About this blog

This blog is all about fly fishing for native trout. On it I cover trip reports, fishing tactics, conservation, the latest news about native trout species and much more. This site provides a companion to my web page Nativetroutflyfishing.com.


Thursday, February 29, 2024

Filling the knowledge gap

After moving down to Olympia Washington in the South Puget Sound several years ago I was excited to learn a new area for sea-run Cutthroat but I have been confronted with several challenges as I have been exploring the area and have had very limited success in my saltwater fishing. Yes I have caught fish but things have just been much less consistent than I would like. 

In moving down to Olympia, I quickly recognized just how different the deep south Sound is than my previous home waters around Gig Harbor and on the Kitsap Peninsula. Deep South Sound tends to be much more estuarine than the central Sound, being comprised of a number of finger inlets subject to extreme tides for example, we just recently had a 17 foot high tide at my local beach, where a 13 foot high is a big tide in the central Sound. Additionally, these beaches also tend to be much muddier than the cobble beaches and eel grass beds that I was used to fishing, which really changes fishing on windy days (low clarity) or at lower tide levels. This requires different tactics and different flies with prey items like ghost shrimp and arrow gobies being more important forage items in these areas and a lot of time to start to unlock each beach. In other words my skills up north are not fully transferable and it is time to learn a new.

However, perhaps the biggest challenges has been the overall lack of public lands in deep south Sound. I have always primarily been a walk and wade fisherman and while I had about a dozen beaches within 15 minutes in Gig Harbor, the pickings are much more slim down here and it is quite clear that public beach access was not prioritized to the same degree in Thurston County compared to what I was used to in Pierce and Kitsap counties.

Another part of my lack of overall success in deep south Sound has been a lack of effort on my part, while I once had a deep love of fishing the saltwater, after guiding and teaching classes for several years it started to feel more like work than I would like and to be frank I just think I needed a bit of a break. As such I have put much more time into exploring flowing waters over the last few years. On top of that I have also felt like I had a bit of jinx on me when it came to success on the saltwater, with how mobile sea-run Cutthroat are there is always a bit of being in the right place at the right time needed for success and it seemed like despite fishing tides and structures that I know should hold fish even at my old haunts the stars just never wanted to align. That was until my last Cutthroat outing when my friend Steve and I got into some solid Cutthroat and the old fire I had for fishing the saltwater was finally reignited. 

After that trip, I decided that it is time to start really learning these beaches even if it is just for a quick 30 minutes here or there. So putting my plan into action, first I scoured every resource I could and pinned new beaches to try out, discovering several new access points in the process, then I started hitting beaches.

A quick afternoon outing on my home beach

My first outing after coming to this resolution, was just a 30 minute quick who cares what the tide is doing outing with low expectations. By 'who cares who the tide is doing', I don't mean to say that I didn't check the tides, as I did and it just didn't look ideal for when I was getting out there, being the start of an outgoing with a relatively small tidal exchange. However, I hadn't tried this beach on such a tide and so it was worth checking. However, as expected with barely any current the fish weren't around, but it was at least still a gorgeous break on the water.

On my next outing I was a bit more excited, I had a few hours to work with, the sun was out and this time there was a great outgoing tide. I decided to go a bit further a field and my friend and coworker Alexei was able to join so we hoped in the car and scouted out a few beaches. The first beach that we stopped at looked excellent, as we could already see some nice tidal rips and seams forming, but just one hiccup. Being a weekend there were already 3 fly anglers and two gear anglers working the water. However, that was a pretty clear indicator that this beach will be worth revisiting, just at a time when the crowds are down. Next we scouted out another access spot just a few minutes away that looked promising, but the tide was just still too high to fish so again worth noting for the future, but now it was time to hit the water. 

I landed on a spot that I have fished a handful of times and caught fish at on several of those trips and luckily when we got there we had the place to ourselves. One thing that I have found over the past few years of fishing streams is that versatility greatly increases my success and as such I rarely just bring one rod with me anymore. Today was no different and I decided to start out with a surface fly on my 5WT while I put a trusty  my 6WT with an intermediate line and an orange sea run bugger on in my O'Pros Third Hand rod holder at my hip. Alexei started with a peach sea-run bugger and we got to casting. This beach is the type that I am used to fishing, with a good tidal flow and barnacle encrusted rocks and while it looked great there was no sign of fish so we relocated down the beach to a point of land that often attracts fish. The point has a drop off and I have found fish here anywhere from the deeper water to just a couple feet off shore in the shallows. With the strong tide the current was a bit pushy off the point, so I switched over to my 6WT with the sea-run bugger to try to get down to the fish and started working the water.  However, after ten minutes on the point I hadn't seen any signs of life, but as I worked my way around the point I thought I saw a fish roll not far down the beach and decided to relocate and check it out. 

