Fly Fishing for Puget Sound Sea-Run Cutthroat

By Chester Allen

In the first moments of dawn, the world is shades of black and gray.

The cedar trees, ferns and alder thickets along the trail were black in the dim light as I eased down the trail to a favorite South Puget Sound beach. I didn't want to spook--and get in the firing line of--the skunks that haunt this trail between dusk and dawn.

Getting up before the sun and dodging skunks is sometimes the price of hitting a good sea-run cutthroat trout beach at the right time during the right tide.

At this beach, the cutts range in size from 10 to 20 inches and stack up behind and over oyster beds, old log cribbing, and dropoffs as the falling tide turns the inlet into a river.

Sea-runs feed on marine worms, sandlances , anchovies, sculpins , and all the weird crustaceans that live in Puget Sound. Tidal currents wash this diverse menu downstream to waiting fish.

When I got to the beach, cutts were swirling in the tiderip, the seam between fast and slow currents that formed off a beach point. My fingers shook a little as I tied a Muddler Minnow to my leader.

I cast the fly upstream of the rip and quickly stripped in line. Two casts later--just as the Muddler hit the rip--a cutt tore the line from my hand and put a deep bend in my rod.

A World-class Saltwater Fishery

Puget Sound's sea-run cutthroat trout are the best fishery in western Washington.

Since 1998, it has been illegal to keep any cutthroat trout caught in Puget Sound, and the fishing has improved each year since then. Anglers find more cutts--and more big cutts--every year. All Puget Sound cutthroat trout are wild, native fish, born in the hundreds of tiny, jump-across streams that feed Puget Sound.

Puget Sound probably has the best sea-run cutthroat trout fishery in the world, but relatively few anglers pester these fish. Maybe it's because cutts move around a lot and yesterday's hot beach can be stone cold today.

Or maybe it's because Washington remains salmon and steelhead country. Or maybe it's because anglers haven't put together the puzzle of tides, food and fish.

Piece One of the Puzzle: Tides

Tides are the key that unlocks the door to Puget Sound cutthroat trout. Simply put, cutts feed when tidal currents are moving food around. Slack tide--when the water is still--usually means poor fishing.

Each Puget Sound beach has its own personality. Some beaches fish best on the falling tide, while others fish best on a rising tide. Some beaches fish well on both tides. Either way, a tide table is the most important part of a cutthroat angler's tackle.

Puget Sound has huge tidal changes. The water level on a beach can change 10 feet or more over six hours. The flowing water often creates tiderips, where fast moving water is next to slow or slack water. Cutthroat trout lurk along those rips.

Reading a tide table is key to being on the beach when the rips are, well, ripping.

Here's a typical day's tides for a Puget Sound beach:
High: 1:07 a.m., with a height of 10 feet.
Low: 7:07 a.m., with a height of 3.2 feet.
High: 1:46 p.m., with a height of 14.9 feet.
Low: 8:48 p.m., with a height of 3.5 feet.

If this beach fishes best on a falling tide, you should arrive between 2:30 p.m. or so and fish until low tide at 8:48 p.m. or so. The water level will drop 11.4 feet in less than six hours, which will probably trigger a feeding spree.

If the beach fishes better on a rising tide, you should show up between 8:00 a.m. (or so) and 1:00 p.m.

Catching may be slow when the tide has just started moving, or when the current is slowing into slack tide. Most anglers show up about an hour after low or high slack tide.

Anglers learning a new beach should fish through the entire falling or rising tide, as the changing water levels create new rips or dropoffs. In a sense, the beach is constantly changing throughout the tide, and the fish move from spot to spot.

With experience, anglers learn what parts of a beach fish best during each tide. Building a bank of good beaches, and knowing what stage of the tide gets the cutts cranked up, is a fascinating part of Puget Sound cutthroat trout fishing. There is always something new to learn. When in doubt, hit the beach when the tide is moving and start casting!

