fly fishing for cutthroat trout
When I was a kid I liked comic book superheros, and my favorite was always Spiderman. I could easily identify with his alter ego – an unpopular, skinny kid by the name of Peter Parker. But once he donned the crime fighting tights I marveled at Spiderman’s ability to shoot his webbing between buildings and catch bad guys, very much in the same way that a skilled fly angler can fire a tight cast between overhanging branches and catch hiding fish. I’ve always wanted to be able to do both. Hey, a guy can dream can’t he?
Sea run cutthroat (SRC), or coastal cutthroat trout, are common to these parts (Western Warshington). When I was a comic book-reading kid I trolled for them along the beaches of Hood Canal, and later in life I’ve fished for them in the lazy stretches of the Snoqualmie River. I’ve known all along that SRC like the slow moving “frog water” and lie near structure so that they can ambush prey. I’ve also known for many years that there is a special fly tied just for these fish: the Reversed Spider. But knowing these things, and even possessing the fly with alleged super powers hasn’t brought me any good luck. The few times that I’ve gone after them have resulted favorably for the fish and left me feeling more like an unpopular skinny kid than a superhero. Recently, however, my SRC fortunes improved a little bit.
Brian Paige, who is a real life fishing superhero, recently invited me to join him for a steelhead float on the Wenatchee River. Unfortunately rains had caused the Wenatchee to rise and it was decided that we’d save ourselves the gas money and fish closer to home on the Skykomish River. As for what finned quarry we would be pursuing, Brian said, “Bring a 4 wt, an 8 wt and your Spey rod.” Apparently we’d be chasing SRC, Coho salmon, and steelhead. The prospects of that trifecta sounded rather enticing to me, so I grabbed my Sage Z-Axis 4 wt and Spey, and my Sage XP 8wt. I am admittedly a Sage whore Poster Boy, as I also have a few other Sage rods besides the ones employed for duty on this day.
I met Brian at the Sultan launch and we were joined by none other than the mysterious man who goes by the moniker, “Flybill”. There were enough rods in Brian’s boat to outfit a fly shop as we headed downriver under cloudy skies that threatened drizzle. There was even a spinning rod with the cork still in shrink wrap. I’m still not sure what that rod was doing there – all I know is that it didn’t belong to either Brian or myself. It had rained most of the night before and unfortunately the Skykomish was slightly on the rise. As we all know, fishing a river that’s rising isn’t what one would prefer to do, but to date I’ve not tapped into the superpowers needed to alter nature’s course. The weather forecast had indicated that the day would be clearing so we weren’t expecting much if any rain and hopefully the rising river wouldn’t become unfishable.
We immediately began casting toward the slow water for cutts. Brian guides for a living and fishes when he’s not guiding, so he’s on the river a lot. In between time on the water he works at All About The Fly, so fly fishing pretty much consumes his life. Brian starts fishing for sea run cutts in July, and had caught over 100 fish this past summer, even with a 5 week hiatus to do some guiding in Alaska. Bottom line: he knows how to fish for these SRC. Since I don’t, I was all ears when he described the tactics needed to trick these trout.
I watched as he demonstrated a technique developed by none other than the Reverend Mike Kinney , a northwest fly fishing legend who just so happened to create the Reversed Spider. With the rod tip close to the water, a quick flip of the wrist lifts and drops of the rod tip, followed immediately by a strip of the line. This gives the Reversed Spider the undulating action that drives these fish crazy and lures them into its web of deceit, and it didn’t take long for the fish to start hitting the fly tied to the ends of Brian’s line. It’s a fast-paced, visual type of fishing with rapid casts, frantic stripping and split second hook sets as these silver-sided fish rocket from their hiding places to hit the flies. It took me a while to get the proper technique dialed in, but finally I had a fish on! I was about to declare myself a bonafied Web Slinger, but when I finally landed a fish it wasn’t the species we sought: instead of a cutthroat, I had done a stellar job of fooling an 8 inch steelhead parr. Brian seemed hold my antics in contempt as if I was some sort of child molester, but I assured him I wasn’t trying to catch baby steelhead. Once again I felt like a skinny, unpopular kid.
Eventually I did manage to land a SRC, and my lifetime of being skunked at this game was over. The fish wasn’t impressive in size, but nobody had landed anything over 10 inches so I was holding my own in size if not numbers. Over the course of the day the rain that wasn’t supposed to fall, fell – sometimes hard, though it didn’t last long. I caught another couple small cutties, but it wasn’t enough to make me feel like Spiderman. We covered a lot of fishy looking water, and whenever Brian cast to a spot, he nearly always hooked a fish. At one point while I sat and watched, Brian went 5 fish for 7 casts. I had chances on what would have been the nicest 3 fish of the day – fish of about 12 inches, but I couldn’t seal the deal and ended up striking out. If I’d just landed one of those fish I could have worn the red and blue tights of the friendly neighborhood Web Head. It was probably best for all on board that I didn’t.
We saw a few Coho jumping throughout the day, but we never rigged up our rods for these tight-lipped fish that were in the river not to feed but to breed. And then die. I’ve never actually fished for silvers in the rivers, but I’ve heard that catching them on a fly is not impossible, just difficult. We decided not to waste our time to instead keep fishing for SRC, and occasionally pulled the boat over to the shore when good swinging water offered a chance to do a little Spey casting for unicorns steelhead. Not surprisingly, none of these anadromous rainbow trout were caught although Flybill had a good bump. Or so he said. I’ll take his word for it. I have no reason to doubt Flybill. Afterall, he’s a fisherman and fishermen never stretch the truth.
By the end of the day the rain that wasn’t supposed to fall finally stopped for good. I didn’t count the number of SRC landed, although Brian was into double digits and Flybill was well ahead of me. The fatigue in my casting arm confirmed that the total number of rapid fire casts I made was near 1000, which is the number of casts it usually takes to catch a steelhead. In that regard I’d done pretty well, as I’d caught at least a half dozen steelhead parr during the course of the day. Oh well, Peter Parker suffered many hardships before earning his Spiderman tights.