Article Strategies-techniques To Catch Sea-run Cutthroat With Top Water Sand Lance Patterns

Discussion in 'Fly Fishing Forum' started by Roger Stephens, Mar 14, 2012.

  1. Roger Stephens

    Roger Stephens Active Member

    Dec 19, 2003
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    I have been fishing and developing top water sand lance patterns for over ten years and have finally "dialed in" on how to consistently have excellent success catching sea-run cutthroat particularly large ones(+16-17") with top water sand lance patterns. I am 73 years old and would like to pass on my experiences/observations on how to catch these special fish on top water sand lance patterns. When I am no longer able to fish for sea-run cutthroat it will give me much pleasure to know that I have helped other fly fishers to enjoy the thrill and challenge of catching large sea-run cutthroat on top water sand lance patterns.

    This past Sept./Oct. I caught several dozen sea-run cutthroat on top water sand lance patterns that were as large or larger than the fish shown in the two photographs below. So it is definitely possible to have excellent top water action for large sea-run cutthroat in large part thanks to Les Johnson and his dedication to protect/preserve this exceptional fisheries by being the main force to have catch and release designation for sea-run cutthroat on Puget Sound waters.


    Experienced steelhead fly fishers are able to "read" prime steelhead "holding water"(optimum stream current, water depth, and bottom structure). A sea-run cutthroat fly fisher who is able to "calibrate" their eyes to recognize prime "holding water"(optimum tidal current, water depth, and bottom structure) should be able to have good/excellent success fishing top water sand lance patterns. Also, successful sea-run cutthroat fly fishers are observant and able to adapt their fishing strategy/techniques to the ever changing conditions which are present on Puget Sound.

    During this cold water, it is a good time to do some reminiscing and writing. So below are my thoughts,experiences, and observations on how to approach fly fishing top water sand lance patterns for sea-run cutthroat.

    1. SAND LANCE TOP WATER PATTERNS: It is very important to use long slender profile sand lance patterns similar to a real sand lance. I usually use 3 1/2 to 4 inch length patterns with good/excellent success but lengths from 2 to 3 1/2 inches and 4 to 5 inches also work well. Artic fox tail, finn raccoon zonker fur marabou, and extra select craft fur are excellent materials with the latter two good for longer patterns. The listed material are supple with good movement and will give a slim profile. Use HMH tubing(micro or small) and the right amount of closed cell foam to give proper floation. The latest and most effective top water sand lance which I am presently using often has a hook-up ratio of 60 to 70% for an outing. An important feature of the design of this pattern is that it realistically mimics the action of a sand lance which is fleeing across the water surface. Sea-run cutthroat will usually very aggressively strike this pattern.

    2. USE TUBE PATTERNS: When tube top water sand lance patterns are used, they are much easier on sea-run cutthroat. It is possible to easily leave a sea-run cutthroat in the water and release a fish by sliding the pattern up the leader and use a release tool to remove the hook. With large fish it is usually necessary to use a rubber mesh net and the hook will often fall out when it is netted. Gamakatsu SC-15 hooks or similar ones are best since these hooks can be left in a fish's mouth if it is hooked deeply. Gamakatsu SC-15 hooks(#4 or 6) are small diameter, nickel plated hooks which will rust out quickly. Flies will last much longer since a tube pattern will often slide up the leader when playing a fish and will not be chewed up by the teeth of a fish.

    3. TIME OF YEAR TO USE TOP WATER SAND LANCE PATTERNS: Early May through early/mid-November is the optimum time period to use top water sand lance patterns. Before or after this period sea-run cutthroat are not as interested in top water sand lance patterns since sand lance are not readilly available and the fish are not normally "keyed into" them as a food source during that period. If sea-run cutthroat are at a location from early May to early/mid-November, they will almost always take a swipe at or strike a top water sand lance pattern. From mid-November to mid-February sand lance hibernate by borrowing into sandy bottom shorelines for the winter months. Juvenile sand(1 1/2") become available to sea-run cutthroat in near shoreline areas by early/ mid-April while the adult sand lance(+5") usually are found in deeper water through Summer/Fall.

    4. SKATING VS. POPPING TOP WATER SAND LANCE PATTERNS: Slider sand lance patterns normally have much better hook-up ratios vs. popper sand lance patterns particularly when there is moderate to moderately strong tidal current. Usually the most successful method to fish a top water sand lance pattern is have it skitter/skate along the water surface. It is best to have a top water sand lance pattern make a v-wake across the water surface as much as possible. True popper top water sand lance patterns probably create too much surface commotion which usually results in much lower hook-up ratios.

    5. RETRIEVE: It is important to make adjustments to your retrieve to get the proper v-wake to a top water sand lance pattern. When casting 45 to 90 degrees to the tidal current it may be necessary to make a couple of line mends to keep the pattern from skating too quickly in fast tidal current situations. Also, very short retrieves are often necessary to keep the pattern skating with a proper v-wake. Once the pattern swings down current, long, slow, steady retrieves will usually give the pattern the proper v-wake. In slower tidal current situations using a long(3 to 3 1/2 ft.), steady retrieve will give a top water sand lance pattern the best v-wake. Sometimes it may be necessary to use a very fast retrieve particularly if there is not much tidal current. The key point is to make adjustment to your retrieve until you get the proper v-wake to the pattern. When stripping in the pattern it may be necessary to make several different retrieves when stripping back to you to get the proper v-wake.

    6. WATER SURFACE: When there is no wind and the water surface is flat, a skated top water sand lance patten will work expectionally well. On choppy water surface it is best to retrieve the pattern so that it pops on the water surface since this commotion seems to attract sea-run cutthroat during these conditions. Plus it hard to see the pattern when the water surface is choppy unless it is popped. However, if the water surface is very choppy, I usually don't have as much success with a top water sand lance pattern and I will be more inclined to switch to a surface pattern.

