In this episode, our young fly shop protégé, Fisher Munro, heads north to the home waters of Puget Sound and shares insight into the fisheries in the Seattle area.
This weekend I took a trip up to Seattle to visit with my mom. She has had the covid vaccine, and I only saw her and a few other friends I only saw outside. Of course, I took this opportunity to fish some of my old haunts.
I began the trip after work on Friday. The drive takes me past the South Sound, and I had heard a rumor that the blackmouth come up close to the surface at night. For those of you who don’t know, Blackmouth are resident King Salmon, meaning that once they leave the rivers, they live out their adult lives within Puget Sound, never heading out to the open ocean. Consequently, they don’t get as large as regular Kings. You can catch many small 8 to 14-inch ones, but there are plenty of 7 or 8 pounders, and a large fish will run you 15 plus pounds. Along with plentiful Sea-run Cutthroats and resident Coho, these fish are the top intertidal predators. They like to hunt right up against the beaches and are available to be caught on a fly rod year-round. I often catch them in less than two feet of water, casting along the shore, rather than as far as I can cast into the deep water. They’ll eat anything, but primarily baitfish and euphausiids.
Knowing that I would be fishing at night, I tied various flies with a body made from a material that glows in the dark. Mainly Clouser Minnows, but also various other baitfish, and a squid pattern I invented. Though the squid are not running in the Sound at the moment, I figure the fish are opportunistic. I did not show up on the beach until 9:30. The wind was blowing, but not too bad, and it was raining. I waded into the water, thinking perhaps I would not fish too long because of the conditions. That mindset was squashed after landing a small blackmouth on the second cast. I proceeded to catch several more, as well as a Sea-run and a Rezzie (resident Coho.) It’s always nice to land the trifecta. But the wind and the rain continued to pick up until it was a good storm. The rain had a magic ability to come in under my hood and fall upwards into my face, then coming back under the control of gravity and proceeding down my jacket. Had I been catching big fish, I might have toughed it out. Had the wind not been there, I indeed would have fished late into the night because the rate of hookups was amazing. That many fish in only an hour and fifteen is fantastic. But as it was, I constantly had to check my tippet in the dark and the wind to see if I had tangled up since I could not see how my cast was unfurling. And since it was so windy, even when I wasn’t tangled, my fly would blow around so much in the process of checking for tangles that it would inevitably get tangled. The storm drove me from the beach and off to bed.
The next day I fished my favorite urban stream. A place that I used to fish all the time, biking to it before I was able to drive. It holds a lot of nostalgia for me. I am the only person I ever see fishing it in March, but March is the best time. There are fewer fish than at other times, but the big Sea-runs are often in the river. March and the spring are generally the best time to fish the Sea-runs both in the rivers and on the beaches (although, as I said, they are available all year in both places). Unlike steelhead, these fish are not entirely focused on spawning once they get in the river. They continue to eat voraciously and head back out to sea relatively quickly. And it was my good luck that they were in the river that day.
I was swinging a leech with a black soft hackle tied off the bend down through my run. All the way through the top of the run, I didn’t get a strike even in several pockets where I usually expect fish to be. I soon learned that this was likely because the big fish had run off the usually plentiful smaller trout. I had a hard grab that instantly, and disappointingly, snapped my soft hackle off. After retying, I proceeded to land a 17 and a 14-inch Sea-run, respectively. Those are big fish for Coastal Cuts, especially a 17 incher! Plenty of them get to that size, but they are vastly outnumbered by the 8 to 12-inch fish. Both of these fish were clearly fresh arrivals in the river, and both pulled drag on my five weight. I returned the next day with a friend and guided him into a fish that was all of 19 inches, most likely the fish that snapped my tippet the day before. It is rare to see a kype on a Sea-run, but this fish had a formidable one and the bulk of a territorial male to go along with it. That is a substantial Sea-run, and it was a pleasure to be part of catching such a large specimen of a species I have spent so much time pursuing. All of this, on a river with a bike path running alongside its entire length.
In my experience, for the majority of Portland area fly fishers, Puget Sound is a blind spot. In reality, the fish are plentiful, protected by a stringent catch and release program and single point barbless hooks, except for the big salmon. Every day of the year, Sea-runs, Rezzies, and Blackmouth are available. Much like Steelhead, Sea-run Coastal Cutthroat are supercharged by their time in the ocean. A 14-inch Sea-run in the salt or recently arrived in the river is far more potent than any 14-inch Deschutes fish. While in saltwater, the Cutthroats are so aggressive that they will take a popper on the surface. This is a favorite way to target them amongst Seattle fly anglers, and rightfully so because they hit so hard that they consistently come out of the water on most strikes. It’s a feeling almost like a jump scare in a horror film. If you know when to go, the chum, pinks, and Coho are all relatively easy to catch as well. These salmon bite far better while in saltwater than in the river, and there are few places besides Puget Sound where they can so easily be fished from the beach. Also, there are accessible beaches in the South Sound, the most productive area for sea runs, that are no further of a drive than the Deschutes. I would love to see more of our customer base making trips to this unique fishery; that really should be considered a destination rather than overlooked. There are more than enough fish there for everybody, and while international travel is currently quite challenging, this is a ‘destination’ close to home. Like any fishery, there will be a learning curve if you decide to start making the trip. But you are a part of our community! Come into the shop and see us; I have plenty more tips on how to catch these fish!