A bonus catch on the Cowlitz: Sea-run cutthroat trout coming in strong

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Sea-run cutthroat trout (bottom) caught on the Cowlitz River. A jack coho salmon is pictured at top. (Paul Dunlap photo)

If you’re looking for a different kind of fishing experience, or maybe you just want to bring home a stringer of trout along with your salmon catch, Cowlitz sea-run cutthroat trout should be on your mind (and hopefully on your dinner plate).

Whether you call them harvest trout, cutts, or sea runs, sea-run cutthroat trout have been a fall favorite for generations. While the landlocked resident coastal cutthroat can be found in dozens of lakes throughout Washington, the sea-run cutthroat moves between the river and ocean, much like salmon and steelhead. These are fish that provide a lot of opportunity alongside other fall fisheries, and they’re booming in the Cowlitz River right now, at the same time as a better-than-expected coho return that has anglers buzzing.

Over 90,000 of these fish are raised and released every year from Tacoma Power’s Cowlitz Trout Hatchery near Blue Creek, with adults returning in the fall. As you can see from the photo above, they can grow to a size similar to a jack salmon, and weigh up to 3 pounds.

Josua Holowatz, a fish biologist in the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Southwest Region, says that this year’s return of sea-run cutthroat has been particularly good.

“This is a fish that is fun to catch, bites opportunistically and aggressively, and tastes great,” Holowatz says. “We’re hoping people get a chance to try one out this fall.”

With rain in the forecast, fish managers are optimistic that there will be additional sea-run cutthroat making their way up the Cowlitz. And with hatchery returns coming in strong, a number of fish will also be recycled — that is, transported downriver to the I-5 bridge to make their way back up toward the hatchery — giving anglers another opportunity to catch these fish in the days and weeks ahead. The run typically continues into late October or early November.

A lot of anglers target these tasty fish with fly-fishing tackle — streamers and wet flies like Reverse Spiders and dry flies like skated October Caddis can be productive — but they can be caught on the same baits (eggs and spinners) targeting coho. Just think a bit smaller, Holowatz says.

They’re being caught now on the Cowlitz River from Barrier Dam to below I-5, and one popular drift is the section from Blue Creek down to Massey Bar.

Until March 31, 2021, anglers can keep up to five sea-run cutthroat on the Cowlitz River, with a minimum size of 8 inches. Only fish with a clipped adipose fin can be kept; release all wild rainbows and wild cutthroat. The river is also open right now for other fishing opportunities, including hatchery coho. Be sure to check the 2020–21 Washington Sport Fishing Rules pamphlet for information about the section of river you’re hoping to fish. A freshwater fishing license is required. Visit our licensing page online to learn more about the types of licenses available and how to purchase.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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