I was glad that I did too as on my first cast I had a solid grab just as my fly was coming parallel to shore, but I missed it. However, when I tossed my fly back out parallel to shore this time I only got a few strips in when I got another solid grab and hooked up this time. It was clear that this wasn't a large fish, but it still fought hard for its size and when I brought to hand it was a gorgeous dime bright 10" native Coastal Cutthroat.

A beautiful little sea-run Cutthroat

After I got my fish Alexei joined me and on this stretch of beach and almost immediately had a grab but didn't hook up. I continued fishing where I had gotten my fish for another 10 minutes but didn't get any other grabs to I moved 100 feet down the beach and once again bam within the first couple casts I got into the fish again with another couple cookie 10" Cutthroat. Once this spot died down I moved again and while my first cast seemed like it wasn't going to produce anything, right as my line reached the rod tip I twitched it to the side and a 14" Cutthroat slashed it with enough aggression that it actually made me jump. As a result of this, I got a poor hookset and while a fought the fish for a few moments it was able to shake the hook. Next cast though I had another grab and this time was a bit more prepared and was able to bring another 10 or 11" Cutthroat to hand.

At this point Alexei who is still a bit new to this fishery hadn't caught a Cutthroat so I went over and described what I was experiencing, gave him one of my orange Sea Run Buggers and suggested that he try a bit further down the beach. Unfortunately, by the time we put this plan into place it seemed that the optimum tide window had passed with the shellfish beds that the Cutthroat feeding over being exposed and as such the Cutthroat seemed to have moved on.  However, on the chance that another school might move in we continued to work the beach for another half hour just enjoying the rare gorgeous bluebird evening on the Puget Sound before the current slowed and it was time to call it a day.

Alexei working the water as the sun starts to sink on the horizon

All and all, this was a beautiful day on the water and while Alexei unfortunately didn't land any Cutthroat, I had gotten into several and lost or missed several of others as well.

After my successful outing with Alexei, I focused my next few outing on scouting out several beaches scattered around the South Puget Sound with pretty minimal success. 

Scouting out 'new' local beach

These scouting trips were more opportunistic and about checking the beaches out at differing (often less than ideal tides) and while I found several promising beaches the fish just weren't there. However, on my latest of these scouting trips, I had a bit more time to work with and did a tour of three beaches on an outgoing tide. The first two spots were relatively well known access areas and while the tide looked decent, there was just no sign of life at either beach. 

Another great looking beach, just no fish around

My third stop was at a constricted passage that I have fish before with some success on similar tides and when I got there the current was already really cooking, so it was just a matter of finding some fish. With the strong current, I started out with a shrimp pattern in a little cove that was forming a back eddy, which I figured was likely to be trapping baitfish and other forage items and I started working the water. It didn't take long for my intuition to pay off as after about ten minutes on the water I got a solid grab and hooked into a decent fish. I have always found that fish in the saltwater often move in schools, so I did my best to fight this fish quickly and after a short battle I bought a beautiful 15" resident Coho Salmon to the net.

A beautiful wild resident Coho Salmon

After snapping a quick photo I turned the Coho loose and quickly got my line back out and sure enough about halfway through the retrieve I got another solid grab and briefly connected with a fish, but it popped off. Once more I tossed my line back out and got another grab, but this time didn't hook up and just as quickly as the fish had come they were gone. This clearly was a school of resident Coho and I have always found that if you can stay on the school you can continue to pick fish off. This is easy when there are jumpers, however none of these fish had shown themselves on the surface so I had to guess which direction the fish had gone and unfortunately while I went right it appeared the the fish went left. 

With no further sign of the resident Coho, I continued working my way down the beach and I did get one more great while working my fly over a shellfish bed, but otherwise the beach had gone dead and when it started pour down rain and I was not wear raingear I knew that it was time to call it a day.

While my success rate on my recent trips, was less than stellar, I still managed to find a few fish and it has been great to just get out on the water, reconnect with this fishery and start to fill in my deep South Sound knowledge gaps.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

The first of the winter sea-runs

One of the aspects I love the most about living in western Washington is the amount of unique year round fishing options available. While we may not have that great quality dry fly fishing that the Rockies, the sheer diversity of native salmonids, presence of anadromous fish and the unique fisheries help to make up for it. Growing up near Puget Sound, I spent countless hours of my teens and twenties fishing the saltwater for sea-run Coastal Cutthroat, but after spending several years guiding I had largely moved on from this fishery in favor of moving waters over the past few years. However, a recent outing reminded what makes the saltwater and these hard fighting Cutthroat so special.

