Coastal Cutthroat Trout
Oncorhynchus clarki clarki
Like a pack of wolves in the forest, the illusive coastal cutthroat travel in schools along kelp beds, estuaries, bays, rivers and lakes. Characterized by two orange slashes under the jaw, these magnificent looking fish possess beauty that not many other species can match.
Average length of coastal cutthroat trout ranges between 10 to 16 inches. Large fish up to 20 inches are not rare in certain regions, and the odd fish bigger than 20 inches have been reported in the past. Their distinct characteristic is the orange slash on the bottom of each gill plate. Their back is generally blue or green, and body is heavily spotted. Newly arrived fish from the ocean usually have a silver body. Their lower fins are yellow and gill plates are pink. Adults turn orange when spawning.
Coastal cutthroat trout are well distributed along the Eastern Pacific coastline, from Prince William Sound in Alaska to Northern California. They occupy streams that feed into the Pacific Ocean, as well as lakes that are connected by these streams.
Like salmon, coastal cutthroat trout have a tendency to spend part of their life in the ocean, but they do not have a regular life cycle. Young fish remain in streams for one or two years before entering the ocean during adult stage. Some fish may remain in streams for the entire life span. They generally prefer small streams, and do not travel far during their ocean phase. These are efficient predators that feed heavily on small fish, crustaceans and insects.
Coastal cutthroat trout can be found in streams around early fall and spring. During this period, these fish aggressively feed on salmon eggs (fall) and juveniles (spring). there are not too many "prime" cutthroat locations as these fish are highly mobile. To increase your chance of finding them, fish around creek mouths, sloughs, brackish water and estuaries. During certain time of the year, coastal cutthroat trout can also be found in sheltered bays and kelp beds.
Those who target coastal cutthroat trout often describe the process as looking for a needle in the hay stack. Cutthroat trout are opportunists and their whereabouts are usually determined by the locations of food. With some background research and good timing, your chance of finding a school of feeding cutties would increase. Cutthroat trout can be taken on both fly gear and spincasting setup. When flyfishing, a small minnow pattern that is slowly retrieved below the surface can trigger a bite. Spincasters can either use lures or bait such as worm or roe. Effective lures include small (1/4oz or less) silver spoons or spinners with blue or orange stripes.
One cautious note regarding baitfishing for cutthroat trout. Coastal cutties are aggressive feeders, and they do not hesitate when bait is presented in front of them. If catch and release is being practiced, it's best to avoid using bait as the fish may swallow the hook easily.