Sea run cutthroat are one of my favorite fish to go after. Everything about them feels so romantic and quintessential Oregon/ PNW. The time of year, the weather, the waters in which they swim; all make me feel like I am going back in time to an era that all anglers wish to experience. I truly love it and wish I had more time to go after these fish. The window for them is complicated and different for every angler, but for me it’s when the weather changes and you can feel Autumn in the air.
Oregon sea run cutthroats are targeted much differently than the more commonly targeted Puget Sound dwelling fish. In Oregon, fish are mostly caught in rivers in lower sections either in tidal influenced sections or just above there. You’ll hear from some anglers that have caught fish in the upper sections of rivers, but these fish are few and far between. The ones I hear about are usually by-catch from steelhead or salmon anglers using gear and bait.
I like fishing for them like I’m fishing a stillwater fishery. I use a float tube in long deep pools that hold dark cold water. There are loads of spots like this in rivers like the Nestucca, Alsea, Siletz, Umpqua, Wilson, etc. The coastal rivers in Northern California and Washington can be attacked the same way.
I fish the rivers after the first good cold rain, usually in September or early October. That first rain doesn’t bring up the river level all that much but it does cool down the air and river. The fish get happy and work their way up stream after sitting in the estuary, bay, or just off shore. The days that produce the best fishing for me are the days that it drizzles all day long with thick cloud cover. These fish are very sensitive to light so the overcast days give you a longer fishing window. If you see me on the river know I got there at day break. Mostly because that’s when the fishing is best and because on a day void of clouds, noon will be the end of the fishing day in most cases.
The tackle you want to bring is your typical trout tackle. I like a 4wt or 5wt with an intermediate line. Sometimes the fish sit high in the water column but in my experience they rather take a fly just under the surface instead of on the surface. You can get away with a floating line with a sinking leader or a sink tip line if need be. They aren’t particularly leader shy, so you can get away with 3x and sometimes down size to 4x. Fluorocarbon is always the way to go. As I mentioned above the fish want subsurface flies and cover. I kick around in the pools casting at drop offs, ledges, overhangs, brush, and rock piles. They love the shade and cover. This is a time game. This time of year the fish are in the river and ready to take flies if you don’t catch fish it can only be due to a couple factors. Change the depth, retrieve, fly and lastly location in that order.
Now, what everyone is here for, the flies. I love the flies for SRCs. They’re simple and old but with the use of modern substitutes, in lieu of less common materials of yesteryear, they bring new life into the patterns. I’m a big fan of thin, dubbed bodies on my flies instead of the wool yarn or chenille. I also like the use of antron dubbing because of the similarities to seal fur and the subtle sparkle you get from it. Most flies used for SRCs are scaled down steelhead flies because most of the classic Oregon and PNW patterns aren’t and never were commercially available. When you could buy them in a shop they were tied by a shop rat or the owner because they liked the flies and fishery. Stick to 2x long nymph hooks and away from “small” steelhead hooks. The bigger thicker hooks reserved for steelhead can wreak havoc on their delicate mouths. You can get Borden Specials and Spruce flies in most shops in the PNW but the others like Bear Paws, Purple Joes, Reverse Spiders, Female Coachman’s, Red Ants, Blue Boy’s, Juicy Bugs and others have to be tied yourself, or enlisted by a local tier that knows the flies, or you might get lucky and your local shop owner is sticking to traditional methods of stocking the fly bins. If I had to go with one fly it would be a size 8 Borden Special tied in the underwing style. It catches fish when most other flies don’t and it’s a great indicator if fish are present.
Now that you’re in the water with your waders on, rod strung up, fly picked out this should get you on the right path. Even if you don’t have a float tube you can get away with wading on the edges of these deep pools. Just be careful because the river can get incredibly deep incredibly fast. The drop offs are scary but that’s where the fish like to hold. Be careful out there and enjoy the romantic PNW backdrop to a very old school fishery.