Making friends beats catching fish, even when sea-run cutthroat trout are in play

PUGET SOUND – It was cold – about 40 degrees – damp and cloudy. It was also early in the morning.

Most people in South Sound were just rolling out of warm beds – and they probably weren’t happy about it.

But Barbara and Dick Smith were all smiles as we walked the forested path to one of my favorite Puget Sound sea-run cutthroat beaches.

“This is beautiful!,” Barbara said as we got our first glimpse – and scent – of the rocky, barnacle-encrusted beach at the beginning of the falling tide.

The musty, slightly fishy smell of Puget Sound mud filled the air as Barbara and Dick got ready for their first sea-run cutthroat fishing trip.

“There are fish here,” Dick said as he strung up his fly rod.

Little schools of chum salmon fry skittered in the calm water right along the rocky shoreline – and big, meaty boils showed that sea-run cutthroat trout were already feeding on the tiny salmon.

I had never fished with Dick and Barbara before – we met through the Native Plant Salvage Foundation – and I found out they were interested in learning more about fishing Puget Sound beaches.

Dick and Barbara have fished for years – they have favorite spots at British Columbia wilderness lakes – but saltwater fly fishing was new.

I explained how the falling tide was flushing baitfish – mostly thousands of baby chum salmon – out of the inlet.

Sea-run cutts – and resident coho salmon – feed on the 2-inch-long baby chum salmon for a few weeks each spring. The chum grow fast as they feed on plankton, and they soon rocket off for the new feeding grounds – and perils – of the Pacific Ocean.

The falling tide forces the baby chum to swim downstream and get trapped in the current rips where hungry cutts and coho are waiting.

I showed Barbara and Dick how to spot a rip – the seam between fast and slow water – and explained how to cast and retrieve one of Bob Triggs’ Chum Baby streamer flies.

Barbara set up where a rip peeled off a little shoreline point. She cast her fly into the current and stripped in line as her fly swung right into the rip.

About five casts into the day, Barbara’s line snapped tight, and her rod bent. A few seconds later, a small sea-run cutthroat trout – about 10 inches long – thrashed at the surface.

“Oh, wonderful,” Barbara said. “What a beautiful fish.”

Barbara was right. The fish was silver along the sides, with yellow-tinged fins, an olive green back and hundreds of ink-black spots along the flanks. The fins were tipped with white, and the trademark red slash was under the trout’s gills.

The barbless hook slipped out, and the cutt shot off into the current.

Barbara caught two more cutts and a surprise herring before the rip vanished. Rips die as water levels fall with the tide. Barbara was amazed to learn that her hot spot would be high and dry in an hour.

But new rips form as the water levels drop and drop. Puget Sound beaches constantly change as tides rise and fall, and the cutthroat trout and coho salmon move to new spots every few minutes.

Anglers have to keep moving as well.

The falling tide gained strength, and the current grew faster as the inlet grew narrower.

“It really is like a big saltwater river right now,” Barbara said.

Dick made long graceful casts as we walked down the beach to find new rips. Puget Sound sea-run cutts often ride the current downstream until they find a new rip or dropoff.

Dick had a big cutt follow and slash his fly several casts in a row.

“Amazing!” he said.

Everyone caught a few fish, but no big trout came to our flies that morning.

I apologized for the lack of big fish, but Dick and Barbara would have none of it.

“We’ve learned a lot, and it’s been a beautiful morning,” Dick said.

I suspect we all learned a lot about each other, and I now have two new fishing friends. And that is much better than a big fish on the line.

Chester Allen: 360-754-4226