Northwest Fly Fishing

Cutthroat in the Rain Shadow
By Doug Rose

We were both literally and figuratively bucking the flow. That’s what you are doing when you leave Forks, Washington—the epicenter of winter steelhead fly fishing in the Pacific Northwest—on a quiet February morning to head east to the saltwater cutthroat beaches on Hood Canal. Yet that’s exactly what my good friend and Forks native, Dick Wentworth, and I did last year. The fact that Dick was Syd Glasso’s most accomplished steelhead fly-tying protégé and that I wrote a book on winter steelhead fly fishing on the Olympic Peninsula no doubt would have made our choice of fishing destinations even more inexplicable to many anglers.
   But no one on the Sol Duc or Bogachiel or Hoh that day experienced the things we found on Hood Canal: actively feeding fish, almost nonstop action, and solitude. Nor did those folks’ days begin with a spicy pork soup at our friend, Jeffrey Delia’s, beachfront home or our leisurely exchange of flies and tales as we waited for the tide to set up on the beach we planned to fish.
   Jeff took the first cutthroat, a 13-incher with a blush of rose on its gill plates, black birdshot spotting, and wintry pewter flanks. It hit his Chum Fry Streamer. Jeff fished it down current on a soft swing, almost as though he was fishing for steelhead in a river.
   Not long after that, Dick caught his first fish. It fell for one of his favorite dressings, Whitlock’s Sheep Minnow. I got a cutthroat on my chum fry pattern, the Keta Rose, a few minutes later. 
   For the next three hours, we never went more than 10 minutes without one of us hooking a fish. They seemed to come in little waves, probably separate schools. They ranged from around a foot to several honest 18-inchers.
   As for the solitude, Jeff’s neighbor and fishing buddy, Mike Olson, showed up about an hour after we began fishing. He didn’t bring his gear that day, just watched and chatted when one of us had to change a tippet or fly. Later, as the tide peeled back over the lower beaches, a couple of oyster pickers puttered by in a skiff. That was it. Our only other companions were the pintail and scaup that paddled across the head of the bay, along with dunlin, great blue herons, and bald eagles.
   “This is the way fishing should be,” Dick said, as we headed back toward our vehicles.

 

Rain Shadow Cutthroat
Although not nearly as lofty as the Cascades or Sierra Nevada, the Olympic Range nonetheless exerts a profound influence on the region’s climate. When sodden weather systems from the Pacific Ocean collide with its western flanks, the ensuing rainfall is the heaviest in the Lower 48 states. Forks averages 118 inches of rain annually and Mount Olympus gets in excess of 200. By the time the prevailing southwesterlies reach the leeward valleys of the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca, Admiralty Inlet, and northern Hood Canal, they have little moisture left to dump. Sequim receives around 16 inches of rain annually and Port Townsend gets 18.
   This “Olympic rain shadow” is home to some of the most marine-oriented stocks of sea-run cutthroat on the planet. There are two principle reasons: habitat and food. Unlike the Washington coast, which is pounded by storm-driven surf much of the year and has few protected bays or large estuaries, big waves are rare along rain-shadow beaches; too, the area’s shoreline is a confusion of bays, spits, lagoons, salt marshes, and estuaries. Rain-shadow rivers are also smaller than their coastal counterparts—many are simply jump-across creeks—without much of a food base, and they run extremely low in late summer and autumn. Because of this, rain-shadow cutthroat tend to linger in the salt before spawning, sometimes until late spring, and they rush back to the rich larder of tidewater quickly. Some occasionally skip their spawning runs and overwinter in the salt. Rain-shadow cutthroat are creatures of the tides.

