angler, Author Keith Stamm with a fat autumn sea run Cutthroat.
(photo credit Little Stone Flyfisher) 

 Since the 1990's Washington has protected the sea run Coastal Cutthroat trout from harvest in our saltwater areas. It has become a very successful catch & release fishery. And this is a major reason why we are seeing anglers enjoying such good saltwater Cutthroat fly fishing opportunity all over the region today. Another important contribution has been the ongoing efforts of the WDFW Regional Fisheries Enhancement Groupswhich have been working on the restoration of salmon habitats in many watersheds and estuaries around the state.

Spring salmon fry trap on a small coastal stream that now hosts over 100,000 juvenile Chum Salmon outmigrating to the estuary each spring!
(photo credit Little Stone Flyfisher)
 Some of these programs have had over 20 years of restoration projects running on our salmon waters, and they are getting impressive results. Our local program is the North Olympic Salmon Coalition, Over the years that these fish habitat projects have been instituted, improving the natural, historic spawning and rearing habitats for wild salmon; improving natural flows and drainage, improving water quality, planting and supporting native plants and trees, removing invasive species of plants, improving soil quality, encouraging the natural processes of sedimentation and river meandering etc., some of the native runs of fish have returned and are spawning on their own. Once you begin to help these watersheds heal, on a natural and self- sustaining basis, remarkable things begin to happen. And it is not just about the salmon. The return of healthy native vegetation of all kinds, the improved flows and natural hydrology, the improved oxygen and nutrient quality of the water, all provide for the needs of the microorganisms, aquatic insects, terrestrials, birds, reptiles, mammals etc. And they return too. Along with them comes the stickleback, the sculpin, the lamprey, and a host of other forage species that fish thrive on. And along with the return of the salmon we see wild Steelhead, Bull Trout and Coastal Cutthroat too, thriving, spawning, succeeding, all sharing the same waters. The really inspiring thing about this is that all of the energy that it took to begin these projects has come from the local citizens and communities, and most of these projects tasks, surveys, sampling, monitoring etc., are still accomplished by volunteers. I credit this great work with having provided our region with a reserve of healthy, spawning, wild sea run Coastal Cutthroat trout. If you have one of these programs operating near your home waters, get involved! 

Is it any wonder that we use a Chum Baby fly?!
(photo credit Little Stone Flyfisher)
 One thing that I have learned about sea run Cutthroat trout fishing is that you have to take it one day, one trip, one tide, even just one moment at a time. It really is not that complicated to get into. A good trout rod of 5 or 6 weight, about 8 to 9 feet long, medium to fast action, is the foundation. Any good quality trout fly reel will do. And a floating line will be fine for beginners. A factory tapered monofilament leader will do nicely, 9 feet long, in 3X. For flies you can begin simply enough, with a few Wooly Boogers, Sculpin, Muddler Minnows, Clouser Minnows, Matukas, and general baitfish patterns. These do not have to all be saltwater flies. We catch these trout on dry flies in the saltwater too! I like Stimulators, Caddis Flies, Stone Flies, Steelhead Caddis, the Steelhead Bee, greased Muddlers etc. One fly that I have been very successful with is my Chum Baby fly, especially in the early season here, when the trout are feeding heavily on outmigrating Chum salmon fry in shallow water. And it works all year, sometimes. Other wet flies that work are so numerous as to be impossible to list all of them here. Just about any of the smaller steelhead wet flies will work on these trout in the saltwater at times. One thing to keep in mind is that your hooks should not be extra long shanks. Medium to short shank hooks, size 6 to 10, all barbless. By law- we are to use only barbless hooks on these wild trout in Washington marine waters.   

A pod of Chum Baby flies!
(photo credit Little Stone Flyfisher)
I like fishing on and near shell fishing beaches. And the more popular that these beaches are for clam digging the more that I like them. Sea run Cutthroat seem to like them too. No doubt there is an attraction to these places as the tides flood over them, especially after clam digging has been going on for hours between tides there. This activity will encourage many critters to feed in the freshly overturned soil, gravel and sand. Invertebrates and the smaller fish, including all of the important forage species here, will be attracted to the flooded clam beds as well. The basic idea is that the flooding tide will carry the scent of this terrain. Most of our regional beaches feature fairly strong tidal flows at some stage of most tides. You want to take advantage of this and work your fly in the shallow edges of the current, usually not very far from the edge of the beach, and not very deep either. Most anglers new to this game are surprised at how shallow the water was, and how close to the beach, when they caught a fish. This is one situation where human disturbances to the environment actually help our fishing. That scent, from a freshly dug clam beach, carries for miles in our tidal flows. 

        Low Tide Recon
(photo credit Little Stone Flyfisher)
 Don't wait for high tide! Get out there and scout those beaches at low tide, and at every stage in between. You will see how the bottom is shaped, how the water flows into things on the rising tide, where the likely places are that trout might feed as the tide increases through the day. And the walk will do you good. As much as I read about the importance of high tide, I have to say that some of the best fishing I have had, in some places, was at low slack tide. Watching an entire tidal cycle, from low to high tide, can teach you a lot about a place, and how the fish feed there at varying times and stages of tide. Especially if they begin feeding right in front of you.

These draining pools at the edges of a beach at low tide can often attract feeding sea run Coastal Cutthroat trout. Concentrate your efforts in the deeper water just outside of the drainage.

 Presentation is everything. Sometimes . . . The one key idea that will help you with these fish is that the fly needs to be active, alive, and moving. Nothing in nature will drift along, with no struggle or fear, when there is a chance that a big mouth full of teeth might gobble them up. This is just as true for surface flies as it is for wet flies, streamers, waking and floating flies, poppers or sliders etc. So get used to the idea that these fish have no respect for your drag-free drift. They want that fly to look paranoid, nervous, and struggling. Except when they don't. So when you know there are fish feeding there in front of you, and they have seen your fly go by a dozen times, without taking it- it is time to change flies. Often. Repeat until you get a bite. Don't think about it too hard. Just change flies quickly and proceed. And if that does not work, then you can set up a nice pile cast of slack tippet behind your dry fly, let's say a #10 Royal Wulff, and give them that sexy drag-free drift you have been dying to demonstrate all along . . . Bang! Sometimes it works. And don't get stuck. The trout do not live there on the beaches. They move. Constantly. So when you set up on any beach to fish, work a spot for a few dozen casts, then take a few steps, and work some more. You just might get a big one! 

Now booking summer fly fishing trips on the Olympic Peninsula waters. Celebrating over 30 years of fly fishing adventure!

For more information and to book a trip:

Bob Triggs
Little Stone Flyfisher
P.O. Box 261
Port Townsend, WA

Certified Fly Casting Instructor
Trout Unlimited Aquatic Educator Award Recipient
Licensed Washington State Guide

Telephone: 360-385-9618 / Toll Free: 866-793-3595

No comments: