Every coastal cutthroat is a wild fish from a native species that has lived in Pacific Northwest waters for eons.
It may not be as famous as salmon or steelhead, but the elusive seagoing cutthroat trout has a growing cheering squad among anglers in the Puget Sound region.
Every coastal cutthroat is a wild fish from a native species that has lived in Pacific Northwest waters for eons. Because they’re not harvested commercially, the trout have gotten less attention from government agencies, and less is known about them compared to other species.
The fish live in saltwater much of the time — the only cutthroat trout to do so — but wriggle into freshwater streams to spawn. They look similar to inland cutthroats, with the classic red gill slashes that give them their name, but their backs are a pretty silver rather than olive green.
If you go
As with any fishing, study regulations before you go. Angling for seagoing cutthroat trout — sometimes known as harvest trout — requires a fishing license, and is allowed only on a catch-and-release basis using barbless hooks. When you release caught fish, keep them in the water as much as possible and handle with wet hands only.
Find regulations and buy licenses at wdfw.wa.gov/fishing.
State parks require a Discover Pass, which can be purchased by the day ($10) or the year ($30).
The Coastal Cutthroat Coalition: coastalcutthroatcoalition.com
Bill Drewry, a professional fishing guide and owner of Peninsula Outfitters in Poulsbo, is one of the species’ fans. He and other enthusiasts, along with wildlife biologists, founded the nonprofit Coastal Cutthroat Coalition to support cutthroat research, education and conservation.
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“We are incredibly blessed to have them in our backyard here, but they are also very, very vulnerable,” Drewry said.
Catch and release
Because their numbers are not replenished from hatcheries, only catch-and-release fishing, using barbless hooks, is allowed when fishing for seagoing cutthroats. But since they often live in shallow waters, you can fly-fish for them right from the beach. There’s no particular cutthroat season, but since they generally spawn from midwinter through spring, fall is often a good time. That led to one of the fish’s nicknames: harvest trout.
Because they are so little studied, and because so many things — tides, currents, water temperatures, underwater topography — affect their behavior patterns, sea-run cutthroat can be tough to suss out.
The good news: Since they live throughout Puget Sound, seeking them doesn’t require a long drive. In fact, you might not need to leave Seattle at all, since they’ve been found in waters along city parks including Carkeek and Lincoln. “If you have a beach close to you, go explore it,” Drewry said.
On a recent sunny Sunday, my husband, Bill, and I decided to try our luck on the beaches of Kitsap Peninsula and Hood Canal. We found that fishing in the fall, and especially on a Seahawks game day, means little competition. Even on a relatively busy beach such as Point No Point, at the northern tip of the Kitsap Peninsula, we had no trouble finding space to throw a line.
Since I typically fly-fish in mountain rivers, the public park brought surprises, including unusually easy access to bathrooms. On the other hand, I’m not used to having to check behind me to make sure I’m not hooking an unwitting beachgoer.
You’ll want waders for venturing into cold Puget Sound waters, and mine kept me plenty warm. I was surprised at the confidence they and boots gave me as I swished through thigh-deep water. At one point, I looked down and saw a giant Dungeness crab following me along the bottom. At another moment, a seal swam right past Bill’s legs.
You can use your freshwater gear for beach fishing, and my beloved Sage Accel fly rod worked just fine. I made sure to rinse it immediately and thoroughly afterward, since saltwater can damage gear.
We were optimistic about the presence of cutthroat, especially given how much non-fish wildlife we saw: Many birds, plus both seals and sea lions, patrolled the waters. Alas, aside from a couple of very small fish, we didn’t catch much.
We decided to try our luck at Kitsap Memorial State Park, on Hood Canal — a special place for Bill and me because we got married there. Another couple was saying vows when we arrived in late afternoon, but instead of crashing that party we made our way down to the beach out of sight and sound of the revelers.
There, we encountered an entirely different kind of marine animal: A submarine glided past us on its way from Bangor toward the Hood Canal Bridge.
Guides can help
If you haven’t fished for sea-run cutthroat before, the best bet is to hire a guide. Not all fishing guides specialize in cutthroat trout, but a good place to find one is on the sponsors page of the Coastal Cutthroat Coalition’s website.
Guides not only have a good idea where fish are, they can show you the best techniques for hooking them and releasing them. The latter is especially important to ensure that released fish live on and do their part to help keep populations going.
That said, if you’ve done catch-and-release fly-fishing elsewhere, you might find some aspects of beach fishing easy. Cutthroat often hang out in shallow water, especially in rocky stretches or areas with overhangs. They’re not too picky about flies and can go for anything that looks like a minnow.
Look for seams of moving water, and plan to take a break during slack tides. Since you’re generally aiming at a fairly large target area, precision is less important than in river fishing. Just cast into likely-looking water and, bit by bit, strip the line back in. If you don’t succeed in the shallows, wade and cast farther out. Move to a new spot if you aren’t getting nibbles.
And even if you don’t catch anything, hey, you’ll still have spent a day out walking on the beach.