Fly Fishing for Sea-Run Cutthroat by Chester Allen

Not long after my steelhead book, The Color of Winter–Steelhead Fly Fishing on the Olympic Peninsula, was released, I made the routine rounds of fly shops and clubs to sign copies. At one of them, a guy pushed his book across the card table and said, “Most fly fishing books published these does don’t need to be. But yours did. Thank you for writing it.” There were people in line behind him, and I didn’t get a chance to ask him what he meant by the comment. Since the book has more space devoted to Olympic Peninsula wild steelhead conservation issues than how to catch them–which makes it different than most books on steelhead–I assumed that was what he referencing.

That gentleman’s words came to mind recently, when I began to read Chester Allen’s new book, Fly Fishing for Sea-Run Cutthroat. That’s because, in addition to being well conceived and professionally written, Chester’s book has arrived at perfect time. It needed to be written.

Now, I know a few people will sputter that there is no call for a new book on cutthroat. They will argue that Les Johnson’s book Fly-Fishing for Coastal Cutthroat Trout covers everything you need to know about fishing for cutthroat trout in the Pacific Northwest.

Well, Les is a friend of mine, a good friend. And his book is indeed the definitive one volume work on coastal cutthroat, in both fresh and saltwater. It will always hold the dominant position in the “cutthroat” space in any Northwest fly fisherman’s library. You don’t have to sell me on the importance of Les’s book. This is what I wrote about it in a review I did of it in Fly Fisherman magazine shortly after it was released.

“Johnson’s book is inspired and authoritative and wise, the crowning achievement of a lifetime spent pursuing and studying the West Coast’s most enigmatic trout”

Nonetheless, Allen’s book is a valuable and important addition to the canon of West Coast cutthroat books. It belongs with the other classics of the genre–all of Les’s cutthroat books, Steve Raymond’s Estuary Fly Fishing and Pat Trotter’s, Cutthroat–Native Trout of the West. It is an important contribution to the literature devoted to one of the Pacific Northwest loveliest fish and the rich and unique fisheries that have evolved around it.

I believe Allen’s book is necessary, for one thing, because it is the only one devoted entirely to fly fishing for cutthroat trout in saltwater. It also showcases the fine year-round fly fishing in southern Puget Sound, a region that has a rich fly fishing tradition and has been a source of much innovation but that hasn’t figured prominently in the literature. Finally, Fly Fishing for Sea-Run Cutthroat  brings a new and unique voice to the chronicles of coastal cutthroat, that of an accomplished, thoughtful and observant fly fisherman.

One of the things I like the best about Fly-Fishing for Sea-Run Cutthroat is that it is a real book. That is  something of a rarity in contemporary fly fishing publishing these days, with its obsession with photography and charts and internet links. It consists of 20 essay chapters, organized around a seasonal framework. The photographs are all in one section. There are enough of them to give you a visual idea of the sport, its fish, and environs. But this is a book, not a pumped up photo-essay masquerading as a book. It doesn’t look much different from a Haig-Brown book published in the 1950s.

A fly fishing book that is primarily text, of course, needs to be well written. Well, Allen is a professional writer, with decades of experience in newspapers and as an outdoor columnist. It shows in his writing. It is fluid and supple and clear. It is the kind of prose that is easy to read but that requires considerable skill to execute. The book also has a crisp narrative flow, clear and concise explanations of complicated subjects such as tides and cutthroat life history, and it conveys his profound enchantment with coastal cutthroat and their marine environments.

A quick sample of chapter titles will get any saltwater angler’s juices flowing. The spring chapters include: “The Life Cycle of Sea-Run Cutts’ and “Unlocking the Tides.” Summer: “How to Find–And Learn–a Good Beach” and “June Sand Lance.” Fall: “The Temptation of Dumb Protein” and “Freshwater Sea-Runs, Lucky Steelhead and Comeuppance.” And Winter : “Fishing for Faith on a Cold Morning and “Dancing with the Currents–Fishing Tactics.”

I’ll be honest with you: I would recommend this book if only for its first chapter. It is called “Springing with the Chum Babies” and it describes the pursuit of cutthroat when they are preying on the outmigrating chum salmon fry. The “Chum Baby” refers to both juvenile chum salmon fry and the name of the popular fly created by our mutual friend, Bob Triggs.

Fly angers have known for a long time that cutthroat feed heavily on juvenile chum and pinks in spring. Haig-Brown wrote about fishing for them in Campbell River tidewater, and his Silver Brown was created to suggest a chum fry. But his effort, as was nearly all of the effort in Puget Sound until quite recently, focused on catching the cutthroat while the fry were still in the rivers. There just wasn’t much mention of fishing chum fry patterns on the beaches.

