Fly fishing community

While the Internet may certainly be a used as a tool for endlessly bashing meaningless opining on ignorant and trite opinions into your grey matter, every now and again it is true that you may find a few “unplucked gems” out there. It is easy to find so much apathy, negativity and narcissism on the web and yet it is also still true that the internet is a great tool for building communities and sharing information.

I feel like the fly fishing community and its shared values are under attack from many fronts, with the people who want to exploit everything within it for money, those who refuse to understand what fly fishing can represent, and the very fish themselves that in many cases we are wondering if we will see wane into memory in the coming decades. I think we need to celebrate what we have while we still have it, and that we have more in common than we like to think.

If you like coastal sea run cutthroat or any number of other briny species and the pursuit of them with a fly rod, the saltwater section of Washington fly fishing forum is a largely positive forum on what is a typically wildly negative topic (anadromous fisheries), and let’s be honest right about now, negativity is something we’ve had just about enough of lately.

(The fly tying section is pretty good too)

If you like sea run cutthroat, take a look at one of the larger ones you will ever see…


March FOTM: Keta Rose

March is a month of many things to many people, but for our weird little niche of fly fishing it’s the start of the salmon fry emergence on coastal rivers. Typically chum and pink fry emerge first and swim almost straight to the ocean such that it is not uncommon to find a few already in the estuary this time of year. The pink fry are usually very small, fairly transluscent and can take on a blueish cast. This early streamside exodus does not go unnoticed by the sea run cutthroat or any other trout for that matter. March is also the time to remember a fine fly fisherman by the name of Doug Rose, whose pattern the ‘Keta Rose’ I’ve posted before and is one of my favorite early in the year fry patterns.  The world of anadromous fly fishing is a community and the strong thread of conservation and restraint woven throughout Doug’s writing and deeds remains as important within this community and in the world now as it did while he was alive.


As ever imitative fly tying is all about creativity, observation, experimentation, revision and execution, qualities that produced this and many other fine salmon fry patterns, so in that spirit tie up some keta rose(s), fish them this spring, or watch the fry you encounter and work on your own pattern. Either way, one thing is true, hungry trout await.


Doug’s blog

And if you are looking for other fry patterns here is a good thread and an awesome forum (how’s that for self referencing)


Keta Rose

Hook: Salt gamagatsu SS15 or SC15 sized 6-8 (as per Rose) 12 or 14 are my preference (these fry are usually around three quarters to one and a half inches when freshly hatched (here anyway)

Thread: 2 lb clear mono or white 6/0

Body: holographic silver tinsel ( I counter wrap clear mono or glue the tinsel for durability as cutthroat teeth usually shred tinsel quite quickly)

Throat: a small amount of white UV minnow belly or substitute such as UV polar chenille, or similar UV throat material.

Wing: From top: light blue polar bear or transluscent synthetic fiber/bucktail/goat or other sub, a few strands of light blue or pearl krystal flash, a few strands of chartreuse angel hair or similar, white polar bear or sub for the belly..think sparse and skinny

For a specific chum fry imitation I tie the same but sub light or regular olive polar bear for light blue leaving a few strands of light blue in the middle. A bead head is by no means required, just a slight variation for getting a bit more depth.




An armchair biologist’s guide to identifying sea run cutthroat trout

Coastal cutthroat trout, variously known as harvest trout, yellowbellys, cutts, bluebacks, or golden death trout, are found throughout a truly wide range of marine and freshwater environments as well as conditions. Their range is from the Eel river drainage in California all the way north to Prince William sound in Alaska and they live in and around ditches and irrigation canals, urban creeks, brackish estuaries, harbours, marinas, lakes, beaver ponds, beaches, and indeed almost any other waterway found on the west coast of north America. It is important to remember that sea run cutthroat aren’t a separate species of trout, but the anadromous (migrate to the ocean) form of the coastal cutthroat trout’s (onchorhynchus clarki clarki) various life histories. Other life histories of the coastal cutthroat such as stream resident (often found above barriers/in headwaters) fluvial (migratory within a river and its tributaries) and adfluvial (lake dwelling fish that drop into rivers seasonally to feed or spawn), can be found intermixed with sea run cutthroat depending on the specific waterway (the Fraser river mainstem being a good example). A highly nomadic species, at times sea runs have been documented ranging far out off shore in the open ocean and conversely will also range largely with estuarine areas without venturing into open ocean. Their colouration is wildly variable depending on location, time of year, and life history. If there is one thing that is true about these fish, it’s that they are good at defying the conventional wisdom of anglers throughout it’s range.

