Sea-Run Cutthroat Tactics
The first time I ever saw a Sea-run Cutthroat (SRC), I had rode my bicycle down through a farmers field and hiked to the mouth of Harvey Creek, tributary to the Stilly main stem. I had heard this was a good place to watch humpy salmon making their way upstream to spawn. When I arrived, I found four local boys fishing worms along the mouth of the creek, at the river confluence. When I came walking up to chat about the fishing, they seemed to get very nervous like they were fishing illegal waters or something. About this time one of the propped up rod tips took a dip and the angler was all over it. A few minutes later a fat 15-inch silver and butter yellow trout slid to shore. It was about this time I noticed a stringer of what must have been a dozen of the largest river trout I had ever seen! For a boy who spent summers fishing on small mountain creeks, these fish were huge! What were these magnificent trout doing eating angle worms in an old back water slough, anyway? The river was high and dirty. Would they take a fly?
My real SRC education started days later down at the mouth of Portage Creek. I remember I didn't have a boat, couldnt even drive, but the upper end of the pool formed a foamy backwater. It looked fishy. The river was running low and clear by now. Thunderheads were rolling in and out. It would be almost dark out one minute and then the sun would break out the next. I positioned myself on the high bank and flipped my little royal Coachman in the pool. Instantly, two massive sized trout both converged on the fly at the same time! From my vantage point I could see the whole thing. Curt Goudy here managed to jerk my fly out of there before the first fish could to take it. You talk about buck fever! As I prepared for my next cast, the sun broke out again. My fly hit the water and.... nothing. I switched the fly, still nothing. Where did they go?
I decided to try the pool from a different angle as another thundercloud came over blocking the sun. This time when the fly hit the water a nice 14-inch trout arched up out of the depths and took it well. Minutes later I was holding my first Sea-run cutthroat. I have been in love with this wild trout ever since. I was fourteen years old at the time, and some thirty-two years later I have learned some interesting behavior characteristics about Mr. SRC. Saltwater to Fresh. SRC will generally come into the river following the first predominant run of salmon of the year. They often play down in the tidal waters for days, flushing in and out with the tides.
SRC feed on just about everything from juvenile salmon to Harpacacoid copecods. If it wiggles, they eat it. As these anadromous cutthroat ascend their natal streams, their diet slowly reverts back from bait fish of the saltwater to the insects of the stream. SRC feed on bug hatches? Yep, sometimes almost exclusively.
Some of the grizzled old cutt -throaters of the lower Stilly will tell you nothing catches this fish like a # 6 yellow spider, and some times this is true. The trick is knowing when to fish the bait fish imitators and when to fish "bugs."
It wasn't long after I began chasing this great fish that I realized what conditions flyfishing seemed to be the best. Dark overcast days, coupled with clear water after a good fall rain is best for fly fishing. Why? Because the fall rains bring in the salmon and with them come the SRC. Dark days are best because Mr. Cutthroat knows he can more effectively ambush bait fish in the shallows and drop-off edges. He can't afford to waste his energy chasing food that might get away. Tactic; always swim your fly across stream or back upstream, never downstream. If you happen to cast upstream and pull it downstream towards you, SRC knows this bait fish is moving with, not against the current. Tuff little bait fish to catch. This same imitator being pulled up and across becomes an easy meal because SRC knows he can come in from behind. Even if the bait fish should turn and bolt downstream it is right in his mouth. Think predator. Savvy anglers know these lighting conditions and look to fish when the shadows are on the water. They always cast down and across. Do you have to wait for low lighting conditions to catch Mr. Cutthroat? No, not if you are willing to change up your tactics. Even though our west slope streams do not have the fertility of their eastern counterparts, we still have many of the hatches. Sea-runs love to eat and as they spend months in freshwater (spring spawner) they naturally revert back to the bugs they fed on as a youth. Caddis, Little Sally Stones, Chironomids and Mayfly will all play a role. The most exciting hatches for me are the terrestrials, and I am talking Grasshoppers and Craneflies.Do SRC key into these bugs? Big time. Now here is the good part. The best time to fish these insects is on the those hot sunny afternoon convections. Wind and the sun is your friend now because the warm days hatch the insects, and the wind blows these bugs out of the grass and onto your cutthroat waters. Tactic; look for cutthroat waters adjacent to grassy fields. Remember how those Craneflies ate your lawn last summer? Same thing happens to farmer Johns grassy field.
Why would SRC come to the surface and hit these bugs when they won't touch a wet fly streamer? Simple, Mr. SRC knows the insect on the surface is an easy meal because it won't get away, the bait fish might. Nomads: Even your hotel Hilton cutthroat water, that may be full of fish one day, may be barren the next. Best way to cover multiple pools is by boat, and fortunately SRC waters are generally low gradient. Any car-topper will do. If you don't find fish in that pool, keep moving downstream until you do.
I fish with a weight forward floating line almost exclusively. I have found that if fishing bait fish imitators, SRC is as willing to take the fly just under the surface, as three feet down. I love these visual takes, and if he misses the fly or comes short, at least I saw him. I can anchor and throw to him again. This same line is custom built for fishing emergers, dries, and terrestrials.
School is in: SRC travels in schools and if you raise one, even a little piker, it is a good idea to position your boat to make another cast. Next fish could be Mobey trout. I remember an experience down at Blue Stilly Park. I was fishing one of the back bays late one evening. I happened to cast across a submerged log and rose and landed a cutthroat. I proceeded to release 32 cutthroat from an area no bigger than a card table! Cast ten feet either side... nothing. Scary. I have never repeated that experience, but you get the point.
Presentation: One of the things I love about SRC, is the style of presentations you can fish him. When fishing slack water, fish around structure, particularly close to shore (where minnows live). I tend to strip the wet fly quickly from the bank. Triggers the fish. When fishing wet flies farther out from shore, I will let the fly settle a little longer. Strip it back a little more leisurely, add a pause somewhere in the retrieve.
Wet flies out in the streamier steelhead pools are where some really big SRC hang out. I will fish small steelhead spey type patterns and a grease line presentation. Two reasons; One, the current gives this fly all the action it needs and Two, This is Deer Creek native steelhead country. Happiness is a wild summer run on my five weight, and this presentation will take both steelhead and SRC.
New fly old bait
There are two food sources SRC key in on. Both happen on the river scene.
The Stillaguamish River system produces Whitefish fry by the gazillions. As the fry swim at times in massive schools, in the lower river , white fish juvies are a ready food source. Salmonid fry and smolts are another good source of protein. I believe this where the effectiveness of the “spider series” comes from.
The Rolled Muddler is a personal favorite pattern of mine. This baitfish immitation is explained in great detail in the online magazine Salmonfly.net
Fishing hatches and terrestrials is a little more complicated but suffice it to say those tactics that are effective on the Yakima are very good for SRC. The only thing I would add is, these fish will also feed out on current seams a little more out in the main flow. There are some fine hopper patterns on the market. For the Cranefly, I tie my own in a parachute style.
"The only thing predictable about this fish is his unpredictability" (Dickson quote). My advice is; be flexible, don't get locked into something if it is not working. Experiment, and have fun with it. Wild Sea-run Cutthroat, it couldn't happen to a better fish.
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