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Winter Cutthroat Fishing 101

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Winter Cutthroat Fishing 101

Fishing For Freshwater & Saltwater Coastal Cutthroat Trout

There are more things to do than just fish for steelhead during the winter, and not that we do not like steelhead, it is not everyone’s choice target. So if you want to mix things up a bit from steelhead, or steelheading just isn’t for you, there are many options available! A good majority of river/stream systems and saltwater beaches host either resident or sea-run Cutthroat fisheries that can be quite surprisingly good at times. These fish can be caught with any real desired method, whether it be casting lures, float fishing, or casting a fly. Resident fish throughout our area will generally be found in smaller tributaries to rivers such as the Fraser or Harrison for example. Sea-Run fish (also known as anadromous or sea-going fish) can literally be found in any body of water that is not cut off from a tidal or migratory section, obviously including saltwater beaches. Resident fish will move throughout their system, but sea-run fish are much more transient as they are constantly on the move and seeking out their next meal. In this blog post we will concentrate on a couple of the main cutthroat fisheries within a wide spectrum of other opportunities.

There will be a mix of wild and hatchery Cutthroat on any given day in our waters as fish that have spawned naturally make up the Wild fish numbers, while the hatchery fish numbers have been planted mainly into the Fraser River system by The Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC. These hatchery Coastal Cutthroat Trout will virtually find their way into any tributary possible that has a good food source, and once that food source has disappeared, they will most likely follow to the next area where they can feed. There is no real rhyme or reason as to where you may find them other than they will want to be where the food is.

Freshwater Fishing For BC Cutthroat

The Fraser River Cutthroat Fishery

Mixing the words Fraser River and trout fishing can be intimidating for most anglers, but it is not as difficult as you may think. When we talk about trout fishing in the Fraser, we are mainly talking about the Fraser River backwaters and side channels in the Fraser Valley area. During the Winter months, river levels will generally plummet and clear which create cleaner stagnant or slow moving backchannels.

Unlike some back channels you have fished on smaller steams, the Fraser River’s back channels can be the size of a larger river system so do not let this intimidate you. Key pieces of info to factor into your day on the way will assist you with finding these fish and catch them. First piece of advice we can give is selecting an area to fish for the day. Since this is such a large system, you will not want to spend all of your time driving long distances from spot to spot trying to find these fish. Pick a certain radius that you think you can walk and fish effectively, covering as much fishy water as possible. This is a not a fishery you cast blindly, looking for risers and feeding fish is absolutely key.

Now you may be asking what type of water are we looking for, and where exactly should we be looking? Think of it this way, the Fraser is already a large river as it is no matter what the water height, but as a good rule of thumb the river will consistently drop through the Summer, Fall, and into Winter. The Fraser in the Fraser Valley area is made up of many back channels and braids which are full of water in the Summer, but as they progressively drop in level, these back channels and braids become much slower flowing, and at times even stagnant. These channels do not even need at inflow of water, but still must have an outflow as an entrance for Cutthroat to move into in order to feed. Although, inlet and outlet flows will be the best. Woody debris such as log jams or beaver habitat provides good cover for these fish. If you can match similar spots to the ones we have described, you have most likely found yourself a good starting point. There is no necessary water depth within reason, but channels that have a deeper middle gut or centre, matched with a gentle sloping drop off are perfect feeding grounds for aggressive Cutthroat. A full floating line or clear intermediate line is the best line for this fishery.

Helpful Hint: Do not be afraid to try indicator fishing small chironomids and midges as small as a size #18.

The Harrison River Cutthroat Fishery

One of the most scenic river systems in our area, the Harrison not only offers a spectacular wildlife and nature view, but can also offer phenomenal fishing in the Winter for trout. The most common species that can be targeted and caught will be Coastal Cutthroat Trout. After the Salmon spawn in the Fall, eggs and pieces of salmon carcasses are drifting and floating throughout the river for these fish to gorge on. Once this food source diminishes throughout early Winter, the Cutthroat will generally key in on Stickleback or smaller fish species. Historically, between the months of January and March are when we see some of the biggest and meanest Cuttthroat swimming around in the Harrison system looking for their next meal.

There will be a mix of wild and hatchery Cutthroat on any given day in the Harrison system, and no matter what, these fish are usually very eye catching and appealing. In a way, you will want to stalk and hunt these fish like we talked about in our Fraser River section, but a lot of this fishery is done in the main stem of the Harrison itself. That being said, tributaries and creek mouths are also good areas to hunt these shiny bullets.

Finding Cutthroat in the Harrison is very similar to that of most places. Look for the action. This means jumpers, risers, or surface sippers. At times, this can look like raindrops on the water. A full floating line or clear intermediate line is the best line for this fishery.

