Sea-run cutthroat primer, September 2017 Part 2 of 3

Jay Nicholas Sea Run Cutthroat Flies and Fishing -Part 2

The following narrative is based on my book, Sea Run Cutthroat Flies and Fishing (2016 available on Amazon and from the Caddis Fly Shop).

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Sea Run Cutthroat

I will refer to the sea-run form of Oncorhynchus clarki clarki, coastal cutthroat, as SRC . The SRC is a species of Pacific salmon and may be locally referred to as a sea-run, harvest trout, blueback, cutt, and cutty. My personal preference of a common name for the SRC is blueback, because the freshest, fattest, fresh -from-the-ocean SRCs will usually show off a blue back and shiny white belly, with only the slightest hint of orange under the jaw. This blue-backed color phase does not last long after the SRC return to the estuary, and they begin to resume their riverine appearance within a few weeks, with spots showing above and below the lateral line, the orange slash marks under the lower jaw, and the reappearance of a greenish golden hue on the SRC’s flanks. Not all SRCs achieve the steelhead-like blueish back I’ve referred to, because not all of these fish enter the ocean proper—some make a migration into saline estuaries like the Coos, Umpqua, Tillamook and so on; some SRC reside in places like Puget Sound instead of the ocean. Cutthroat rearing in these saline habitats get quite silvery, but in my experience, they tend to show more spots and their backs are not quite as blue, bellies and fins not quite so pure white—compared to SRC that reside in the open ocean.

O. clarki clarki is a species of wild anadromous trout (Pacific salmon) that is present in virtually every Oregon coastal river and likely in the vast majority of coastal rivers of Washington, the lower Columbia tributaries below Bonneville Dam, Puget Sound, British Columbia, Vancouver Island, and Southeast Alaska. The rivers inhabited by the SRC number in the thousands, probably, and a great many of these represent places where one may flyfish for a genuinely spectacular, native, wild sea-run salmonid that may be as small as 12” or may exceed 20.” As wild fish that one may fish during many months of the year, the SRC is a wonderful gift to the fly angler willing to fish properly scaled tackle to suit the species’ size.

SRC Habitat & Behavior

SRC tend to congregate in localized areas: examples include habitats with submerged wood, shallow flats, and shade—unless you find them laying out in the shallows, with no cover near, in bright sun. Fact is — I prefer habitat with cover and structure, but the SRC may choose to lay in exposed areas as often as not. Anglers fishing spinners, spoons and bait will often catch fish in 8 ft or more deep water. My catches in deep water have been so infrequent that I consciously avoid these areas, even knowing there could be fish there. I prefer by far to fish shallower water in the range of 3-6 feet deep. Remember, when fishing below the head of tide, that the tidal influence can cause the depth in a location to change as little as two feet and as much as eight feet in the course of a six hour tide exchange. Fishing an estuary means being mobile and seeking the habitats you can fish most effectively as the tide’s depth constantly increases and decreases throughout each day’s cycle.

Sea-runs may rather unpredictably take up temporary residence in various places throughout tidewater, but many migrate quickly through tidewater and move upriver. A boat or float tube is necessary to fish effectively most places in tidewater and is also a great advantage when fishing upriver. One may reliably expect each summer rainfall event to stimulate some sea-run cutthroat to migrate upriver past the head of tide in every coastal river. As the summer progresses, these fish will then make their way upriver in small increments and eventually pause again. Eventually they will be found dispersed throughout tidewater upstream to the region of the basin where Chinook and—later—coho are spawning. SRC above head of tide may congregate in riffles at the head of long pools, but they may also take up residence around rocks and logs out in the slowest waters in pools that may be a hundred or more yards long. Fly fishing for SRC is a game of finding fish; finding one fish usually means finding several. When individual SRC reach sexual maturity, usually between December and February, they will move into the smallest tributaries to spawn on freshets. This may mean that SRC feeding 45 miles upriver near spawning Chinook drop back downriver ten or twenty miles to enter their spawning tributary.

Popular lore suggests that the SRC follow the salmon into the rivers to feed on their eggs. This is not a clearcut case, however—SRC enter many coastal rivers in July and August, well before the main run of fall salmon in September and October. SRC are capable of making feeding migrations within and between river basins that are independent of their natal spawning stream. I do not know the extent to which these feeding migrations are genetically guided versus being opportunistic, perhaps guided by olfaction. Cutthroat tend to be predatory and one should fish most flies with an active twitch-and-strip retrieve.

Where will SRC Pause?

Sea-runs may rather unpredictably take up temporary residence in various places throughout tidewater, but many migrate quickly through tidewater and move upriver. A boat or float tube is necessary to fish effectively most places in tidewater and is also a great advantage when fishing upriver. One may reliably expect each summer rainfall event to stimulate some sea-run cutthroat to migrate upriver past the head of tide in every coastal river. As the summer progresses, these fish will then make their way upriver in small increments and eventually pause again. Eventually they will be found dispersed throughout tidewater upstream to the region of the basin where Chinook and—later—coho are spawning. SRC above head of tide may congregate in riffles at the head of long pools, but they may also take up residence around rocks and logs out in the slowest waters in pools that may be a hundred or more yards long. Fly fishing for SRC is a game of finding fish; finding one fish usually means finding several. When individual SRC reach sexual maturity, usually between December and February, they will move into the smallest tributaries to spawn on freshets. This may mean that SRC feeding 45 miles upriver near spawning Chinook drop back downriver ten or twenty miles to enter their spawning tributary.

Popular lore suggests that the SRC follow the salmon into the rivers to feed on their eggs. This is not a clearcut case, however—SRC enter many coastal rivers in July and August, well before the main run of fall salmon in September and October. SRC are capable of making feeding migrations within and between river basins that are independent of their natal spawning stream. I do not know the extent to which these feeding migrations are genetically guided versus being opportunistic, perhaps guided by olfaction.

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Part 3 of this series on the Sea Run Cutthroat will review fly fishing strategies and tactics, including:

*best fly depth
*Best fly retrieves
*How to find the fish
*The false rise
*Best time of tide and day to fish
*Fishing behind the salmon
*Fishing after a freshet

Jay Nicholas – September 2017

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