An August Obsession
Puget Sound fishers have the luxury of being able to target searun cuts nearly year round along its more than 1,500 miles of shoreline. It’s marshes, sand spits and oyster strewn river deltas provide a rich habitat for Oncorbynchus clarkii. Sand lance and shrimp along the shorlines, sculpin and sticklebacks in the bays and a drifting feast of spat, eggs and amphipods provide cutthroat with a movable feast in Puget Sound. Numerous parks and public beaches allow lucky residents a chance to fish for them at their leisure. And we’ve got the Coastal Cutthroat Coalition and its tireless leader, Greg Shimek, looking out for the health of the fishery to boot.
But there is another coastal cutthroat fishery that’s bigger, harder to get to, muddier, full of wind fall and tidal channels, subject to more wind, bad roads, fewer beaches and thankfully lots of fish. The bays and estuaries of the Pacific Coast and the rivers that feed those coastal environments are a little appreciated nursery for a large and healthy coastal cutthroat population. The Nemah, Naselle, Clearwater, Bear, Smith and Palix all flow to Willapa Bay and host largely untouched populations of cutthroat. The cutthroat habitat and fishing opportunities continue as you head south of the Columbia to Youngs Bay near Astoria, to the Nacanicum, the Nehalem and the gold mine of cutthroat in the five rivers that flow into Tillamook Bay. And don’t get me started on the abundant fishery around Coos Bay. With a kayak or canoe and close attention to the tides you can get into those semi-salty pools at the edge of tidewater and enjoy remarkable fishing. Beach the canoe and walk upstream and every pool will reward you. Best of all, in late summer those fish that have been foraging in the estuary since spring floods are moving back to their natal streams. It’s the best time of year to find that 18 incher that has spent so much time in salt the coloring on its back has shifted to a mystical green or beyond—the legendary “blue back.”
Despite a wide range of habitats and individual populations up and down the coast, most cutthroat that live there conform to the same loose calendar of behavior. They spend winter and the spawning cycle in fresh water and drop toward the estuaries in spring. Flows are commonly too high to target them then. They spend late spring, summer and early fall feeding along the edges of saltwater where they target the downstream migrating salmon smolt and the schools of sand lance and tidal bait fish. Years ago a bait fishing friend introduced me to fishing for cutthroat with “clam necks” for bait. He would dig clams and use the necks for cutthroat bait. It was effective and an eye-opener for what goes on in the estuary. Cutthroat are down there terrorizing everything.
Cutthroat from larger rivers, such as the Snohomish and Skagit in Puget Sound, the Bear in Wilapa Bay and the Nehalem on the Oregon Coast, tend to return to the rivers in early fall. Searuns native to smaller streams often remain in the estuaries until winter rains swell the creeks. One of the most memorable days I’ve spent cutthroat fishing was in October 2016 with my late friend John Bohrnsen, when we anchored off this particular hole on the Nehalem (not saying where) and brought fish after fish to hand. The fishing was stupid good, so good we motored to town for an early dinner and a cigar, then came back for the evening high tide where the fun continued. We ended the day putting the boat on the trailer in pitch black. I fish that spot in October in memory of John. The fish usually join the celebration too.
When I began fishing coastal cutthroat in the 1980s, there was precious little written about the species. Harvest limits were few and poorly enforced, particularly on remote coastal rivers. That began to change in the 70s and with publication of Les Johnsons “Sea-Run Cutthroat Trout” in 1979. Biologists, fisheries managers and fishers began to wake up to the opportunity and the threat to coastal cutthroat. Stricter harvest limits and catch and release regs in the 80s brought cutthroat numbers up and showed everyone that management was both necessary and effective. In 1982, Amato Press published a book of fly patterns created by the Rainland Fly Casters fishing club of Astoria that included a wealth of searun cutthroat patterns. Publication of Steve Raymonds “The Estuary Flyfisher” in 1996 lifted the sport and the science even higher with the first detailed analysis of the estuary food chain and how cutthroat thrive in it.
And through it all, coastal cutthroat flourish without the benefit of hatchery programs that dominate other trout fisheries. Sure, there are hatchery programs on some rivers, such as the Cowlitz in Southwest Washington, but those programs are few and isolated to inland waters. The true coastal cutthroat populations that swim to Puget Sound and the Pacific estuaries are virtually untouched by hatchery genetics. Coastal cutthroat are healthy survivors, masters of their universe, nimble predators and a worthy quarry for any fly fisher and now is the time. See you on the water.
If you have ideas, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I welcome suggestions.
President Steve Jones