Les Johnson

July 24th, 2006

Pursuit of the Coastal Cutthroat

The coastal cutthroat is the trout kingdom's true nonconformist

By Les Johnson, Redmond, WA

I stopped at the edge of the river, removed the Reverse Spider from the keeper of my rod and waded into the slow run just across and upstream from a jumble of stick-ups and deadfalls; perfect cutthroat cover. Wading a bit deeper I was pleased to discover that the previous evening's repair of a leak in the right leg of my waders was holding. Then a cutthroat boiled next to a log directly across from me and all was right with the world.

Reverse Spider Fly
The Reverse Spider with its undulating action is one of the most popular wet flies for coastal cutthroat (Les Johnson photo)

My cast dropped reasonably close to where I had spotted the cutthroat. The Reverse Spider came to life as I stripped it back and proved to be irresistible to the cutthroat that streaked up from the dark water. It slammed into the undulating fly and pulled hard back into the stick-ups. It was a good fish that took a while to work out from the protective cover and bring to hand.

Coastal Cutthroat
A 19-inch coastal cutthroat being brought over the net for revival and release (Les Johnson photo)

The cutthroat, with its flanks still silvery from its time in the salt and just the barest hint of orange slashes under its jaw was a big-shouldered, muscular 16-incher that stared up at me defiantly as I backed out the barbless hook. For a short time I held the tired trout facing into the current. After regaining its wind the heavily spotted warrior, probably no more than a week back into freshwater, pulled free of my light grasp and shot back into its shadowy encampment amongst the deadfalls.

Author and cutthroat trout Photo right, Author with a coastal cutthroat. The silvery sheen indicated that it has recently returned from the salt (Preston Singletary photo)

I have pursued the Coastal Cutthroat trout for more than fifty years in just about every watershed from the Eel River in northern California to the Misty Fjords of southeast Alaska. It is a fascinating and mysterious, predominantly wild trout that has adapted through the centuries to survive in the confines of step-across streams of the high Pacific slope drainages and in relative security in lakes, beaver ponds and inland rivers. It is along the coast however where rivers are open to saltwater inlets and bays, and the Pacific Ocean proper that the coastal cutthroat becomes anadromous, or sea-going and transforms into the true non-conformist of the entire cutthroat family.

Preston Singletary fishing for cutts
Preston Singletary swings his fly across the tailout of a run on Washington's North Fork Stillaguamish River

The anadromous coastal cutthroat, better known as "sea-run cutthroat" is a predator that holds its own with all other salmonid species during its time in parent rivers. Through its 8 to 12 year life span the sea-run cutthroat can grow to a respectable 20-inchs in length and weigh three pounds, with exceptional specimens stretching the tape to 26-inches and six pounds; a sizable trout by any standard. Reaching such respectable dimensions that includes surviving the rigors of several spawning runs is testimony to its tenacity and lust for life in view of the dangerous environment it shares with larger, faster flesh-eaters like lingcod, seals and sea lions during its annual meanderings in saltwater.

When the sea-run cutthroat descends its natal stream in the spring after spawning, or on its inaugural journey to saltwater, it begins patrolling the nearshore, on its own or in small schools, seeking out young-of-the-year sand lance, herring, krill, pill bugs and small sculpins. The cutthroat's also hangs out in the tidal estuaries of rivers to ambush tiny juvenile pink and chum salmon that have wriggled up through the gravel of their spawning redds in the spring to travel downstream on their journey to the north Pacific. This high protein diet quickly rebuilds the strength of cutthroat that have recently spawned and puts girth and length on the youngsters that are testing marine waters for the first time.

Bob Young and nice cutthroat
Bob Young with a nice coastal cutthroat (Preston Singletary photo)

Upon acclimating to saltwater the coastal cutthroat sheds its freshwater gold and olive colors for a coat of bright silver with a grayish back. While in salt water most cutthroat will only rarely cross large expanses of deep water and seldom range more than a dozen miles from their parent rivers. Other coastal cutthroat are far-ranging wanderers though. Oregon State University study teams have seined sea-run cutthroat more than forty miles off of the Columbia River plume in the Pacific Ocean and a hundred feet deep.