    7. STRIP STRIKE HOOK SET: If a sea-run cutthroat misses a top water sand lance pattern, it will often come back and strike it. A strip strike hook set will keep the pattern in the water so that it can be further retrieved when there is no hook-up.

    8. USE RELEASE TOOL: Using a release tool is much easier on sea-run cutthroat since a fish does not need to be handled, can be left in the water, and the process is very quick.

    9. OPTIMUM TIDAL CURRENT: Moderately fast tidal current(2 to 4 mph. or moderate to fast walking speed) is best for skating a top water sand lance pattern since sea-run cutthroat do not have much of a chance to dilly-dally around when chasing after the pattern under those conditions. The hook-up ratio is often in the 60 to 70% range. Slower tidal current(1 to 2 mph.) is not as good since the fish have an easier time to be able to look the pattern over. The hook-up ratio is a lot lower as the fish will often just swirl after the pattern.

    10. BEST BOTTOM STRUCTURES FOR TOP WATER SAND LANCE PATTERNS: As a general rule it is best to use top water sand lance patterns where the water is shallow with optimum tidal current. The best bottom structures are: (a) gravel bars, (b) shallow shelves, (c) points, (d) standing waves, (e) transition from shallow to deeper water, (f) depressions on gravel bars and shelves, (g) current seams, and (h) boulders, woody debris, or wood cribbing.

    11. WATER DEPTH: Water depths of 6 to 8 ft or less are best. However, water depths up to 12 to 15 ft. can be good/excellent if sand lance are being carried by strong tidal current with sea-run cutthroat chasing after them on the water surface. Under these conditions the sea-run cutthroat will be seen passing by in small groups periodically as the fish chase after sand lance.

    12. SEA-RUN CUTTHOAT MOVEMENT: Some areas sea-run cutthroat will be passing by a location while other locations they will be sitting out of the current or along its edge(ex. down current edge of a gravel bar, edge of a current seam, etc.). You can fish these spots where sea-run cutthroat are holding for 5 minutes or so then move to another location or re-anchor down current when the fish stop striking a top water sand lance pattern. If sea-run cutthroat are passing by an area, you can anchor there for 1/2 hour or so as sea-run cutthroat periodically pass by. If sea-run cutthroat are seen slashing after baitfish from May through November, it is almost a certainty that they are chasing sand lance. Sand lance are very weak swimmers and are easily carried by tidal current.

    13. FLY FISHING JOURNAL: It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is to keep a detailed fly fishing journal when pursuing sea-run cutthroat on the waters of Puget Sound. It is an excellent way to improve your fly fishing success for these fish. For example, I have kept a detailed fly fishing journal for over 20 years and it has proven to be invaluable in helping me to become more successful and understand the sea-run cutthroat fisheries on Puget Sound. I still often reread previous years journal notes to look for trends where sea-run cutthroat can be found at various locations or what part of a tide that they prefer at those locations. I have fished for sea-run cutthroat at well over a few hundred locations. There are several dozen of those locations which have proven to be constantly excellent year after year. The journal has helped me to highlight these "treasured" spots which need to be earned by a fly fisher by putting in the time to "find" them.

    The fly fishing journal has helped me determine the optimum time to fish numerous estuaries and other locations for sea-run cutthroat. These fish have a tendency to prefer location with optimum tidal current, shallow water, and bottom structures which provide refuges from tidal current.

    As a minimum my journal contains: (1) weather(cloudy/sunny, wind/no wind, and air temperature), (2) tide(ebb/flood), (3) start and stop time, (4) listing of each location fished that day which includes: (a) fish present or not present, (b) number and length/weight(estimated) of each fish landed, (c) pattern used to catch each fish, (d) any bird or fish feeding activity, (e) any food sources present, (f) part of tide fished(first hour, second hour, etc.).

    At new locations I add the following: (1) amount of tidal current, (2) shoreline/bottom structure and slope.

    14. FISH MANY LOCATIONS: I usually fish many locations(15 to 18) each fishing trip. Sooner or later I will find spots where sea-run cutthroat are present and aggressive. Sea-run cutthroat will often wise up to a top water sand lance pattern. When that happens I will move to another location unless sea-run cutthroat are passing by chasing after sand lance being carried by tidal current. Some locations sea-run cutthroat are more aggessive while at other locations they may just swirl after a top water sand lance pattern so don't be afraid to move to another location to find willing/aggressive fish. Occassionally there are enough willing sea-run cutthroat at a location that the top water sand lance fishing will be excellent for 20 to 30 minutes.

    Over time the fishing journal has been able to give me a pretty good indication of what are good/excellent locations to fish for sea-run cutthroat during various tidal conditions and time of year. When I leave a boat ramp for a day of fishing, I plan out a route to fish as many of those locations under optimum tidal conditions.

    In conclusion I hope that I have enlightened or given ideas to you fellow sea-run cuthroat fly fishers!


    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 2, 2016
  2. Jay777

    Jay777 New Member

    Nov 14, 2016
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    Excellent article! Thank you for taking the time to impart your knowledge.
  3. Eyejuggler

    Eyejuggler Beech Nut

    Aug 20, 2012
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    Home Page:
    Awesome, thank you Roger! Very concise.

  4. Steve Slater

    Steve Slater Active Member

    Aug 11, 2012
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    Madison, WI & Manchester, WA
    Thank you! This is great information, and I appreciate your desire to pass it on to the rest of us.
  5. jasmillo

    jasmillo Active Member

    Dec 25, 2006
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    Thanks for the read, very interesting. Any chance you could post a pic or two of the top water pattern you tie?
  6. DennisE

    DennisE Topwater and tying.

    Mar 12, 2011
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    Tacoma, Washington