 

Chum Fry of Spring
If I had to pick one season to fish for rain-shadow cutthroat, it would definitely be spring. There’s some irony in this choice because most of the early literature on fly fishing for cutthroat in salt water is silent on springtime fishing. Fly anglers traditionally pursued cutthroat in summer and early autumn. Even winter fishing was more popular than spring fishing.
   That fact has changed dramatically during the past decade, as anglers have become aware of the importance of chum salmon fry and, to a lesser extent, pink salmon fry to cutthroat in estuaries and near-shore migratory corridors. The 1.5- to 2-inch-long fry emerge from the gravel in late winter and early spring and drop down to tidewater almost immediately. Post-spawn cutthroat that have just returned to the salt and cutts that wintered in the salt prey heavily on the fry.
   I accidentally tumbled onto the chum fry fishery on a March morning about 15 years ago. Jay Brevik and I were working one of our favorite shorelines from his boat. Cutthroat were slashing and boiling through bait, but we couldn’t buy a hit. We couldn’t even figure out what they were eating because it was too early for young-of-the-year sand lance and surf smelt, and way too early for small herring. Finally, we drifted over a school of the tiny fish. From my perch in the bow, I beheld blue backs and a definite salmonid profile.
   “They’re chum fry,” I said. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.” 
   We whittled down some coho-size blue/white Clousers and began to take fish right away.
   Not long after that, I obtained a copy of Joe Jauquet’s groundbreaking report, “Coastal Cutthroat Trout Diet in South Puget Sound, 1999—2002.” It confirmed that cutthroat feed heavily on chum fry in spring. According to Jauquet’s research, this preference was especially true of cutthroat over 15 inches.
   Since then, growing numbers of fly fishers have focused their energy and creativity on the annual chum fry migration. Last March, more than 50 cutthroat fly fishers participated in Cutts and Chum, a weekend seminar in Chimacum and on Admiralty Inlet that featured fly tying, beach seining, natural history, and presentations.
   Incidentally, if you are wondering why we were fishing—and catching cutthroat—with chum fry patterns in February, I can answer that with two words: summer chum. The more widespread and abundant fall chum are typically available to cutthroat in tidewater from March into May. But the rain-shadow streams also support runs of summer chum. They spawn in August and September, and their fry emerge in late February and early March, occasionally as early as late January.

 

Summer, Fall, and Winter
Of course, good cutthroat fishing along Jefferson County beaches isn’t dependent on chum fry. A decade ago, Jay Brevik and I spent a Father’s Day casting to cutthroat that cut v-wakes through a large school of herring near the Hood Canal Bridge. A couple of years later, I guided two anglers on Dabob Bay on a fine September day; they caught fish after fish on a weak tide change that kept the amphipods the cutthroat were feeding on in the same location for hours. And I took my largest saltwater cutthroat, a 20-plus-inch bruiser, on a brittle cold December day.
   Once chum and pink fry become scarce, cutthroat switch their attention to juvenile sand lance, surf smelt, and young-of-the-year herring. Sand lance, which are often mistakenly referred to as candlefish and are closely related to the sand eels of the Atlantic, become available as 2-inch fish in late April and May. Surf smelt spawn along the same crushed shell beaches as sand lance; the juveniles are also about 2 inches long. Herring usually come on in June and July. Surf smelt and herring are lucifugous, but sand lance are on the move throughout the day. 
   Unlike in spring, when they are very focused on estuaries and the near-shore migratory corridors of chum and pink fry, cutthroat often scatter in summer. Such behavior may have something to do with the big solstice tides of June and July, which can disperse weak-swimming baitfish and invertebrates. In addition, Hood Canal cutthroat often abandon the shallows during hot spells. When this happens, your best bet is to head north to Admiralty Inlet and the eastern strait, which run 8 to 10 degrees cooler in summer than the canal.
   Although some fish enter the lower tidal pools of rivers as early as July 4, most cutthroat from larger systems drift back toward their spawning rivers in autumn. However, fish from smaller streams and creeks remain in the salt much later, and fishable numbers are available in tidewater throughout winter in some locations. The winter cutthroat menu shifts away from baitfish, which have grown to 4-plus inches, to sculpins (a year-round staple), sticklebacks, and invertebrates, such as polychaete worms, shrimp, amphipods, and isopods.