Hatchery sea run


The size of this species is more diminutive than other sea run trout, with a common size range between 10″ and 16″ but truly remarkable specimens have been caught up to at least 7 or 8 lbs in salt water especially on Vancouver island.

A large (20″) sea run cutthroat


It can be fairly difficult by eye to determine if a cutthroat has an anadromous or resident life history when observed or caught in many rivers, however, the presence of sea lice on the trout, or the capture of a particular trout in salt water is an indication of likely anadromous lineage. Most people have difficulty identifying cutthroat trout, so here are a number of simple ways to identify these fish.

trout close up

Anecdotally these fish are very handsome, visually striking fish, they have a relatively square fully spotted tail…

Captured 2008-8-19 00000

an often golden yellowish hue with orange or yellowish fins…


irregular widespread spotting…


and a predisposition for trying to eat well presented streamers.


While experienced observers can tell them apart fairly easily, localized traits and colouration of individual stocks and life histories is variable in coastal cutthroat and as such are best identified by the following quickly established traits:

A typical sea run cutthroat from a local south VI estuary


Red or orange “slashes” located on both sides of the lower edge of the lower jaw, it should be noted though that some fish display little, faint, or no slashes.


Unlike most rainbows the coastal cutthroat’s maxillary fin (upper jaw) extends to the back or beyond the eye on a true coastal cutthroat.


anal fin rays numbering 12 or fewer (salmon have 13 or more)


black pigment ring around the outer edge of the adipose fin interrupted once or twice


two rows of teeth on the base of the tongue, and two to twenty teeth on the basibranchials(floor of the mouth) plus teeth on the head and shaft of the vomer(vomerine) a bone in the upper jaw connected to the maxillary. It should be noted that these are not always present in all specimens. (thanks Frank for the names)

I haven’t got any pictures of these teeth, because it’s too hard on a live fish to get a photo. Having said that you don’t need to see these teeth to identify a cutthroat effectively.

If that’s not enough here’s a few more obscure traits used to identify cutthroat listed in Les Johnson’s Fly fishing coastal cutthroat trout:

*Note* please don’t use these techniques on living fish, while I can give you some impressive stories of their fortitude, a quickly snapped photo while in the water is all the handling these fish should undergo. Holding a live wild fish down or out of the water to count it’s dorsal fin rays is a douche move.

150-180 scales along the lateral line (steelhead have fewer than 150)

The dorsal fin is narrower than in rainbows and has rays numbering 9-11 individual rays, and usually feature 10(rainbows/steelhead have 10-13, usually have 11-12)

pelvic fin rays usually numbering 9 rays(rainbows/steelhead usually have 10)

Cutthroat parr


A recovering post spawn cutthroat caught in late may


A darker pre spawn male caught in mid november


Just to blur the lines a little bit there are also “cuttbows” or rainbow trout/coastal cutthroat hybrids in many systems which display various colourations and mixed traits, and like regular cutthroat, are easily misidentified. There has been the assertion that the larger sea run cutthroat specimens in excess of 20-22″ are such hybrids, and indeed even some of the pictures I have posted seem as if they could be as well. Lake “run” coastal cutthroat can attain much larger sizes than this, easily in excess of 10 lb.

