New Waters

The connecting power of cutthroats

A few years back, I started exposing my brother, Dustin, to the sport of fly fishing. I gave him the typical rushed crash course during a trip to Alaska that my Dad, Dustin and I took in July of 2016. He cut his teeth while going after native Leopard Rainbows on the Russian River in Cooper Landing, AK. He took to it like a natural, perfecting his roll cast and maintaining a clean drift, which resulted in him landing a stunning beauty. The deal was sealed, and he was hooked.

You see every year my family does a group vacation oriented around one of the National Parks. This is a tradition we have made happen, without fail, for many years. My wife and daughter, my brother’s family and my mom and dad. Our summer 2018 trip was on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington at Olympic National Park. We stayed in a beautiful log home in Sequim that easily slept 28 people. To say this was a home and not a mansion would be an understatement, but it held our group of 9 very comfortably.

After his experience in Alaska, followed by a few times on the water with me here in Colorado, he did not hesitate to accept my invitation to do a full day guided float trip while on our Pacific Northwest vacation. After researching the rivers in the area, it was apparent that we had enough options to keep us on the water for a month if we wanted.

We settled on floating the Sol Duc River on the northwest tip of the peninsula, targeting their native cutthroat species, the Coastal Cutthroat. I organized a float trip through Waters West Fly Fishing Outfitters in Port Angeles, WA. They have an excellent location with everything you could ever need to fish the Pacific Northwest. The owners were working the shop with their dog Elwha.

They run their shop the same way we run ours, welcoming, friendly, well-stocked and very knowledgeable.  It’s the kind of place you always hope to find when you are traveling and fishing in a new area. Dustin grabbed a pair of waders and boots and I grabbed a handful of patterns to fish the ocean shore for "Sea Run" Cutthroats near where we were staying. Their guide, Curt, called me that night and we set up our meet time and location.

Sunday June 10, we packed up our gear, hit the liquor store on the way to fill the cooler with good local brews and met Curt with the raft. The forecast for the day was typical for that part of the Olympic Peninsula, cool and cloudy with a 100% chance of rain. This is, after all, a rainforest. We opted for chest waders, wading boots, rain jackets and wool sweaters.

When we put in the river, I was immediately astonished by its clarity. Curt had told us that this was going to be a very different experience than what we were used to, fishing my home waters of Colorado and Wyoming.

Two of the things that he told me had me filled with anticipation. First, he said that targeting these cutthroats would be done with streamers; and big ones! The second thing was that the water is so clear, we could watch the fish run down our streamers and would most likely see the take. 

The Sol Duc is a rain fed river and being located in a rainforest, has no shortage of clean, clear rainwater to keep it well fed.

I told Kurt that my goal of the trip was for Dustin to get his bearings while fishing from a boat and learn the art of streamer fishing. I knew that if we could get him on some fish, it would get him even more interested in the sport, which was secretly my plan. The older I get, the more I cherish the time I get with my family, especially time on the water doing what I love; fly fishing. 

Dustin was at the bow and I was at the stern, with Curt navigating the water. The clarity of the water was unreal. It was literally as if we were floating on a sheet of glass. I have never experienced a river like this before.

After getting Dustin dialed in on casting a streamer from the bow and retrieving the LARGE sculpin pattern, we headed down river. The pattern we were throwing was most similar to a "Sex Dungeon" or a "Dirty Hippie".

The first deep hole we came upon, I had a large cuttie come up from behind a boulder and crush my pattern. I was like a squealing kid on Christmas morning as I watched the fish present himself, run down the streamer and strike. I was so excited that I was late to set, didn't get a good hold on him, and was left watching him thrash his head and throw the hook. The look on my face had to be that of a teenage boy seeing his first Playboy. Even though I didn't get to touch, just seeing what I did left a smile on my face, ten miles wide. 

We weaved in and out of low-lying clouds, rain and blue skies. The river bank was thick with trees; big, BIG trees. We saw impossibly large Spruce, Fir and Cedar lining the banks in forests so thick, one could barely imagine navigating them on foot. The most impressive of the trees were the Maples, covered in moss, branches like arms sprawling across the river like a scene out of a horror movie, waiting to pluck you out of the river as you floated by in awe. 

The fishing was good, but we weren't crushing it. It was a learning experience for Dustin and these fish were picky. After the first hour on the water, a squall rolled in and dumped on us. After cinching down our rain jackets and tucking underneath our hoods, the squall passed only 5 minutes later, revealing blue skies. The fishing suddenly turned on.

Dustin immediately landed a large, beautiful native rainbow buck. Curt was excited to see this rainbow, since they are the minority in this drainage as well as the male counterpart to the female steelhead that run up this river to spawn. Seeing a large, healthy male bow in this river was definitely a treat. Shortly thereafter, Dustin also landed a big, beautiful cutthroat.

Watching my brother cast, set, fight and land fish on a fly rod gave me as much excitement as landing the fish myself. It’s always fun spending a day with a guide that’s at the top of his game. Seeing how Curt read the water, handled the boat, and taught Dustin was a treat. His passion for his time on the water and for teaching was infectious. I learned a lot about fishing for coastal cutthroat as well as some killer techniques for utilizing the double spey cast with a single-handed rod in tight quarters. 

We stopped for lunch and got to know Curt a little better. He's the kind of guy that you know, two minutes into the conversation, you would hang out with if you lived there. His passion lies in spey casting for steelhead, and he rarely leaves the "Peninsula". He was one of the best guides with which I have had the privilege of fishing with. 

After doing well with streamers and going through several heavy rain squalls, we got out and tied on some big Golden Stone dry patterns. The difference here was that they typically won’t go for a "dead drift" presentation. Curt wanted us to cast them downstream at a 45-degree angle from us and "skate" them across the surface. Even though I was aware of this presentation, it was hard for me not to instinctively dead drift a dry fly. Once I wrapped my head around it, I saw lots of action.

We got back in the boat and floated down a bit further to a great bend that held a large, deep, clear hole. Curt smiled, looked at me and said, "Go ahead and dead drift a dry through there." This was followed by the most explosive action of the day. I had fish throwing themselves out of the water, trying to make the large Green Drake patterns (that Curt had tied himself the night before), their evening snack. I have seen some amazing flies in my day, but this was the most realistic Green Drake pattern I’ve ever seen. The fish agreed. I landed some large, unbelievably beautiful native coastal cutthroats on Curt’s Green Drakes.

In the end, Curt had spent the day mentoring Dustin and accomplishing my goal of putting fish in his hands. Dustin definitely learned the art of standing in a drifting boat, casting streamers, stripping line and landing native fish from one of the best in the area. His interest in fly fishing grew immensely after our experience on the Sol Duc River that day.

I learned new techniques for chasing cutties in the Pacific Northwest, both in fresh water and in salt. I held some stunning beauties in my hand for a few brief seconds and learned from one of the best guides in the business. Most importantly, I shared a fantastic experience with my brother on a new stretch of water for the both of us.

1 comment

  • Lynea

    I enjoyed reading this beautifully written account of your PNW fishing adventure. Thank you for sharing.

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