Spring is a magical time for so many reasons. The trees are blooming, song birds are speaking their language of love, V shaped migrations of geese heading to their northern nesting grounds and anxious gardeners putting seeds of future nourishment into the ground. Spring is also the season of baby salmon descending their natal streams. Millions of these tiny fish, pink and chum salmon fry, are flushed out with the current into tidal estuaries where they feed on the rich bio-diversity of the brackish waters. These one inch long fry are a smorgasbord for others to come and have a feast. Herons, kingfishers, and predatory fish to name a few. It is the time that a fly fisher can target a legendary and unique species, the sea run cutthroat!
When I was a child we used to frequent a small creek that flowed into the ocean near my hometown. Washer Creek had been devastated for a century by industry, erosion and up-land logging. A once bountiful creek that had salmon and steelhead one could "Walk across", a stream so productive that my dad once commented that a friend of his had fed his family from the steelhead he used to catch from it's waters. In my time, I never saw any of these numbers of salmon. Logging in it's headwaters and a dam on a lake that was perfect nursery habitat for the salmon fry led to the decline of fish in this creek. When I was small we would spend time at the estuary, and often see small fish jumping. My grandfather would describe these fish as "Sea runs", and that is all I knew of these fish. It didn't seem like a big deal to me until learning more as and adult. Sea run cutthroat are actually a remarkable species!
The other anadromous salmonids in the Pacific Oceans streams are well known, the big 5. Chinook, Coho, Sockeye, Pink and Chum. These fish are the staple of our commercial, traditional, and sport harvest in Cascadia. Tens of thousands rely on these fish for their livelihoods, and survival. Many folks aren't aware of our other anadromous fish, two trout and one char. The steelhead is well know, a sea-running rainbow trout. Steelhead will range far out into the ocean, similar to the salmon, and grow to great sizes. Unlike salmon, the steelhead will spawn in the spring. I am not sure how many times a steelhead can spawn, but I believe it can do this cycle several times. The char is the Dolly Varden. This fish is quite rare close to civilization. They are very sensitive to habitat destruction and water quality. I often catch them on the North Island while fishing pink salmon. Little ones will hammer a half ounce zzinger in ankle deep water, nearly launching themselves on to the beach!
Our sea run cutts are special. They are anadromous, and follow the cycles of the salmon and take advantage the bounty of either body of water. When there is little for food in the streams, like spring and summer, the cutthroat will spend most of it's time in the estuary feeding on salmon fry, sculpins, shrimp, and other small minnows. Estuaries are the most bio-diverse of all waters, the edge of fresh and salt water creates abundance, and grows huge amounts of life. As the cooler days of fall come, as do the salmon returning to spawn and the cutthroat will move back into the river to feed on eggs and dead salmon flesh. Fattening themselves up for their own spring spawning ritual. As opposed to cutthroat that live in the nutrient deficient lakes on Vancouver Island, which are often lanky and thin(in general, not the rule), sea run cutts are thick, deep and strong. Their bodies are strong because of the vast variety of foods and the nutrition available to them. Fish who eat other fish grow up to be beautiful specimens of the species.
Because sea-run cutts are fish eaters, it makes them a wonderful quarry for the fly fisherman. They are solitary fish, not often running in schools, so one must watch the water and be prepared to place your offering near a swirl. A well placed salmon fry pattern at this time of the year will all but guarantee a strike! A hard strike. Be prepared. I used a 5 weight rod in the past and I wonder if it is a little under sized for the task. I have heard of cutts breaking the 4 pound mark, and I am sure they can get even bigger than this. Wade in the shallows of the estuary and look for swirls, or v-wake patterns in the water. This will tip you off. Cutts in the ocean will sometimes jump too, so be on the look out for that as well.
Spring is an amazing time of the year. Get out of bed early and discover this beautiful pastime. Early morning fog, silence aside from the waking birds, the fresh sunrise on your face, the energy transfer of the estuary and the company of a legendary fish, who we shall respect and admire. I encourage you to give it a try!