Little box of horrors

These have been put to good use lately

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and a few of the cutthroat that my mediocre tying and presentation skills have “fooled”, notice the “keta rose” in its mouth
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On the beach:summer to fall/part three

September/October

(I know it’s a bit late) The light begins to change, the leaves begin to curl and some fall, the weather is calm and warm in the day and cool at night, and there is that immistakable smell in the air. The long shadows late in the day. For many sea run cutthroat anglers and definitely for myself this is the time of year I always wait for. That interminable window between when the days begin to noticeably shorten in the late summer and the first big rains of the fall pour down and the frosts return. A time of year that is almost made for fly fishing. When I day dream about fishing it is usually trips from this time of year that come back to me. Ahh mid September on the lower _____ river. There is no place I’d rather be. It always slips by so fast and there is never enough time, usually only a handful of outings in a short period of time, but if I could target them at no other period of the year I would still be quite happy.

October hatchery sea run

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I spend as much time as I possibly can both on the rivers and the estuaries this time of year. This is a time of transition on the beaches and in the rivers. Most rivers reach their nadir in these months, with various salmon species and the mysterious and diminutive sea run cutthroat amongst others amassing along the coastal estuaries and points. Some of these fish are on their way to southern rivers and some to hold until the first heavy rains begin to open up the rivers to migration and flushes the unique chemistry of their natal freshwater nursery to their olfactory pits. One of the unique and interesting traits of sea run cutthroat is that some of the older fish will make their way into the river before the salmon and the rains show up, not always very far sometimes just inside the estuary and sometimes above tidewater in the first few pools, sometimes quite a ways up river if the low levels and topography allow for travel upriver. Many systems also have resident cutthroat and you can find them mixed in. One thing I don’t find a lot of this time of year is skinny cutthroat, most fish are feeding heavily in anticipation of heading into the rivers to…feed heavily. And right behind them are very few deformed subhumans such as myself are following along fly rod in hand.

The splendor of September

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trout close up

The colouration of the fish this time of year is also interesting as you can catch one sea run that is blue/green backed (hey Oregon) faintly spotted, sea liced and chrome as can be and from the same pool (or back to back casts at the beach) catch a golden hued, heavily spotted large bright slashed olive backed specimen (as above)

On the beach this is often the easiest and consistent time of year to locate sea runs, the weather is often dead calm, and the fish are usually staging, feeding, and cruising the waterways, estuaries and lower rivers. There is a lot of different food types available to them, and I’ve most often seen them feeding on amphipods and stickleback. The biggest problem is usually the various sea weeds start die off and the castable section of water near shore is full of floating clumps of dead jellyfish, eelgrass, kelp and many other types of sea weed. This can make it difficult to cast and retrieve flies without fouling every three feet or so. There are usually more seals around as well which can make landing fish interesting.

September

Like August only better, the estuaries are often a good starting point, and the lower river stretches, particularly the first few flowing pools that are deep enough, usually contain some numbers of cutthroat often times in the same pools as the chinook and coho. The weather is almost always favourable in September, and the water is usually low, making wet wading a preferred approach, and light rods, tips and flies the way to go, in short very ideal for fly fishing. I found fish staging in the estuaries in typical spots this year, with fish staying in consistent areas, and most outings successful. Fish took everything from a simple white/chartreuse bucktail, to a chum baby, to a miyawaki popper. It seems every year that while the fishing is good along the beaches, the weeds washing along with the tide make it difficult to present a fly to the fish you find.

October

4 weekends in october is not enough to chase these fish in the many places they will be reliably found, and if you like to target fall steelhead and one of those weekends is spent with family on Thanksgiving then we are definitely looking at a glut of opportunity with a dearth of time to capitalize. The beaches this year have however held fish as is typical consistently right to the end of October, particularly on the flood right before or after the tide change. Colder weather does not decrease the aggressiveness of this species and when found most jumped on the first fly cast close to them. I spent time between rivers and the beaches this year, and found a number of fat, willing cutthroat on anything from egg sucking leeches and small intruders to small shrimp patterns from the beach right up into the upper rivers.

