Of Sound Mind
- By: Greg Thomas
I left seattle back in the 1990s because the traffic sucked, there weren’t any steelhead left and grunge was dead. Anywhere I went around Puget Sound, it seemed like civilization bore down hard. I spent most of my days tangled in traffic raising a digit to other drivers and I wasn’t implying We’re number one. Life, I deemed, was too short to be spent in traffic. I needed open spaces and a new attitude.
At that time Montana was about to completely drop its speed limit, and it was still legal to drink beer while driving to or from the stream in Big Sky Country. In addition, biologists managed its trout streams properly, and whether you could catch trout or not, anglers could count on casting over fish, which wasn’t something you could bank on in western Washington. I packed my bags and headed for Montana with nothing more than two Labradors and a refreshed angling outlook in tow.
I didn’t return to Seattle for nearly 15 years, at least for any length of time, and I wrote off the fishing as diluted and its patrons delusional at best. Stand in a river, wave that wand, drive home fishless. What a blast. When I did visit Seattle, I spent my time watching hoop games and drinking at the Cabin Tavern and the old Frontier.
This past winter, my wife and I decided that enduring another winter at our home in Ennis, Montana, wasn’t worth our time, mostly because there’s nothing to do with our young kids between the end of November and June—when the wind tunnels at a steady 30 mile an hour clip and daytime temperatures often register in single digits. So we loaded up and spent a glorious winter in Seattle with green grass showing every day, temperatures ranging from the 40s to the mid-50s, and rhododendron blooms fueling our spirit.
While in Seattle, I chanced upon a host of fun-loving anglers (a refreshingly open and welcoming fly-fishing community) including Dave McCoy, who runs Emerald Water Anglers in Seattle. I checked out his Web site and met him for a day on the Cowlitz River and then the Skagit where, in old form, I failed to catch a steelhead. But we hit it off and it wasn’t long before I tagged along for sea-run cutthroat trout in Puget Sound.
Sea-runs are trout I grew up with. I fished them as a kid in Hood Canal and in a quaint bay that borders 17 acres of old-growth property we’ve held in the family for 100 years. I’d launch a small, wooden skiff below our one-room cabin and troll massive, silver-bladed setups called Pop Gear. We trailed those attractors with a single hook and a worm.
I don’t know how many cutthroats I caught growing up, but they were great sport even on that heavy tackle and some of them stretched to 18 inches long. They were beautifully colored with silver sides speckled with black spots, and lower bodies and fins tinted yellow. Their heads and gillplates carried olive, blue and gold hues and their camouflaged backs were military-dark, a mix of black and green. They harbored lateral grooves on either side of their jaws, streaked with pumpkin-orange coloration. The most beautiful trout I’d ever caught.
This time around, McCoy and I sought out sea-runs with light fly rods and a variety of baitfish and shrimp imitations.
And we found sea-runs in decent numbers on a soupy, fog-laden day along a south Puget Sound beach preferred by McCoy. Sea-run aficionados, like McCoy, say spring and summer, when most of Puget Sound’s sea-runs are in salt water, are the best times to find these fish.
Because the sea-run cutthroat spends most of its life in the intertidal zone—that area between the low and high tide marks—it’s readily available to fly fishers. Locating fish is the most important element of saltwater sea-run fishing because those cutts, which are also called harvest trout, are super-aggressive. Place a productive fly in front of a sea-run cutthroat and you shouldn’t wonder if it’s hungry—if a fish sees the fly he’ll likely eat.
Successful anglers blind-cast faithfully while keeping eyes peeled for signs of fish—a swirl here, a jump there, or baitfish leaping from the water, aware of some olive-colored toothy wolf below. You may be waist-deep, casting over an oyster bed, covering as much water as possible, only to hear an explosion behind you in two feet of water, a solid sea-run racing in the other direction with visions of a toothy seal or sand shark in its head.
As I mentioned above, spring is one of the best times to fish sea-runs. From March through May, those cutthroats and dolly varden char amass at the mouths of Washington rivers and streams to feed on waves of salmon fry (mostly chums) washing out of freshwater. At that time smolt patterns work wonders and anglers who cast from shore or from a small pram or skiff often mark epic days with catch-and-release numbers possibly lifting into the teens.
Other times of the year, Pacific Coast cutthroat anglers match a variety of food items, including juvenile herring, sand lance, perch and sculpin; along with sand shrimp, eels and euphausids, which are small shrimp-like creatures. A new movement in sea-run fishing uses dry flies. Basically, anglers cast a variety of popper patterns over likely sea-run haunts or they cast to fish showing on the surface. Takes can be incredible, like a big Alaska leopard rainbow throwing the smack-down on a stripped mouse.
It should be noted, a trip to Seattle offers a viable fishing experience even if anglers are limited to a half-day, prior to or after a meeting. From downtown, anglers can be geared-up and launching casts into the saltwater—with seagulls, brant, cormorants and ducks flying overhead; and seals, salmon and, possibly, killer whales passing in front—within a half-hour. Three or four hours spent fishing a prime tide for cutthroats, alone on a secluded beach, could send some businessmen back to their hometowns proposing, “Perhaps we should open an office in Seattle.”
To my mind, sea-run cutthroats are one of the coolest fish on the planet. Some of that has to do with my father’s words: from the day I began fishing, he told me that there’s no better fighting fish than a sea-run cutthroat and if they ranged to the size of a steelhead or salmon, you couldn’t even land them. You may harbor that opinion after a big sea-run, meaning an 18- to 22-inch behemoth, torches your large-arbor reel. I’ve found the sea-runs’ fighting merit to match that description and I’ve heard many other anglers say the same thing once they encounter an 18- to 20-incher.
In some ways I should be ashamed for deserting the western Washington fishing scene back in the 1990s because this winter I found as much solitude and rewarding trout fishing as I would anywhere else in the West. Unlike the trout-war mentality found on many Western trout streams of repute, stalking sea-runs on a secluded beach takes anglers back to the basic pleasantries of the sport.
As McCoy and I wandered the south Puget Sound beaches last winter and as I revisited old stomping grounds on Hood Canal, I found a world of unexplored and solitary fly-fishing with the prize being one of the greatest and oft-overlooked trout in the world. Some days I wandered down the street from my parents’ home in Richmond Beach, just north of Seattle, and fished the tides on a rocky point. Without the big foreign cargo ships passing by, I could have imagined myself in coastal British Columbia or Alaska, lost on a lonely beach with a plethora of fish and almost infinite possibility. I wasn’t worried about finding boat-launch lines six deep, or having to elbow away fellow anglers for the best water. This, I mused, was what fly-fishing was meant to be. And who would have thought, some of the most entertaining trout fishing in the world right there in bustling western Washington, with 2.5 million people beyond.
Greg Thomas is this magazine’s managing editor.