After my last outing for Cutthroat on a small stream back in November, a friend of mine and fellow native enthusiast Steve Vedra reached out about coming out to Washington to try his luck for his first Coastal Cutthroat. Our original plan was to fish a couple coastal streams for Cutthroat and with a chance of steelhead, but as the day approached the weather turned for the worst and the rivers blew out. With a full day to fish and options limited, I decided to show him the saltwater fishery, after my last few saltwater outings proving to be quite fruitless, I warned Steve of the inconsistent nature of the fishery at times, but he was still all in.

With Steve coming all of the way from Indiana to try for his first Coastal Cutthroat, I wanted to give us the best possible odds, so I picked an area that has treated me well this time of the year and where we could easily beach hop if we needed to search for fish. One of the key aspects of fishing the Puget Sound is hitting the tides right and the day we were fishing there was a morning high tide that looked great, but meant that our starting options would be limited by our ability to make a back cast. As such I picked a beach that I had never fished but knew had plenty of casting room regardless of the tide for our first stop. With great company and conversations on native trout, fishing and life in general, the drive out to the beach flew by and before long we were rigging up and making our way down the hill towards the water shortly after the sun came up.

Dawn on the Sound

With our recent bout of wet and stormy weather, when we reached the beach it appeared that we had won the weather lottery, rain had been in the forecast for the day all week and while it was certainly a grey skies kind of day, it was also dry and more importantly dead calm on the Sound. With the calm weather we both started out with surface flies and it didn’t take long for the Cutthroat to notice them. With both Steve and myself getting several vicious takes within the first 20 minutes at the beach. While fishing top water results in some spectacular takes it comes with a low hook up rate but at least now we knew the fish were here.

Steve working a surface fly for sea-run Cutthroat

With fish around, Steve switched to a subsurface worm pattern, while varied between an orange searun bugger and top water baitfish pattern. As the tide started to fall, we were able to work our way down the beach towards a good looking rocky stretch with Steve getting a couple grabs along the way. After fishing for about an hour Steve got a solid grab and this time connected a short fight netted his first Coastal Cutthroat.

Steve's first Coastal Cutthroat - a beautiful 15" sea-run

Having pursued native trout for over 20 years now, catching a new variety of trout is a priceless experience and getting to share that with Steve was an absolute joy!

After Steve released his Cutthroat, we continued working our way down the beach and while I rose one more fish and Steve briefly hooked into another Cutthroat and I rose one more on the top water fly before things slowed down. With a long gap since the last take and the encounters with Cutthroat that we did have being somewhat sporadic we made the call to move to another beach that had treated me well in the past.

One thing that had played into my selection of spots for the day was the proximity of each of these beaches to spawning streams. With Coastal Cutthroat typically spawning in mid- to late-winter there are almost always Cutthroat cruising these areas and this next spot was not exception. Another plus with the next spot was that there were two beaches separated by a small cove within close proximity, so if the Cutthroat weren't at one they might be at the other. So after a short drive to our next spot, we were back on the water. We started out on the south side of the cove and quickly worked our way along the beach, but after a half hour with not so much as a tap we decided to jump over to the other side of the cove.

Looking across the water at our next spot

Upon relocating across the cove, we made our way out the the point and immediately got to work casting. This time, we were much more exposed to the wind so we focused our attention on subsurface flies and Steve worked the tip of the point with his worm pattern, while I moved a little south of and covered the edge of a decent looking oyster bed with an orange sea run bugger. Anytime I am on a beach looking for Cutthroat and come across an oyster bead, it is always worth a few casts as these areas hide lots of small critters making them prime foraging grounds of Cutthroat. As it would have it, this one was no exception and after just a few casts I got a solid tug and hooked into a decent fish. I always say the sea-run Cutthroat punch above the weight and this fish proved that by putting a solid bend in my 6WT, but luck was on my side and before long I was sliding a beautiful 17" sea-run into the net.

My first fish of the day and year - a flawless sea-run Cutthroat

Sea-run Cutthroat often travel in schools, so I quickly released the fish and got back to casting a little ways down the beach and wouldn't you know it, another Cutthroat almost immediately grabbed my fly. This fish was much smaller, at perhaps 12", so I quickly turned it loose without handling it and got back at it again. My next two casts also produced similar sized 10" to 12" Cutthroat and at this point I called Steve who hadn't gotten a grab over, gave him one of the flies and swapped spots. However, when I relocated back to the oyster bed I hooked into yet another 12" Cutthroat, then just as fast as the had moved in the school seemed to disappear. We covered the beach for another 30 minutes and I only had one more grab before the tide started winding down and it was time to move on. In my experience slack tide is typically not very productive and as such it was to perfect time head out, grab lunch and relocate.

