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
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
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."