In the last couple of weeks before the rains begin, you might consider getting out to fly fish for cutthroat. Typically, our island rivers receive a large push of searun trout in the last couple of weeks of August. They come in before the salmon, in systems that are short of water.
Pink salmon can rise up in four inches of water, while chinook, the largest, need more than ten inches to torpedo up. Late in the summer season, many Island rivers have sections of only two inches, enough water for cutts, dollies, and, if there are any, searun browns.
The trout come in because they follow the salmon to spawning and the feed on salmon eggs is their largest, single-source feed in the year. A good fat belly is a fine thing to have as winter sets in. On your thinking of going after them, do note that many south Van Isle rivers are closed to fishing at this time, in this dry year. You need to check the regs for the river you wish to fish. The Stamp is open, for example.
We are indeed fortunate that we fish in rivers mostly for anadromous fish, meaning ones that live in saltwater and come into freshwater for feeding and/or breeding. It should be remembered that when trout, and steelhead are trout, too, come into freshwater, they do not know what food looks like for a couple of weeks before they make the transition from food found only in saltwater, and food found only in freshwater. That is why we most often use attractor patterns.
We have very few resident fish – most of these are on systems with lakes in them – that want a strict regimen of flies that look like the hatches. The rest of BC, and most of Canada, has to tie good representations of nymphs, Caddis, Mayflies and so on, while, here, catching the attention of an anadromous fish that may well be hungry, something very visible and generic does the deed.
For example, my favourite fly for steelhead is a Size 2 black salmon hook, with the wire bent around to form an elegant up-turned eye, with gold bead eyes (silver for winter) along with red over orange over yellow marabou. Very easy to see, and because there are contrasting colours (my favourite bunny fly for instance is a garish, red over chartreuse over black bunny, with chartreuse or gold eyes), the ‘segmentation’ is simply there to make it easy for the fish to see the fly.
Your best bet is a nymph pattern in black with wriggly legs, with a gold, cyclops, bead eye, or any of the stonefly variations in colour and pattern. The latter fly does not do well in very shallow water, less than knee deep, as it is heavy and sinks to the bottom – this late in the year, you may be picking algae off your fly on almost every cast, which is annoying, and slow. Another caveat is that smaller fish sometimes miss stoneflies, and flies with legs/wings beyond the curve and point of the fly.
Variations on Doc Spratleys, usually in black with dark red, and much fatter than usual nymphs find good use. Cast them as far across as you can, aiming to be within a foot of the opposite bank. One of my fishing beliefs (meaning superstitions) is that cutthroat like to see a fly go across in front of both eyes – for binocular vision reasons – and as they key in on vegetation and woody debris, that is mostly on the other side of our rivers.
So, do use a flyline cleaner before you go out as, without doubt, it allows you to make longer casts. And at this time of year, rivers are at their lowest, slowest and smallest, which means you are more likely to reach the other side than in any other season. Aim to be within one foot of where you are casting. It pays to be bold in the year or so it takes to get your distance down, because, if you don’t, you will never be able to do so. You just need to waste a few flies along the way.
It makes sense to carry two reels, one with a sink tip and one with a full float line. Add some new leader of ten feet, so that it is a quick reel-change on the river. The full float comes in handy in shallow water, and when putting on a dry fly. The sink tip allows you to penetrate deeper water, and to try different levels in large pools.
Where there are large numbers of cutthroat, cuttbows and steelhead smolts are passing out (these can reach 14 inches, and so be realistic targets, in, for example, the Stamp, when July is the peak of their egress), some trout will be rising, and some inhabiting different levels. For example, use that full float to run through the pool first time, with a nymph, with a dry fly on the second (provided you see some fish). Then follow up with the sink tip line and nymph. On your fourth pass through a big pool – say 15 feet deep – count that tip go down a full thirty seconds before stripping.
At this time of year, water is very slow, so counting down is a real possibility. If your water is not so slow, consider a heavier tip, or add one of those poly-tips out in front for added sink. You will find that in a pool with lots of anadromous trout, that they do segregate out so that you may find as many as four different fish zones.
Also do a run-through with those gaudy summer steelhead popsicle flies because fish that have not bitten on, say, a nymph, may well be looking for a different silhouette in the fly, or a different level of visibility. The marabou fly I have described vaguely resembles a standard Mickey Finn, and that may be why it works, as the Finn doesn’t look like natural food whatsoever.
I suggest putting this amount of work into only one pool of the day. When you have found lots of fish, it makes sense to work it well with all the alternatives. If you catch only a fish or two, move on. But, for example, if after you have walked through with one fly type and depth, you still see fish jumping or swirling, it tells you there are fish there that will still bite.
Typically, once you have pricked or caught a fish, it is unlikely you will catch that one again. This means that swirlers, jumpers and flashers, have not yet bitten on your fly, for whatever reason, but it makes sense to run through again with a different type of fly/fly line configuration.
Also, this time of year, with low/slow water, you will find it the easiest of times to wade and cover ground. Gravel beds will be exposed, and you will have less need to bushwhack, something that also makes this amble a worthwhile thing to do.
It also makes sense to have fished your river many times, so that you know very well the stretches you may want to fish. Thus you can estimate the number of good possibilities in the distance you may want to cover. For example, if there are three really good spots, but a mile between each of them, it may be better to consider another part of your river to fish. Finally, if time is a problem, fish your way down to the bottom and walk the entire distance back to the car, rather than plumb the same waters again. Also finally, it makes sense to target those areas that are closer to saltwater, as trout that come in for a salmon egg feed are more likely to stop and wait for salmon than migrate all the way up to distant spawning beds.
Please go to the Fin Donnelly, NDP, Petition e-463 and sign it. He is going to introduce a bill to get fish farms out of the water and put them on land, and every salmon fisher – and all his/her friends – should sign: https://petitions.parl.gc.ca/en/Petition/Details?Petition=e-463.