We finished our day off by working the incoming tide at what once had been my 'home beach' in Gig Harbor, but after an hour of flogging the water we hadn't seen the slightest sign of life and when the weather finally gave out and the promised rain arrived it was time to call it a day. All and all this was an amazing day on the water that has helped to reignite my love of fishing the saltwater and chasing sea-run Coastal Cutthroat. On top of that it was an absolute joy to share this unique native trout fishery with Steve and get to watch him land his first Coastal Cutthroat.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Colorado's Cutthroat Diversity

This past summer I had the privilege to make two trips out to the Colorado Rockies in pursuit native Cutthroat. While my original goal was just to catch the two subspecies of Cutthroat that I had yet to catch, I ended up expanding my second trip to pursue all of the extant Cutthroat lineages in the state and here they are.

Green River Cutthroat - Blue lineage - Yampa drainage

The Green River Cutthroat or Blue lineage of the Colorado River Cutthroat are found in streams draining to the Green River, such as the White River and Yampa River drainages. These Cutthroat were also stocked extensively across much of the state and are found in many streams in the upper Colorado, Gunnison, Dolores and San Juan watersheds.

Colorado River Cutthroat - Green lineage - Upper Colorado River

The Colorado River Cutthroat or Green lineage of the Colorado River Cutthroat. These fish are native to the Upper Colorado, Gunnison and Dolores watersheds. These fish were only recognized as being distinct from the Green River Cutthroat in recent years and currently only occupy about 3% of their native range.

Hayden Creek Cutthroat - Arkansas drainage Colorado River Cutthroat

While the extinct Yellowfin Cutthroat is recognized as the native trout of the Arkansas watershed, historic accounts indicate that ‘Greenback Cutthroat’ were also found in Twin Lakes in the upper Arkansas watershed. While both the Yellowfin and ‘Greenbacks’ vanished from Twin Lakes in the early 1900’s, a single population of fish found in the South Prong of Hayden Creek matched the ‘Greenback’ museum specimens from Twin Lakes. However in a twist of the story, the genetic analysis also revealed that these fish were not Greenbacks but a unique population of Colorado River Cutthroat with genes found nowhere else. While the South Prong Hayden Creek population was lost in a Fire, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has established a handful of populations across the Arkansas basin.

San Juan Cutthroat - San Juan drainage

The San Juan Cutthroat are native to the upper San Juan River basin. Until recently these fish were believed to be Colorado River Cutthroat, but genetic analysis of museum specimens showed that they represent a unique lineage of Cutthroat. At the time of this revelation, it was believed that the San Juan Cutthroat were extinct, but an extensive search of the basin turned up a handful of small isolated populations scattered across the upper watershed.

Greenback Cutthroat - South Platte drainage

The Greenback Cutthroat are native to the South Platte drainage and have a complex story. These fish were believed to be extinct by the 1930’s, but when a few small Cutthroat populations were discovered in the basin a recovery program was launched. For years this program was considered a huge success story, until genetics work showed that the fish used for the program were a mix of Green River and Colorado River Cutthroat and only a single population of a few hundred Greenbacks remained. After resetting the conservation efforts, Greenbacks have been reestablished in a handful of streams across the front range of Colorado.

Rio Grande Cutthroat - Upper Rio Grande drainage

The beautiful Rio Grande Cutthroat are found in the upper Rio Grande watershed of Colorado. These fish are the southernmost Cutthroat lineage and similar to the other Cutthroat of Colorado are now restricted to small headwater streams across their native range.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

A chilly Coastal Cutthroat outing

After over a month in which I was unable to get out on the water, I finally found a day where both my and Dyllon's schedules lined up along with a gap in Washington's persistently rainy weather align and made a go of it. Being in the transition between the fall trout and winter steelhead season, we decided to try out a small coastal stream that we figured should offer a good opportunity for Coastal Cutthroat, Coho Salmon and even the potential for some early steelhead.

The drive out to the coast, was smooth but as we approached the stream, we watched as the temperature dropped from a reasonable 38 degrees to a down right chilly 27 by the time we reached the logging gate for our walk in. With the balmy temperatures the mile walk into the stream was quite welcome as it got our body temperatures up and we were rearing to go by the time we finally reached the water.

Sunrise on the stream

The first hole looked great and Dyllon took point at fishing an egg imitation at the head of the pool while I worked my streamer through tanic waters at the back. The streamer produced nearly instantaneous results as I got a grab on the first cast then hooked up with 10” Cutthroat, which popped off at the rod tip on the next one. However, that was the only sign of life and with that we started working our way downstream.

