On the beach: winter into spring/part one

This is part one in what will be a year long chronicle of the life of a beach fishing sea run cutthroat fanatic.

December to April

Winter sea run cutthroat fishing

Dour, wet, grey, are a few words that come to mind when one thinks of our west coast winters. Addled, crooked, bent are a few words that come to mind to describe the kind of people who would even consider fishing for sea run cutthroat in the winter. Winter is not often synonymous with the sea run cutthroat, most likely because some lesser fish known as the winter steelhead holds most anglers in a thrall through this sometimes fugly part of the year. For many anglers the only exposure they have to winter cutthroat is while fishing for winter steelhead and then it is only as a trifling and seemingly random event on much too heavy gear.

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Although not often targeted they are found both in rivers and in the salt in certain estuaries and beaches. Not all beaches are created equal however or even hold sea run cutthroat in the winter months. Many of them follow the salmon and steelhead into the rivers from the fall right through to late spring, especially on larger rivers, and this is not surprising for the opportunistic cutthroat as there is a sustained buffet of eggs, flesh, and then fry, aquatic insect hatches plus the spawning run of the diminutive and mysterious cutthroat itself. These are the rivers where you will often find winter stream cutthroat. They are not targeted by nearly anybody as far as I can tell, but can be caught by nymphing eggs, or flesh patterns, swinging large streamers, and stripping fry patterns. These patterns are very similar to flies that most people throw for steelhead, hence the crossover. The best chance for success is obviously on rivers where there are larger populations of sea run cutthroat and not above falls or fish ladders as sea runs are not known for travelling past these barriers like other species. The fact that nobody is chasing them belies that if you look hard enough there are indeed viable winter beach and river sea run cutthroat fisheries out there.

Below:chasing sea runs in the lower section of a small river in december, when found they are often just as aggressive in december as august

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The traits of individual runs of these fish do vary in myriad ways in spite of anglers assertions otherwise. Small creeks that have little or no salmon return and receive seasonal peaks of rain in the winter and otherwise are dry or just a trickle will have runs of cutthroat that utilise them for spawning when conditions suit, not when a textbook says they will. I’ve caught post spawn fish in November and I’ve caught them in June. These fish are largely marine fish and I will sometimes find these fish almost year round in nearby estuaries. Large rivers with equally large massive often hatchery enhanced  runs of salmon provide a fairly steady supply of food for trout for a good part of the year. I often do not find fish in the beach areas of these rivers after the end of October until well into the spring/summer.

One thing that is probably necessary of anyone who wants to fish for sea run cutthroat in the winter is a willingness to drive around, hike and search around a lot, and fail repeatedly. Incidentally this is usually required of anyone who wants to catch them anywhere in the first place. The weather often doesn’t cooperate, and the fish are more sporadic. On the beaches where they can be found they can still seemingly disappear periodically, for example during herring spawning time in early spring on some ECVI beaches. I had never caught a sea run in the winter off the beach until I moved to Vancouver island. This was not for lack of trying, but the island offers many more of the small creeks that meet the criteria for winter cutthroating on the beach.

A fine january beach sea run

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Being opportunistic creatures and feeding during a time of year when food sources are at low levels logically you’d think that cutthroat would eat just about any fly you toss at them but I’ve found that when you catch fish there are some important specifics to adhere to.

from the same beach in february

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There are different schools of thought on how to approach this fishery. A lot of the little literature I have read about this time of year states to use sparse versions of favourite flies(rolled muddlers, and werner shrimps for example) lighter tippets, longer leaders, wade only to the ankles etc. My own experience tells me to go to the beach with a variety of simple flies tied from sparse to fully dressed, several strengths of tippet, and perhaps a 6 wt for casting in the wind and a softer 5 wt for protecting light tippets, see what the conditions are like, find sea runs, catch or watch them reject your flies and deduce your own conclusions because these fish are maddeningly unpredictable and can behave differently depending on the time of day, location, tide, food source, and what works for me can might not work for someone at the other end of the same beach.

