Steelhead/Sea Run Cutthroat/Salmon Flies
Practical Flies for Fishing

By Pete Hiatt

The steelhead/sea run cutthroat flies are the simple American cousins to the Brit's artistic Atlantic Salmon Flies. The American versions are easier to tie and very effective. The variations within these are simple. There are bright colors and dark colors with both sparse and thick bodies. There are two basic versions within this group: the hair wing like the Skykomish Sunrise or Royal Coachman and the feather wing like the Spruce Fly. Marabou feathers, synthetics, and different body types make for innumerable variations, but learning to tie the two basic types covers all but the specialty flies.

There are differences in the effectiveness of the same fly between cutthroat, steelhead and salmon. 40 years of fishing for them has led to me to tie all Sea Run Cutthroat flies with thick bodies. They are just more effective for me, day in and day out. The most important difference between the flies for cutthroats and steelhead are in how you tie the hackle and wings on the fly. Stiff, full hackle allows the fly to stay closer to the surface with greater ease. This is very effective for cutthroat which seem to prefer the fly up high in the water regardless of the depth of the water. The wings can also be tied under the hackle which also allows the fly to stay up a bit higher. Tying the wings over the hackle streamlines the fly a bit more and lessens the effectiveness of the hackle to keep the fly high in the water. The spey-type tied flies take this a bit further with soft, sparse hackle. They are more minnow-like in presentation and stay lower in the water with greater ease. They are gaining in popularity and are effective, but I personally don't much care for the look.

So for cutthroats, keep thicker bodies and higher flies. Under overhanging brush, by stumps, over rocks are all good areas. I prefer fishing for them in tidewater just below the head of tide. The cutthroats usually stay in this area for a long period of time awaiting fall rains. The bright colors are best during the day and dark patterns are best under low light level conditions.

I have found steelhead to be more selective. While some water conditions and time of day call for sparser or more subdued colors (ie, purple & black or brown tones), the average steelhead fly revels in being a loud and gaudy thing. They and the cutthroat flies are the Phyllis Dillers of the fishing world. Still, darker versions prevail in the barely legal twilight evening hours just prior to the dinner bell and lighted fly bench. At these times, the darker forms are easier for the fish to see against the surface. The steelies like their presentations lower in the water so tie and fish accordingly. Steelies are usually caught above the head of tide and the water is often shallow and very clear. Sparser patterns are often effective at these times. Remember that the sparseness is important when the fly is WET. Marabou looks full but is very streamlined in the water. It adds seductive movement, also. The dark/light rules still apply.

My fly fishing life began when an alleged friend swiped my uncle's boat before I could one day and came back to shore with a chest full of cutthroats caught on fly. Then my uncle showed up and instead of chastising him, we had him guide us with a couple of extra fly rods he had handy (I have learned never to turn down an oarsman). That was the start of my downfall into fly fishing. Flies available from the local shop fell apart too easily so I started tying my own. I put myself through college engineering tying and guiding on coastal rivers. An early retirement found me easy prey to more of the same affliction.

My cutthroat/jack/salmon fly fishing was done from boat and just under the surface so very few flies were lost. In the less than perfectly clear salt water, the fish didn't care if I used 4 pound line or 20 pound line. I found that out by experimentation. I settled on 8 pound line which I still use today. It will handle a Chinook salmon. Since I lost very few flies fishing this way, the search for the perfect and indestructible fly began. The store bought flies came apart or quickly rusted in the upper saltwater reaches of Oregon's Alsea River which was local to me. We fished just below the head of tidewater where the cutthroats were always present in this shortish coastal river. Tying my own flies became a necessary requirement. I found the excellent Eagle Claw #1197 in nickel and gold which solved the rusting problem. That hook is still made 40 years later, although it is no longer $20/1000. The hook could be slightly filed sharper without going through the nickel coating. The hook was also very strong and held up with even the occasional Chinook salmon. Chinook can flat straighten out a normal hook. I tied in #8, #6, and #4 sizes. Pattern choice really was not very important. We were not matching a hatch and the anadromous fish were not sophisticated. They usually wanted BRIGHT!

The two most popular patterns of the day were the Skykomish Sunrise and the darker Spruce flies. I tied and used both effectively, but the Skykomish Sunrise was longer lasting than the feather winged Spruce fly. The Skykomish Sunrise was chosen as the basis for the "perfect steelhead/cutthroat fly." The hook was only the first change. Experience had shown that a thicker body was more effective in catching fish (especially cutthroat and salmon) so built up bodies were next. The chenille body was the next target. It abraded away far too easily with fish teeth, debris in the water (always bothersome on incoming tides), and the always present and vicious Attacking Brush. I switched to yarn bodies. The teeth of the fish sometimes even broke the ribbing tinsel so tinsel usually became history. Instead, I switched to wire and half-hitched in between each wrap of yarn to keep it from sloughing back on the hook from repeated fish attacks. One of these lasted an entire fishing season for me which included several steelhead and jack salmon, many dozens of sea run cutthroats and a particularly nasty 33 pound Chinook who had been determined to prove the "indestructible" part wrong.

About the only thing I have changed in 40 years is to add marabou for extra life and attraction. I tie on the marabou a bit behind the hackle/wing tie to reduce head size.

The second major variety is the feather-winged fly as exhibited by the Spruce fly. I prefer the wings to be 50% longer than the fly hook to add more life. There are many effective variations of this fly, but the easiest to tie and murderous in its catching abilities is my brightly colored Marabou Spruce. I use the same nickel #1197 hook with no body at all. The silvery hook provides its own attraction. The marabou, then hackle then feather wing is all tied at the head of the fly. That's it...IT'S DONE!

For novice casters, please note that if you start your forecast before the back cast is completely straightened out, the fly will "pop" and the wet marabou which casts easily will then lose its wetness and puff out creating so much air drag, you'll think you are casting a balloon. So complete the backcast first! Otherwise forget that presentation nonsense. We are talking about neolithic fish here not sissy fish. Cutthroat will immediately retake a fly after several encounters with the hook. They are bulldogs!

As in most fly fishing, disgustingly few patterns will suffice. Light, dark, sparse, and full bodied covers everything. I find no reason for more than a Skykomish Sunrise, Pete's R&B or RBW, Pete's Rogue River, and an R&Y Marabou Spruce. Marabou added to any pattern helps, although, a chunk of worm added sometimes is even better.

The patterns mentioned will be in the FAOL Atlantic series here, keep checking back. For complete tying instruction on the fishing version of the Skykomish Sunrise (with Marabou), click HERE. ~ Pete Hiatt

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