An angler prepares to release a sea-run cutthroat back into the depths of a Puget Sound bay. The anadromous species provides a good winter fishery in shallow waters at the south end of the inland sea, shifting northward later in the year. (PHOTO BY BRIAN BENNETT)

The 411 On Sea-Run Cutthroats

Saltwater cutthroat trout prowl Puget Sound’s beaches, providing a good fishery at a slower time of year

Originally published by Northwest Sportsman Magazine

Nestled in the fertile marine waterways of southern Puget Sound are a myriad of bays, inlets, estuaries and beaches.

Within these confines, the sea-run cutthroat trout is a fish species often overlooked, but as other winter saltwater opportunities dwindle, anglers have taken notice of this exciting fishery.

According to the Coastal Cutthroat Coalition, a nonprofit organization, sport fishing for sea-run cutthroat in Washington generates more than 20,000 angler trips and roughly $1.1 million in economic value annually.

In the 1980s, sea-run populations began to decline, and became a catch-and-release-only fishery in the mid-1990s. Their numbers and average size (10 to 15 inches, with some more than 20 inches long) since then have gradually seen an improvement.

“There are likely more anglers targeting them than in the past, but with the catch-and-release-only regulation in all of Puget Sound, the population appears to be relatively stable,” says Larry Phillips, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regional director and avid saltwater fly angler. “I think everyone who fishes for sea-run cutthroat trout for a long time thinks they’re special. A nice thing about southern Puget Sound is there’s cutthroat around 12 months out of the year.”

Despite a myriad of places to fish in Puget Sound — especially the southern portion that has 1,000 miles of shoreline — an angler willing to do some research and exploration should find this fishery much to their liking.

“The fishery is definitely humbling to the beginner, but each time you go out you learn something new,” Phillips says. “It is important to continue to learn about their tendencies, tidal influences and at what time of the year they’ll be in a certain area. Cutthroat are loyal to specific locations, and it is shocking how many stay in a small area for much of their lives.”

A display case holds a pair of sea-runs. Fed by a diet of baitfish that can be matched with flies, spinners and spoons alike, many of these fish run 10 to 15 inches, but a few push past 20 inches. All must be released. (PHOTO BY KEITH ROBBINS)

What makes chasing these colorful fish in Puget Sound even more intriguing is the fact that they often lurk within an easy cast from shore, where abundant small baitfish and other prey congregate.

Fishing in marine waterways is often tied directly to tides rather than being out on the water at the crack of dawn. However, one needs to keep in mind that a given location’s tide can fluctuate from another location, so the time part of the equation cannot be totally thrown out the window.

Usually, a strong minus outgoing tide will scatter baitfish and krill, as well as the cutthroat. It isn’t unusual in Deep South Sound to find an outgoing tide moving like a river at 5 to 6 knots.

On the other hand, a softer outgoing tide will keep the feed holding in certain places much longer, allowing cutthroat to forage throughout the day.

Look for places where the current runs parallel to shore and creates an eddy in the lee between a point of land and rip current. It is in this calm water where small baitfish get trapped or hide. As the tide shifts, be sure to move to the other side of the point until slack water.

Cutthroat often lurk near places with rocky bottoms, eelgrass (not prevalent in the winter time) and oyster beds, often within sight of a stream or river mouth. The best time to fish is just before or soon after flood tide.

“Ideally what you tend to look for are rocky beaches with baseball- and softball-size gravel, or where trickles of freshwater come into the salt,” says Keith Robbins, owner of A Spot Tail Salmon Guide and an avid cutthroat fly angler.

Wind, depth, water clarity and being a bit stealthy also play a factor in success.

“If you don’t see the bottom, you’re probably too deep,” Robbins tips. “In most cases, the deepest you want to be is 15 to 20 feet.”

“If you don’t see the bottom, you’re probably too deep,” tips SRC guide Keith Robbins, who says to target shorelines with baseball-sized cobble and small freshwater trickles. (PHOTO BY THE WASHINGTON DEPARTMENT OF ECOLOGY)

Since cutthroat stay in shallow water, be mindful when wading that you aren’t splashing about. This can spook fish away and out of casting range. It is wise to also cast your line before stepping into the water, as sometimes they’ll grab your presentation in water as shallow as 6 inches.

