Sea-run cutthroat fishing & behavior, September 2017 Part 3 of 3

Jay Nicholas Sea Run Cutthroat Flies and Fishing -Part 3


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


Cutthroat tend to be predatory and one should fish most flies with an active twitch-and-strip retrieve.

They’ll eat most anything that is available, but especially favor crawfish, sculpin, juvenile salmon and steelhead, and the like. An active retrieve is somewhat more likely to get the attention of a SRC than if you just retrieved the fly slowly and steadily. Still, it pays to vary your retrieve.

I generally employ a strip and twitch retrieve with the vast majority of the flies I fish. Exceptions are common, however, so you should at times fish your fly on a swing, a dead drift, and of course the dry flies can be drifted freely or retrieved to create a commotion on the surface. I’d say that some 75% of my SRC fishing involves some variation of retrieving a fly. The fish will sometimes take my fly as it hits the water, as it swings, or as it hangs still in the river or tidal flow. That said, I’m sure that Ive hooked more fish while twitching, stripping, or otherwise retrieving the fly—than leaving it to its own to settle, swing, or hang.

Fly Depth

I prefer to fish SRC in the top foot of the water column. This is a personal habit that surely costs me fish at times. Most fish laying in 3 to 5 feet of water will raise up to take a fly that is within 6 – 12 inches of the surface, but surely not all SRC will do so. I have seen shadows and shapes of SRCs following my fly, just deep enough that I could not see the fish clearly. Some of these fish took the fly solidly when I then allowed it to sink out of sight before retrieving. The deep retrieve is effective, but it requires the fish to take the fly and hold it—or all you will feel is a gentle tug and then nothing.

Move and Search

My opinion regarding the temperament of SRC is that they will nearly always show interest in a fly if they see it on the very first cast to an area. I think of steelhead differently. I may cast and swing through a long steelhead run three times if I think fish are present, using a different fly on each progression through the run. This careful, methodical probing of steelhead waters with different flies is something I take for granted, reasoning that a fish that did not move to one fly might move to a very different fly if given the opportunity. this is an approach I never take with SRC. I suggest that SRC waters are most efficiently fished by covering potential SRC habitat rather rapidly, placing each cast at least five or six feet away from the previous, covering each area quickly and moving on. I never make several casts to the same place, no matter how tasty a log, stump, or boulder ledge might look—unless a fish has already showed to my fly.

Once I see a SRC move to my fly, I will anchor and test these waters thoroughly, because there may very well be more than one fish in a small school in the vicinity of the first fish. This is when I may experiment with different flies, smaller and larger sizes, and so forth, but only after one fish has shown to the fly.

Once I see a SRC move to my fly, I will anchor and test these waters thoroughly, because there may very well be more than one fish in a small school in the vicinity of the first fish. This is when I may experiment with different flies, smaller and larger sizes, and so forth, but only after one fish has shown to the fly.

The False Raise

The false raise is a specialty of the SRC—the fish rushes your fly, but won’t quite take the fly into its mouth. The raise or show could consist of a swipe, a nip at the fly, a leap over the fly, a leap onto the fly or a quick look and turn-away after a close approach. Most of these false raises could be mistaken for a fish actually taking the fly—but they have not.

The false raise can usually be transformed into a solid take by switching to a smaller fly, or to a more subtly colored fly. But some of my days on the water seem destined to find the fish rushing and rejecting my fly, in spite of my best effort to find a pattern that the fish will take into their mouth.

The Rapid Ejection

I did not believe it at first. The SRC were taking my fly into their mouth and spitting it before I could set the hook. Astounded, I set-up faster, and managed to hook some of the fish, but sometimes the hook just pulled out of their mouth and went flying up into the air. I’ve learned that the SRC will sometimes behave quite nicely, taking a fly, holding it, and turning—a perfect scenario for firm hook-sets. But these ambush predators are also capable of inhaling and exhaling a fly so quickly that they are all but un-hookable unless you have faster reflexes than I. These lightning takes are the fastball of fly fishing. You need to see the fish coming and anticipate the timing of your hook-set to connect with these fish. Milliseconds early or late, you will whiff the fly into the air, it’s just like that.

