Searun baitfish patterns


New Member
I am trying to learn how to tie the various baitfish imitations for searun cutthroat in the middle to south puget sound. Maybe someone could answer the following question for me. What is the main objective when tying patterns such as herring, sand lance, etc? Is it to imitate movement? Color? Size? Do they even really "imitate" anything, or do they take advantage of light and movement to trigger the aggressive cutthroat? I ask because I see a lot of patterns with heads that don't look anything like what they are imitating (spherical instead of bullet-shaped - like the shape of the head is built around the stick-on eyes). There are various amounts of epoxy used that effect how much of the material moves (all of it to none of it), and many bodies have profiles that seem way too thin when in the water (lots of synthetics). I know they work, I just wonder why.

Can anyone offer a few principles to follow? I don't want to get all bent out of shape over something like the shape of a head if it's not important.

Jim Wallace

Smells like low tide.
Sahd, I fish mainly in estuaries and streams on the south WA coast, but occasionally fish in the Strait near Sequim.
I have had success there on chartreuse and white Clousers, size 6. and they don't really look like any particular species of baitfish. My GUESS is that since Cutthroat usually follow your fly, the side-view profile of the head doesn't matter much. They may see that your baitfish pattern has eyes when they first spot it, and then they chase from behind. Just my opinion, as I don't know what's going on inside a cuttie's nappy little head.

Seems like most of the SRC here on the south coast have moved up out of the estuaries into the streams, as I have only seen a few lately while going after coho. And now it seems like the coho have all moved up, too.



Active Member
Sea-run cutthroat are highly opportunistic feeders; they have a sort of "if it looks alive and it's smaller than me it's lunch" philosophy. I wouldn't get too hung up trying to tie precise imitations of local baitfish. Candlefish (Pacific sand lance), herring, smelt and anchovies all have certain similarities; they are darker on the back with white bellies and silvery sides and almost any baitfish imitation will do. The sand lance does have a longer, more slender, eel-like profile and style of swimming than the others. Sculpins are another favorite food which explains the popularity of the Canadian Rolled Muddler pattern, but almost any sculpin imitation will will do just as well. At various times, forms of zooplankton such as euphausids, amphipods and copepods, are readily avilable and may be preferred to baitfish since they are there in large concentrations and make an easy meal. Since sea-run cutthroat like to hang out in relatively shallow water, getting deep is rarely necessary; unweighted baitfish imitations on an intermediate sink line are usually all that's required.

One of my favorites is still Leland Miyawaki's popper, waked on the surface it apparently imitates a wounded baitfish and draws plenty of strikes. Often it will draw more strikes than solid hookups but at least you'll know that the fish are there and a quick change to a sinking pattern will often be rewarded.
I'd have to 2nd preston on the the beach poppers. Since I started using them several months ago, i rarely use anything else. Sometime its a little frusterating when they grab but don't hook up or turn off at the last second throwing a big bulge of water, but this fly seems to pull fish out of thin air (or water that is), and it o'so exiciting!:) Its a great confidence fly


Active Member
When the cutthroat fail to hook up on Leland's popper the trick can often be turned by quickly switching to a baitfish pattern or an attractor like the Reversed Spider. Admittedly, it's not nearly as much fun as taking them on the surface.
You asked "...What is the main objective when tying patterns such as herring, sand lance, etc? Is it to imitate movement? Color? Size? Do they even really "imitate" anything, or do they take advantage of light and movement to trigger the aggressive cutthroat?"

Gary Borger once offered some thoughts on designing trout flies that are appropriate here. He makes the analogy of the impressionistic painters whose artwork didn’t exactly duplicate the subject on canvass. He suggests the main objective in designing flies is to “capture the essence” of the prey and to “suggest life.” Size, shape, color and behavior all combine to achieve that.

How this translates to tying baitfish patterns for the Sound depends on any number of variables (e.g. prevalence of baitfish, competition among predators, tidal current strength, water clarity etc.) that will dictate whether the successful pattern will be more of an attractor or imitation. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that once a fish realizes the presence of potential prey through one of its senses (e.g. sound, smell, detection of movement etc.), it is sight that will cause the final decision whether or not to attack.

I prefer epoxy baitfish patterns tied as variations of Bob Popovic’s Surf Candy. I don’t get too hung up on exacting details in my patterns, but do concentrate on strong impressionism. After all, if the minute details were that important, we would all be tossing baitfish patterns that include pectoral, dorsal, caudal and anal fins.
Does anyone know if the new Les Johnson cuthroat book is out yet? Josh, are you talking about the new book or the old book? Just curious as I have been highly anticipating this new book.


Active Member
Les' book is supposed to come out after the first of the year.

If you want to see close to exact baitfish imitations, go to You can tie "match the hatch" or you can tie "Van Gogh" flies. Remember that any fish you can reach with a fly cast from shore is actively and aggressively feeding and will come to the fly if it's anything close to what they eat.

Preston - try a Popper Dropper - a small baitfish, krill or other sub-surface fly behind LeLand's of both worlds.

I tie and fish according to the mood I'm in at the moment. Some days it's gotta look perfect and match the hatch exactly, other days it needs to last a season and be bullet proof, or some days it must be what I heard Greg catch a fish on. For me the fun is in the creating and catching a fish on it, then I move onto something new and different- I have boxes full of flies each with a different story. It's quite pleasing.

Thanks. Maybe it's not even Van Gogh but Picasso - this afternoon I caught a fat 15 in. SRC using what amounted to a piece of white foam tied to a hook (on the first cast). I guess I was thinking too much - the key was not the fly (obviously) but the right location on the beach, the wake, and the fast strip after the first bump (at least that's my interpretation). Fun to watch him attack that foam - like a little shark.


Active Member
Been there, done that. It was my first reaction to missing a lot of strikes (18 in a row one morning at Kopachuck). Aside from the fact that I find fishing a dropper at any time, in any form, to be a real pain in the ass, I seem to hook enough fish on the popper alone now to keep me satisfied (hint: a number 4 Gamakatsu Octopus hook makes a big difference).


Active Member
Excellent observation; increasing the speed of the retrieve after the fish makes a pass at it will often trigger the chase response in cutthroat. This is doubly true of coho; you can't retrieve fast enough to take it away from him. Oddly enough I've found that bull trout will frequently slam a popper if it's stopped dead after the first pass, apparently thinking that it's been stunned.
Preston: as long as I have your attention can I impose with another question? I have noticed that when I use a fly with a tail of any real substance (not sparse, especially marabou) I generally get a short tug but no hook-up. Almost all of my hook-ups come with flies that have a sparse tail or no tail. How can I induce a more aggressive, complete strike on a synthetic (i.e., much longer body than hook) baitfish pattern (or woolly bugger, etc.)?


Active Member
Sorry, I can't offer you any insight there. I've never fished a fly that drew consistently short strikes. Do your flies have eyes? There is a common theory that predatory fish strike at the eyes of their prey. This seems to make sense since it would be easier to swallow a baitfish head first, particularly one like a sculpin which has rather stiff and spiny fins. I've noticed that birds (like cormorants and mergansers) take great pains to line up their fish in a headforemost manner before swallowing to insure that they go down smoothly. By the way, I've seen cormorants manage to down some pretty impressive fish. I watched one just offshore at Lincoln Park one morning gulping down what appeared to be a fifteen-plus inch coho. He struggled for a while but finally managed to get it down.