Cutthroats of the Puget Sound

This year is turning out to be the season of foreign fishing. Just a few weeks after my brief fishing trip in southern France I found myself on a flight to Seattle (that’s in America). Another trip theoretically not about fishing. Another trip where a 5 weight rod, reel and flies were smuggled on board. This time the waders made it too.

Work commitments took up the main part of the week, which left the weekend for some exploration. First port of call was a fly shop. Twenty five minutes and a short walk followed by the 522 bus took me north of the town centre to a nice fly shop called the Avid Angler.

As I explained my predicament I noticed a slight uneasiness come across the face of the nice gentleman shopkeeper dude. I was too soon for the rivers, they were still pumping brown sludge from the winter runoff. Lakes were not much of an option given my lack of floatation. Despite protestations that I was indeed full of hot air and likely to float, he wasn’t convinced it was worth the risk. So what to do? His considered recommendation instantly perked my interest. Sea-run cutthroat trout, in the sea (as in the salty water).

I went on to discover that the Puget Sound area is full of small trout streams that aren’t really large enough to sustain high densities of adult trout. This means that young fish quickly migrate into the estuaries to feed and grow. It sounded very similar to the sea trout of the UK’s west coast; I’m thinking of the West Highlands in particular. The main difference: there are still plenty of trout in the Puget Sound, if you can find them…

I bought a selection of silvery-minnowy-streamery type flies along with a couple of foam-based items. Apparently the cutties sometimes like to smash flies on the top. I was told to look for pebbly beaches, to fish the moving water before and after high tide and to look for current rips. So with my map suitably marked at half a dozen possible starting spots, I was keen to get going. I picked up the hire car and made for the Tacoma Narrows bridge.

A treepool on the Puget Sound from Mike Tamanawis on Vimeo.

It turns out that cutthroat trout can be harder to find than a generous tip in Yorkshire. The first afternoon on a west facing beach was beautiful, with views to the snow-capped Olympics mountain range. It produced one ‘proper’ sized trout of about 7″, and a small legion of parr/smolts (what I think we’d call finnock in the UK). Very difficult to say the least; I probably made about 500 casts for that beautiful little silver fish. If I’d realised what I was doing, I’d have known to switch beaches after about 100..

The second day was considerably worse. I decided to venture a little further across to the Hood Canal area and try a new beach. I tried. For about 6 hours. I caught nothing, but did get plenty of casting practice in the wind. It turns out that casting for 6 hours in the wind, with your fly getting gunked up every second cast, isn’t as fun as you’d think.

As I sat in my motel room that night I pondered giving up and not bothering to go out for the third day. On a bit of a whim I did some googling and ended up sending a few messages to folks on the Washing Fly Fishing forum. Why I didn’t do this in advance of travelling to Seattle is a mystery only understandable through the distorted, procrastinatious mind of someone who’s been in universities for too long. A kind soul made one or two suggestions, some of which I was already aware. But one place in particular was new and perked my interest, and I felt a new rush of determination to catch a proper-sized sea-run cuttie.

That’s a bald eagle on top of the pylon. He was harassed continuously for an hour by a large crow/rook but just sat there watching the sea.

I arrived early at my chosen spot for a final attempt. The tide wasn’t really ‘on the move’ yet, but I set up anyway and starting casting at floating seaweed. I continued to cast at floating seaweed for about 2 hours. I caught plenty of it.

I neared the end of the beach, where it swung around to the left and below a bridge. This was a narrow point in the estuary and a channel was formed between the opposite side and my beach. I became aware that there was more energy in the water, and that the wind had picked up. It was quite bizzare, there was this sense of things in motion and working towards a climax. High tide was only an hour away, and water was now pouring into the inlet in front of me, from across my right hand side.

A fish broke the surface 10 yards out. I clumsily chucked the cast out into the wind and the line immediately began to swing at some pace with the incoming tide. As the cast fished around almost into dead water the fish absolutely nailed the streamer and I was at last attatched to a little silver bullet. An excellent scrap and a beautiful fish of maybe 12″. Bright yellow pectorals, greenish back, bright silver flanks and heavily spotted. What a beautiful creature.

I fished on and found myself standing above a huge swirling back edy of a pool. Baitfish were zipping about, buffeted by the rotating vortices and rising water. Casts into the pool produced nothing. I sent a longer cast below the main swirl, and received another very solid take. This fish jumped repeatedly and even stripped line off the reel. Another angler came around the corner as I beached the fish and we both admired its gleaming form for a few seconds. In the busy water and confusion I opted not to photograph and in a flash it was gone. He must have been about 14″ and in wonderful bright condition.

Sometimes after releasing a really memorable fish I feel almost detached from the experience, as if it didn’t really happen. One moment there are spots and bright colours cradled in your hand and a moment later you are grasping water. No matter how hard I try to look at a fish and take it all in, I can never quite escape the feeling. Perhaps that explains my obsession with photographs. In the end, as the images in memory fade into increasingly abstract and condensed forms, it’s perhaps just the raw feeling that you try to hold on to the tightest. It felt good.

It’s easy to over romanticise fishing trips, even those that aren’t very successful in terms of fish numbers. In terms of angling effort I found my 2 and a bit days of fishing/casting in the Puget Sound extremely tough. Easily as challenging as any fishing I’ve ever done. I felt rather confused most of the time (even more than usual), not sure if I should be changing location, fly, retrieve and so on. That defines learning I suppose, and is an effect magnified by new and unfamiliar waters.

I ended up, however, feeling like I’d glimpsed under the magic carpet of cutthroat fishing in the sea, and it was with some sadness that I stepped onto the flight home. My final view of the Pacific Northwest was a vast expanse of channels and inlets stretching away to the Olympic Peninsula, and then we were in the cloud.


  1. Christina Harkness’s avatar

    What a beautiful piece of writing!

    From a non-angler relative in Norwich

    1. mike’s avatar

      Thanks very much for reading and posting a comment Auntie Christina. Have a nice day,

    2. Dave Westburg’s avatar

      Am a Seattle fly fisher and enjoy sea-runs. The fish are off the beaches this time of year you just need to move around to find them. The sea-runs follow the salmon into rivers in August and provide terrific sport in September and October. It’s like scottish sea-trout fishing except you don’t need to fish all night. If you are in Seattle in September or October please look me up and we can spend a day or two on the North Fork of the Stilliguamish chasing sea-runs.

    3. mike’s avatar

      Hi Dave,

      nice to hear from you. My trip was certainly inspiring, and I loved your part of the world. I’m going to try for the local sea trout around here in the sea sometime this summer I hope, having never done so before now.

      I’d love to be going back to the PNW, but I’m not sure when it will be. Thanks for the kind offer, I shall make a note all the same.

      Tight lines,

    4. Ian’s avatar

      Great photos and a lovely story – small trout but uber cute!

    5. mike’s avatar

      Thanks Ian, they really are lovely trout.

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