Best Months to Fish SRC

There are no best months to fish SRC, because the SRC flyfishing season is a long one, lasting from approximately July through the following May — the nature of the fish you will find through out this season vary greatly. July through August will see SRC returning fresh from the ocean, and if you are lucky to intercept these fish they are at a peak of condition and fat content, if you should choose to harvest a few fish for the barbecue.

Best Time of Day to Fish SRC

Time of day is a factor that merits more consideration in some months than others. During the hot days that generate warm river water temperatures of July and August, the best SRC flyfishing will be from legal fishing time in the morning until the sun hits the water—early through mid morning—in areas that are shaded, and on days when it is overcast, cloudy, or (better still) rainy. High sun and overly warm afternoon and evening water temperatures are detrimental to our fly fishing for SRC.

July and August are the hot water months of the season when water temperature and sun are most potentially problematic. Evening SRC fishing can be productive when the sun leaves the water in shade, but one must also find suitably moderate water temperature in the evening to find receptive fish. When fishing the lowermost portions of estuaries in morning and evening, the water will be a little cooler during a morning low tide, but the water temperature on a flood or high tide will likely be determined by the ocean’s temperature, depending on the hydrograph of the estuary.

When fishing upriver after the heat of August, evening water temperatures are usually moderate, and evening fishing in shade can be as productive as morning or cloudy day fishing for SRC—if you can only find where the fish are laying and present an attractive fly.

Autumn is a season when you may reliably catch SRC throughout the day, irrespective of whether it is cloudy or not. This means that you can relax and go fishing anytime you feel like it, with similar chance of hooking fish, because the water temperatures will never be warm (or cool) enough to put fish off the bite.

SRC During Salmon Spawning Season

Cutthroat and summer steelhead will congregate below spawning salmon to feed on eggs in the fall, and these situations call for fishing small egg patterns under a strike indicator. I remind anglers to be conscious of the salmon’s spawning redds (nests) and avoid wading in areas that the salmon have dug up— to protect the eggs buried in the gravel. SRC can be found in riffles only a few feet deep that are immediately downstream from the spawning salmon. In addition to fishing egg patterns, the angler should fish the entire range of small and large trout nymphs because any of these can be disturbed and swept downriver by the spawning salmon. You will find that nymphs including the Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear, Copper John, Prince, and any stonefly nymph are all good choices to try.The estuary SRC angler can also hope to hook a coho on rare occasion.

Fishing the Tides

When fishing the lowermost to the mid reaches of Oregon estuaries, I prefer by far to fish an outgoing tide — from about the lower half of the outgoing through the first hour or so as it has turned and started to run in again. After this point, I do not have much luck flyfishing SRC, because the water tends to get murky and my flies pick up debris stirred up by the quickening tide.

At this time I prefer to fish the very uppermost reach of tide as it floods into the river proper, and I have occasionally had the good fortune to intercept fish that are moving into the first few pools from tidewater as the riffles disappear on the flood.

Fishing After a Freshet

This is the most exciting time to fish coastal rivers (above the head of tide) in summer and early fall.

The water is up, the flows increased, water temperatures are lower, and all sorts of anadromous fish are likely to be on the move upriver, including our SRC. Keep in mind, that a rise of a few inches on a river height gage could translate to a hundred or more cubic feet per second, quite possibly doubling or tripling the low summer flow most of the short-reach Oregon Rivers on the coast. When this happens, you had best be fast to respond if at all possible. The raise and fall of the small river in summer may last a day and be done with. The fish may move at dusk or dawn and then settle into new pools. Just to have cloudy skies during the day should be sufficient to bring on a day-long bite from the same SRC that only yesterday refused to take a fly except during the first few hours of the morning.

Whatever you do, if you love SRC on the fly, you’ll find a way to be on the water the day of and the day after a summer rain. My very best summer and fall flyfishing for SRC and jack Chinook always coincided with rain, cloudy skies, and a freshened river. Note here that—circumstances depending—you may find fish only in the riffles, only in the pools, or in both, as they alternately make their way upriver and settle in to rest in new places.


Author’s note: I hope you found something of interest in this 3 part series dedicated to sea run cutthroat, and invite you to delve into the book where you will read more about these fish and also find photographs and recipes for 60 sea-run cutthroat flies.

Jay Nicholas – September 2016


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