“The Secret Season”
By Bob Triggs
The cold gray skies of November bring many Olympic Peninsula fly fishers adventures to a gloomy ending. Most of the lakes and smaller waters have closed, Salmon season on the salt-chuck has wound down, and the fickle weather keeps our coastal rivers flows unstable enough to make any long range fishing plans tentative at best. Quite a few anglers will not fish for trout again until spring and opening day on the lowland waters. Rods and reels will be closeted, tackle stored. Some will tie flies, most will begin the annual rituals of winter-idled anglers anywhere; book and magazine reading by a warming fire, sporting show attendance, fishing club gatherings, haunting the fly shops, pontificating on the Internet fishing forums, and sundry all of the many survival strategies of the seasonally displaced fisherman. There is a kind of hum-drum predictability to it all.
Yet perhaps there is more. No, I do not mean the mystical and obsessional Olympic Peninsula Rainforest winter Steelhead season; for which there is no cure or treatment except to stand hips deep in the numbingly icy waters, in howling wind and rain, swinging a wet fly in the turbid jade green flows with zombie-like expectancy. No; I am reminding you trout fishers that the fine art of Sea Run Coastal Cutthroat Trout fly fishing can be pursued on our area beaches, using floating lines and dry flies if you like, all winter long. Yes; November through March- all good fishing months when most anglers wouldn’t be caught dead out on an exposed Puget Sound salt-chuck beach with fly rod in hand. And you will have those beaches mostly to your self. There are enough mild, not too windy nor wet, winter days here to make beach fishing a delightfully frequent possibility. And this creates a welcome diversion from the gloominess of grey skies, short days and the waiting for river flows to return to fishable flows between storms. You might even forget that it is winter. Especially when we get a few warmer and sunnier days in February, and the termites start hatching out of the rotting logs on the beach- and a nice fluffy, ruddy brown colored Stimulator fly will fool a cruising trout in shallow water.
Many sea-run Coastal Cutthroat Trout spend a good deal of time in the winter months feeding adjacent to their natal streams and beyond. These fish tend to be a little heftier than the average summer fish from October onward. I have caught them on just about every kind of trout fly that you can think of. My biggest winter Cutthroat have come on big dark flies- Streamers, Matukas, Wooly Boogers, Leeches, Bunnies, Skunkaboos etc- swung deep and slow, using an intermediate sink or dry line and a longer leader of over nine feet in length. However you approach it the point is a deep slow presentation. I never use strike indicators or floats or jigs in this fishing. These big fish hit hard and will give your five weight and wrists a good workout. I like the simple meditation of walking along a beach in wintertime, watching the subtle shifts of light and water, the changing moods of the day, the migrating birds and waterfowl, the Seals and Porpoises and Otters. Wading a tide pool can yield lessons in discovering the winter forage for your trout, and new ideas for your fly box. Puget Sound winter beaches are surprisingly alive with wildlife activity, even on the colder days. It is not uncommon to catch a few resident Coho on some days in winter, and these scrappy fish will test your tackle too. How about this: winter Steelhead migrate along most of our beaches all winter long and you could hook the fish of a lifetime if one of them grabs your skating Muddler off of the surface. Good luck landing it on your five weight…
For romance and serendipity there may not be much more fun in sea-run Cutthroat Trout fly fishing than skating a big bushy dry fly or popper on the surface of a strong tidal flow. Fellow fly angler Leland Miyawaki says of fishing with his own design Beach Poppers: “It’s the most fun you can have on a beach with your clothes on”. Skating, waking, stripping and shaking his fly can be addictive and mesmerizing; and then the water begins to bulge, as a wake forms behind and you realize that a big fish is chasing down your skittering popper; Slam!, and the game is on!. Poppers have been around in various forms and styles all over the world for many years. But Leland has reinvented the art and joy of tying and fishing these flies with his own Miyawaki’s Beach Popper. Try them and you may just might never want to fish beneath the surface again.