Piece Two of the Puzzle: Food and Flies

Puget Sound cutts have a big menu. They chow down on sandlances (a small, eel-like fish), anchovies, small herring, sculpins , marine worms, as well as shrimp and small crustaceans.

It is possible to carry thousands of flies, but a few standard will get newbies going.

  1. Olive, black and tan Woolly Buggers in sizes 6 through 10.
  2. Orange, hot pink, olive, and yellow Knudsen Spiders in sizes 6 through 10.
  3. Muddler Minnows in sizes 4 through 10.
  4. White and Olive Clouser Minnows in sizes 6 through 10.
  5. White, tan and olive scud patterns in sizes 10 through 12 match many crustaceans.

This arsenal is just the beginning. For example, I tie a size 6 marabou marine worm with a black bead head, red body and black tail to match a "hatch" that occurs off some south Puget Sound beaches every summer. The fly is just a Woolly Bugger without hackle.

Anglers should get a copy of Les Johnson's Fly-Fishing Coastal Cutthroat Trout. Steve Raymond's The Estuary Flyfisher is also helpful.

Piece Three of the Puzzle: The Fish

Puget Sound's sea-run cutthroat trout are special fish with weird habits. For one thing, they move around a lot. In the fall, they'll run up rivers to steal salmon eggs out of redds and eat the flesh from decaying salmon carcasses. They act a lot like Alaska rainbow trout.

During the winter, cutts in north Puget Sound, from Seattle to British Columbia, tend to run up big rivers and stay there until spring. South Sound cutts tend to stay in saltwater until it's time to run up a creek or river to spawn. South Sound winter cutts wallop sculpins, as well as Muddler Minnows.

In the spring, cutts roam the beaches and gobble chum salmon fry. Bob Trigg's Chum Baby fly sparks big hits from late March through May.

During the summer, the cutts roam the beaches and inlets. They're feeding in the rips on whatever food is around. The cutts can get selective when one food source, such as those red-and-black marine worms, is really plentiful.

Getting Started

If you fish for trout in freshwater, you probably already have the basic tackle needed. Most anglers use a 6-weight rod, but you can probably get away with a 5-weight or a 7-weight. While a floating line is sometimes the right choice, a clear intermediate line is probably the most useful option for a Puget Sound sea-run cutt angler. A sinking line can be a great tool on a sunny, bright day, as the cutts may be holding a little deeper.

That said, you can get started with a floating line, which a leader tapered down to a 2X tippet; sea-run cutts are not leader shy.

Use a short leader of about three feet when fishing with a sinking line.

If you are using freshwater tackle, rinse it off at the end of the trip-- every time, without fail. This is also good practice even if you're fishing with saltwater-approved gear.

Good beaches have lots of pebbles, shells and barnacles. Fallen trees are also good, and an inlet stream--even a tiny one--is fantastic. Try to fish the beach when the tide is moving, and look for rips (see above) to form off points or shellfish beds. Standing waves and turbulence reveal fishy dropoffs.

Most anglers cast out, and find that the current is bending their line -- just as if they were fishing in a river. This is good news, as current gets the fish feeding.

I retrieve my fly in fast strips most of the time. Sometimes I'll let the line swing in the current and make short, frequent strips. I rarely use a slow retrieve, unless I'm using small, scud-like flies.

Success Is Not Instant

Anglers have to pay their dues to find fish and figure out what they're eating. Some guides are starting to work these waters, and a visit to www.pugetsoundflyco.com is a good start toward finding a guide. But nothing can replace finding and learning a beach, then finding and learning another beach.

You'll find yourself addicted to the tides and walking into beaches at odd hours of the day to find hefty, wild cutthroat trout feeding in saltwater.

Then it's all about feeling that cutt rip the line out of your hand.

Chester Allen is an outdoor writer and columnist for The Olympian and Tacoma News Tribune newspapers. He lives in the south Puget Sound area.