Another hypothesis is the food chain effect, which posits that when chum and/or pink salmon fry are plentiful, productivity increases for cutthroat.

It it often hard to gather specifics on places to fish, especially since many anglers stay tight-lipped about their favorite spots.

But the shorelines in the Tacoma/Narrows area, Lincoln Park south of West Seattle, Redondo Beach, Golden Gardens near Ballard, Carkeek Park/Richmond Beach, Meadowdale Beach and Picnic Point all provide many fishermen places to cast a line without needing to drive very far.

Robbins points out that winter and spring are best in southern Puget Sound, while places in central and northern Puget Sound are better in summer and fall.

Fly fishing anglers hooked up in the spring time near the Purdy Bridge in southern Puget Sound. (PHOTO BY CHASE GUNNELL)

There’s also an advantage to fishing from a boat or small skiff. This enables you to get to shorelines inaccessible from land. A small cartopper or kayak provides that flexibility and makes it easy to load up and jump to another spot in a jiffy.

Set your boat up so that you drift right into prime fishing areas (having oars or an electric trolling motor is a bonus), but know that this requires patience and time to learn. Avoid grounding your boat or getting hung up on an unseen boulder in shallow water.

“I call the skeg of my main engine a curb feeler,” Robbins says. “You should leave the engine all the way down so the skeg hits before the hull when you’re drifting in very shallow water.”

While fishing with multiple people, keep the boat parallel to the shoreline. This way you can utilize as much space in the boat as possible without getting into each other’s way.

A pair of polarized sunglasses is a must, whether you’re fishing from shore or a boat, and allows you to clearly see the bottom and spot fish. Many keep a diary or log with details of their trips in order to raise the bar of success.

While the focus of this column is on sea-run cutthroat, don’t be surprised if you hook into a feisty resident coho. Their populations have improved, with late winter and spring being the best period.

Now that we’ve nailed down those details, you might be asking what type of gear to throw in their face.

Generally, a cutthroat isn’t very picky, whether it’s a certain type of fly or lure, but try to understand what they’re feeding on. Match what they’re feeding on — marine life like herring, candlefish, crabs, sculpin, salmon fry, sand shrimp, worms, and euphausiids and amphipods (zooplankton).

Two of the top fly choices are a marabou Clouser Minnow and a Muddler, but poppers and floating baitfish patterns can also be quite effective.

Poppers put on a good show, as many cutthroat will explode out of the water when they hit them, but they have a low hook-up ratio too.

A large Hood Canal sea-run cutthroat trout. (PHOTO BY CHASE GUNNELL)

Small spoons like a Dick Nite weighing 1/4 to 1/8 ounce and spinners like a Rooster Tail in a size 2 or 3 can entice a territorial cutthroat to bite. Lure color is up to you, although darks are good in sunny or clear water conditions, while brights work well in cloudy water or around covered areas. Keep in mind that barbless hooks are required for all marine sportfishing in Puget Sound.

Bait can be used but most anglers shy away from it since it’s a catch-and-release fishery and fish will inhale baits much deeper, leading to increased mortality.

A typical fly rod for the fishery would be an 9- to 9 1/2-foot five- or six-weight with a faster action, but it’s not to say someone couldn’t go to a lighter rod.

Choose a reel with a sealed drag used for saltwater. The choices are varied, so if unsure check with a local fly shop.

The type of line plays an important role and it’s best to keep a couple reels filled with sinking lines in various sink rates, and another set up with a floating line.

Sea-run cutthroat are anadromous trout that are born in rivers, migrate to saltwater areas and then return to spawn in their natal stream. After they spawn, adult fish will head back out into the intertidal areas of Puget Sound and Hood Canal.

Cutthroat Tidbit

(Editor’s note: This story was written by Mark Yuasa, who is a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Communications Consultant, and is a longtime local fishing and outdoor writer. You can find it published in the February issue of Northwest Sportsman Magazine.)

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