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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

DSCF5128 - Copy

A nice cowichan brown on a slowly swung trout intruder

DSCN3360

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

IMG_0704

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

DSCF5130 - Copy

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?

DSCN3368

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.

DSCN3369

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

IMG_0043

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sea runs on a switch rod

So I like fishing for sea runs with a switch rod. I find them more useful in some situations and conditions than a single hand rod.

*Switches or speys are not at all required to effectively fish sea runs or resident trout, but some find them fun. You may not like them once you get one on a river and fish them, so my best advice is to try these rods before you buy them. You may find they are not for you, and that will save you buying a bunch of gear. A lot of people don’t like them for stripping flies as the head connection catches the guides, and then you have to get the head back out of the tip every time you cast. Casting a rod before you buy it will help you avoid getting into something you don’t like.*

Most often I use a trout switch for swinging and stripping small flies on rivers at low to moderate flows, rigged up with an appropriate 250 grain switch line or scandi head. Trout switches are often too long a rod if you are on small or really small rivers, but if you have a bit of space then they’re perfect. I’ll even throw large streamers/small intruders on this setup, as large cutthroat have been known to eat intruders rather readily time to time.

One of the better uses I’ve found is using the rod for nymphing egg and flesh patterns, usually rigged up with a small tip and a light skagit at 300 grains. This can be a very effective way of catching sea runs (and any other type of trout (big browns?) in the vicinity) in the fall and early winter.

Two hand overhead casting at the beach makes it far easier to cast farther than with any reasonable single hand trout rod, especially in the wind, and especially if you fish windy beaches often, I know my wrist thanks me.

While I’ve owned a bunch of trout switches the rod I’ve settled on is the Beulah classic 4/5 10’6 switch rod. It is the best all around sea run cutthroat trout switch I have fished, and is fairly reasonably priced. I don’t target 10″ trout on spring creeks and therefore I don’t use a rod that matches up with those conditions. It is a bit beefy for small fish in the 8-12″ range but is perfect for sea runs from 14″-18″ and will effectively handle fish all the way up to surprise fish into the four or five pound range. It’s also a bit heavier than some of the rods but it’s tough, or at least I beat the crap out of it for two years now with no problems.

If you are looking for something that is perfect for the smaller trout that average in the 8-12 inch range, the mystic 11’3″ 3 or 4 wt switch, Anderson 11’9 2 wt, Meiser custom rods or speywerks 11’2/3/4, echo SR 3 wt, are the rods you should look at. Most of the other rods are more powerful and better for larger trout.

There is absolutely a use and niche for these rods, just look to sites like 2handedtrout, the interest in building single hand conversions on the skagitmaster forum, and all the queries on spey pages. The interest is there, and there is gear as affordable as anything else.

DSCF7021

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

DSCF5480

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)

DSCF5439

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)

DSCF5506

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)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

IMG_0636

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

DSCF5507

 

DSCF5503

 

meat eater amongst green salad

DSCF5515