The fall is without a doubt a truly wonderful time of year to chase the sea run cutthroat on the fly, next year take a break from steelhead…no wait, do yourself a favour, go steelheading and leave all the stocky, aggressive trout to me.

Intruders for trout

Big trout are opportunistic throughout the year and like to eat larger prey such as little trout or baitfish, crayfish or whatever other terrestrial happens their way. They also attack large streamers and other attractors like spoons and spinners with abandon. Enter what is the best of both worlds, the intruder. Oftentimes if you swing intruders for summer and winter steelhead you will periodically catch nice trout. Most people shrug this off because steelheading is as singular as a crack habit but a scaled down or even regular sized intruder can also work quite well when specifically targeting larger trout.

A nice sea run on a egg sucking intruder

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A nice cowichan brown on a slowly swung trout intruder

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An intruder is a style of fly rather than a distinct pattern, designed for swinging and as such there are no rules about their styles, colours or materials, think of it like a wooly bugger, which has many iterations, not one. Designed initially to target the more aggressive fish at the cost of numbers, they are tied on a shank (or tube, hairpin, etc.) with a trailer hook, and feature a strong collar at the front and back to brace and flare a longer flowing hackle especially under current pressure, creating a large profile from minimal materials with minimal wind resistance and weight. The materials you use, the weight, the rigging of the trailer hook whether with tubing or some kind of wire or braid, or even a fly tied entirely on wire is limited by your imagination and not other people’s definitions. I prefer small brass eyes so my intruders aren’t actually very heavy, I find that they fish (hover broadside throughout the swing) much better than the tungsten or lead eyed versions many people use. But then again you don’t need skagits, tungsten or T- 14 either.

Rainbows, cutts, browns, and bulls all fall in the face of seductive ostrich

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Some think of these “flies” as lures and not flies at all; however, I personally am not concerned with debating pointless ephemera while the resource is facing so many threats, fishers fighting with each other will only hasten the demise of the fish we all hold so dear.

Another cutthroat with a mouthful of intruder

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Needless to say a switch or spey rod is the easiest way of casting and swinging these larger flies, but due to their design of maximum appearance with little actual bulk if you scale them down they fish well on a single hand rod too. I usually use my TCX 6119 or my Beulah 4/5 10’6 switch when fishing these flies, but can and do fish them on my 6 wt Mystic singlehand rod too. Like all streamer fishing, swinging, dead drifting into the swing, stripping cross, up or down stream all apply as tactics and work well, and though not used very much they will also work at the beach for sea runs.

It is easily asked, why bother using a time consuming fly like the intruder, as opposed to a big streamer and that’s a fair question, given the long history of using long shanked streamer patterns. I think that the clear answer is that those big streamer hooks in my experience do a lot of damage to smaller (and sometimes even bigger trout) whereas a size 4 or 6 octopus trailer hook usually minimizes it, so long as you keep the trailer line or wire short so that the hook is within tail of the fly. I know I’ve had a lot of bad hookups (tongue or throat hooked bleeders, eye hooked etc.) on the longer streamer hooks over the years, whereas the trailer hooks are almost invariably pinned in the same place due to their design. The other answer is that a trailer hook will usually hold a fish better than a long shanked streamer hook, as it doesn’t give them as much leverage, at least in my experience. Just like many steelheaders have gone from big spey hooks to tubes or trailers to minimize damage, I never want to tongue hook another big cutthroat in my life, it’s a move for the fish dig it?

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Drunk and high

While there are many times on a river when the assemblage of fishers lining a river bank resemble an episode of the trailer park boys, there is but one time of the year where the fish themselves avail themselves on flesh flies as Ricky and Julian would jump on a driveway paved with hash or steve french would annihilate a field of weed. It’s that time of year when on the streamside trail the ammonia waft of rotting chum and coho hits your nostrils half a mile from the river and melting salmon are hanging from the lower boughs of trees, there is but one tactic to turn to…flesh flies.

