Fishing Under the Bridge


While drivers rattle the Purdy bridge in cars and trucks, fly fishers often stand thigh deep in saltwater below at the mouth of the Burley Lagoon, their attention fixed on a far different world.

Who fishes at this crossroads, and why?

According to Blake Merwin, owner of the Harbor Fly Shop in Gig Harbor, the main attraction at Purdy is sea-run cutthroat trout, or “sea-runs” as they are known to fly fishers. Of the 13 subspecies of cutthroat trout scattered across the American West’s watersheds, the local coastal cutthroat is the only subspecies that, like salmon, will leave freshwater to go into the sea. Fishing for them is by catch-and-release only.

Salmon can also be caught at Purdy for at least six months of the year, with king, coho, and chum all possibilities, though they are challenging to find.

At Purdy, “It’s all about the current,” Merwin said. The long sandspit ends at a small channel under the bridge, creating a powerful current when a body of water the size of Burley Lagoon moves through it twice a day. Not only does the current squeeze bait fish, polychaete worms and krill — a trout’s favorite foods — through a small area, it scours the bottom of the channel, exposing the gravel and rocks that fish prefer.

Merwin said a sea-run looks a lot like a rainbow trout. “Sometimes they are really silvery, like a salmon. Sometimes they get colored up, with dark green backs and red fins with brilliant golden edges.” They often show the namesake red slash marks on either side of their throats.

As apex predators accustomed to eating anything they can fit in their mouths, they move around a lot, providing a challenge for fly fishers. On the line they are aggressive fighters, Merwin said, and one of the most fun fish to catch.

Sea-runs spawn in several creeks that drain into Burley Lagoon as well as several just outside it. Elsewhere, most sea-runs migrate 2 to 20 miles from their home streams in search of food, but those near Purdy seem to stick around all year. There is plenty of food. Fly fishers pay close attention to a yearly cycle of small sea creatures. The emergence of chum salmon fry in early spring signals the beginning of trout activity and great spring fishing. Other events include the herring egg hatch, arrival of juvenile anchovies, dispersal of young sculpin, spawn of polychaete worms, and movement of sand lance. Success usually comes with robust “flies” tied to resemble fish or worms.

A handful of regulars fish Purdy religiously. It also draws fly fishers from Olympia to Seattle. It has become a well-known spot in the saltwater fly fishing community, Merwin said, because it is visible and accessible. Unlike in Oregon, where all beaches are publicly owned and freely accessible, beaches in Washington are often privately owned — sometimes to the high tide line, sometimes to mean low tide, sometimes to extreme low tide, sometimes leased to shellfish companies — and it can be challenging to know if you are trespassing.  

It is a legal situation inherited from the state’s earliest days when legislators approved the sale of tidelands to stimulate the shellfish and logging industries and to raise money for schools. While the Public Trust Doctrine guarantees that all navigable waters are public space — in most states, beaches are included — the Washington Supreme Court has never addressed the vagaries where land and water meet. Should the public be able to cross privately owned beaches at low tide if they do no damage? If a fly fisher is standing hip-deep in water on a beach that is private when low tide exposes it, are they trespassing?

Merwin said fly fishing at Purdy hits maximum capacity quickly, as it is a small channel and everything north of the bridge is private property.

Puget Sound’s sea-run cutthroat trout were once known as harvest trout because in larger river systems they return to spawn around the time when pumpkins ripen. In South Puget Sound where big rivers are scarce, sea runs use a myriad of small creeks and spend as little time in them as possible, entering to lay eggs around January and exiting almost immediately. Unlike salmon they can spawn several times in a lifespan.

A single creek might support a breeding population as small as a few dozen fish, making sea-runs particularly vulnerable to overfishing, and 30 years ago they were on their way to extirpation. While conservation attention was lavished on salmon, population after population of trout quietly fell below a sustainable threshold. A task force of fly fishing clubs and Trout Unlimited chapters began to pressure the Department of Fish and Wildlife to change regulations. First the size limit was raised from 8 to 14 inches, then the bag limit decreased from eight to two fish, and finally in 1998 it became illegal to keep any cutthroat caught in saltwater.  

Since then, the population has apparently stabilized though numbers remain low. The Coastal Cutthroat Coalition continues to advocate for the species.

Before the catch-and-release regulation, a 15-inch sea-run was something to brag about. Today a big sea-run is 17 to 19 inches and anything over 20 is trophy-sized. Having no end market, they swim below the radar of tribal and sport fishermen.

According to the Coastal Cutthroat Coalition, while the fish may be living longer and getting larger, they remain highly vulnerable. While salmon spend much of their lives in distant ocean waters, sea-runs stay close to shallow beaches within Puget Sound and take the brunt of the oils, pesticides, fertilizers, plastics and sewage that run into its bays. They are particularly impacted by damage to the small creeks where they spawn such as that caused by overdevelopment.