I WAS DRIFTING on those hazy seas between sleepiness and sleep one recent night when I realized that the sun and moon—in the form of tides—pretty much control my life.
For the past 15 years, I’ve pored over the Puget Sound tide tables each week—even when I’m out of state. I circle the days and times when a tide looks good for a favorite beach—and more often than not, I get out there and cast flies for sea-run cutthroat trout. If I’m far away, I think about fishing those beaches—and fire off e-mails to friends for fishing reports. If I’m home, I have skipped out of work early, gotten to work late, and even called in sick a few times. I’ve spent countless lunch hours sitting on beach logs and watching the tidal flow at dozens of beaches.
Yeah, I’ve gotten back to work late a few times.
I’ve stood in pouring rain, falling snow, and failing light to see how a beach looks during rising or falling water levels. What is this addiction to tides all about?
The right tide at the right beach at the right time just might mean Trout-O-Rama for the Puget Sound’s wild sea-run cutthroat trout. Sea-run cutts live, move, and feed with the tides, so an angler addicted to Puget Sound cutthroat trout lives with the rhythm of the tides. I felt dizzy when I first realized that the moon and sun—which provide the gravity that tugs the Earth’s oceans back and forth and creates tides—have so much control over my life. But I’ve gotten used to the deal. After all, plenty of other creatures on this planet live with the tides.
And a wild sea-run cutthroat trout—with hammered silver sides, olive back, and yellow-tinged fins—all sprinkled with black, ink-like spots— streaks through the clear water and hammers a well-presented fly. Seeing that flash in the water, feeling the fly line pop out of the hand—and seeing a wild, gorgeous trout that manages to thrive near humans makes me a little dizzy—every time.
Puget Sound’s wild sea-run cutts feed when the water in this giant inland fjord is moving. The fish stop feeding and seem to vanish at slack tide—the hour or so of still water after high or low tide. But wait around a bit, and when the current creates a rip—that fishy seam between fast and slow water—there’s a good chance that hungry cutts will show up.
So like any other Puget Sound creature, I live with the tides as well. I carry the weekly tide tables along even when I’m out of town, out of state, or even out of the country. I once tried to explain my addiction to tides to an attractive woman who was sitting next to me on a Delta jetliner. We were both imprisoned on a long, bumpy flight to Orlando, Florida, and she eyed the tide table printouts on the rickety pull-down table and the sea-run cutt photo on my laptop screensaver.
She asked if I were a fisheries biologist. I told her I was addicted to fishing for sea-run cutthroat trout. “I thought trout lived in fresh water,” she said.
“They do,” I replied. “Unless they have a way to get to salt water.”
“So these cutthroat trout live in salt water all the time—kind of like salmon,” she said.
“No, these trout move around into fresh and salt water whenever they please,” I said. “But a lot of them spend most of their lives in salt water.”
She took a long pull on her drink. “This is confusing,” she said.
“You have no idea,” I said. “That’s what makes it so fun.”
I must have looked like a beady-eyed nutso, as she gave me a pitying look and stared out the window. I am a beady-eyed nutso. After all, I spend hours tying flies that match sea-run food, gauging tides, and casting my arm off—even with no guarantee of catching a fish.
I pushed that nasty reality away and marked good tides—tides I would not fish—with my highlighter as the airliner rattled through turbulence at 30,000 feet. I wouldn’t be within 2,000 miles of those beaches on those days, but it seemed important to stay dialed in as much as possible. It still is important, but after all, I’m an addict, and I can’t help myself. And I don’t need any rehab for this benign malady.
More that 1 million people live within a short drive of a Puget Sound sea-run cutthroat beach. There are an estimated 2,500 miles of shoreline, and the cities of Seattle, Everett, Tacoma, Olympia, and dozens of other cities and towns loom over these fragile stretches of barnacle-crusted pebbles, downed cedar trees, and broken shells. Yet most of Puget Sound’s shoreline is lightly developed, and madrone, cedar, and Douglas fir trees overhang many miles of remote beaches. Cutts happily live in casting range of Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia beachfront homes.
This is a world-class fishery for bright, wild trout—and it is getting better each year, thanks to catch-and-release regulations, habitat improvements, and a growing realization that sea-run cutts are an amazing fish.
Cutts roam along the beaches and swim over softball-sized moon snails oozing over the pebbly bottom. Giant lion’s mane jellyfish drift by in the tidal current and sea stars in gaudy shades of red, orange, and magenta ease along the bottom. Oysters and clams are everywhere, and sea-run cutts love to hang out near shellfish spots, which are rich in every kind of food and shelter. The breeze often carries the mixed scents of fir, cedar, salt water, fresh fish, and tidal muck.