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There is usually a lull between runs in November and December, too late for summers, too early for most winter steelhead, and too late for fresh coho or chum, where most of the years fish are spawned out and this fishery fits that time period perfectly. No the technique, flies, and streamside detritus are not pretty, and the upstream dry and tweed types are advised to stay well away, but the results are definitely worth it. The trout almost become positively drunk on this rotten flesh and are feeding with abandon. If you like catching cutthroat, browns, rainbows, or bulls both sea run or resident from rivers hosting a decent salmon run of any species then this is just another tool in the arsenal to extend the season past the first blowouts of the fall that for many effectively end their river trout season.

A flesh fly, is usually either a weighted or unweighted chunk of marabou or rabbit fur in a pale peach to tan an inch to three inches long. If you cant visualise this then go to a salmon river in november find a stick and poke a hole in the side the of a dead chum on the bank. That’s right, it’s a sort of a rotten peach colour. The colours of flesh actually do vary a bit depending on the fishery and state of decomposition eg. white spring flesh is different than coho or sockeye.

When the banks are littered with these it’s prime time

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Usually the approach is to dead drift the flies into the trout’s feeding lanes just like globs of rotting salmon would drift downstream, and most of the time this is the way to fish them, however I have caught fish swinging , stripping, and hanging the fly. Tailor the weight of the fly to the water conditions, if fish are sitting at the edge of a drop off and the water is up and moving then cast up stream with a weighted pattern to get it down into their lane, you don’t often see salmon flesh floating on the surface downstream. If the water is lower then you’d be advised to use little or no weight as I have watched people incidentally snagging spawning salmon by using too heavy an egg pattern when targeting trout sitting behind those said spawning salmon, especially in the lower water earlier in the fall.

If this is all a little ugly for you, and you want to class it up a bit then what I suggest is tying small peach coloured intruders or something like a borden special and then swinging them and letting them hang into likely spots for half a minute or so, like I said these trout are drunk and high this time of year and will often smack flesh flies swinging or even when they are hanging seemingly mid river. Flesh patterns are a nice alternative (with a smaller time frame) to egg patterns which understandably many don’t or won’t use.

The best setup to use is entirely your choice and also dependant on water conditions, It can be almost like steelheading with long casts in big water and big tips, or it can be roll casting little flies on a five weight in low water, the biggest thing is to get the flesh flies into the vicinity of feeding trout if you do that then chances are you will find success. For what it’s worth I usually use a 9’3 6 wt, without issue.

While I’ve never encountered it I have even read about sea runs at the beach and estuary taking flesh flies when big rains wash chum and chinook carcasses out of smaller creeks. There are many different versions of this fishery to explore, tie up a few flesh flies and keep them in your box for that one day where you find yourself on the river during these conditions, you may just be in for a suprise.

The golden ghosts

What can I say but October is a good month to chase sea run cutthroat trout on southern vancouver island. These fish are almost in the golden death trout size range, both measuring in at 17″. Interestingly to me anyway these fish are probably at least 4-6 (possibly older) years old, and have most likely spawned a couple times, and survived run ins with numerous inshore sea predators, humans, and significant pollution including a massive fish kill in their natal urban creek and though not at all numerous still they exist. Next time you drive by that neglected little urban ditch, try to think of what may still be and not necessarily what has been lost.

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On the beach:spring into summer/part two

April to August

Transition is probably the most apt word I would use to describe the time period from the beginning of the spring to the wind down of the summer. Each year spring seems to be a little different here but April on the BC coast is most often hallmarked by unsettled and windy conditions on the beaches and often high and cold water conditions in the rivers. Conversely August often provides the most stable weather of the year, and by the end of the summer most rivers are near their nadir, warm, slimy and devoid of many salmonids. The truth is throughout this time period and it’s disparity of climate extremes, where anxiety increases, spouses suffer, cats and dogs sit at home neglected, and the only “housework” that gets done is the cleaning of fly lines, there are truly too many choices for a sea run cutthroat addict.