That all began to change about fifteen years ago. A few fly fishers in the South Sound and Hood Canal knew about the chum fry/cutthroat relationship and exploited it before that. But it wasn’t well known until Joe Jauquet’s research, published in Sea-Run Cutthroat Diet in South Puget Sound, Washington, 1999-2002, documented that cutthroat, especially larger fish, feed heavily on the newly hatched fry along the beaches in March and April.

Allen’s description of chasing cutthroat when chum fry are on the move is, to my knowledge, the first comprehensive account of this fishery in a book.

“I was sitting on a gravelly, shelly Puget Sound (beach)  on a cloudy drizzly drizzly late March day, and small pods of baby chum salmon–tiny, silvery fish about two inches long–dimpled the surface near the shore. Bright silver streaks–sea-run cutthroat trout and a few resident coho–suddenly slashed through the small fish. The cutts–with their dorsal fins poking of the water–sharked around in the water between the fast current rip and the shore. My hear thumped, and winter–even if it snowed the next day–became history.”

But there is far more to Fly Fishing for Sea-Run Cutthroat than its documentation of the wonderful spring fishery we now enjoy along the beaches.

The chapter “June Sand Lance” contains the following:

“An hour or two of casting one of Les Johnson’s Williams Point Sand Lance streamers was what I needed. This sinking fly dips and wiggles in the current like the real thing–thanks to the long sinuous layers of bucktail and the      bead-chain eyes. The bead-chain eyes are important , as they make the long slinky fly dart for the bottom when you stop the retrieve. That is what sand lance usually do when predators are around, and that sudden plunge for the bottom can spark a strike from a hungry fish.”

There is also a wealth of solid, practical advice.

“It usually pays to get down on your knees–and perhaps be a few feet from the water–before making your first casts at a new spot. There might be cutts–thick, silver, black-spoted, 18-inch-long cutts–in water that can barely cover their backs. And if you don’t hit your knees before making the first casts into a flowing rip, well, you’ll often never know whether fish were sharking around in the skinny water.”

“Sea-run cutthroat trout hammer a properly presented fly, and many anglers mistakenly believe the fish aren’t spooky. These are the same anglers who often return from a beach without many hook-ups. It pays to treat these fish as though they’re brown trout from a Montana spring creek. It also pays to pay attention.”

On the importance of full sinking lines, which most angler eschew.

“I was fishing a fast-sinking line, as the sun was bright and I also wanted my fly to drift down current just a few inches from the lip of the drop-off.”

” . . . odds are good that you’ll start hooking more and bigger (cutthroat) if you add the sinking line to your tackle and use it.”

Perhaps as important as Allen’s illumination of the chum fry fishing is his embrace and understanding of  winter cutthroat fishing. It is another aspect of cutthroat fishing in saltwater that hasn’t been documented as thoroughly as the traditional summer and autumn fisheries. That is no doubt a reflection of the fact that in most areas of their range cutthroat aren’t available in saltwater during winter; they are upstream spawning. But good numbers of cutthroat remain in the South Sound and Hood Canal in winter. And veteran anglers know that some of the largest fish of the year are taken then.

Allen writes about it in the chapter “Fishing for Faith on a Cold Morning::

“Heading out to a South Puget Sound sea-run cutthroat trout beach on acold winter morning calls for more than polypro long johns, layers of fleece, and Gore-Tex waders. It call for faith and maybe a little craziness.”

“A minute or two later, one of those Muddler Minnows is tied onto the leader. Seconds after that, the Muddler Minnow flies back and forth in the air–and then lands in the water near the current rip. A flash lights the water and a cutt–a nice cutt–is on the line. That’s the reward for having the faith and craziness to fish in winter, and it suddenly feels kind of balmy on this on of January morning.”

I could say a lot more about Fly Fishing for Sea-Run Cutthroat,” but I’ll conclude with two simple statements: 1) It’s a truly fine book, one that deserves a place with the classics of Northwest fly fishing  and 2) if you are a saltwater cutthroat fly fisherman, you should buy it.

Finally, you can get it through the standard internet outlets but I would much prefer you buy your copy at your local fly shop or bookstore. Bill Drewey has it at the Peninsula Outfitters in Poulsbo, Dave Steinbaugh has it at Waters West in PA. It is also available at the Puget Sound Fly Company (Tacoma), Gig Harbor Fly Shop, Patrick’s Fly Shop (Seattle), Orvis Bellevue, The Avid Angler, and at all local Barnes and Noble shops.

Sky Valley Limited
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