When fly fishers think about the Pacific Northwest and its fish, most imagine an emerald green river teeming with steelhead. Technically, a steelhead is a rainbow trout that has migrated to the saltwater and reached adulthood, and has returned to spawn in its natal stream. When a steelhead returns it is typically much larger than its stream-going resident rainbow trout cousin. The majority of steelhead fishing is done in rivers once the fish have returned to the river of their birth to complete their life cycle and spawn.
Sea Run Cutthroat Trout
If the steelhead is the marquee fish of the Pacific Northwest, than the coastal (or sea run) cutthroat is its long lost relative. Many people do not realize that coastal cutthroat trout seasonally inhabit the creeks and streams flowing into Puget Sound and are even more surprised to learn that they live most of the year in the saltwater. Coastal cutthroat, though not as large as steelhead, are extremely aggressive and strong for their size. They spend much of their time in the intertidal zone, utilizing the strong tidal currents to feed along the beaches. This incredible fish is of important concern to fly fishers because of its accessibility right off the beach and year-round catch and release season.
Puget Sound Saltwater: Cutthroat & Salmon – King, Coho, Sockeye, Chum, and Pink
The salmon runs of the Pacific Northwest are just a shadow of their historic abundance, yet many opportunities to chase salmon with a fly remain. There are five species of Pacific salmon in Western Washington. King, or chinook salmon, are the largest of the Pacific salmon and are the first species to return to their home spawning streams each season. The early run, also known as Springers, come into rivers as early as March or April with Summer fish right behind them. Fall kings are most numerous and are available in the saltwater and streams in August through November. In saltwater, kings can be difficult to hook because they tend to hold in deep water out of reach of most fly fishers. They are truly a trophy fish for the fly rod.
The most popular salmon with fly fishers is the coho, also named Silver salmon. Coho are not as large (5-12 lbs average) as kings but are more accessible to fly fishers. In saltwater they tend to feed and travel in shallower water along the shoreline and aggressively strike baitfish and attractor patterns. Once staging in the river mouths, as well as in the stream, coho are notorious for being tight-lipped. When hooked coho are likely to put on a gymnastics demonstration and also offer up several sizzling runs.
Sockeye salmon, known simply as reds in Alaska, are the least numerous salmon in Washington and are extremely difficult to catch on the fly. When hooked, sockeye are extremely strong fighters for their size.
Chum salmon, known as dog salmon in Alaska, are the second largest of the Pacific salmon behind the kings. They are very tough fighters, and when hooked in the saltwater can put the best of gear to the test. When nearing their home estuary, chums color up fairly quickly. Once in the streams they deteriorate quickly and are best left alone to spawn and pass on their genes. Chum salmon are best targeted in the saltwater close to river and stream mouths. When several fish start to congregate, they get more aggressive and at times seemingly strike anything chartreuse.
Pink salmon, or humpies, only return to Washington in odd years. When they return they come in strong numbers and in a fairly short time window. Many of the rivers on the east side of Puget Sound (Skagit, Skykomish, Green, Puyallup, etc) get strong runs of Pinks with some of the rivers getting over a million fish returning. A few rivers on Hood Canal also get Pinks. Similar to Chums, Pinks start to deteriorate in freshwater fairly quickly and are best targeted early on in the run or in the saltwater. In the saltwater, anglers off the beach, as well as boaters, have the opportunity of hooking double digit amounts of fish when the run is in. The fish generally stay close to the shoreline and will eat flies that are pink, cerise, or fuchsia.
Stillwater Cold Water Species
Rainbow and Cutthroat trout are the primary stillwater trout species that anglers target in Western Washington lakes. The state plants thousands of fish annually including so-called jumbos (generally one pound or larger) as well as a number of triploid rainbows (sterile fish that are voracious feeders and have the capability to grow to very large sizes quickly).
Additionally, many lakes receive cutthroat or have self sustaining populations. Often times these are coastal cutthroat and are close relatives of the fish you find off of the beaches or in creeks that flow between these lakes and the salt.
Most of the lowland lakes and reservoirs of Western Washington are home to warmwater species of fish in addition to trout. These warmwater fish such as bass, panfish can provide great angling opportunities close to home.
Known as “America’s Gamefish”, Largemouth bass are found in many of the local lakes surrounding Gig Harbor and provide great angling during the summer months. Aggressive feeders, largemouth bass are a great quarry for the fly angler. Warm summer evenings bring the opportunity to catch these fish on the surface using popping style flies. Look for weedbeds and lilly pads for the best opportunities.
Smallmouth bass, the Largemouth’s harder fighting cousin, are found in several of the larger reservoirs and lakes and provide another great opportunity for a fish eager to eat a fly.
Panfish such as Bluegill and Crappie are found in most area lakes giving the fly angler opportunities to catch a lot of fish and often providing great table fare. Panfish are a great target for the young or new fly fisher.
A few select lakes provide options for warmwater fish such as Tiger Musky. A favorite of some of the shop guides and employees. These fish provide an extremely challenging but rewarding large fish quarry for the adventurous fly angler.