For several years I have made a foray to the beaches around Christmas day, weather permitting, armed with a few flies, and on most trips I catch one or two trout in as many hours of pleasant fishing. If you bring along a rucksack, a newspaper or book, a lunch and a thermos, you can make a day of it. I like that kind of pace. With so many good beaches and local access, its hard to ignore. There are more miles of beach to explore here, to wade or not to wade, casting for sea-run Coastal Cutthroat Trout, than you could ever cover in a lifetime, much less an active winter of adventure. It is too easy to get stuck in a rut of fishing in the same old places in the same old ways. Get out and take a walk someplace new, explore and experiment. You might surprise yourself with another productive fishing spot or a new way of doing things. And you might beat the winter doldrums and flab too. Sea-runs move often, they rarely stay in one spot for more than one tide cycle, neither should you. So keep moving.
Don’t get caught in the “high tide” mentality. We have enough structure and current here on Admiralty Inlet and around the Olympic Peninsula region beaches that you can catch sea-run Cutthroat at any time of tide on most days, if you just work at it. It won’t hurt you to learn the structures of a beach by visiting it on a minus tide day and watching the flows as a tide comes in. One good thing is to find current flowing along a beach, on any tide, from there your fishing is just like freshwater river fishing anywhere. Having bait around helps, so be on the lookout for birds feeding, especially sea ducks and Cormorants and especially Osprey. Taking a little time to study forage fish habitats and behavior will pay off too. Look for gravel and cobblestone bottom beaches with moving water at some time of tide. Spurs of land, points and bars, ledges and humps, all indicate some current at some point of tide. Sea-run Cutthroat like an active fly so don’t be afraid to keep that fly moving and alive! Strip-Shake-Rattle-N-Roll! Mix it up and make it look real. No bait fish with a set of trout teeth chasing it slows down or stops. Its not paranoia if they are really after you! Once you find a good spot and catch a few fish, don’t get “stuck”- keep moving. Even a few steps at a time once in a while can make a big difference. Make an adventure of it. But remember where you caught the last one!
Don’t wade too deep; knee deep to shin deep is fine. Once you begin wading deep you can push fish away, and you will be losing your body core temperature the whole time you are fishing no matter how well you layer your clothing. Frequent breaks to warm up are a good strategy. Better yet; don’t allow yourself to get cold to begin with. Simply walking out of the water for a few minutes occasionally is usually enough to warm you, along with snacks and sipping hot thermos drinks or soup during the day. It’s supposed to be fun. Try to work your fly in the shallows before you ever actually do any wading. Standing on the dry beach at waters edge I once caught a 12 pound ocean returning Coho salmon in two feet of water right in front of me this way. Trout feed in ridiculously shallow water sometimes. Any time of year you could have a good day of catching Cutthroat right at the edges all day, and never once step in the water to do it. But only if you try.
A nine foot five or six weight fly rod is fine. I like the medium to fast action rods, especially on a windy day or when I’m pushing big Poppers or fluffy flies. The Switch and Spey rods are gaining in popularity on the beaches these days too. A 12 foot six weight seems fine. I prefer a floating fly line all year round. But many people swear by the newer intermediate sink clear lines and sink tip lines. Using a dry line I can adjust my leader length according to the fly I am using and depth that I want to fish. In the broader, slower flows of most shallow water beach fishing situations here this is a refreshingly simple affair. A nine foot factory tapered, knotless 4X or 3X monofilament leader should cover most of it. Have extra spools of tippet and your leaders will last much longer. I use all kinds of trout and steelhead flies for this fishing but I especially like Leland’s Beach Popper and big brushy Steelhead muddlers like Bill McMillan’s Steelhead Caddis. Generally I try to avoid long shank hooks and limit my hooks to size # 4 and # 6. I also use bait fish flies like the Clouser Minnow. I opt for more natural or imitative colors and patterns overall. Larger and longer shank hooks can easily kill a Cutthroat Trout. Remember that by law we are to “release all fish without avoidable injury”, as these fish are protected from harvest on Washington’s marine waters.
If you dress properly for winter weather, though often it is quite mild here, being aware of the colder water temperatures on Puget Sound waters, and if you come with an open mind and a positive attitude, you won’t ever be disappointed. Winter sea-run Cutthroat fly fishing on our beaches can become a new addition to your outdoors and angling life. Thankfully our regional beaches have easy access and ample parking, and much of the best fishing is right at our doorstep on the Olympic Peninsula. So what are you waiting for? Don’t let the brown muddy rivers stop you- get out and fish!
Happy Holidays to you!