In the Pacific Northwest it's not unusual for a fisherman to be nearly as wet as the fish he is trying to catch. This is particularly true of those who fish for sea-run cutthroat trout in the winter. In that season the days are short and dark and the sky is a gray wet smear. Starting early in November, the clouds descend to about ear level and remain at that elevation until late March or early April, all the while emitting a heavy, cold sweat. No foul-weather clothing can long resist this permeating mist, and there are stories of cutthroat fishermen who sprouted moss on their backsides or puckered to death, fly rods at the ready, from long exposure to the rain.
It isn't that cutthroat fishermen love rain; it's more a case that cutthroat don't like the sun. So it's not surprising that they have chosen the Pacific Northwest for their home. Their natural range extends from extreme northern California to the Alaska panhandle, but they are found in the greatest numbers from Puget Sound northward, the very heart of the rain belt.
The cutthroat concede the large, swift rivers to Pacific salmon and steelhead, choosing instead to spawn in short, swampy, rain-fed creeks that flow out of dripping forests and sodden fields into the saltwater fjords and bays of the ragged coast. They love slow-moving estuaries and mudflats rimmed with rotting slime, and they move cautiously back and forth in rhythm with the tide. They are lesser known and lesser sought than the more glamorous salmon and steelhead, and as far as those who fish for them are concerned, that's just fine.
Sea-run cutthroat fishermen are a peculiar breed. If one were to try to think of a single word to describe them, "dumb" might come most readily to mind. After all, if you're going to fish for cutthroat, it makes a great deal more sense to fish for them in rivers—where you know the fish have got to be somewhere between one bank and the other—than it does to search for them in salt water, where they could be anywhere between the Tacoma tideflats and Tokyo Bay. However, anglers who fish for cutthroat in salt water quickly dismiss such arguments; they say the rewards of discovering cutthroat in salt water are all the greater because the search is more difficult, and they speak eloquently of the special charms of estuary fishing—the lonely cry of a wheeling gull, the silent shifting of the tide, the sight of herons feeding on the salt flats and harbor seals playing in the shallows, etc. In fact, they speak of almost everything except catching fish, because, in truth, they don't catch very many.
One reason they don't is because the sea-run cutthroat is probably the most unpredictable of all trout. Only recently have fisheries biologists begun paying much attention to them, and most of what they have found out has only added to the confusion. For instance, they have learned that sea-run cutthroat apparently spawn whenever they feel like it, which might be any time from early November to late February, and some of them enter the rivers and return to salt water without bothering to spawn at all. When they do spawn, it seems to be a hurry-up affair, and they waste little time getting back to salt water.
The offspring of these brief liaisons spend anywhere from two to five years growing up in fresh water, which is amazing when you consider that most sea-run cutthroat spawning streams are small enough to spit across against the wind. When the young cutthroat reach smolt stage—which, again, seems to be pretty much whenever they feel like it—they cautiously drop downstream to salt water and begin fattening up on bait fish. Depending upon how old they are when they first enter salt water, sea-run cutthroat may return to spawn as many as five times and live as long as eight years, which, among trout, is an impressive age.
Despite their potential longevity, few of these fish get very big. The average length probably is about 12 inches, and anything over three pounds is bragging size. But the cutthroat is at its best in salt water, all bright and clean and green and silver and covered with a spray of tiny spots in a buckshot pattern. The familiar crimson creases around the gills of the freshwater cutthroat are faded or lacking in the sea-run fish. The saltwater cutthroat usually gives a much better account of itself than its freshwater counterpart and is apt to jump repeatedly when hooked on light tackle, which it seldom does in fresh water.
Anglers who pursue these fish tend to be secretive about their methods and the places they fish. That is especially true of fly fishermen, who generally refuse to tell you where they've been fishing even if they didn't catch anything there.
As with most other types of fly-fishing, sea-run cutthroat fly-fishing is strongly influenced by tradition. And tradition teaches that gaudy attractor flies are the only ones that will work. If anything, sea-run cutthroat flies tend to be even brighter and more colorful than their better-known counterparts used for steelhead. They tend to have colorful names, too, such as Dead Chicken or Orange Orange or Tarboo Special.
Tradition also holds that cutthroat fishing is best on a rising tide and is a waste of time at low water. For a good many years anglers stuck to this rule as if it had been inscribed in stone tablets hurled down from the mountains looming over Puget Sound. If high tide was in the morning, they would fish then and spend the afternoon doing something else. But lately, growing competition with other fishermen on the steelhead rivers and the impact of Indian commercial steelhead net fisheries have driven more and more fly fishermen to leave the rivers and seek their winter pleasure fishing for cutthroat in salt water.