Sea Run Cutthroat flies – favorite fly sizes, hooks, wing materials, body materials, fly colors, and hackles…….
Yes, it’s the season between spring salmon season and fall salmon season, unless you are fishing rivers like the Rogue where the Chinook are streaming in each and every day. I call these the Blueback days, the sea run cutthroat season. Difficult to save up enough days to fly fish for sea run cutthroat knowing that salmon numbers are building by the day, but these feisty fish are so spectacular that they are difficult to resist.
Here are a few musings about fly tying supplies & materials most useful for tying sea run cutthroat flies; all are available from the Caddis fly Angling Shop:
Best fly sizes for Oregon Sea-run cutthroat fishing. These fish are often in the 12” – 14” range, though they will exceed 20”. I have not caught sea-runs over 17” but know they do exist. Even heard reports of 5-7 Lb. Sea Run Cutthroat, including one trapped in the fish ladder at Winchester Dam in the North Umpqua decades ago, a five pounder caught at the confluence of the North and South Umpqua in the 1970s, and several five-plus pound cutthroat seen in Upper Elk River, observed by fish-counting biologists.
Expect sea run cutthroat to be at the smaller end of the fish-size spectrum though. These fish will take flies in the #4 to #12 range, with #6 and #8 being probably the most effective, perhaps because these are the sizes that are fished most often. A 12’ sea run cutthroat will take a smack at a 6” Kwikfish, and that takes some serious attitude. I urge anglers to NOT use #4 flies and to avoid certain #6 hooks, like the TMC 700, even though the TMC 700 is at the top of the heap in terms of my favorite salmon – steelhead wet fly hooks.
Why avoid large hooks? Simple. The fish are small, the hooks are large, their “take” is usually voracious, and the hooking mortality can be awful. So stick to #6 or smaller hooks, stay away from a hook like the TMC 700 or an Eagle Claw 1197. Funny thing, the Eagle Claw 1197B was my hook of choice, hook of necessity and favorite hook, all at the same time, tying and fishing sea run cutthroat flies during he 1970s and 80s. Those were the days when a lot of Blueback came home with us, involuntarily, in wicker or canvass creels, destined for the barbecue. Our attitudes are different these days, and we send the fish back into the depths to continue their migration whenever possible.
For my sea run cutthroat fly hooks, I prefer a TMC 3761, 5263 or a Daiichi D1760, D1720, and D1560. These are good sharp hooks, have low barbs that are easily pressed down, and heavy enough to swim the fly well.
Day in, day out, I would reach for a size #8 to fish for Harvest trout. The #6 will occasionally bring more fish to the fly, but the #8 will earn more eatage and less fly nipping. It is important to keep some #10s in one’s fly box, because sometimes all but these smaller flies will trigger a flashy false raise followed by outright rejection and disdain. These false strikes are fun and exhilarating but do not result in hookage and tugage.
Fly color. If you look closely at Les Johnson’s fine book (Fly fishing for Sea Run Cutthroat) you will see a lot of yellows. Oranges and reds are also front-runners in the color palate. Pink, if I remember correctly, is essentially a no-show.
Amazing. Pink is a very dependable color for Oregon sea run cutthroat flies. A second level of color choices includes black, olive, and purple. The bottom layer of color choices would be brown, and chartreuse. Unfortunately, Harvest Trout do not read my articles, routinely ignore my advice and develop their own set of color choices. I tend to fish dim light conditions with brighter colors, and go to more subtle colors in mid-day. I might choose a size #6 at dawn and go to an #8 or #10 in the middle of the day. Much of my fly inspiration is based on stomach content analysis that proved Sea run Cutthroat prefer Rooster Tail Spinners over live crawdads, sculpins worms, or juvenile Chinook. Really.
Wing materials. Here is a list of materials I use when I tie wings on Sea-run cutthroat flies: Arctic fox tail, Bucktail, white deer belly hair, dark deer hair, Squirrel tail, Pheasant Tail fibers, Elk hair, Hareline Pseudo Hair, and Hareline Baitfish Emulator.
Try a few of the videos I shot with Chris Daughters recently.
White Deer Belly Hair. Yum.
My favorite winging material includes white Arctic Fox tail; white Bucktail; white deer belly hair; and Mirage Flashabou in a variety of color phases emphasizing pearl. Hummm. White seems to be my color of choice. I also tie sea-run flies with natural deer hair, the center section of Bucktail (dark hair), squirrel, pheasant tail fibers (remember the Dr. Spratley), Peacock herl, and Hareline Baitfish Emulator or Pseudohair.
