image of a 12-14 inch cutthroat trout on stream bank
Northwest Zone

7 tips for catching coastal cutthroat

Use your favorite gear, target sea-runs in late summer, and more
Mike Sinnott
September 1, 2020

Wide distribution, an aggressive nature and willingness to take bait, flies or lures, makes cutthroat trout a popular target in western Oregon rivers and streams. Here are some tips for catching them.

There are cutthroat trout in just about every stream in western Oregon. Anglers can target feisty resident cutts that live year-round in their native stream, as well as larger more aggressive sea-run cutthroat that divide their time between fresh and saltwater.

Mike Sinnott, ODFW fish biologist in Tillamook, has been chasing cutthroat on the coast for a few decades and offers these suggestions for catching more fish.

1. Go fishing!

One of the great things about cutthroat trout is that they’re present in most streams in Western Oregon. Pick a nearby river or stream – large or small -- that‘s open to trout fishing and has some access, and start fishing.

As my Dad loves to say, “No one’s ever caught a fish sitting on the sofa.”

2. Use a technique you have confidence in

Cutthroat trout are not picky. They're an aggressive species that feeds actively in the river, so if there’s a technique you’ve already mastered for trout or other species, adapt it for cutthroat. Let’s talk about some effective options:

Lures: Spoons and spinners can be really effective in enticing a territorial bite. I like 1/8 ounce to 1/4 ounce spoons, and size #2 to #3 spinners. As a friend and colleague said in a previous article; colors catch anglers more than fish. The reality is color doesn’t matter that much. Generally, I like to use dark colors in clear water and sunny conditions, and brighter colors in colored water and cloud cover.

Flies: If you like fly-fishing this is a great species to target. I’ve had some really successful days nymph fishing for cutthroat. A bead head prince nymph, pheasant tail, hare’s ear or woolly bugger in sizes 12 to 14 are some of my favorites. For dry flies a Renegade works well, but keep an eye on the water and be ready to match a hatch.

Bait: Cutthroat trout don’t lack appetite, so bait works really well, especially when drifted. A single salmon egg can be extremely effective, as can a crawdad tail or the classic night crawler. In my experience, cutthroat tend to take bait deep, so if your goal is catch-and-release, you might consider an artificial lure rather than bait.

It’s all about what you have confidence in. If you’re confident in the technique you're using, you’ll likely fish better and longer, and that leads to more hook ups.

3. Fish cover

Cutthroat like to ambush their prey; they will lie in wait under or behind the cover of a log jam, root wad, log, or cut bank and shoot out to intercept whatever edible item is floating by on the current. I’ve been fishing cutthroat for nearly 40 years and I still get excited anytime I spot a pool with a cut bank!

4. Pay attention to water and weather conditions

Cutthroat will use pretty much all habitat types; pools, riffles, glides, etc. but there are certain places they prefer depending on the conditions. For example, in cold water fishing may be better in deep pools with moderate to slow current. On the other hand, when water temperatures are warm you may find more fish in choppy water.

Sunny versus overcast skies can also affect fish behavior. Pay attention to where you catch fish and what the conditions are. If you’re diligent about it, you’ll start to identify patterns that will increase your success.

It’s also important to match your gear to the conditions. Generally the clearer the water, the lighter your gear should be. If you're going to fish crystal clear water on a sunny day, I recommend a light leader, like a 4-pound test fluorocarbon, and a tiny terminal presentation in a subtle color.

On the other hand, if you’re fishing a large river with some color to it on a cloudy day, a 6-pound monofilament leader and a larger, brighter terminal presentation will give you an advantage.

5. Keep moving

Not every spot in the river is going to have fish. If you’ve fished a spot out, and feel like you’ve done a good job of covering the water, but you haven’t got a bite, then move to the next spot.

Remember, cutthroat trout are aggressive. If you get your lure in in front of them with a good presentation, they’re most likely going to bite.

6. Do a little research

Knowing a bit about the life history of cutthroat trout can increase your success when fishing for them. Many of our coastal streams have sea-run cutthroat that migrate between fresh water rivers and the estuary/ocean. There’s a lot of variation, but generally these fish will be in the estuary in good numbers in early summer, and migrate upstream from there. During our August snorkel surveys there are sea-runs dispersed throughout the streams they inhabit.

Knowing what else is going on in the stream you're fishing can be useful as well. For example, if you’re fishing for cutthroat in August and September in a river that has spawning spring Chinook, then those trout are going to be keyed in on salmon eggs and drifting a single egg (real or imitation) is going to get great results.

Some internet research, or a phone call to your local ODFW fish biologist, could help you fine tune your technique on your favorite waterbody.

7. Know the regulations

There’s a lot of opportunity to fish for cutthroat trout, and an overwhelming number of open waterbodies. There also are places that are closed to fishing year-round though, so make sure the place you want to fish is open before you go.

For most western Oregon streams, the trout season is May 22 to Oct. 31. However, there are restrictions on where bait is allowed, especially above tidewater, and some protective closures. Check the regulation booklet and MyODFW.com for regulation updates. If you still have questions, give your local ODFW office a call.

Good luck out there, and good fishing!

Fishing for sea-run cutthroat trout

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