The drone of a seaplane’s engine spinning up told the anglers inside that they would soon be standing on a small island in a saltwater sea, casting flies to native fish.
The scene, common to anglers visiting Alaska, occurred on the Lake Washington docks of Kenmore Air and the angling destination wasn’t a remote wilderness island in the Bering Sea — it was a small tree-dotted isle in Puget Sound’s Carr Inlet.
“This is something unique to Western Washington,” said Reggie Harris, manager of the Orvis shop in Bellevue, which organized this adventure. “This incredible urban-inland sea — Puget Sound — offers a great native trout fishery that’s often overlooked.”
Yes, this planeload of fly fishers targeted sea-run cutthroat trout, a species of fish that many Puget Sound anglers know little to nothing about. This coastal trout spends all or part of its life in saltwater Pacific waterways from northern California to southern Alaska. But Puget Sound’s resident population offers the best opportunity for anglers to catch these noble native trout on a fly.
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A veteran guide
Leland Miyawaki, the guide leading this group, has spent years pursuing these native fish.
“Fishermen usually focus only on salmon and steelhead when they think about fishing in the saltwater of Western Washington,” Miyawaki said. “But you can fish for native trout all-year round with a fly rod. It’s a great opportunity and a uniquely Northwest experience.”
After leaving the docks in Kenmore, our seaplane cruised a few hundred feet above Lake Washington, sliding west over the Montlake Cut and Queen Anne before moving south along the coastline of Vashon Island.
As our plane landed and taxied up to the small beach at the north end of 2-acre Cutts Island, a marine state park in Pierce County’s Carr Inlet, west of Gig Harbor, we saw that this was the perfect place for cutthroat. Long, sloping beaches were covered in baseball-sized rocks and littered with broken shells of crustaceans and mollusks. It was, in a word, “fishy.”
Gauge the tide
“You want to fish a changing tide,” Miyawaki said. “Outgoing tides are good — the cutthroats will sit just offshore as their food is pulled out to them.”
Sea-run cutthroats (SRCs) tend to feed on small fish and crustaceans that thrive in the shallows close to shore. As a result, they can be caught in as little as a foot of water, though their primary range is 5 to 50 feet from the waterline. Because they are predators, Miyawaki said, a good basic strategy is to target them in late spring to early summer around salmon-spawning rivers.
“The Puyallup River, for instance, has had some big pink salmon runs the last few years. In the spring, all those fry are leaving the river and moving north through the Sound,” he said. “So cutthroats can be caught along the beaches north of Commencement Bay.”
The same holds true for just about any Puget Sound river, large or small. Whether it’s pink salmon, silvers or chum, their fry leave the rivers in spring and fall and make the long run to the ocean, heading up through Puget Sound and Hood Canal to get to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The cutthroats target these tiny fish, but they also feast on small crustaceans and even insects. Fly fishers do well to cast small minnow and baitfish patterns with a 6-weight rod and a floating or intermediate line.
One of the most effective flies during our day of seaplane-serviced fishing proved to be a pattern of Miyawaki’s own design: the Miyawaki Popper. This floating fly, skidded across the surface of the tidal flow, seemed to draw sea-run cutthroats like honey draws flies.
Matthew Duett, of Bellingham, had a couple of the feisty trout strike his popper a few dozen yards from where the seaplane rested on the beach. “They hit fast and fought hard,” he said. “One came out of the water and threw the hook as it tail-danced at the end of the line.”
More trips in peak season
Duett and a half-dozen other anglers joined the Orvis-led outing. Harris said his shop advertised via word-of-mouth and on social media only. Duett found it on Facebook; others heard about it from friends who had visited the shop.
“We filled up the trip pretty quickly and have others planned later this spring and again in the fall to take advantage of the peak SRC activity,” Harris said.
From Cutts Island, we flew to Kitsap County’s Anderson Point County Park, on Colvos Passage opposite Vashon Island. Throughout the day, the Miyawaki Popper drew more fish than any other fly. Indeed, two-thirds of the fish brought in were hooked on the popper.
Like the prey they target, sea-run cutthroat trout spawn in freshwater rivers. Unlike the other anadromous species, however, sea-runs tend to spend most of their lives within a few miles of the mouth of their spawning river. Some overwinter in their freshwater spawning grounds, while others never leave the salt. In short, these are true “local” native fish that live, spawn and die in Western Washington waters.
The sea-run cutthroat population in Puget Sound and Hood Canal is stable, yet the fish face significant environmental and habitat threats. To ensure the continued health of this native species, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) requires that anglers targeting the species use single, barbless hooks and that all caught fish are released unharmed.
Walk-in fishing is another option for interested anglers throughout the year. Just find a “fishy” beach and cast your fly.
Dan A. Nelson is a Puyallup-based freelance writer and author of several outdoor guidebooks.