Dyllon working a riffle on the stream

When I choose this stream, I had expected that we would find either Chum or Coho Salmon spawning throughout it, but the next few bends showed signs of salmon or Cutthroat for that matter. However, after a few bends we came upon a great looking riffle and while there were still no salmon around a Cutthroat grabbed my egg imitation right away and I was on the board with the first fish of the day.

My first fish of the day, a small but beautiful native Coastal Cutthroat

This riffle proved to be one of the most productive of the day, but with temperatures still in the 20’s iced guides were a constant source of frustration and required clearing or dipping our rods in the water after every couple casts.

Iced guides

However, the cold temperatures did not seem to impede the appetites of the Cutthroat and a few casts after the first one, I hooked into a much nicer Cutthroat. While this Cutthroat put of a solid fish and even jumped once, it was no match for my 6WT and after a couple minutes I brought the 15” beauty to the net.

Another gorgeous native Cutthroat 

The riffle

While I had worked my way downstream through the rifle, Dyllon worked the top end and got a small Cutthroat as well, before we switched spots and he got a nice 12” in the lower end where I had gotten my big one. The top end of the riffle wasn’t done producing though and I brief hooked into a couple more Cutthroat and before I finally got and solid hook up with another larger Cutthroat. When this Cutthroat surfaced, I could tell it was something special as all I could see were the reddish tones on its side, but it’s true beauty wasn’t revealed until I brought it to the net. That is when I could admire the colors of this male Cutthroat that was starting to show its spawning regalia.

Without a doubt one of most beautiful Coastal Cutthroat I have caught

A close up of the rosey gill plates and two toned fins on this Cutthroat 

This Cutthroat was one of those rare gems that transcends size and will forever be etched in my mind for its sheer beauty. However, encounters with such fish are always fleeting and before long it was time to watch as the fish darted back into the tea stained waters. After this fish, the riffle produced one more small Cutthroat before it shut down and it was time to move on again.

This stream was characterized by short stretches of fast productive water separated by long reaches of unproductive slow lake like water making for long walks between holding water. As such we had to cover nearly a quarter mile before hitting our next spot, but the walk was worth it.

The next riffle downstream 

Dyllon and I approached this next riffle from opposite shores and as such were able to effectively cover each side of it. With this approach after a few casts both of us hooked up with a double, with Dyllon landing a beautiful 14” Cutthroat starting to show its spawning colors, while I landed a 16”er that appeared to be recently arrived from the sea.

My largest Cutthroat of the day, a heavily spotted 16”er

After releasing our respective Cutthroat, Dyllon’s side of the stream proved to be the more productive as he went on to hook into several more decent Cutthroat, while my side only produce a single additional small but brightly colored Cutthroat fresh from the salt.

Once the riffle stopped producing, we once again continued on and covered another 3/4 mile of water downstream, but failed to find any spots as productive as the two riffles. However, what we did find were several deep pools and runs that any steelhead angler would dream of before the stream became hemmed in by a canyon. This canyon made for a natural spot to turn around and while we didn’t find any salmon or steelhead the excellent Cutthroat fishing and beautiful water made for the perfect end to the fall trout season and certainly got me excited for the steelhead season to come.

A frosty end to a great day on the water

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Fall in the North Cascades: Part 2

After the amazing fishing of the previous day, we decided to shake things up a bit a try out another stream to see if we couldn't capture magic in a bottle once again. This stream had been on my hit list for years as it hosts a run of Sockeye Salmon and spawning Sockeye typically attract hungry trout and char. On top of that the area is noted for its amazing scenery, so even if the fishing didn’t live up to expectations, the scenery was bound to make it worthwhile. As such, by first light we found ourselves at the trailhead rigged up and ready to go.

A misty morning in the mountains

Upon reaching the river, we saw few signs of life and the first few bends failed to produce any fish.  That finally started to change once we finally spotted some bright red Sockeye holding a tailout. Not far upstream we found another group of Sockeye actively spawning and just downstream Dyllon caught a small Rainbow Trout on an egg imitation. 

A group of Sockeye holding in the river

While Dyllon and TJ were fishing egg imitations, I decided to bring my streamer rod. That choice ended making my day when a Sockeye surprised me and latched onto my black sculpin pattern as I stripped across a run. After a short fight, I slid the beautiful red male Sockeye into the shallows and tailed it. When it comes to catching salmon on a fly rod in the Pacific Northwest, Sockeye are by far the most challenging, with this only being the second anadromous Sockeye I have ever caught.