During its time in salt water the sea-run cutthroat will hit spoons, spinners and baitfish-imitating flies or crustaceans with the speed and intensity of an NFL strong safety. Conversely, late in the season when it has returned to its natal river to spawn and winter over, the same cutthroat can sip a size 18 Blue Winged Olive from the surface with a delicate touch more commonly attributed to a choosy spring creek brown trout.

Gear for Cutthroats
A box of flies and a 5 or 6-weight rod with a floating line is all you need to catch cutthroat in fresh or saltwater (Les Johnson photo)

In Washington, anglers enjoy fishing for coastal cutthroat trout year-around. From late summer through Thanksgiving good fishing is available in nearly every river that is open to saltwater. From spring through fall fishing emphasis changes to Puget Sound and neighboring Hood Canal both of which have long stretches of log-strewn public beaches and parks that provide excellent opportunities to cast over good cutthroat water.

Coastal Cutthroat
Coastal cutthroat being released back into the salt near Victoria, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia (Barry Stokes photo)

British Columbia's Georgia Basin and the Queen Charlotte Islands also provide protected bays and pristine beaches for cutthroat. For Canadians however it is the beaches and rivers on Vancouver Island that are most popular; particularly fly-fishing the streams and shorelines around Campbell River which were so eloquently chronicled in the works of Roderick Haig-Brown.

During the spring outmigration cutthroat moving into the estuaries and bays join other cutthroat that spend most of their lives in salt water. Coastal cutthroat that spend extensive periods in saltwater were once thought to winter-over for a year or more in their marine environment. It has since been concluded that they are unique members of the species born in small, creeks that produce precious little forage rather than larger rivers that provide a good source of food. It doesn't take long for them to develop a preference for the rich feed in marine waters over the meager fare of their natal streams.

At spawning time these primarily marine-dwelling cutthroat dart into their small, brush-canopied creeks to complete the spawning ritual during high water periods, usually from November through February but sometimes as late as May. After spawning, they quickly drop back into the salt to resume foraging almost immediately.

Fortson Hole on the Stillaguamish
Preston Singletary fishing the Fortson Hole on the North Fork Stillaguamish River. (Les Johnson photo)

This phenomenon occurs among small-stream cutthroat of the Georgia Basin and south Vancouver Island in British Columbia. In Washington it is prevalent in south Puget Sound from Vashon Island to the waters around Shelton and Olympia. Marine waters close to the many small streams that drain these lowland areas not only provide anglers with a year-around fishery but are known to grow some of the largest sea-run cutthroat that anglers encounter every season.

I began fishing with a used Wright & McGill Granger cane rod and a Hardy Perfect reel with which I caught a lot of cutthroat. More than five decades later I still fish for coastal cutthroat in all of its environs only with a fly rod. I don't use the fly rod because I necessarily believe that it represents a higher calling. I have become wed to the fly rod because it is, in my opinion the simplest, most personal form of fishing next to a hand line. Furthermore, I can use the same trout outfit to fish coastal cutthroat in fresh water or salt and need just one box to hold all of the flies I need for either situation.

Typical saltwater beach Washington
A typical saltwater beach on Washington's Puget Sound (Bob Young photo)

The simplicity of coastal cutthroat fishing does not mean that it doesn't serve up its share of surprises and challenges, as it did after I had released the husky 16-incher back to its den in the stick-ups. I began working upstream and during the next hour was able to hook one more mature cutthroat of about 13-inches and an eager youngster that had not yet tasted salt water. I continued wading as quietly as possible, watching the far side of the river when a fish boiled at least six feet back under a canopy of alder branches.

I stopped and watched it swirl again. There was probably no more than three feet between the branches and the water. A third roll to the surface beneath the foliage let me know that the cutthroat had no interest in moving out into open water where I would have a reasonable chance to drop my fly in front of it. I lengthened my line a few feet and side-armed the Reverse Spider, attempting to put it well back under the branches. Close but no cigar.

