Our Man In Canada
August 26th, 2002

British Columbia Sea Run Cutthroat


From Fly Fishing British Columbia, Published by Heritage House, Distributed by Frank Amato Publications

Sea-run cutthroat trout are at once aggressive opportunists and tightlipped skeptics. Frequently willing to take almost any offering tossed their way, there are also days when these primitive salmonids rate among the most selective of trout.

Hardly surprising then that the sea-run required a multi-faceted angling skill set by an intuitive understanding of their environment. Mastery of the effects of tides on the behavior of sea-runs is the first prerequisite. After tides, anglers must know the best angling times of the year. Skills such as sight fishing and cutthroat sign recognition are also significant, as is the role of the weather. Choosing just the right beach or estuary can be a frustrating game, but it's essential since knowing the cutthroat's habitat is the real key to luring the matchless sea-run to the fly.

Tide is the single most important factor to consider when planning to fish for sea-runs. The best part of the tide change to fish depends somewhat on which beach is being fished, but as a rule the most productive times are the middle two hours of both the rising and falling tides. In some instances the last two hours of the drop are best, but it is most important that the tidal current continues moving well,. Hence, large changes in tide height over short period of time are best. There are no real limitation on high tide levels with regard to cutthroat fishing, but very low tides (three feet or less) are generally fruitless. These tides occur around the summer and winter solstices, as well as at other indeterminable time during the year, so a book of tide tables is essential equipage.

Two times of the year are of major importance to the sea run cutthroat angler. First, and of greatest importance, is early spring. At this time, cutthroat concentrate in the estuaries of rivers with good salmon runs to feed on descending fry. Sea runs are at their most selective at this time so realistic fry patterns (coho, chum, chinook or pink) are required, as are correspondingly aggressive retrieves - the fly-s action must mimic the movements of fleeing prey. Also, flies must remain size-matched to the fry as they grow over a period of some weeks. A range of size from #8 to #2 usually will suffice.

Cutthroat aggressively attack schools of fry, frequently chasing them into mere inches of water. While adhering to the technique of targeting and leading fish, cast a long line and then strip as fast as possible. Clamping the rod under one arm and using both hands to maximize stripping speed excites the cutthroat's instinct to give chase.

The other main time of year is early fall, before the salmon have made their way into the rivers to spawn. Cutthroat gather in estuaries in anticipation of the rich salmon egg harvest they will soon reap. Also, from December through January, cutthroat school in estuaries in preparation for their own spawning run.

The best days to fish for sea-runs are those on which most anglers would question going out at all. An overcast morning on which a fast-rising tide occurs at or around first light, with a breeze creating a minor chop on the water, is ideal. Add a few light, intermittent showers and we have all the ingredients for cutthroat nirvana.

Sight fishing is the skill most wanting in many sea-run cutthroat anglers. Cutthroat are highly visible fish, making them susceptible to a well-placed fly. Knowing they are opportunists, it follows that a fly placed in their window of vision will be struck. Expect to see obvious signs like jumping and rolling fish, but look too for more subtle signs - the keenly observant angler will hook far more fish. Small boils caused by an upwelling of water when a fish takes prey close to the surface are a sign most anglers miss. Another is a vee wake (often accompanied by leaping feed fish) caused by a cutthroat chasing prey. Any abnormal surface variation usually can be attributed to fish. If a cast is made to each abnormality, success rates will improve dramatically.

Good cutthroat beaches are treated with an elevated degree of secrecy by anglers, largely due to the fact they are uncrowded, difficult to find and hard to decipher. Such beaches are discovered by 'paying one's dues,' but with a little common sense and exploration, good beaches will be located readily enough. Look for gently sloping beaches with gravel bottoms. The presence of saltwort at the high tide line is a good indicator, as are swans and other waterfowl. It is rare to find sea-runs farther than a few miles from fresh water, so straying too far from stream areas is generally counter productive.

Historically, nearly every estuary carries populations of sea-run cutthroat, but like so much fish habitat everywhere, that of the sea-run has suffered. Fortunately, it is still possible to find good population in many areas, from the backwaters of the Fraser River north up the Sunshine Coast and including Desolation Sound.


Ryan Pohl: "There are many reasons why sea-run cutthroat entering Vancouver-area rivers are so nomadic. Still, it is perplexing why a fly fisher can catch 20 fish one day and none the next - even when fishing the same spot. This does not necessarily mean the fish have left. Years of journal entries show a consistent correlation between barometric pressure and cutthroat success. Optimum readings, always coinciding with successful days, range from 100.25 kpa to 101.35 kps. Going outside these parameters doesn't mean fishless days, but being within this pressure range has always meant more fish on more days."

David Wallden: "Some beaches get more pressure than others and the cutthroat get wise to use after we release them a few times. A sure-fire way to trick them is to use a bright attractor fly with a second smaller, more natural fly tied to the bend of the hook and trailing about 24 inches behind on a fine tippet. The sea-run will charge the attractor, refuse it, and then as it turns, take the "dropper" fly. An effective combination is a #6 Mickey Finn with a #12 euphausid trailing. Try this technique dead drift in tidal current or when targeting visible fish."

Ian Roberts: "Some beaches have fast-running tides, and areas that hold fish can quickly fill with water, leaving them too deep to fish effectively with a floating line. Instead of wasting valuable time changing spools during the best part of the tide, I carry a clear Stillwater head which I can loop onto my line in seconds. The sinktip puts my fly into the zone faster and helps the fly swim deeper as the tide picks up speed. This technique also works well or pinks and coho in shallow-water situations when a full Stillwater line is not appropriate."

Eric Schultz: "During periods of inactivity or when the fish are not obviously staying in one place, fan your casts out in a 180-degree pattern to cover more water. Place some casts parallel to shore and in the trough between waves. A cutty will nail prey it believes is trapped between itself and the shore. Remember, sea-runs are roving fish, so repeatedly casting to the same place is often counter productive. Try to cast with the tidal current or with the wind to keep your line tight and help you detect every strike."

Credits: From Fly Fishing British Columbia, Published by Heritage House, Distributed by Frank Amato Publications. We appreciate use permission!

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