Our target species, sea run cutthroat trout. This particular strain of cutthroat is a Coastal cutthroat and is found from California to Alaska.
It is 3:30 AM and I am up because I couldn't sleep it was raining so freaking hard all night. I am meeting clients in a little over an hour to steelhead fish, supposedly, but I know what is awaiting us at every river within 200 miles. Get up and check river levels, yep, spiked so hard the graph couldn't keep up with them and likely won't until they nearly peak. So it goes in this part of the world, when it rains hard around here it does so with a broad brush. Five AM and we are talking options for the day. The best and really the only is Puget Sound, a giant saltwater aquarium separated from the Pacific by the Olympic Peninsula.
Our target species, sea run cutthroat trout. This particular strain of cutthroat is a Coastal cutthroat and is found from California to Alaska and is mostly caught or pursued in the rivers and streams except here. Puget Sound is likely the best place on the Pacific to pursue them in genuine saltwater conditions. You can fish the estuaries of the some 15 main rivers that flow into it as well but once in the Sound, they roam a lot, and there lies your greatest challenge, finding them somewhere along the 2800 miles of shoreline Puget Sound offers.
My clients are hardcore steelhead anglers who had given up on resident trout long ago, but they really want to fish.
"OK then, are we ready to catch some cutts?" I say as we pull into the parking lot of our first beach.
"Yeah, we just really enjoy swinging for fish and this looks a lot like a lake."
"I understand, but give it a chance, I know you guys and I have a little surprise for you." I picked up a few of these new, super light switch rods which will allow you to spey cast and the current on this beach rips so poke that fly out and let her swing baby!" Faces tighten back up and the tempo of the day has just dropped back into gear from a very neutral position. That awkward silence where nobody is saying anything, everyone wishes they were somewhere else, except me. "Still beats a day in the office." I remind them and am welcomed with barely half hearted agreement. This could be a tough day.
Stepping onto the first beach, a feeling of insignificance sets upon my sports as they scan the horizon, the mass of water in front of them for anything familiar. "What piece of land is that, and how far away is it?" asks Tom.
"That is the Kitsap Peninsula, about 3 miles across or so."
"You expect us to find a fish from here!!?"
"Yes, I do so get in the water and put your fly in it as well. No fish is going to find it sitting in your hand."
The feeling is understandable. I hear it and see it all the time, local anglers looking for some new water to fish, closer to home with fewer people on it and still have a shot at some quality fish. Much of the time they are invariably intimidated if not within the first 20 minutes then certainly after the first day. I hardly blame them, on your best cast you are barely covering any measurable percentage of the available water and it isn't exactly the river most fly anglers are familiar with. Reading water currents, knowing the tides and its effects on structure and where fish might be here is different. My thoughts, "Yeah, you're a beginner again!"
This isn't caddis and stoneflies with some parachute Adams thrown in, we are talking about half a dozen different baitfish all with different shapes, colorations and personalities when pursued by predators like sea run cutthroat.
Anyway, after covering some of the basics, Tom gets a nice follow and a boil on his fly and on the next cast, promptly hooks up and brings a handsome 15 inch cutt to hand.
The fish, Tom and my enthusiasm quickly rub off on the others and looking down the beach, I can see the guys fishing with the same intensity they would be pursing steelhead - game on! Their novice state in the salt has quickly evaporated and they are now in auto pilot mode.
To my pleasant surprise, we land a few fish here at beach #1 which can be good but isn't as consistent as the next one we are headed to -- the guys are pumped, so am I.
Arriving at beach #2, I am barely out of the car before 2 of the guys have rods in hand and are butt sliding their way down a virtual cliff. "Had you guys asked I would have shown you the easy way down," but then I see why, several large cutts are working a bait ball 20ft from shore. Tom is sprinting to a rise about 100 yards away, dragging his line (my line actually) across barnacle covered rocks and oyster beds. It pays off with a resident silver salmon of 17 inches and a few other follows.
For the next few hours, we amass a quantity of sea run cutts and silvers that most around here wouldn't believe. Sizeable fish as usual here at this location and as I settle into a guide mode of watch and enable, only insert myself as needed, Jeff turns and blurts out, "Why isn't anyone else doing this?", and I don't really have a good answer.
For ten years or more now I have been talking at trade shows, on trips and in shop, teaching and writing about this fishery and what it can offer but on a Saturday like this; perfect tides, clear water, virtually no wind and fish boiling on bait at every beach, I am glad we are alone, again.
As the tide turns slack, we head out for some greasy burgers and a sack of French fries, a literal sack and the interrogation begins.
"Is this the only place the fish are?" asks Tom.
Having fielded a barrage of questions, we discuss final thoughts for our afternoon and I explain that there are hundreds of beaches we can head to within an hour of where we are so the question is back at them.
"Learn something new or kick a dead horse and go back to where we just left?" I ask.
"Something new" it is and fits into the plans perfectly as we will arrive at my favorite beach at the perfect time. As usual the beginning of the tide change here is a bit slow, no fish rolling, no bait visible and after an hour, even I begin to think we should leave. A couple of seals throw some long glances at us as they swim the rip line off the point. That just about secures it as Scott lets out a slight yelp as a sizable cutty goes airborne on him and comes undone.
Ok, maybe we aren't leaving just yet. A couple unnecessary fly changes and the proverbial tide begins to change. More fish visibly rising and we are back in the game in a big way.
Each of the guys land nice trout, 2 of which are 18-19 inches according to the net so who knows but they are bigger than average and larger than we have seen yet today. After a couple hours, I am satisfied as are the sports.
"There are anglers here in Seattle who would give anything to have seen a day like this out here and you guys casually end up here by accidental circumstance, let's go buy some lottery tickets and some beer for the ride home." I say. "There is nothing more we can accomplish here."
As I say this and Tom and I are preparing to exit, an absolute monster rips his fly a new one and heads for the Pacific with it. "Holy ----, what is it?" he asks.
"I know nothing other than it is in your backing right now Scott!" I want to at least see this fish and as I utter these words under my breath another fish airs it out about 50 yards away and at first I think, "Someone, get a fly in there!" but then I realize it is Scott's fish and his line is doing everything it can to keep up with it and doing a pretty poor job if you ask me.
After a few blazing runs the fish comes to hand and at first glance it looks like a small steelhead. It does happen occasionally, an angler ties into a returning chromer as they are searching for cutts or coho.
I can barely breathe I am so pumped and for the rest of the guys, they are as well but they don't have 10 years of not ever seeing a cutthroat trout this large in the salt, not even close. We take our pics, shoot a couple swigs of whiskey from my always present celebratory flask and call it a day.
After dropping the guys back at their hotel, I speed home to download the images and see what we got. Not having had a tape measure on me I measure the net and extend it to where the fish's tail was for this shot, roughly 23 inches.
Next email I get from Scott reads like this," Can we fish the Sound this fall when we are back?"
"What about steelhead?" I shoot back, "That is a great time to pursue them out here."
"No, we have more of them here in the Great Lakes it seems, we would prefer to chase some more cutts." Scott says.
"OK, but those aren't steelhead! See you in September ready to hit the salt."