Food sources for sea runs in the winter months are much more limited than in the spring through fall. There is little sea weed growth, many creatures are less active or simply not there, feed less with slower metabolisms. Sculpins and small shrimp are pretty much the only things I have seen fishing from december to the beginning of april. Most small baitfish are scarce until march/april when chum fry and young other young of the year baitfish hatch. Different anglers seem to prefer different flies, and indeed the type of bottom structure/beach gradient you fish will hold different kinds of food sources. They are also fairly active even in cold water, sometimes visibly rising and cruising up into the shallows. The flies that have worked for me in the past are usually moderately stripped small shrimp patterns, ; conversely I have a friend who does well on the same beaches with quickly stripped number 8 long shank streamer blue and white or red and white bucktails. I have even read of people catching them on dries during the winter, so as always observation and experimentation are paramount. As well as being completely addled as you’d have to be to even wonder about chasing sea run cutthroat in the winter. I have found that these winter patterns will often hold until into april, when the warming water and increasing daylight triggers changes in the composition of food sources available.

Biting wind, cold rain, numb face, feet and hands are often the hallmark of the beach from November right through to May or even june-uary some years. If there is one key to fishing this time of year it is to watch the tides and the weather, and wait for the right time to go to the beach. Milder days with low winds and fishing the tides is key. I have not often found cutthroat anywhere near shore on low gradient beaches when the shallows are being thrashed and churned up by the waves. Sea runs tend to run away from these kinds of conditions. Going out when the rain is blowing sideways in your face is often not conducive to success.

A very ideal day at an ideal location

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As far as my winter this year went…well it was a wash. I didn’t make it out a whole lot this year but I did visit local saanich peninsula beaches some well known others completely new, with zero success in the rivers or at the beaches but sometimes that’s the way it shakes out. These trips were usually for a few hours around the end of the ebb or flood tides. I also hiked in to some spots without a rod and just watched for rises. I did not see a single rise in 2013 until april. Of course buying and selling switch rods, a few winter steelhead trips, blowing up my oilpan on a logging road, and blowing up a switch rod, finding a new job, and illness curtailed my outings quite heavily. When I did get out, my 4 wt mystic switch paired up with a snowbee 7 wt single hand line paired with an intermediate poly tip was my go to setup, and I fished a variety of muddlers and small short shrimp patterns.

They aren’t numerous, and they are hard to find but I do know that for me aggressive trout on light gear trumps any other winter fishery out there.

Nice calm day in January at the beach

jan beach 2012

Doug Rose had an interest in winter sea run fishing and often fished some beaches out on the Olympic peninsula that were very favorable to this fishery. Check out his blog (link down at the bottom) for lots of good information on targeting these fish in the winter months.

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How to find sea run cutthroat: A primer

*Hint* you can’t find them sitting in yer underwear covered in cheeto crumbs at home, everything I have learned I have learned hands on at the beach or in the river. The only thing the internet is good for is killing time when you can’t go fishing. So jump out that sofa and get hiking. All you need is waders, a 5 or 6 wt. fly rod, floating line, a few leaders, tippet, and a few flies so don’t obsess over getting any new gear(at first). If you have been fly fishing for any length of time you probably already have these things. Most beaches get breezy and a 5 wt is usually lacking in the wind(unless its a new fangled ultra super fast action rod, but that’s that’s because they just write 5 wt on what is really a 6 wt blank)

Get yourself a copy of Les Johnson’s book and a tide table you can find these online now (back in the old days you had to look in a newspaper or use a tide book and convert the time based on where you were) and if you still have any money left get a copy of Chester Allen’s book, go fill your tank full of gas, string up your fly rod, and start exploring. Don’t give up if  you haven’t found anything for the first few weeks, and be careful in tackle shops, because most guys will make it sound like the waters teeming with these fish when they most certainly are not. I’m not going to give it all away. Look for creek or river mouths with cobbled beaches, it shouldn’t be too hard to get an idea of a few likely spots to start out at, and then start fishing the low and high tides. Observation is at the core of this fishery.