Sadly, with any natural wing material, all packages of hair are not created alike. There can be a vast difference in the length, texture, hollowness, stiffness, and so forth, of Bucktails. Some Bucktail hair is easy to stack, but some is impossible. Hair from the base of the Bucktail is more hollow and will flare more than hair near the tip of the tail. White deer belly hair is not as diverse as Bucktail, but again, some stacks and ties better than others. The most consistent wing materials tend to be the deer and elk hides, squirrel tails, and Arctic Fox tails. These are pretty solid and do not offer nearly as many surprises as Bucktail can.
Body materials. Here is a list of my favorite body materials: dubbing mixtures, especially Hareline Trilobal and rabbit mixed with Ice dub; Uni Yarn; chenille; and Lagartun Mini Flat Braid. Floss also works, although my preference is to Uni Yarn over floss because of its slight fuzziness right off the spool and the way it lays down so neatly.
Body rib. No question about this material: small Lagartun or Uni oval silver tinsel. I do not use plastic Mylar tinsel because it is relatively fragile and gets chewed up pretty easily.
Hackle. Oh boy. Here is a subject for hours of discussion. The availability of quality hackle feathers for tying wet flies in the size #6 – #12 range varies considerably moth by month, year by year. A saddle patch you might be able to get this year, right now, might not be available, at any price, next year. Your selection next year might be better or it might be more limited.
The most consistently available hackle product I have used over the years include strung rooster schlappen and strung rooster saddle hackles. These have been around forever and will probably still be here when you and I are long gone. The only drawback I see to these strung rooster feathers is the need to sort out the junk and select feathers for size. But the effort is worth it as opposed to using inappropriate hackles. I definitely prefer to purchase my strung rooster saddles by at least the ounce, and more often by the pound or half pound, because it gives me the best selection of feather qualities, sizes and such forth. Natural brown, black, hot pink, hot orange, shrimp pink, red, : these are all useful for tying Chinook Boss and comet style flies also. and yellow are great colors
A product that is available now and that may or may not be available a year from now is called “American Saddle Clump.” These are curiously similar to the old Whiting Bugger Packs. Available in a wide array of colors, these feathers have long tapered narrow tips that are great for dry flies, decent web that makes them very good for tying buggers – and most importantly – a short, wide webby base of the feather stem.
What do I look for in hackles for Sea-run flies? For bushy, bold profile flies, I like to have a feather with fairly full, substantial hackle barbules and a fair amount of web, maybe a lot of web. The reason I want these hackle feather properties is that I believe that it lets my flies flow and pulse in the water.
On the other hand, some of my Sea-run cutthroat flies are fairly slim and feature much smaller, sparser hackle collars. This is because, in my creative imagination, there are days and fish that will respond better to a more subtle, smaller, and sparser fly than to a bug bush fly. Right or wrong, take a re-read Les Johnson’s wonderful book – How to fish for Sea Run Cutthroat trout (1970, Frank Amato Publications), look at the fly photographs, and note how fine and sparse most of the hackles were on his favorite flies. Interesting perspective.
Badger hackle. Now there is a feather I wish we could get more consistently these days. The Spruce Fly and many other traditional Sea-run cutthroat flies depend on Badger neck feathers. Try to get some these days. Good luck. A close approximation of Badger hackles can be found in the natural grizzly variant saddle hackles, strung. These are offered in packages and can be purchased by the ounce or pound also. The strung material contains a lot of throw-away feathers, but there are a fair number (I call this an acceptable junk to treasure ratio) of really good saddle feathers and many give the impression of a mottled Badger feather.
Neck feathers versus saddle feathers. Here is a great subject for debate. I thin the answer is — it depends. I love nice wide webby neck hackles. I love nice wide webby saddle hackles. Each of the above, of course, needs to be properly proportioned or in some cases, over sized for the hook.
Huh? My subtle size, slim body flies are rigged with smaller sparser hackles than the big bushy flies I tie as exciter patterns. The key idea here is to scour your local fly shops for both saddle and neck hackles, and don’t forget the Schlappen feathers too. Schlappen tends to have the slimmest center feather quills, which is nice for winding the hackle onto the hook. Both saddle and neck hackle feathers can have perfect fiber length and web – but then be a mess to tie with because they have big thick center quills. All you can do is buy the dang feathers and try tying with them.
The best test of a hackle is how it winds onto the hook. Remember, too, that feathers taken from different parts of the cape or saddle patch will be different, so each cape or saddle patch will probably have sweet areas with the best hackles for certain size flies.
Hope this helps.