Saltwater Cutthroat Fishing

One of the most exciting fisheries that we are lucky enough to have on our coast of British Columbia is a Sea-Run Coastal Cutthroat Trout fishery in the Saltwater off of our beaches and creek mouths. The cool thing about this fishery no matter what beach you are on, and no matter where you are in British Columbia, these fish are something spectacular when it comes to overall endurance, fight ability, and aesthetics.

They are beautiful fish and most times they put up an acrobatic and spunky fight. There are many ways to approach these fish such as dry flies, sub surface flies, or wet flies. The same token applies for hunting these fish as you would in the freshwater systems. Activity is key! Looking for rising and sipping fish will give you an upper hand.

There are many beaches in our local area where Cuttthroat can be found, but finding them can be the tricky part of your adventure. Good times to fish your favourite beaches could be any time of the year. Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer can all be excellent times depending on food sources available for fish.

The Winter months can be some of best fishing available, and this is also a picturesque time of year to fish as well. Food sources range from salmon eggs and flesh, or salmon fry from inflowing creeks or river systems to crab larvae and shrimp. When targeting Cutthroat on the beaches there are a huge variety of patterns to use, but we suggest fishing a simple attractor pattern if you are having a tough time either locating fish or getting fish to strike. This would include flies like a green California Neil, Coho Blue, Christmas Tree, Crab Larvae etc. We would recommend carrying a stripping bucket or apron with you on your beach adventure as most times you will be standing in the water. A full floating line or clear intermediate line is the best line for this fishery.

Rods

Whether you want to toss a fly or spinner, this is the fishery for you. Many areas that cutthroat are targeted are very suitable for either style of fishing.

Fly Rods

  • Fly rods in #4, 5, or 6 weight rods are suitable for this fishery (Single Hand or Switch)
  • 9-10ft single hand rods “11-11’6” switch rods

Spinning Rods

  • Spinning rods in ultra light to light action are the best
  • 6’6″-9 ft. rods

Reels

Fly Reels

  • 3-6wt size fly reels, anodized needed for saltwater applications

Spinning Reels

  • There are many spinning reels to choose from, generic sizes would range from 1000-4000.

Lines

Fly Lines

  • Full floating or clear intermediate lines to suit the proper weight of your fly rod. See our selection of fly lines.

Spinning Lines

  • Monofilament or fluorocarbon lines in a 8-10lb line are suitable for mainlines. See all of our fishing line.

Leader Material

Fluorocarbon is highly recommended in this fishery. Fluorocarbon will give you an extra advantage if you are dealing with spooky conditions, or any condition for that matter. The nice thing about this type of material is that it is 100% invisible. We recommend:

Cutthroat Flies

There are a never ending amount of different flies to use for these fish, and it will really come down to where you are fishing and what time of year as well.

Typical “go-to” attractor patterns include:

  • Mickey Finns
  • Christmas Trees
  • California Neils
  • Fry Patterns
  • Stickleback Patterns
  • Sculpin Patterns
  • Woolly Buggers
  • Rolled Muddlers

You will sometimes find brighter, more fluorescent colours to be good producers on some days, and then you may find more drab and dull colours to produce more fish on some days. We suggest having a box full of different variations in sizes and colour spectrums.

Lures For Cutthroat

There is nothing too particular for this fishery. A good variation of small spinners and spoons is all you need. Lighter spinners and lighter casting spoons of the silver and brass variety, paired up with a bit of extra brightness are effective, such as:

In Conclusion

Cutthroat are a nomadic predator known for their aggressive nature and spirited fighting abilities. This local fishery can be a lot of fun regardless of your chosen method of angling. If you’d like more information on targeting Cutthroat trout in our local waters give us a call at 604-931-5044 or send us an email at searun2013@gmail.com.

Post your questions in the comments section below!

1 comment

  • by CHARLES K

    Very likely VERY FEW hatchery. I understand the need to protect wild genetic stocks, but with ZERO explanation, provincial Fisheries has told Freshwater Fisheries Society to NOT stock the Fraser or any tributaries with cutthroat other than a very small amount of triploid. Therefore, since 2019 stocking in Lower Mainland tribs of Fraser has gone from roughly 29,000 annually to 2000 triploid in 2020 and 2021. I asked Freshwater Fisheries and they informed me that BC govt biologists in charge have made decision at local level. I wrote to them and they have not even had the courtesy to reply to my repeated emails in over 2 months. I would respect a evidence and scientifically based decision, but my observation is (been fishing cutthroat in Fraser system for 45+ years) that last year a few cutthroat but markedly down from prior years. What has increased greatly in last 2 years, though frankly over past 10 years is pike minnow, peamouth chub, suckers, and carp. When coho fishing (I have exclusively fished flies for past 30 years, though fishing partners have used spin gear) over past 2 years caught almost zero cutthroat whereas prior years usually a few every expedition (both hatchery and wild). Whitefish populations also seem to be down as well. In addition, invasive pumpkinseed, bass and crappie catches are becoming more common. The only really predatory fish that keeps these coarse and invasive fish numbers down is rainbow and cutthroat.

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