My fish of the day a bright red Sockeye

Not far upstream from where I caught my Sockeye, we ran into another solid spawning aggregation and it didn’t take long for Dyllon to hook into and land a beautiful Bull Trout.

Dyllon with a nice Bull Trout

As we continued working our way upstream, the river proved to be every bit as beautiful as we expected with aquamarine waters, surrounded by old growth forest and towering glaciated peaks that where cloaked in clouds giving things an ethereal feel. While both Dyllon and TJ hooked into a few more fish no additional trout were landed and as the spawning salmon appeared to be thinning out as we headed upstream, we finally made the call to make our way back downstream.

Dyllon working a beautiful piece of water

On the way downstream, luck favored me again as I got a solid grab on my streamer in a deep hole and landed my first native Rainbow of the trip. While this fish was large by any means, it was spunky and gorgeous.

A beautiful native Rainbow Trout caught on a streamer

Despite fishing our way down to the trail, we didn’t get any more attention after that Rainbow and before we knew it we were leaving the river back on the trail again.

One last look at the river

On the trail out and off to the next stream 

With how well we had done the day before, we made the call to go fish in the same area, albeit a little further upstream to explore some new water. So after a short drive and a bit of bushwhacking to reach the water we found ourselves back on the water again. As we reached the river, the smell of dead salmon was strong in the air and there active spawners digging or sitting on redds throughout the shallows. Just like the previous day, it didn't take us long to find some hungry Bull Trout either, with Dyllon catching a nice mid-teens Bull Trout within the first few minutes. The main attraction for this spot was a nice deep run that was filled with boulders and deep pockets just upstream from where we hit the river.

Dyllon and TJ working a good run

Dyllon and TJ started at the top of the run, while I started a little ways downstream and worked my way up to them. After covering a short distance, I spotted and fishy looking pocket behind a boulder and when I got a good drift in I was rewarded with my first Bull Trout of the day - a 20” pink spotted beauty.

My first Bull Trout of the day

Shortly after releasing my Bull Trout, Dyllon got into a couple of decent Bulls at the top of the run and TJ lost one as well. After covering the lower part of the hole thoroughly, I traded spots with Dyllon and TJ and my egg imitation got the attention of the Bull Trout as I pulled two more out before the fishing slowed down. 
With a treacherous river crossing upstream, we decided to head downriver next and found a spot where two fast side channels merged. While TJ and Dyllon headed to the lower part of this run, I opted to cross to the island between the side channels to hit a particularly fishy piece of water. After a few casts my indicator shot under and seconds later a nice Rainbow came shooting out of the water. While I am always over the moon to catch Bull Trout, the difference in the fight between them and this Rainbow was startling. While Bull Trout stay down and deep with slow but powerful runs, this energetic Rainbow made multiple leaps and lightning fast runs, but even that wasn’t enough and within a couple of minutes I was able to bring the chunky fish to my net.

A chunky native Coastal Rainbow Trout

I turned out that this fish wasn’t the only Rainbow in the hole either and few casts later, I caught its twin. However, after that the action died down again and it was time to catch up with Dyllon and TJ and head further downstream.

The river

When we reached the next spot, we found it thick with spawning salmon and sure enough there were plenty of hungry Bull Trout behind them.

Pink Salmon spawning

As with the previous day, once we found the Bull Trout the fishing was fast a furious, with each hole or riffle producing one or more Bull Trout. At one point we were all three fishing a run and Dyllon and TJ hooked into a double, I jokingly said let’s make it a triple and as fate would have it when I tossed my line in I almost immediately hooked into a Bull Tout. With triples on the table, the fishing over the next couple hours once again exceeded expectations with each of us landing our fair share of beautiful Bull Trout.

Another Bull Trout

While the fishing was amazing, before I knew it, it was late afternoon and time for me to hit the road if I wanted to get back home at a reasonable hour. While it was time for me to head out, Dyllon and TJ were staying for another day, so we said our goodbyes and I hit the road bound for home.

Fall colors along the river

All I can say is that this trip made me feel extremely privileged to call the Pacific Northwest home. It is easy to focus and countless challenges facing threatened populations of salmon and Bull Trout, but it is heartening to know that with quality habitat are still places where they are found in abundance. As such I can’t wait for my next opportunity to get back up north in pursuit of these beautiful char.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Fall in the North Cascades: Part 1

So far this year, the "egg hatch" in the Pacific Northwest has provided some phenomenal fishing for beautiful native trout. With this "hatch" winding down on some of my favorite rivers, my friend Dyllon and I made plans to travel a little further afield to the rivers of the North Cascades where the salmon spawning was still going strong. We got on the road by mid-morning and after battling our way through Seattle traffic, we found ourselves driving up the river valley and into the towering peaks of the North Cascades by mid-afternoon. We had selected a river were Dyllon had done well in the past and luckily when we pulled up we were the only ones there. On top of the salominds that I am used to targeting such as Coastal Rainbow and Cutthroat Trout, this stream also happened to be one of a handful of places where it is legal to target Bull Trout and the possibility of encountering one of these elusive char just added to the excitement. 

