Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, MT

Typical Puget Sound shoreline at low tide
Typical Puget Sound shoreline at low tide

When the tides run, the shorelines of the Southern Salish Sea resemble large rivers, the currents revealing underwater structure that provide cover and food for my favorite fish–salmonids. You may not think you know of this sea, but you do.

The southern end is commonly called the Puget Sound, that gigantic saltwater estuary that spans 100 miles north and south from Admiralty Inlet to Olympia, Washington. The Puget Sound is deep–930 feet at its deepest point, but averaging 450-600 feet deep throughout its length. The sound hosts resident Coho and Chinook salmon and seasonal runs of all five Pacific Salmon–Pinks, Coho, Chinook, Chum and Sockeye. It is also home to a thriving and readily accessible population of coastal cutthroat trout.

The salmon and trout spawn in tributary rivers and streams of the Olympic Peninsula and Cascade Range. To get to those rivers, the fish must migrate and feed along the shorelines of the sound. Because of the depth of sound, most of that migration takes place within 100 feet of the shoreline where most of the forage is found. And it’s that shoreline, all 2500 miles of it, that draws fly anglers to the Southern Salish Sea.

It’s late July, the height of summer in the Puget Sound region. Although I live in trout nirvana, a family trip to Tacoma provides me the opportunity for several days of fishing where I can leave the wife alone with the relatives to do whatever they do. The fly angler can target Puget Sound beaches on foot or from small boats. Kayak angling is becoming very popular in the sound and I’ll go out on a guided kayak trip during my stay. On other days, I’ll follow the tides, venture out on some of the public beaches and pound the water from the shore. There’s probably some official number, but of the 2500 miles of shoreline in the sound, 100’s of miles of public beaches in local, county and state parks provide ample access to the shore bound angler. Of course, kayaks, canoes and other small boats provide even more access to isolated but productive shorelines.

Typical Sea-run Cutthroat
Typical Sea-run Cutthroat

My primary quarry is the coastal cutthroat or sea-run cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki clarki). Although coastal cutthroats spawn in freshwater, if they have access, they spend most of their lives in saltwater. In the sound they are generally found holding and feeding close to the shoreline within a few miles of their native streams. When the tide runs, the cutthroats feed heavily on baitfish, shrimp and other forage that are being carried by the tide. Remarkably, just like trout in rivers, they hold and feed around obstructions, depressions and other structure that not only provides them protection from predators but also concentrates forage. From the beach or the kayak, find these types of fast flowing tides, and you’ll probably find coastal cutthroat.

My fly boxes for Cutthroats and Pinks
My fly boxes for Cutthroats and Pinks

My other quarry is the Pink Salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha). Although other salmon species can always be found in the sound in late summer, it is the Pink Salmon that provides the fly angler a unique opportunity in odd numbered years. Millions of these 3-5 pound fish begin their spawning migration into the sound in mid-July. Headed for major river systems like the Skagit, Snohomish, Green, Puyallup, Nooksack and the Nisqually, Pinks or humpies as they are also known, travel very close to the shoreline. For 2015, fish and game biologists in the region have estimated some seven million Pink Salmon will enter the Puget Sound. They attract a lot of hardware anglers but many fly anglers as well. I was hoping to connect with a few during this trip.

It’s an easy flight over to Seattle from Bozeman. I’m geared up for typical Puget Sound kayak or beach fishing. A fast 6 weight, floating and sink tip lines on reels suitable for saltwater, waders and of course the right kind of flies. Flies can always be obtained in the local fly shops if you don’t tie your own, but most saltwater baitfish and shrimp patterns work well. My favorites for cutthroats are small clousers, sand lances and bend back shrimp. The same patterns work well for Pinks as long as they are predominately pink.

After picking up my non-resident Washington saltwater license and a salmon punch card, I’m ready to meet my guide Blake Merwin of the Gig Harbor Fly Shop. I’ve fished solo with Blake before but this day, I’d be sharing the trip with two other anglers–Orin from Seattle and Chris from Asheville, North Carolina–accomplished fly anglers giving kayak fishing a try for the first time. Kayaks unloaded and geared up at Olalla Creek we ventured north along several miles of Puget Sound beach, keeping the kayaks just off shore within casting distance of the beach. Cutts rarely move out of water more than 20 feet deep and can be found in ankle deep water if the currents and structure are right.

Gearing up and launching at Olalla Creek
Gearing up and launching at Olalla Creek

We were fishing a moderate incoming tide with the wind blowing against the tide so our progress down the beach was slow and steady. We cast our flies on short sink tips aiming for obvious structure–rocks, weed lines, depressions and the occasional large log. We all connected with 10-12″ cutts on a variety of flies. My first came to a blue marabou sand lance. As the tide slacked, we lunched on sandwiches and potato salad on a remote sandy point. When the tide turned, Orin, Chris and Black ventured a bit farther up the shoreline in the kayaks while I stayed on the point wet wading and casting into some obvious holes just off shore hooking a few more cutts on an olive clouser. Even on a cloudy, windy day, wading wet was comfortable, especially with quick dry pants.

The pedal back (we were in Native Slayer Propel and Hobie Mirage Pro Angler 12 kayaks) was arduous as the wind was now with the out-going tide and blowing about 15-20 knots. After making it around a particularly tricky point, we beached the kayaks, resting a bit and fished for a while off the beach. Once back to put-in, everyone was tired and glad to be out of the wind. Orin and Chris had experienced their first kayak trip on the Southern Salish Sea and Blake had hosted another great guided trip for me and the others.

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