Casting for trout in salt water is a novelty in most of the United States, but it’s a familiar sight in the Puget Sound. Cutthroat trout are native to these beaches, and every one of those fish was born in the gravel of the countless jump-across streams, creeks, or big rivers that flow into Puget Sound. Rain pours in western Washington on a full-time basis from September through June, so all those creeks pour a lot of water into the salt water of Puget Sound.
Some of these streams have cutts that never migrated to the salt. These ﬁsh are often bronze and buttery yellow with huge black spots and the telltale red slash under the jaw. They live in the quiet seams of these streams and hardly ever show themselves to the light that ﬁlters through the trees and brush. But many of these ﬁsh slide on downstream as they approach adulthood, and they then start the vagabond life of a sea-run cutt. Puget Sound is a rich place, and the trout grow fat and big on a mixed buffet of shrimp, salmon fry, small anchovies and herring, marine worms, tiny crustaceans, and who knows what else. Some of these ﬁsh push the 20-inch mark, which is an exceptional trout anywhere on this planet, unless you live in Alaska or New Zealand. And in 1998, the state of Washington made it illegal to kill a trout caught in salt water, so the size and numbers of sea-run cutts have increased every year.
Puget Sound’s wild sea-run cutthroat trout are now the best sea-run trout fishery in the United States—and one of the best in the world. Coastal cutthroat trout are native to the Pacific Coast of North America from northern California north to Alaska, and these trout become sea-run cutthroat trout wherever they have access to salt water. Most sea-run cutt fisheries are small, as most are based on tiny coastal creeks. Puget Sound is a vast, inland saltwater fiord, and its rich, protected waters support a growing population of sea-run cutthroat trout. I believe Puget Sound is the best urban wild trout fishery in the world, and it would have vanished decades ago if not for the work of anglers, biologists, and existing clean-water laws. Even with all this help, the fish can’t stand any catch-and-keep pressure, as their spawning and juvenile-rearing habitat is so delicate and, in some cases, barely clinging to existence. Many sea-run cutt trout spawn in streams that flow through or near suburban neighborhoods, and the fish often dig their redds or spray their eggs to the mood music of nearby tele visions, car traffic, and bouncing basketballs.
“These fish are not salmon, and nothing you can do will make them as big as salmon,” said Bruce Ferguson, who has been a sea-run cutt addict for 60 years, and is an author and a leader of the persistent crew that won a 20-year battle for mandatory catch-and-release for all cutts caught in Washington salt water. “But they are a wonderful fish—and a legitimate sea trout.”
You won’t hook a 20-pound sea-run cutt—a three-pound fish is fabulous—but you will find lots of fish throughout the year. Yet not many anglers pester these fish. Washington remains salmon and steelhead country, and a 16-inch trout just doesn’t measure up to a 20-pound chinook salmon to many anglers.
I also suspect these fish seem complicated and fussy and mysterious to many anglers. We’re used to fishing for trout in streams and lakes, and sea-run cutts wander around in weird ways, eat weird food, and that Puget Sound looks awfully big. There is no such thing as an expert sea-run cutt angler. These fish are too wacky and unpredictable. Fisheries biologists freely admit that sea-run cutts live in a mysterious world. Biologists can tell us—often in great detail—the life histories of Puget Sound salmon and steelhead, but no one really knows why cutts move from beach to beach— or swim up a creek for a while and then return to the salt. Theories are plentiful, but hard facts are hard to find. The mystery, at least for me, is part of the attraction. Getting skunked happens to all of us.
My friend Greg Cloud, who has fished for sea-run cutts for more than five decades, says it best: “A beach can look great, but there might not be any fish there today—even if they were jumping around there yesterday.”
But these fish will snatch the fly line out of your hand when they strike, and they flash in the clear, cold water like a flashbulb reflecting off the chrome bumper of a 1958 Cadillac Eldorado. A rip, set of standing waves, or oyster bar can hold two dozen ravenous fish. That’s when Trout-O-Rama happens—and the fish will bite as long as the tide flows. Sea-run cutts are eager biters even in the cold, endless drizzle of a Puget Sound winter—at least in the South Puget Sound.
But you have to learn where these nomadic fish hang out, what they eat, what kind of water they feed in, and what time of day they’re hungry. The tides control all this, and the tides control every sea-run cutthroat addict. Each beach is different—some fish best on the rising tide, while others fish best on the falling tide. Learning all this takes some time, but it’s not brain surgery—and this life of living with the tides carries the pulse and music of the planet.
Excerpted from Fly Fishing for Sea-Run Cutthroat (Headwater/Stackpole Books, January 2012, hardcover). Purchase in the MidCurrent Store.