This time of year, casting a line on the beaches of Vancouver Island for sea-run cutthroat trout seems like the ideal way for the fly angler to spend those long summer days. The sea-run cutthroat fishery is one that is notoriously tight lipped, however the trout are prevalent enough and there is enough shoreline on the west coast that each angler can find their own water to chase this elusive, exhilarating fish.
First recorded by European explorers in 1541, the original distribution of cutthroat trout is greater than any other salmonid in North America, excluding Lake Trout and 14 subspecies of cutthroat trout are known to exist (2 of which are presently extinct). Vancouver Island is home to variety known as the coastal cutthroat trout. Known as environmental indicators, cutthroat trout are highly sensitive to environmental changes including water quality, sedimentation and water temperature, which means that Pacific coast populations have experienced significant declines when compared with historical abundance.
Though they can be found virtually every month of the year, July is the start of the fall run upriver, continuing through January. On the beaches, sea-run cutthroat trout can be found in the shallows up to a couple kilometers from their home waters. I always start at a stream, and from there, cover water as necessary, scanning the shallows, watching for birds & ducks, swirling water, finning, baitfish, overhanging foliage, and casting the occasional test cast even when nothing shows. I like to scout a beach at low tide, to identify holding spots and structure like rocks, drop offs, woody debris & pilings, before they are covered by water as the tide rises.
Fish the tides, fishing the last 2-3 hours before high tide until the water peaks and turns slack, and then again once the water begins moving again. Tide changes of more than 6 feet/1.8 m create the best conditions and gravitational forces between the Earth & Moon mean that the Full and New Moon see the largest tidal ranges. As with most fishing, low light conditions such as cloudy days, dawn and dusk, when combined with the right tide, can really turn the bite on.
A 5-6 weight fly rod (or tenkara rod) is about right, and I fish either a floating fly line or an intermediate sink tip. On the windy west coast, patience, timing, a sink tip and a well-practiced roll cast can be key to punching through the wind. A small boat or float tube helps to reach those fish that always seem to sit just outside of casting range.
As much as I’d like to list some secret local flies, the majority of my catches have been on classic patterns like Rolled Muddler minnows, pumpkinheads, eggs, shrimp, stimulators and the tenkara-esque Reverse Spider, with its pulsating, rear facing hackle. Whether it is because us anglers are creatures of habit and stick with what works or these truly are the best flies is anyone’s guess. Cutties will chase the fly all the way into your feet, so fully strip in the line when retrieving. An exciting fly for top water cutts is a bass-inspired popper, a large cone headed, hollow bodied fly, fished with a “twitch-tug-pause” retrieve, which is intended to “pop” it along the surface and provoke a splashy take.
On most of Vancouver Island, typically the first bridge is usually considered to be the tidal boundary, so downstream, you are fishing saltwater and a tidal licence is required. Sea-run trout are open to catch & release fishing with barbless hooks year-round and you can even keep a couple hatchery fish over 30cm (from the Oyster or Quinsam). Most major Island streams and rivers have finfish closures at the estuaries July-October, but there are a few exceptions (which normally attract elbow to elbow fishing conditions). Other no fishing zones to check the regulations for include Rockfish Conservation Areas and Ecological Reserves. Moving upstream from the tidal boundary, you are fishing freshwater and a new set of regulations (and licence) apply.
Well known fisheries exist on the San Juan, Big Qualicum, Cluxewe and Quatse rivers, and, closer to Victoria, the Sooke Basin, Gorge and Esquimalt Lagoon are likely bets. Really, just about any stream fed, rocky bottomed beach on the Island with shallow flats, a gradual slope and returning salmon is almost guaranteed to hold cutties at the right times. Other indicators of cutthroat territory include kelp beds, eelgrass, oyster beds and “cutthroat habitat” signage. A fishing log will pay off in learning where and when to return. With time, each angler finds their beach, and most will keep that secret sanctuary to themselves (although these days, most “secret spots” aren’t all that secret).
But, above all, first you have to find the fish, and even if you do, there are no guarantees. Just when you think you know the fish, something changes and makes you question everything, until you catch again. I used to think sea-run cutthroat were a fish of opportunity and luck but time has taught me, like all else, patterns do exist but, at the end of the day, it’s up to the fish.