Searun Cutthroat of Puget Sound
February 01, 2018
Eons ago, our native Coastal Cutthroat trout joined their cousins — rainbow trout and Pacific salmon — in swimming downstream to the food-rich waters of Puget Sound. The acidic rivers draining from the heavily forested region simply couldn't support the millions of salmonids that would spend their juvenile years eating everything in sight.
Old-timers used to call these coastal cutts "harvest trout" because they were caught alongside returning summer steelhead in the fall. But it was also because of their fall colors — gorgeous yellows and browns mixed with dark spots and the brilliant crimson slash just under the throat. What they didn't realize was that these trout were the very same bright, silvery fish they saw feeding along the nearby beaches of Puget Sound.
If you divide Puget Sound into south and north halves with Seattle to the north, everything else south and Hood Canal off to the west, you'll get a handle on the areas where you'll find our searuns. Yes, we call them "searuns," even though salmon and steelhead also run to the sea, but they already have their nicknames — what do you expect from a state that pronounces "geoduck" gooey duck? North of Seattle, searuns sniff out their natal waters sometimes as early as mid-August. These fish move into larger river systems like the Snohomish, Stillaguamish, and Skagit. We don't see these fish back on the saltwater beaches until the following spring.
In the south, there are no big river systems but there are lots of small creeks and streams. I like to think that these southern searuns hang on to their eggs and milt until the last possible day, then shoot up their creeks in late winter, check into a motel and have a quick nooner, smoke a cigar, then hustle back downstream to their beaches and get back to eating. This is why you can catch searuns on south Puget Sound beaches almost every month of the year.
On the Menu
If it moves and looks edible, searuns will eat it. They aren't selective. Don't you hate this word "selective"? It makes fish seem smarter than us. There are times, however, when there's a lot of the same kind of food in the water, like chum or pink salmon fry. Late in the fall, chum salmon and, on odd-numbered years, pink salmon enter our rivers to spawn. During the following spring the rivers are filled with fry running willy-nilly down to the ocean soon after emerging from their spawning gravel. They are Mother Nature's fast food for all her out-migrating anadromous children including Chinook and coho salmon; steelhead smolts and kelts; bull trout; resident 'bows and cutts; and searuns. This is the only time you may see something close to an East Coast "blitz" off our beaches.
The rest of the year, the usual smorgasbord is present. Prey items include invertebrates such as krill, ghost shrimp, polychaetes (bristle worms), and baitfish. Most fly fishers cast small sculpin, herring, squid, surf smelt, and candlefish imitations. However, exact imitations are not a requirement. Searuns are an apex predator in our nearshore waters. If it looks tasty and moves, they will always eat it.
Flies for searuns can be darn near anything. The challenge is in finding the fish. Pick a beach that's cobbled, with barnacle-covered softball- and basketball-sized rocks, or shellfish and oyster beds. If the beach is nice and sandy and looks like a great place to bring the kids for a swim, it isn't a cutthroat beach. Sandy beaches with eelgrass are exceptions. Think habitat when you're searching for a good beach to fish.
There are two tides a day, most often one with a large change between high and low tide and one with a smaller change. A minus low tide lets you see bottom structure and potential cutthroat habitat for later reference. Many of our tidal exchanges move laterally and fairly slowly. Some extreme ebb tides around Olympia are like a flushing toilet and yet, the incoming floods are sneaky slow. That being said, I prefer whichever tide occurs in the morning. Always fish the ebb and flood tides. Leave the slack tides alone.
Most of us who fly fish from the beach use 6-weight fast-action rods with floating or intermediate sink lines. Stripping baskets are only necessary if you fish sinking lines or shooting heads with running lines. If you're fishing a beach for the first time, pick the morning with the larger of the two ebbs.
The best mornings are overcast with just enough wind to ruffle the water. There's no need to wade deep. Knee deep is good. Make methodical casts at 9 o'clock, 10 o'clock, and 11 o'clock downtide and retrieve up against the tide and the wind. Long casts straight out at 12 o'clock are only necessary at the lowest of the low tides. This is when searuns tend to scatter. Cast parallel to the beach and fish the water's edge if you're fishing the high tide.
Because of banks, vegetation, and piles of driftwood above the high tide level on most Puget Sound beaches, you will find that there's no room for your backcasts at tides greater than 10 feet. Predatory searuns look for baitfish that are feeling safe in shallow water over the rocks.
Don't grow roots. Cast and move. Two casts to the same spot is a waste of time. You'll either get a hit the first time or nobody's home. Work the entire beach. Don't be disheartened if you don't catch anything. Searuns move around following food. They can be here today and gone tomorrow — or possibly gone until the next tide.