Fall colors along the steam

Anticipation was running high as we grabbed our gear and headed for the water. When we reached the stream we found a side channel packed with spawning Pink Salmon - a good indication that we were in the right spot.  

Pink Salmon spawning in a side channel

Although the few deep pockets in the side channel failed to produce anything thing, when we got to where two braids came together, I drifted and egg imitation over a drop off and watched my indicator to shoot under. When I set the hook, it was clear that this fish had some size to it and while it took some good runs, the fish stubbornly stayed down and deep. After a couple minutes of back and forth tug of war, I finally got an eye of the fish and was happy to see it was a solid Bull Trout!  Moments later I was able to slide it into the net and admire the beautiful 20” Bull Trout. Across my native trout adventures and especially in the Pacific Northwest, Bull Trout have always been one of the must elusive salmonids. These predatory char are emblematic of quality habitat and as such have become rare across much of the region. This resulted in them being listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and with so anytime I find one at the end of my line is something worth being excited about.

Off to a great start! A beautiful Bull Trout!

After I released the Bull Trout, Dyllon decided to head upstream and fish a riffle, while I kept working the drop off. The next dozen drifts along the seam failed to produce any grabs, but when I put a cast in the slower water on the inside of the seam, my indicator made it about halfway through its drift before once again plunging into the depths. While the Bull Trout had been a solid fish, it was immediately clear that this fish had a bit more size to it, but the fight was way different than the Bull Trout. While this fish also stayed down and deep, it also started doing under water cartwheels, which gave me a solid hunch as to what was on the end of my line. Sure enough after putting my trusty 6WT Scott S4 through the paces, the fish finally tired and I brought bright wild Coho hen to the net.

Second fish of the day, a wild female Coho just starting to show some spawning colors

At this point, we were less than half an hour into our trip and I had already caught two native species and when I looked up Dyllon was hooked into a decent fish as well, (which turned out to be another Bull Trout) so things were definitely off two a good start!

Dyllon working a log jam just upstream

While Dyllon continued upstream, I switched over to my streamer rod and started twitching a black sculpin through the depths. After several casts I had a massive Coho chase my streamer right up to the rod tip, but didn't take and when I lost my streamer in a tree a few casts later I decided it was time to move on and catch up with Dyllon.

On my way upstream I decided to fish the riffle Dyllon had been working and within a couple casts I hooked into a nice fish, which appeared to be another Bull Trout, but it got in the fast water and tossed the hook. After several follow up casts failed to produce any other takers, I decided it was time to catch up with Dyllon. When I caught up with Dyllon he was wrapping up working riffle pouring into the mess of logs and indicated that he had already caught three Bull Trout. While he had already worked the spot pretty thoroughly, I was fishing a slightly different looking egg than him and decided to give it a shot. After a few casts I briefly hooked up with a fish, but lost whatever it was and nobody else seemed to be interested in the riffle so I shifted my attention to the back of the hole. To do so I had to play things on the dangerous side and float my rig tight against the log jam, but right as it floated past a root wad my indicator shoot under and I hooked into and landed another Bull Trout, which was followed by yet another on the next cast.

A darkly colored Bull Trout

After releasing these fish, I moved upstream to the next run and got a surprise when I tossed my line in the shallows to set up for my next cast and a humped out Pink Salmon shot over and latched on to my egg pattern. This Pink was not particularly fresh and beyond a few quick runs didn't put up much of a fight so I was able to swing it into the shallows and remove the hook and send it back on its way.

A male Pink or "humpy" Salmon

Once I turned the Pink Salmon loose, I continued on to the next riffle. The tailout upstream of this riffle had a bunch of spawning Pink Salmon and there were 4 or 5 Chinook holding at the head of the riffle as well. With all of this spawning activity, Dyllon was able to get a decent Bull Trout just behind the Chinook and when he moved on I gave it a try. With the best holding water just downstream of the Chinook, I started by casting upstream and to the right of them and letting my rig sink and after a few casts I had a Bull Trout grab but I lost it. I decided to put in a few more casts to see if there were anymore trout around, but was surprised when one of the male Chinook broke from the group and took my egg imitation. This was not a small Chinook and it immediately took off and started peeling line, making it clear that I was severely under-gunned with my 6WT. As soon as the fight began it was over as the hook popped loose mid run. While I certainly would have loved to land a Chinook, I was also relieved when this fish popped off, as my rod was clearly outclassed.
Looking upstream