Here is an interesting fly fishing based discussion on just such a topic:

These are coastal cutthroat trout



And these are rainbow trout



And these are coho jacks, not to be mistaken



Here are some helpful links and resources on salmonid and sea run cutthroat identification and traits:

A population survey of salmonids, differentiating coastal cutthroat from other species:

A nice accessible succinct summary of the coastal cutthroat and it’s characteristics is found in:

Fly Fishing Coastal Cutthroat Trout by Les Johnson

The BC government sport fish identification page

WDFW’s simplistic description of sea run cutthroat and other salmonids


80’s US government info

Some interesting info from the 1995 cutthroat trout symposium (referred to in Les Johnson’s book)

CRD bio of the species

Umpqua river coastal cutthroat data

* I am currently searching for more hard data on these fish and will update as I locate more info*






The HBFFA at Colquitz Creek


Above: An awesome Colquitz sea run cutthroat

Earlier this summer I was contacted by a representative of the Haig Brown Fly Fishing Association to volunteer for an in stream survey of salmonids on the Colquitz river (creek) in Victoria. Naturally I accepted and over a weekend, at two separate sites, selected stretches of the creek were isolated, electro shocked and then seined. This survey is intended to establish population numbers of salmonids and help determine the productivity of the creek for rearing coho and sea run cutthroat (it was carried out by volunteer members of the association which is generously funding the work on the creek). All fish (and crayfish) were anaesthetized, then counted, weighed, measured, revived and released. Stream flow recordings were also taken at various locations. Interestingly there were smallmouth bass, pumpkinseed, sculpin, coho fry, and cutthroat of various sizes. These studies are a prelude to habitat improvement work to be done at a later date.

Colquitz Creek has had a myriad of spills in the last several years. It contains non native species, has warm water/low summer flows and suffers from all the other burdens that an urban creek faces and yet remains incredibly productive. Last fall/winter somewhere in the range of 1400 adult coho, and an as yet uncounted amount of sea runs returned to this small creek. There is a fish counting fence located next to the Silvercity Tillicum movie theater at Tillicum mall in Victoria, which is manned by volunteers. In the fall, especially after a good rain, you will get a chance to see urban coho up close and in large numbers at times, as well as sea runs. You can also walk the creek and watch coho spawning at various points along the river. Check it out, the real world beckons!

This was my first encounter with the Haig Brown Association and they really are a classy bunch; generous and friendly. It was certainly a pleasure to meet people who care about anadromous fish and their environs as much as they do. The club has a very strong emphasis on conservation, as their namesake indicates. They have completed many in stream projects (including an interesting one on Sandhill creek for sea run cutthroat) and always have more on the go. Check them out, consider joining or, if you don’t live here, consider joining your local conservation group or angling club. There are many of them out there all over the world. Against a backdrop in which the natural world and its creatures are little more than cannon fodder (even as we still rely so heavily on them) we could all use more people who make real the words that they use so casually. Besides, the internet really doesn’t need anymore meaningless bitching.

HBFFA website:

Here are some photos from the electroshocking and seining sessions


(Below) the venerable cutthroat in fry form


Coho being measured and weighed


One of several larger cutthroat collected during seining


Pumpkinseed and smallmouth bass were also present, visitors from creek source Beaver Lake


I can only imagine what this cutthroat thought was happening


Another nice cutthroat



Sea runs in winter

In the winter and even in cold and turbid water these fish still respond to a trouty fly dancing in the currents past their log strewn (and muddler thieving) holding lies. There are many ways to approach fishing for them in winter, flesh flies, intruders, streamers, egg patterns, even wakers and dries in the right scenario, boots on the ground is the only way to find out. Not plentiful, but still aggressive, and as pretty as they come.


A fish from December, although they typically spawn later, these fish don’t spawn en masse, instead pairing up sporadically throughout the season. I’ve encountered bright silver fish with sea lice in July through December and post spawn fish from October through July, just another reminder that nature does not function in a linear textbook manner.


Pretty west coast fish that ate an intruder


On the beach:summer to fall/part three


(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


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


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.


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.


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.

Almost eagle food

This fine sea run cutthroat has survived a close encounter of the predatory kind. These fish are wild, and truly resilient, and continue to amaze me. There are few salmon to hold the attention of local seals and birds of prey, and the continuing scourge of urban runoff, development and the never ending poison conveyor belt that the local marinas provide, but still they persist.