Look for points of land. There are the obvious big points you see on maps, and there are also small points you can only see if you're there in person. The water moves across points and slacks or backeddies in the coves. I like to fish the uptide sides of points where I can see the moving water. And did I mention overcast days? There's a reason why the fishing in the Pacific Northwest is so good. The sun is hardly ever on the water. Dead calm, bright sunny days are days that we mow the lawn.
I fish the Miyawaki Beach Popper almost exclusively. It's technically a slider, but when I first designed it 30 years ago, I didn't know any better. Searuns do most of their feeding within 30 or 40 feet of the water's edge. Predatory fish this close to shore are not there for a nap. They are on the hunt. A crippled baitfish leaving a V-wake, as my popper does, is simply irresistible.
I pull the popper in long, slow strips and just enough to leave a wake or "nervous water." This agua nervosa is even more accentuated when the water is broken as opposed to dead calm. Most strikes are violent ambushes, or short follows
. . . then bam! Rarely do fish follow the fly for any distance. As a side note, I fish the same popper in larger sizes and colors in the fall for coho salmon. They make big bow wakes as they track the fly right up to my rod tip! But that's another article for another time.
The Miyawaki Beach Popper will never land more fish than a stripped streamer due to the number of misses and turn-aways. But what it lacks in hookups is more than made up for in visceral excitement. The only guarantee I make is that any fish around will try to eat it. It's in their DNA. My fly is the consummate attractor. If you want to know if there's any fish on the beach, strip one of my poppers.
Wading vs. Boating
A large percentage of Washington State beaches are privately owned, most not accessible to anglers. However, maps of Puget Sound are filled with state parks, county parks, city parks, boat launches, road ends, and Washington Department of Wildlife access sites. Most of them are perfectly good places to fish for searuns. There is also lots of undeveloped land along bluffs and waterways, but no one I know talks about these.
There's no way to know if homeowners own the tidelands — to the mean high tide line — without looking at individual titles. Whether it's true or not, most homeowners think they own the entire beach in front of their homes. In all my years fishing the beaches only one landowner has asked me to leave. Even then, I simply moved to the front of his neighbor's house. I am almost always alone and I carry a plastic bag and pick up beach litter, particularly in front of beach homes. Generally, solitary fly fishers are not treated the same way as large extended families with picnic gear, dogs, and fireworks.
When you fish from a boat, you can fish almost anywhere you please. Boats have a definite advantage. At the higher tides, you can fish water wading fly fishers cannot reach. Boats allow greater access and most importantly, the ability to move away from places with no fish, and go to places where there are fish. Cruise into your beach slowly and cut the motor to set up your drift. You'll be moving along with the tide and maybe, the wind. Cast as close to the water's edge as you can and strip back. Old-timers say if you can't see the bottom you're fishing too deep.
Many fly fishers use full-sinking lines and strip back as quickly as possible to counter boat drift. If there are large rocks near the shore, put your fly down as close as you can to them. Make sure you are drifting over rocks, shellfish beds, eelgrass, kelp, or any underwater structure. Bare sand is a no-no. Have a long-handled net handy. Do not give in to the temptation to troll your flies.
In 1997, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife finally succumbed to pressure from noted fly anglers Les Johnson, Bruce Ferguson, and their gang of cutthroat aficionados to mandate the release of all coastal cutthroat in saltwater. Since that time, the average fish size has increased. Back then, 15-inch fish were usually exaggerated to 20 inches. Now, 20 inches is reality.
Searuns do not travel out of Puget Sound to feed off Alaska and the Sea of Japan. They don't leave their shallow beaches. They are totally susceptible to all the harm that we humans can inflict upon them and their habitat. Everyday stream degradation, building and development, filling and rerouting, trashing, automobile oils via storm drains, runoff with pesticides and herbicides, poorly designed culverts, municipal sewage and home septic tank overflows, and poaching all take their toll. It makes every searun cutthroat we catch truly amazing, especially one 18 inches or larger. If you'd like to know more about preserving the native trout of Puget Sound, visit coastalcutthroatcoalition.com.
Strip set, don't trout set! Fish single barbless hooks. Searuns are not leader shy so use 0X or 1X leaders to play and land your fish quickly. Use a soft, rubber mesh landing net and keep them wet as you admire their incredible beauty. Have your friend get the camera and framing ready before you lift the fish out of the water for the hero shot. Make sure they swim away easily after release. And most of all, treasure your time spent with this beautiful searun cutthroat.
Leland Miyawaki fishes and guides on Puget Sound beaches for searun cutthroat and coho salmon and works part time at the Orvis store in Bellevue, Washington. He's also an accomplished Spey caster and without too much of a push, would chuck it all and become a full-time steelhead bum.