by Dallas Cross
Issaquah Press, March 25, 2009
Oncorhynchus clarki is the scientific
name designated for the cutthroat trout. When referring to the
coastal or sea-run cutthroat trout the species name doubles to clarki
clarki which I suspect signifies its dual life in salt and fresh
water. These spunky members of the trout family have been native
to Western America for many thousands of years. They have long
provided a tasty meal cooked on many campfires and wood stoves.
There are many subspecies of cutthroat trout in the
Rocky Mountains and western rivers. We have stocked some Washington
lakes with Lahontan cutthroat that are native to Idaho, Utah and
Wyoming. There are also Westslope cutthroat trout that are native to
our beaver ponds, lakes and streams. The sea-run or coastal cutthroat
trout live and spawn in rivers, streams and lakes that usually have
access to salt water from California to Alaska. Our local sea-runs
forage nearby along shores in the salt waters of Puget Sound.
An unusual characteristic of coastal or sea-run
cutthroats is that they seem to have an unpredictable life cycle.
Coastal cutthroats may choose to live part of their adult life in salt
water and spawn in fresh water; and then produce offspring who live
their entire life in fresh water like Lake Sammamish. All cutthroat
spawn in creeks on very shallow gravel beds away from
competing species such as steelhead.
Although venturing out to salt water seeking more
plentiful food gives some cutthroat a growth advantage over their stay
at home relatives, this travel takes its toll. Biologists have
found that spawners from salt water shorten their life spans by as much
as 20% each time they make the salt-fresh water transition.
Some cutthroat have been designated as a threatened
species, so one must read regulations carefully to determine whether to
keep or release them. Today, cutthroat caught in Puget Sound must
be released but those caught in lakes Sammamish or Washington may be
kept within limits.
The stomach contents of cutthroat in Lake Sammamish
show biologists that they mainly eat aquatic insects and small
invertebrates until about 12 inches long. After exceeding that
size they quickly switch to a diet mainly of minnows, preferring small
salmon and kokanee fry passing through or residing in the lake.
Our cutthroat trout have recently become one of the dominant predators
of salmon fry in Lake Sammamish, replacing the Northern pikeminnow in
You can fly fish for “cutts” in the lake but you
need to find actively surfacing fish that are feeding on chronomid or
midge insect hatches. And as the stomach contents predict, you
generally connect with smaller sized fish with insect-imitating flies.
Our lake cutts are quite sensitive to warm and cold water temperatures,
and also to low oxygen content. Thus, you must troll deeper,
between 15 and 30 feet, to bring lures within their feeding range.
Small needle fish lures, minnow imitators, spoons and even worms on a
wedding ring lure will work. To find them vary your depth and speed
until you get a strike.
I used to be the camp planner for a group from work
who went to British Columbia every year for a week in June to fly fish
Lake HiHium for Kamaloops rainbow trout at the Lake HiHium Circle W
Fishing Camp. Wayne Crill had started this annual exposition with his
family and expanded it with his colleagues to the extent that one year
I had to plan meals for fourteen fishermen in one large cabin.
In the glow of Coleman lanterns, during fish story
time of the evening, I noticed that Wayne had another curious metal
button on the crown of his fishing hat. I remarked to him that
they seemed to increase in number each year. Wayne informed me that
they were Field and Stream Magazine annual awards for catching the
largest cutthroat trout in the state.
So the next year in February I put on my fishing
companion demeanor and caged a fishing trip on Lake Washington with
Wayne and his son in their Livingston boat. Wayne’s method
was to use a very small fly-rod flatfish with trout coloration and
troll 20 feet deep at a speed where there was moderate pulsing action
from the size 00 dodger flasher hooked about 24 inches in front of the
flatfish. We caught some nice cutts while Wayne regaled us with
stories of occasional hook ups to something big in the lake that just
kept on running until break off.
I have fished Lake Washington since then catching a
large cutt or two on occasion. Curiously, none reached the sizes
with which Wayne won his awards, but he may not have told me
everything. Wayne has to use a personal transportation device now
and can’t fish, but his generosity of angling experience and fellowship
is alive in others, as it should be.