Jay Nicholas’ Salmon Fisher’s Journal, August 23, 2010
Siletz Sea Run Skunk, Washington Sea run cutthroat are in….
Yes I’m talking about the elusive sea run cutthroat, the smaller anadromous cousin of the mighty steelhead. I love these fish.
Can’t help myself here, I feel compelled to review a few of the factoids about the life history of sea run cutthroat, Oncorhynchus clarki clarki, here in Oregon.
These fish are found in virtually all, yes all – Oregon coastal rivers, and are in most if not all of the Columbia River tributaries at least upstream to Bonneville dam. Formerly, and maybe even now, they were distributed as far upstream as about Hood River. That’s what Oregon fish experts think, and what the Native fish Status report by Oregon says. The matter of an anadromous fish of 12-14 “ making the migration from Hood River to the ocean and back seems a tiny bit intriguing. Maybe they did, they could have, but maybe these migratory cutthroat simply migrated into the mainstem Columbia to chow down on juvenile salmon and steelhead before returning to the Hood. Maybe they hung out in the Columbia /estuary rather than going out into the ocean. I bet there was a lot of food for a piscivorous fish when the Columbia was wild.
Difficult to say for sure, and mostly an academic matter now, because there are about none of the feisty “sea run” cutthroat above Bonneville these days.
I should mention that recent research on sea run cutthroat in Lower Columbia River tributaries has found that some of the migratory fish have stayed in the Columbia estuary, or mostly in the near shore areas of the Columbia river plume, but that some have been tracked thirty or so miles offshore, so they sure as shootin’ are what I would call a “sea run” fish.
Back to sea run cutthroat life history in Oregon. Two to three years, usually, in freshwater before they “smolt” and migrate to ocean or estuary. At this age they can be anywhere from 8”-12” long. Interestingly, an Oregon researcher, three or four decades ago, recommended that the minimum size limit on coastal rivers should be 10” in order to adequately protect pre-smolt cutthroat from harvest. The recommendation was not adopted.
So, juvenile sea run cutthroat spend 2-3 years in freshwater, migrate to the ocean/estuary, and then return after roughly three months. This makes the migratory timing and duration of salty residence very similar to the half-pounder steelhead native to the Rogue and Klamath rivers in southern Oregon – Northern California. Big difference is that virtually none of the half pounder steelhead are sexually mature after their first seaward migration, but virtually all of the sea run cutthroat will spawn on their first return from the salt. This is true for Oregon, however as one looks north to Alaska, one finds that many sea run cutthroat may not be sexually mature on their first return to freshwater.
How big are sea run cutthroat? First migration blueback (they have beautiful blue backs just like fresh run steelhead when they first return to freshwater) are often in the 10”-12” size bracket. if you catch a 14” sea run cutthroat here in Oregon it is probably 1) on its second migration back to the river or 2) an individual fish that stayed in the river until it was 11” long before it smolted.
If you encounter a sea run cutthroat in Oregon that is 16”, 17”, or more, you almost certainly have a fish that is on its 3rd, 4th, or even 5th migration back to freshwater. es, I have heard the stories of 20” + sea run cutthroat here in Oregon. They are true. Trusted friends who dive our coastal rivers every year see a few of these fish , but the monster sea runs steadfastly elude my best efforts to catch them.
Question. What is the most dependable way to catch sea run cutthroat in Oregon?
Answer: 1) find a deep hole in any Oregon coastal river a little distance above the head of tidewater; 2) make sure the hole is somewhat secluded location: 3) wait for night fall; 4) build a bonfire; 5) ensure that adequate supplies of beer, chips, hot dogs, and all the trimmings are at hand; 6) plunk out a gob of worms, crawdad tails, shrimp, or bullhead meat on a hook; 7) sit back on the beach, have a nice social time with friends, and reel in the cutthroat like crazy.
Think I‘m kidding? Not hardly. This method was described to me as the traditional sea run fishing tactic practiced in the 1920s, a dairy farmer confided his secret methods in the 1960s, and in 2008, a young guy working a coffee kiosk in Monmouth bragged that this was the only way to really catch sea runs, having just returned from a successful fishing adventure on a certain nearby river.
Common, how about a fishing report?
Fished Siletz tidewater on Sunday. Sunny. Last half of the incoming and early to mid outgoing tide. Fished above and below Strom Park. Great water. Plenty of shady sea run habitat. Most excellent fishing technique was applied. Two fish scientist fly fishers giving our best. Skunked. wait, there were two cutthroat that could, possibly, if I really wanted, be classified as sea runs. It would be a stretch. Each fish was about 12”. Maybe they had already been in for a month and slimmed down. More likely, they were resident cutthroat. Just tellin’ it like it probably is.
There were fresh sea runs in the area where we fly fished. The fish finder marked a fair number of fish in the deeper holes. Were they sea run cutthroat, Chinook, or summer steelhead? Don’t know. They had to be fish though, right? A fish finder never misleads. Ha ha.
One fellow fishing a Ford Fender with worms caught a big blueback, and we found a fresh gut pile at the boat ramp. So they were there. Maybe if it had been cloudy with a little drizzle. Maybe if we had fished first light. Maybe.
Meanwhile, a fine day on the river with Kipper snacks, a beer, and good friend.
Ready to go again, yes sir.
Washington? Almost forgot to tell ya. A friend had great success on a Washing river last weekend. Really got ’em to go on slim, yarn body flies. Wish I had been there with him.