 

Tactics and Logistics
Anglers new to saltwater cutthroat can find vast expanses of shoreline intimidating. Fortunately, keeping a simple phrase in mind will help beginners connect with their first fish: Find the rivers in the salt. By that, I mean to search for places where a current moves like a stream. Whether created by tide rips or spits and points of land, or channels between larger bodies of water, riverlike currents frequently hold cutthroat. Fish them just as you would cutthroat in a stream—cast downstream and retrieve your fly back against the water’s flow.
   Cutthroat are also much more common over gravel beaches and eelgrass than mud or sand flats, and they particularly like oyster beds and shorelines with structure such as snags or large boulders.
   As for the tides, the conventional wisdom says to fish the last two hours of an incoming tide. However, I fish several beaches that are much more productive on a long, slow ebb tide. You have to learn each beach, as they all have their peculiarities.
   In Jefferson County, Fort Flagler and Old Fort Townsend state parks and the county parks on Indian Island provide excellent access. Other western shore public beaches are available at Dosewallips and Shine Tidelands state parks; WDFW’s Duckabush, Point Whitney, and Quilcene tidelands; and at Seal Rock Campground. Boat ramps are available at Point Whitney, the Quilcene Boat Haven, as well as at Salsbury Point and Seabeck in Kitsap County. The Gardiner Boat Launch provides access to Discovery Bay. Playing with a Full Deck You will catch cutthroat in salt water by simply locating moving water, casting a chartreuse/white streamer angled down current, and stripping it back. But you will take fish more reliably and over a wider range of settings and seasons if you employ a variety of fly patterns, lines, and presentations. 
   On a northern Hood Canal beach a couple of Octobers ago, my friend, David Christian, and I caught cutthroat within minutes of arriving at the beach and they were still biting when we left three hours later. But we didn’t hook a single fish with a baitfish pattern; most of them struck right after the fly landed or as we raised it at the end of the swing, not during the retrieve. David took most of his fish on a Knudson Spider and I got mine on Delia’s Conehead Squid.
   Subtle, seemingly insignificant, nuances of tackle or presentation can make the difference between a good day and a memorable one. The first day Dick and Jeff and I fished together, they were taking at least two fish for each of mine. We were all fishing over the same school of fish, and we were all fishing baitfish patterns. At one point, Jeff and I were fishing the same pattern, both tied by him. Frustrated, I got out of the water and watched for a while. They were both fishing floating lines, while I had the intermediate that I usually use. But I also noticed that Jeff, who was getting the most fish and knows that beach very well, was casting down tide in the standard fashion but, instead of stripping the fly back, as I was, he quickly straightened the line, then let it swing down current almost dead drift, without stripping.
   “I really do dead drift all of my flies, including the baitfish patterns, as much as I can before I make a more aggressive retrieve,” he explained.
   When I adopted that presentation, I began to take more fish, but still not as many as Jeff. Finally, I realized all my strikes were coming within a second or two of when the fly landed. The fish were apparently focused on the water just beneath the surface. It seemed that even the slow-sinking intermediate line was pulling the fly beneath the sweet spot too quickly. With their floating lines, Jeff and Dick were able to keep their flies in front of the fish throughout the length of their drift.
   I’m not complaining, though. Any day I land an 18-inch fish on a fly I created and tied is fine with me. Actually, I never have complaints about any day I can spend chasing cutthroat on rain-shadow beaches.

 

Editor’s note: The late Doug Rose (1950–2013) was a widely respected guide and author who lived and worked on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. He was insightful, inquisitive, and amiable, and was a tireless advocate for wild fish and healthy ecosystems, as well as the history and traditions of fly fishing on the Olympic Peninsula, where he happily took up residence more than 30 years ago. “I feel much more at home here than anywhere I’ve ever been,” he told the Peninsula Daily News in 2011, and during his years guiding on and reveling in his home waters, he released three wonderful books: Fly Fishing the Olympic Peninsula, Steelhead Fly Fishing on the Olympic Peninsula: The Color of Winter, and Fly-Fishing Guide to the Olympic Peninsula. We at Northwest Fly Fishing were honored to be his friend and thrilled to be able to publish this, his last magazine article.

 

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