My next cast was better, slipping under the branches, almost miraculously turning the fly over without fouling. The cutthroat hit the fly as it touched the water and thrashed to the surface showing a hint of its broad olive flank. It was a massive fish and when it turned to pull further under the cover my reel clattered and my arced rod went almost flat. The close-quarter battle was short and violent and never in doubt, at least for the cutthroat. It simply raised hell under the branches, burrowing, thrashing and twisting until the hook came away.

"Big cutthroat." I muttered quietly to myself as I stripped the line back with a trembling hand.

The cutthroat and I had done a number on each other and it would not be easily enticed into latching onto another fly anytime soon. I continued upstream for a hundred yards or so and landed one more nice cutthroat. Then I secured my fly in the hook keeper and headed back for my truck.

Although it does not receive much attention from anglers outside of its range which conforms remarkably close to the boundaries of the ancient rainforests of the Pacific Coast, the coastal cutthroat, whether resident or sea-run, is a magnificent trout in every respect. With a few exceptions it has survived since the last ice age with precious little assistance from man.

Carol Ferrera with nice cutthroat

Author's wife Carol Ferrera with a 17-inch coastal cutthroat. (Les Johnson photo)

The coastal cutthroat embraces its hardscrabble life from the moment it comes out of the gravel, when it is pushed from the best water by larger, earlier emerged coho salmon. Its demanding beginnings of competing with young coho for every morsel of food continue as it grows to maturity. The coastal cutthroat thus develops an appetite for a wide variety of feed, which includes clamping down on bait or steel. Its aggressive nature combined with overly generous bag limits had the coastal cutthroat on the ropes in the 1970s. Then sportsman's groups rallied around the cutthroat eventually having slot and bag limits imposed that would allow at least one year of spawning before they could be killed. Spring closures in rivers prevented the taking of post-spawners and younger fish making their first migration to salt water. Sportsmen again came to the aid of the coastal cutthroat in 1997 when they pushed through rule changes that protect it with catch-and-release regulations in all Washington marine waters. These measures appear to be working. While populations are listed as depressed or unknown in some watersheds, the coastal cutthroat population, according to anglers who pursue them, seems to be stabilizing and even improving in places.

Preston Singletary, reversed spiders and cutthroat
Preston Singletary, his cap garnished with Reversed Spiders and a nice coastal cutthroat (Les Johnson photo)

I don't know of another place on Earth where an angler can fish for a relatively abundant trout that is a more sporting adversary than the coastal cutthroat but it does get overlooked. Fishermen from all around the world lay down substantial sums of money for airfare, accommodations and guides to fish the rivers and marine waters of Oregon, Washington, Alaska and British Columbia in pursuit salmon and steelhead; places that also hold coastal cutthroat. And, they make these trips without ever tossing a trout rod into their duffel. I guess that those of us who live in coastal cutthroat country should be happy about this oversight. If sport fishers don't know about -- and celebrate -- a great trout though, efforts to protect it from habitat degradation and excessive bag limits are made more difficult.

To face off with the coastal cutthroat in fresh or salt water, any month of the year, all that is required is a good pair of waders, warm undergarments, a serviceable rain parka and your trout tackle. It is ready and waiting at remote, fly-in destinations, or within an hour's drive of metropolitan cities like Portland, Seattle, Victoria and Vancouver. For my money you cannot ask more of any trout, anywhere. ~ Les

About Les:

Les Johnson has been a flyfisher and writer for more than forty years. He is former VP and content editor of Greatlodge.com, was founding editor of Flyfishing & Tying Journal, author of Fishing the Sea-Run Cutthroat Trout and co-author of Fly Fishing for Pacific Salmon and Tube Flies. His all new book, Fly-Fishing Coastal Cutthroat Trout was released in September 2004. Flyfishing for Pacific Salmon II is scheduled for the fall of 2006. Les lives in Redmond, Washington with his wife, Carol. He can be reached via e-mail at les.johnson5@verizon.net. We're delighted to have Les as a regular contributor!

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