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August 26, 2011 / flogginwater

I Survived the Savage Cutthroats of the North Coast

Yesterday was my day. It was a day to revive, rejuvenate myself. As disappointed as I was on Wednesday after my new fly rod broke – I was contemplating not even going to the coast to fish for cutthroat. I was sorely ready to put off that trip, and head east instead, to the upper waters on one of our mountain rivers – a place that holds mostly rainbows, small cutthroat, and some brook trout. Waters that I haven’t honestly fished in a few years (as I’ve focused my efforts with this river on it’s lower reaches, where coho and chinook salmon swim next to steelhead, and where I’ve plied my skills in vane so far in my attempts to catch one of the beasts.)

I had the car loaded Wednesday night. Waders, boots, vest, fly rods. Wednesday morning came. Got in and started driving east. I didn’t even make it across the first town when my usual indecision set in, but then decision set upon me like Thor’s hammer, and I turned the car around and headed for the coast. I knew – knew the coastal cutthroat were waiting for me – it’s been a year since we’ve done our last dance.

And waiting they were. I started in the upper reaches of the river – close to the dead line above which fishing is closed year-round (which is meant to protect the spawning habitat and fry of the wild salmon and steelhead this river also holds.) I’d decided that this would be a mostly wet-fly day. I’d even tied up some reverse spider patterns – which are as close to crack cocaine you can get for a coastal cutthroat. While they look funny when they’re dry, with that webby hackle sticking straight forward past the hook eye – in the water they come alive. The soft hackle flares back and pulsates in the water – few, if any, flies look more alive in the water than these.

I rigged my rod with a two fly set up – first opting for two soft hackled wet flies – a bead headed peacock body on point, and a lime green bodied fly on the dropper – the point fly a size 14, the dropper a 12. It only took half a dozen casts across the short channel to get into my first fish. I *tried* getting a photo of him, but he wiggled right out of my fingers back into the river. Who knew fish could be camera shy?

His twin came on the next cast – this fish actually let me get a shot of him. Not very big, but full of spunk. The green bodied fly was proving quickly to be a favorite.

A few more fish caught, and the bite in the first pool slowed. I rigged my wet flies as nymphs – attaching a Thingamabobber and 3 tiny split shot to the leader, and cast into the head of the pool again – seeking fish holding in the deeper, dark water at my feet. Another fish came before the bite stopped. At the tail of the pool, as I was hiking out, I spied a lone steelhead – easily a 30″ fish – quietly finning on the border between shadow and light. For a fleeting moment I contemplated swinging a fly to him – but decided against it and hiked back to the car to continue down river.

The next spot tried only gave up a brace of fish – it was a wide area, channelized now because of the low summer flows. I had to hike across fifty yards of sun bleached boulders to reach the water’s edge – rocks that after the fall rains come, will be once again covered with water, rocks that will, next spring, provide shelter for trout and salmon smolt as they make their way toward the ocean.

There was another fisher, a hundred yards down the bank, another fly angler. He looked hot and tired and frustrated. Did I mention it was a hot, sunny day? The low, clear water made the fish wary of movement on the bank. The slower, glassier water where he was fishing would be unwilling to give up the fish it held without a great deal of stealth – which is a hard thing to accomplish on the rocky, unsteady ground. I focused my efforts on the braided white water of a small rapid. The bubbly, rippled surface would mask my presence. It didn’t take long before I was into a nice little fish that even managed to take some line off my reel. The other angler just shook his head as he hiked back to his car. I don’t know if he’d been completely luckless, or if he couldn’t believe that I was wearing chest waders in the heat, or what.

That fish released, I worked up and down the banks, covering the water the other angler had covered, soliciting a few strikes, but only getting one more fish. I worked upstream, where a large, wide, deep pool formed at the confluence of two channels. Oddly enough, I didn’t even get a strike here, I worked the riffles above the pool, nothing. I worked the pool itself, nothing. I’m sure that lurking in the very bottom of the pool, where I could just barely make out the tops of the rocks, a steelhead lay – or maybe a pod of sea run cutthroat trout. I will never know.

Back to the jeep, further downstream I drove. I stopped at another familiar stretch – although the low water made it look different than I’d remembered. Now the river ran mostly through the shade provided by the trees on the northern bank. A few rays of bright sunshine made the water of the deeper sections sparkle. I’d switched flies at this point – experimenting. I tied a red soft hackled wet on point, and tied a Mother In Law onto the dropper. I swung the flies across and downstream – the strikes were solid, and when the flies drifted into the sunny water, the brown-olive color of the cutthroat’s backs made them look like fat snakes shooting from the bottom toward my flies. The glint of their sides in the sun looked like the flash of a mugger’s knife. I was tempted to try a dry fly here – cutthroats are known to rise to dry flies even with no bugs on the water – but oddly, I’d not seen a fish rise all day, yet there were two distinct hatches present – midges, and a medium, tan colored mayfly – about a size 16 or so. With the fish not even eating the real bugs, I stuck with my wet flies and continued working down stream.

In a well shaded run with a powerful rapid at it’s head, I had the best luck of the day. Every cast was producing strikes, and I was setting up with fish on every third or fourth cast. Many of the fish came unpinned with some aerial acrobatics or just plain bull dog like head shaking – I fish barbless flies despite regulations allowing for barbs, and today the fish seemed to know exactly how to remove the hooks without my assistance. Then came one of the most smile and giggle inducing parts of the day – a four cast, four fish run. The 2nd fish of the set was a fluke. I’d unhooked the first fish, and just threw the flies out into the water ahead of me to get them out of the way so I could release the fish. When I stood back up, I felt a tug on the line, and realized that the current had grabbed my flies and a fish had already taken one.

I wound up getting five or six more fish from the same spot before they got wise (or maybe I’d caught all the fish right there?) and I headed further down stream.

I finished the day out at the run where I’d caught my largest trout of my trip last year. It held true for this trip too. In a slow moving pool, I cast my team of wet flies out, let them sink a bit, and slowly stripped them in/ varying the length of strips. Fish hit with a good thump, although some of the smaller fish put up a spunkier fight.

I finally broke down and tried a dry in my last half hour of fishing, and got nothing, not even a half hearted strike from a half pint dink. Its fitting though, that the last fish was the biggest. It was a great day out, and let me relax like I hadn’t in a while.

When I got home, I had my final packages from Cabela’s awaiting me – the guides for my second fly rod build, along with a drying motor, and a small chest pack. I was able to get the guides wrapped up and finished last night. This morning I took the rod off the drying motor. It’s ready to fish next week. Now I’ve got to decide *where* I’m going to fish next week – do I head back to the coast, do I head east, or do I go south? Decisions, decisions…

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