As a successful West Coast cutthroat fisherman I would have to say “where are the fish” is the biggest question asked. To be honest (for a change) I never tell anybody anything too specific and nor will any other cutty fisherman worth his salt. Let’s face it, the last thing anybody wants to do is head out and find ‘you’ in their spot. The reality is, a good cutthroat fisherman doesn’t ‘know’ where the fish are at any given time, though there are good indicators each day depending on season where the percentages are high to find concentrations of fish - and that is what dictates which direction they will point the front bumper of their vehicle.
|Plenty of water to search.|
It all comes down to the hunt. A true cutthroat fisherman will have put in his time, usually years worth, amassing together a network of places where they have had success at. This list of opportunity along with a journal (or incredibly cognitive memory) becomes a refined blue print of just where an angler might connect under any number of circumstances. As the year progresses (similar to steelhead fishing) these spots are continually prospected in all water levels and times of year to glean the secrets of the holding water such as underwater structure, depths and flow rates as the water rises and falls along with forage opportunities each location affords. Another good reason for revisiting suspected cutthroat holding water or places where you have had success with cutthroat, is often coho find the very same water palatable.
|Coho in my cutthroat spot again.|
Though cutthroat can and will inhabit nearly anything with water that has escapement possibilities to a main river or ocean, we can still break down the areas into 4 types:
|The sloughs can be fantastic.|
|Fresh water caught salt cutthroat|
|Running river chrome.|
|Notice the slack water the fish came out of vs the faster water in the background.|
One prudent thing to look for first is stocking. Does the area have recent stocking reports? If so then a large part of those fish will become residuals or take up residence in the water they are put in for a time. Cutthroat though travelers rarely range too far from their ‘home waters’ and at some point even if they leave will be back - at the very least to spawn.
|Male getting his spawning colours on.|
Next (and possibly even before stocking reports) would be does the water hold salmon? If so where do they spawn or hold during their migration?
|Fran with a coloured coho jack.|
Next time you get a chance to visit a hatchery, bring some polarized glasses and watch for cutties. You might be astounded at how many harvest trout will be in amongst the spawners feasting on eggs and flesh. This is a staple food source for cutthroat – they use this protein to get some bulk on for the spawning period which usually takes place in late February and on into mid to late April.
|Large Powell River cutthroat on the spawn.|
Finding where the salmon tend to hold during their migration is also a huge asset. These areas get targeted by cutthroat for the eggs that fall out of ripe salmon on their way to their spawning waters. Often found in low water conditions, these are areas where salmon in numbers will wait out a lack of water in their run up river. In my experience if you’ve found pinks, chum, or coho staging in low water, you have also found a cutthroat holding spot. If there are salmon holding in there at that time, then the same spot will surely become a deep slow aquarium in higher water - you only need to get the fly down to it. I believe like the fisherman, the fish themselves will use a bunch of areas within the system they are in, and circulate them depending upon the whim of conditions.
|The fish were here this day because of water height, tomorrow maybe not.|
In the cooler fall through late spring months slack water is key. Similar to coho, cutthroat are lazy creatures and ideally they will hold in slack water especially in the cooler times when energy burned vs feed acquired is the key to survival. Even if there is faster water all around, the cutthroat will prefer to hold in the slowest parts thereof. As rain comes and goes during the year, spots will gain and lose viability with ups or downs in flow rates which are ever changing with water height. The very same holds true for sloughs, estuaries, and ocean - high tides and prolific rain will affect where the fish will habituate. Higher water means a few things like more area to forage, more and new bottom available to forage on, as well as creeks and rivers spilling much more bounty to the salt, along with sediment which will effect the visibility/viablity of your offerings. On the other hand lower water often means generally faster flows in otherwise slow water venues, and deep pockets and holes become the viable areas and if found competition will be high for food, room, and often a plain shack nastiness sets in and if the combination of corrrect fly, presentation and position of delivery is met, can be some of the best fishing of the year. An intelligent cutthroat fisherman will take all this into account before even finishing their first coffee, having been ‘on’ the weather reports during the week. Not only how much rainfall and temperature, but over all trends as well. Like any fish, dramatic swings in barometric pressure will affect feeding.
|Stable long lived weather patterns bode well for success.|
Insect hatches can often have profound effects on cutthroat feeding habits as well, even when seemingly more calorie rich food sources abound. As such weed growth should be put into the equation. Most often weeds are a good indication of life, they begat bugs which draw in foraging bait, which in turn can pull in cutthroat. Very often around mid day during the fry migration the cutts will turn onto a hatch themselves, becoming finicky. These times a soft hackle, hare’s ear, or perhaps mayfly imitation and superior drifting skills can be the ticket to success. Usually this is an indicator the fish are stuffed with fry and just feeding more out of habit and competition between school mates more than anything else.
|Nymph caught Harrison cutthroat.|
Let’s take a moment and discuss weeds in a flowing river situation like the Harrison for example. Answering the question why they are there in the first place gives us the ‘why’ cutthroat will be hanging out near/in/around them. Weeded areas on a river bottom signify places where stuff gets caught up and held. Plant life requires nutrient to survive and as such they will grow in places where that nutrient collects on the river bottom. Basically they are in the eye of the perfect storm, areas where a continual stream of biomass is carried and deposited, add to that rarely the flow is too great to have a flushing effect else they would simply be washed away. This translates into a place where food will collect as well as hydro conditions which will allow for easy holding water for fish. Also aquatic weeds rarely survive prolonged exposure to air so chances are if you’ve found weeds, you’ve found a spot that is wet most of the year – a good thing for bugs that rely on a yearly cycle and require wet eggs for survival. Find the weeds to find the fish.
|Definitely weeds here.|
The last thing I would like to touch upon is current, more specifically the back eddy phenomena. This applies in every holding area I have found success at in some form or another. From tiny 3’ in diameter eddies in streams, to long conflicting current seams in ocean or estuary. Like a weed area (and often the cause of) this is where the currents will create soft holding water off a general current direction (tidal or running water) and at the same time create a conveyor belt of food stuffs to be available as forage most likely in close proximity to each other. Look for places where the shore pushes into the flow obstructing the water path. As the water goes over/round it, a conflicting and often reverse of flow direction will occur – think of how the air in the box of a pickup truck rolls over the top of the cab into the box at speed. Turn that on its side and you have a back eddy. The resulting conflicting currents create both places where food will amass as well as holding water for fish to laze around and eat in.
|Finding success in a large back eddy.|
Often these current differences are quite profound and as you move around them you may find yourself actually fishing the opposite way the general flow direction is heading. If you are in a tidal area depending on outward or inward ebb and flow, the eddy can be on either side of the structure you are fishing.
|This time the tide was coming in and that told me where to ply the fly.|
In closing I would like to say any of the above criteria can and probably will hold cutthroat trout at some point. It’s when you start finding more than one in a single locale that things start to take off. 3 or more and it’s a pretty good bet you have a well used haunt of fish that will still ignore your fly.
|Sometimes they do eat.|