The big spring tides turn tidal choke points into rivers

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April(stingy bastard month)

I have often struggled to find and catch sea runs in April, whether in salt or fresh water and this year has proven to be no different. Success with fry patterns in the rivers has always been very sporadic for me, and you’re probably as likely to catch a steelhead kelt as a cutthroat in some systems. and due to the spawning times of many runs falling in April/May it is really system dependent. I got my ass handed to me fishing the lower stretch of a small productive mid island stream by my friend who was fishing spinners in higher water as he was getting down to where the fish sat, and I was fishing farther up in the water column with small fry patterns. With colder, higher water the fish weren’t as willing to move, and chase. In spite of the large spring tides, and their usual translation to good fishing the beaches were also very slow, with only occasional signs of fish and no signs of feeding on south island beaches that I frequent. I did however manage one fish on a waker at the beach right at the end of April.

May(spring gone and done sprung)

 

Once the hotter weather and more friendly conditions arrived (way earlier in May this year) the fishing really picked up, more fish flushed out of the spawning areas and hit the lower rivers and estuaries feeding ravenously. warm water=active fish=hatches and fry=fun.This period while weather dependent can be the best sea run cutthroat fishing of the year. Lower rivers and the estuaries of creeks have produced well this year, and I was able to raise some fish on wakers in May. While I don’t find a large quantity of fish this time of year the fish you find tend to be hungry and aggressive. I had some very good days this year on the slower beaches, not for numbers but for quality fish, and a number of fish stripping in small gurglers.

June(pretending to be july this year)

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This month can be beguiling, if only because it can be Juneuary, really unsettled and windy or it can be Junely, hot and calm like this year. This makes beach fishing dependent on weather patterns usually(not that I’m averse to casting cross wind over my opposite shoulder to avoid hitting myself with a clouser, or just ducking). It was a treat to be able to fish more this time of year due to seemingly less windy days in my usual spots. Summer steelhead in the top secret west (or is it east?) coast rivers also beckoned for a time, once again without success, nothing new there, but the places they are found are second to none. Swinging flies on a nice day in june is a wonderful way to spend a day (even if you break your switch rod for the second time in as many trips)

July(damn you green salad)

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Usually July brings the onset of stable weather, and on vancouver island marks the beginning of the beach fly fishing season for most people. It also marks the end of most river fishing as the rivers usually drop significantly and warm. The other thing that happens is that massive amounts of seaweed start washing up and drifting along the slower beaches I favour.

 

I spend most of my time chasing sea runs in salt water this time of year where they will be found in their regular feeding lies, or just about anywhere on the east and some of the west coast. As the summer salmon beach fishing season starts the popular beaches will start to get busy. Having said that there is a crazy amount of good beach water out there, and it’s really not hard to get away from people and still find fish. Some beaches become seemingly devoid of fish and others seem to swell with numbers this time of year. I spent this year chasing fish in new areas where tidal flow created rips, and did quite well, with a number of trips yielding double digits. Conversely I did quite poorly on the slower beaches, where massive amounts of seaweed drifting made it nigh impossible to strip in 30 ft of line without fouling.

August(sometimes the beaches reward you with golden death trout, and sometimes you get maggot filled seal carcasses)

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This marks the beginning of my favorite time of year, the rivers are low, nobody is on them, the light begins to change, the salmon beaches are busy, calm evenings abound, and a number of sea run cutthroat will begin to stage near or ascend their rivers. On some systems a “vanguard” (to quote Les Johnson) of cutthroat will enter the river before the early salmon, and the lower river water conditions are very ideal for chasing sea run cutthroat with a lighter fly rod. They will also often hold their nicest colouration around this time of year, that golden hue that I try so hard to capture with my poor photography skills. I spent very little time chasing them in the rivers every chance available this month due to this thing called life, trying to edumacate as many cutthroat as possible of the risks of biting fast moving silvery olive things. The regular beaches were good though, as during this time of year these fish hold as predictably as is possible for the nomad known as the sea run cutthroat.

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The trout of summer

It is truly mind boggling to me that you can spend a weekend evening at a sunny summer picturesque beach 30 minutes from a capital city that is teeming with sea run cutthroat and find yourself alone…but such is the life of a sea run cutthroater. You all should just continue to sit in your house playing video games with the blinds closed. I hear that’s more fun anyways.

1 of about 20 fish from a recent outing. Summer can sometimes provide unreal days, as small schools of fat hungry cutthroat congregate in certain areas (not telling) on the tides

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meat eater amongst green salad

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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

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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.