Not wanting to risk another encounter with a Chinook, I kept moving upstream and caught up with Dyllon at a trench where the side channel split from the mainstem. Dyllon took the lower part of the trench, while I took the head of the trench and after just a couple casts my indicator shot under and I was hooked into a hefty fish. This fish stayed down and I had a hard time getting an eye on it to see just how big it was. However, once it finally came up Dyllon said I was going to want a hand with the net one this one and I had to agree. Luckily the fish stayed in the hole and most played a game of tug of war and after a few minutes, I guided it over to Dyllon waiting with the net. The Bull Trout in the net, was 25" battle scarred beauty that was starting to show its spawning colors with a gorgeous pale yellow tone showing along the belly and was definitely my fish of the day.

Releasing a beautiful 25" Bull Trout - my fish of the day

After releasing the big Bull Trout, Dyllon and I continued upstream, to a gorgeous run that screamed fish. This time Dyllon took point and headed for the top of the run, while I decided to fish my way upstream with a streamer. It didn't take long for Dyllon to start getting into fish and it seemed that every time I looked up he was hooked into a Bull Trout. While it wasn't lights out with the streamer, about halfway up the run, I watched a female Pink Salmon dart across the run to chase it down. 

A female Pink Salmon that took a black sculpin pattern

After releasing the Pink Salmon, I had a long gap between grabs before another fish hammered the streamer. This fish immediately began doing the underwater cartwheels characteristic of Coho Salmon and despite being a big fish, it basically just cartwheeled its way straight to the net. After snapping a quick photo I watched the Coho shoot back into the pool and decided it was time to switch back to my nymph rig again.

A beautiful rose red hook-nosed male Coho Salmon

While I had been working the streamer though the hole, Dyllon had managed to pull four Bull Trout out of the riffle at the top end run. However, despite this when I came in with a slightly different colored egg imitation, it seemed like I had first water and I proceeded to catch four nice Bull Trout out of the spot myself. As we worked our way upstream, the fishing continued to exceed anything that I would have expected, with each run, riffle or side channel producing several more solid Bull Trout, until we finally came to a particularly challenging river crossing and opted to head back downstream. With a good stretch of water between us and the car, we decided to fish our way back downstream, and while things were a bit slower each spot continued to produce another Bull Trout or two.

Dyllon hooked into another Bull Trout

This was until we came to a nice run that I had passed over, but Dyllon had caught a single Bull Trout out of. With our previous light coverage of the run we decided to work it a little more thoroughly and it didn't take long for it to produce results. With both Dyllon and I hooking into a pair of solid fish just moments from each other, resulting in a 20" Bull Trout double. 

Not bad for a double - dual 20" Bull Trout

After releasing our double, I noted several Chinook on a redd towards the back of the run and when I threw a cast next to them, sure enough my indicator shot under and I landed yet another mid-teens Bull Trout. Slightly downstream of the Chinook there were even more Bull Trout and Dyllon and I took turns working the run and landed another 4 between us including my second best of the day at 22".

Me with another big Bull Trout

Spawned out salmon along the river

By the time we reached the car, we both had long since lost count of how many fish we had encountered, but needless to say it goes down as one of the best days on the water I can remember and certainly by far the best Bull Trout fishing I have ever had. 

While the day had already far exceeded my expectations, we still had a bit of daylight left and Dyllon said he had a couple spots in mind, so we headed back to the river. Unfortunately the first two spots already had folks fishing them targeting salmon and when we finally found a piece of water to ourselves, daylight was running very short indeed. That didn't stop the Bull Trout though and as soon as we found a riffle with some spawning salmon, the Bull Trout once again started showing themselves although keeping them on provide challenging and I only went 1 for 5 on my hook up to landing ratio.

Yet another Bull Trout

Right as we were getting ready to leave, I saw a nice sized fish that looked be a Coho roll in the tailout and I was pleasantly surprised when I tossed a casted just upstream and it went for it. After a couple of minutes I brought a beautiful rosy red Coho to hand, making for a perfect time to call it a day.

A last light hook nosed Coho

All I can say is that this day will go down as one of the best I can remember having outside of Alaska and fishing behind all of the spawning salmon, it really felt more like Alaska than the Pacific Northwest. However, this wasn't the end of our North Cascades adventure, as we had planned to this to be a multi day affair with our friend TJ meeting in the evening so the three of us could be back on the river first thing in the morning.