Cumberland fly shop

Small fly shops are all too few these days, and it’s a tough market even during good economic times(unlike now) but I’m happy to pass on that there is a new fly shop located in the comox region, more specifically the village of Cumberland.

Pop in next time your on the way up island, Peter and the rest of the crew are stand up guys, and the inventory is growing fast. Do yourself a favour, skip Cabelas and stop in at a real fly shop on your way to wherever on this little slice of paradise known as Vancouver island….and stop in at the microbrewery while your at it.


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.


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


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.

Dry fly/waker cutthroat fishing

One of most fun methods of fly fishing for these great fish in salt or fresh water is with surface flies. They are really good for searching out fish when none are rising or visible, especially on the beach, and you definitely are having fun even when you don’t hook up, which is more common with surface flies


Salt water:

Dry fly fishing in the salt although seemingly a bit strange has some history and a following here on the west coast. Patterns like the Cutthroat candy, Miyawaki beach popper, or gurgler fished with a strip retrieve or gently swung in the tidal current(in areas where there is significant current) can and will bring up big cutthroat who behave almost like sharks when they are chasing these flies. A Miyawaki popper is one of the best searching patterns there is and will definitely get the attention of larger cutthroat in it’s vicinity. The drawback (only for you and not for the fish) is that you will not catch as many fish as with a subsurface fly due to a lower hooked to landed ratio. You will however usually have more fun. Casting out 40-50′ with your tip to the water, employing an erratic 2-4 inch strip so that your fly is leaving a small v wake is how I most often fish these patterns. They will also sometimes follow the fly in so strip it in close. If a fish hits, swirls, splashes, flips, or otherwise goes jaws on your fly wait for the line to tighten up and then strip strike. Try to avoid rearing back on the rod, and if there is no tension keep your fly fleeing or twitching at different speeds just like a frightened or wounded baitfish would. Sometimes they will hit as many as 8 or 10 times in a row, and sometimes they ignore it after that initial strike. A good follow up is to either put a cast right back into the same vicinity or change flies quickly and put something new into the area. While there is not often a bad time to try the dry the best times are when there are fish actively feeding on the surface or schools of small baitfish being visibly attacked and are v waking or jumping out of the water to get away. Big sea runs get quite aggressive in these situations. It takes a little faith to tie on a dry fly and stick with it especially at the beach but in the end it is a lot of fun…give it a try.

This is ideal weather for stripping a gurgler across the surface, indeed a fish swirled on my fly while I was getting my camera out for this picture(below) a nice spring sea run at the beach pictured with the gurgler and my beulah classic switch rod


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a recent salt water dry fly cutthroat


Some of my favourites for the beach,(clockwise from left, cutthroat waker, gurglers, miyawaki beach popper)


Fresh water:

If you are fishing for sea run cutthroat you have a few choices in terms of dry fly approaches. Classic dry fly dead drift and waking/stripping larger dry patterns. In my experience with sea runs however, the best approach is casting and strip retrieving flies.

I’ve rarely caught sea runs on the dead drift. This is not to say that they can’t be caught on or don’t feed on small BWO’s or the like, or that you can’t dead drift larger patterns like stimulators (a great cutthroat fly) or chernobyl ants indeed that is a completely legitimate and most enjoyable way to target them. There are several reasons I am not an advocate of this approach, mostly because wherever you are likely to catch sea runs, there are often young salmonids, juvenile cutthroat or steelhead and they are often 1 to 5 inches long and they will feed recklessly on anything that looks like food. When you fish around these fish with small flies with small hooks you are going to hook lots of them, and what you will often find is that you will be hooking these little fish in the eyes, throat, etc. If you put a large waker, dry (or larger wets) on you will find you will catch far less of these little fish which are the future of the fishery you are enjoying. Another reason is that often if you watch sea run cutthroat feeding on mayfly or other small insect hatches is that the fish rising are often smaller. Recently a friend and I found ourselves on a sunny afternoon on a mid island river this spring several types and sizes of mayflies starting coming off on a nice moderate run with a very nice tailout. My friend was fishing spinners and I was fishing various cutthroat flies on my switch rod. Some cutthroat began rising on these mayflies but every fish that was coming up was small and looked to be about 4-10 inches long. Anyways not long after the hatch started my friend with his spinners hit a very nice adult cutthroat in the deepest slot of that section, followed by another in a nearby shoreline slot. In the hour we fished this stretch we did not see a single large cutthroat rise. Big adult sea runs are largely piscivorous and do not often come up and feed on little insects, they eat the little fish that are trying to eat those insects. My point is not about spinners but that the traits of larger sea runs.

Like Summer run steelhead you can catch them with a downstream waked pattern, but most often I find that stripping your fly back upstream or across is what actually triggers a response from these fish. The hook up to landed ratio is pretty low, but again it’s a lot of fun to have big sea runs or resident cutthroat blast your waker. You can also follow up with a subsurface or sunk fly. As far as waking in current make sure your fly has enough resistance to wake properly. The small gurglers I use at the beach will be pulled under by the current in a river, so smaller versions of flies that are designed for heavy current pull such as summer steel flies like the grantham sedge, steelhead caddis, cutthroat waker, bombers, Lambroughton skater, after dinner mint or thompson river caddis are all good choices. Stimulators, fat alberts, and chernobyl ants are also quite fine. What I like to do is cast slightly downstream and swing the fly downstream into soft edges, eddies, and seams and then strip it back, if they are going to hit they usually do with reckless abandon. Stripping or swinging the fly across tail outs is also another good tactic and if you are fishing rivers with summer steelhead then that’s where the “tweener” 5 and 6 wt. switches or a (6 wt single) come in handy just in case there is an aggressive summer in the vicinity. This style of fishing is best suited to switch or spey rods on island rivers. Not all water nor times of day are suited to this approach, but you won’t learn the where’s and what’s unless you tie one on and leave it on. It usually takes faith to put on and stick with a waker, but the results are more than worth it.

a nice cutthroat caught on a big waker in the ______ river

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like all other posts, this is purely my opinion based on spending a lot of time chasing cutthroat in rivers and beaches, your mileage may vary.

In praise of beaches

There are many many organisms that inhabit the beaches where you will find sea runs, and it never ceases to amaze me how much you will see if you take a few seconds to look(even between strips of line). I challenge anyone to take the time to appreciate the incredible diversity that can be found in these places. I have encountered everything from swans to oystercatchers, pelicans, ospreys, several different types of owls, bats, hawks, eagles, herons, mink, seals, sea lions, river otters, bears, canada geese, to wading in with a red rock crab firmly clamped onto the laces on my wading boot, at least 4 different kinds of shrimp scooting around the break in the tidal flow around my feet, sculpins, cabezon, skates, starry flounder, sand lance, smelt, herring most types of salmon in adult, fry, and smolt or juvenile form, ghost shrimp, marine worms, surf perch, piling perch, even rats, raccoons, deer, and mice to name a few and this isn’t even touching on almost any of the marine invertebrates that are out there. It’s really hard to do when you are fishing for them but if you ever get a chance to watch sea runs feeding on salmon fry or young sand lance on the surface, or sipping amphipods. It is absolutely amazing to watch. My hands are usually shaking. Awesome.

The kaleidoscopic effect of looking into the watery surface and trying to distinguish the well disguised scuplin following your fly close in, and the speckled and refracted light bouncing back off the cobbled and barnacled bottom is just mesmerizing to me and I do catch myself just staring time to time. Sometimes there’s a silver ghost stalking my fly too.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget your polarized sunglasses