After observing quite a few cutthroat on my way home from steelhead fishing the past few trips out, I figured it was nearing peak run time. Being that their residency time in the river is rather short for the chosen area, now was as good a time as any for us to dedicate an entire day to them. Kitty and I headed out on this sunny weekend day to our favourite of the half dozen creeks that we frequent. Our first stop in the lower watershed was actually kind of uneventful with only a few hookups, and very few fish seen. This kind of reinforced the fact that they were quickly moving up, and likely wouldn’t be around for much more than a week. After spending three years here now, hiking over 15 kms of this system, and spending probably close to 100 hours on it, I would say I have a fairly intimate knowledge of the fish and their habits. This first lower stack hole is commonly a very good bet right after a rain, but the fish (especially these early ones) will often only utilize it for a handful of days. After this particular spot, they’ll often stay schooled up for one more location before dispersing out.
Kitty and I left the lower end of the river and headed for the middle section. I was kind of holding my breath at this point – I hadn’t been here yet this season, and the major flood had caused substantial changes everywhere, even to some of the bedrock/boulder rivers I hike yearly. This river is dominated primarily by small gravel throughout the lower end, and you can tell it’s heavily impacted by the sheer amount of huge eroded cut-banks and trees being pulled from the forest every year. This once in a century event had no doubt moved this river around, and had likely filled in a lot of areas – possibly even shifted runs from one side of the valley to the other. I was kind of scared to observe the changes, yet excited for the prospect of new water all at the same time.
The first run had indeed changed, but I’m not sure if it was for better or worse upon initial assessment. The top end looks better, but it’s fairly quick water, and I’m not sure if the cutthroat will actually utilize it (they really have a preference for slow moving water in here). I stare intently and decide that none are present there. The middle section filled in drastically and would definitely no longer hold them as it had in the past. The tail out has split perfectly in half, and has deepened out by around 5 feet on river right. As we peered in I could see 15 fish sitting tight under a cut bank, next to a log that angled into the water, in the back end of the river right split. After fishing for maybe 5 minutes, it was clear that this run had gotten quite a bit better for the fish, but not so much for angling. The area where they sit now is pretty much stagnant, with a slight back eddy influence. It’s pretty much impossible to get a proper drift into them – no matter the method – without spooking them deeper under the cut-bank and overhanging trees. There’s no worries on my part though – I’m happy to see that the fish have a refuge here away from pressure, and that they sit in an area that is great to view them; sometimes I just love to watch their behaviours and simply see fish without catching them.
Th next run down has also gutted out remarkably, going from maybe 3 feet deep in the past to near 10 feet deep now. The trench extends for a good 40 feet. I walk slowly from the top down while watching the water closely. I find on this system, casting blind is practically useless – you almost always see them if they are present. As I walk, I finally sight a pod of 10 fish, sitting right where they should, about halfway back through the gut in the slower water. I point them out to Kitty and she takes a few casts with her bead. It’s an incredibly difficult cast and subsequent drift due to the swirls. The most important part is the cast: you need to land it right on the back edge (within a foot of the wall) under a bunch of overhanging roots. You have maybe a foot of error margin, and it’s not an easy thing to hit when you’re tossing 10 feet of line under an indicator with nearly no back cast room. Kitty ends up losing two beads to the roots before saying she’d rather continue down (I get kind of cranky when losing gear and didn’t help the case either). As she walks away, I decide that I need to take at least one cast at these guys. Luckily, I managed to get my bead in there first cast without snagging the roots, and I got to watch the king of the school move forward to intercept my egg. I yell back to Kitty, and she comes up to check out my catch. It’s a really nice male in excellent condition – hopefully a sign of things to come for the day.
We both ended up trying to hook a couple more of these fish, but it’s incredibly difficult with how the current behaves, and how precise of a cast you need. After a dozen or so more fruitless casts, I decide that we should continue down. The next run in this circuit is the one I’m most excited for. I’ve seen days where there are 200+ fish in the run below, but I’m a little worried at this point. The run we are currently standing in is only perhaps 200 m above the main staging pool, and I’ve never seen a fish in this particular run of 10 before. True, it looks nicer now, but the thought runs through my mind of, “what if they are sitting here, because there is no where to sit down there.” As we walk down, my confidence sinks. The top of the run is now ankle deep where it was once better than 12 feet deep, and it doesn’t look any more promising for the next 100 feet. I can see that it has indeed changed below as well, so hopefully there’s a new gut somewhere below that is now holding them instead. Although my favourite run on this system (ever since I started fishing here) is now gone, this is kind of the exciting part of fishing: seeing new things and getting to explore and figure out new water.
I ask Kitty what she wants to do. In the past, on a number of occasions, I have hiked the 4 km from here down to the lower river staging spot. Not once have I found fish past this particular 500 m stretch of river that we are standing in now. The water all through that multi kilometre stretch is great – big long runs with awesome depth and good structure, yet they always sit either way down or where we are now. The two particular runs that they always sit in aren’t even the best pieces of water, but they sit there year after year. I’m not sure exactly what makes these fish choose where they hold, but it’s obviously something that isn’t linked to water type; they just seemingly have locations imprinted, perhaps based on distance travelled or some other factor. They are complicated creatures that I’m sure I’ll never fully understand.
Kitty says she’d like to go down, reminding me that I did want to check out all the different changes that each system had gone through. I agreed with her idea, but I gave us a cut off point – I told her that we’d go as far as the tree line in the distance, as that is where I’ve caught fish the furthest down in this circuit. I walk slowly, scanning every inch of water for any type of shadow or movement that could give a school of fish away. Kitty does the opposite, and quickly marches forward to the next nice looking section of water. All of a sudden I hear her yell, “there are so many.” I walk down, and to my surprise, there are two distinct schools of fish, each a good 50 or more fish strong. One school is sitting against a carved out sub-surface shelf that is perhaps 6 feet deep with light chop, and the other school is sitting way back in 4 feet of water in the wide open. I’m baffled. Garbage water in my opinion. There’s relatively speaking very little depth (compared to other runs above and below), the bottom consists of nothing but fine gravel, and there’s no overhead structure – these fish are sitting ducks in crystal clear water. I’ll say it again: there has to be some other determining factor that these fish use as a stopping point. This run has changed beyond belief, for the worse, and yet these fish still have stopped here a hundred strong, neglecting much of the other good water nearby. In my mind, there’s almost no way these things will bite based on what their sitting in (and the conditions present), but Kitty proves me wrong.
Once we figured out the proper depth and drifts, it was a pretty magical day. I don’t remember the last time I’ve spent upwards of 3 hours in a single stretch of river before. These fish were biting everything, one after another, and there were multiple good sized fish. To make it even better, nearly all of them were sight fished in the crystal clear and shallow water. I actually found myself kind of lost in the moment, and before we knew it, time had pretty much run out on us for exploring elsewhere. We ended the day earlier than expected, but mostly because going to another circuit would have been rushed, and it would have been hard to make the day any better than it already had been. The first day committed to cutthroat for this winter season was a huge success.
I had finally scratched my cutthroat itch in a meaningful way, and was now ready to get back to Steelhead fishing, for a little while anyway. I’d been meaning to go visit my buddy for a while now, but had continuously put it off either because of high water (early season), or because of very poor fishing (currently) in general in his area. It was clear that the fishing probably wasn’t going to get any better there at this point, but I figured I may as well make the trip out, even if it was simply to hang out with a friend for a few days that I hadn’t seen in a while.