Lake Trout: Alaska’s Tyrant of the Lakes

Alaska Lake Trout


Lake trout are called by many different names in the places where they exist. Probably one of the most common is “mackinaw” a word that is just as symbolic of the great north woods as are the words pike or muskie.  In Canada and the Great Lakes, the strongholds of lake trout in North America, one commonly hears these brutes referred to as lakers, salmon trout, lake char, toulandi, fork tail trout, Great Lakes trout, gray trout, forktail trout, mackinaw trout, togue trout, or salmon trout.  Whew!

In Alaska we call them simply “lakers.” Lakers, whose scientific name is (Salvelinus namaycush) are as native to Alaska as they are to Canada or the northeastern or upper mid-west parts of the U.S. The word, Salvelins puts lake trout squarely in the char family and the namaycush part of their nameis said to derive from a native American word meaning “tyrant of the lakes.”  Massive in size and aggressive in their feeding habits, lakers are every bit the bully and are as likely as pike to feed on other fish, aquatic creatures and small birds or ducks.

Lake trout have a body shape similar to that of trout and salmon. Unlike other char, they generally have small, light-colored, irregular shaped worm-like spots on a silvery-to-dark background; but color can vary considerably at different seasons, in different habitats, and between populations. Males have a slightly longer, more pointed snout than females. The flesh of lake trout varies from creamy white to deep orange and is delicious eating.

The Tyrant in Action

Melissa Norris of Fish Alaska magazine and I were lucky enough to be right smack in the middle of nearly non-stop lake trout action one bright June day in western Alaska. Anchored up just below the “Narrows” where Grosvenor Lake drains into Coville Lake at Katmai Land’s Grosvenor Camp, we fished like maniacs as these brawny torpedoes engaged in an absolutely classic example of laker-frenzy in the spring. 

Flying over the area’s lakes and streams that day, I could see in my mind’s eye the thousands of lake trout that I knew had to be cruising the shores, patrolling the creek outlets, and ambushing most anything that swam during their brief, early-summer time in shallow water. We couldn’t wait to get at them. 

A perfect landing at the camp brought us right to our waiting boat. Quickly attaching the motor and rigging up the rods, we headed straight for the frothing turmoil that was clearly evident right off the bank just beyond a huge set of bleached moose antlers that seem to point the way right to “the” spot. 

Sea gulls and terns crashed into the water all around us dive-bombing the sockeye salmon smolt that were moving down from one lake to the other on their out migration journey to the sea. The lake trout, plus a few Dolly Varden char, accounted for the astonishing piscatorial action that was occurring simultaneously on both the surface of the water as well as beneath it. As we stared down into the water through Polaroid glasses, it was easy to see dozens of huge, schooled-up yellowish bodies darting everywhere after their nearly helpless little victims.

Soon, we had those flaxen sided bodies darting after our flies as well. Tan, yellow and white bunny leeches and articulated bunnies on ten pound test did the trick on lots of seven and eight pound lakers and Dollies, as did orange bead-head woolly buggers and zonkers of various colors. Some of my yellow maribou pike flies were big winners too.

“Wait till you see the nervous water on the surface and then cast right into it,” our guide, Sean Johnson, had recommended. It was easy advice to follow. Most of the time the bait balls of smolt sliding down the current were clearly evident with tiny silvery bodies bursting from the water like popcorn. But, even if they hadn’t been, the kamakazi birds would have given it all away. Pandemonium reigned. From time to time, though, the water would go quiet as the schools of smolt were swept out into Colville Lake behind us and spread out over a less concentrated area than in the narrows. 

“Hook-up,” Melissa called as she struggled with a fat, gold-plated laker. He didn’t even come to the surface after taking her fly but rocketed deep and fast away from the boat. Slowly but surely she coaxed him back within range of the net. But he was having none of that. Next thing she knew her rod tip pointed straight down as he headed under the boat.

“Feels like I’m fishing in saltwater,” she said, struggling to keep her rod from banging against the boat. “This is one hefty fish.” Carefully steering her rod around to the other side, she was finally able to tame him–a 30 inch-plus hog.

After dozens more hook-ups with a variety of flies, attracting these voracious predators began to seem almost too easy. So, we decided to switch to poppers on eight-pound test for some real surface action. Melissa had never fished poppers or cast them, so with a warning that they were more difficult to get distance with than most flies, we showed her the quick little jerk and snap on the surface of the water, which creates the “pop”that gets fish all excited.

Poppers, doing what they were designed to do, must seem to lakers exactly like wriggling, twisting, pulsating little fish doing their stuff because these large-mouthed behemoths slammed them with the same vigor with which they make lunch out of hapless smolt. Seeing that action on the surface is just as fun as watching an eager trout rise to a dry fly, but much more explosive. The bigger the popper, the more volcanic the strike. Sometimes the fish missed, and sometimes we struck just a second to soon or too late, but nevertheless, there’s nothing like popper fishing for rip-roaring fun.

River Fishing for Lakers

We also had some great after dinner fishing in the Kulik River during the two evenings that we spent at Kulik Lodge on this trip. Although we pursued (and caught) many of the rainbows that the river is famous for, we also hooked up a number of lakers that had forsaken their post where the Kulik River dumps into Nonvianuk Lake for a charge right up into the river itself to chase smolt.   

The recommended fly for the river was a flesh colored articulated cone-head bunny fly that had been reported by the guides to be “slaying them.” We thought (mistakenly, as it turned out) that they were just talking about rainbow fishing but were delighted to find that the lakers were loving it to death as well. It was wonderful to wade and cast to them.

A lovely narrow side channel where the river splits just before dumping into the lake turned out to be loaded with fish. At times I could see lakers in water so shallow that I couldn’t believe it. Just as in the lake, they were slamming the pods of smolt that drifted down the river, but they were also actively feeding in the deeper part of the channel.

“Put a split shot on your leader and drift the fly right down the middle of the channel and watch what happens,” I’d called to Melissa. A large laker smacked her fly on her first cast.  These fish weren’t as large as those we’d caught at the narrows earlier in the day, but we had no complaints. Just to have a fish on every second or third cast was satisfying enough.

Spring Feeding and Fall spawning

Spring and fall are the two seasons of the year where lake trout can be found in shallow water.  Emerging from under the ice during break-up, lakers come to the surface from great depths to feed along the shore and creek outlets for crustaceans, insects, and small bait fish before returning to the deep water when summer comes.

As the water cools in late fall, lake trout follow the warmer water and the food that it contains up toward the surface.  And, like all char, fall is also the time when lakers spawn. Typically a solitary fish, lake trout only school up or congregate during spawning season. Males will usually be the first to arrive at the spawning beds, where they are often observed preparing the locations for egg laying. They prefer rocky, cobbled substrate areas on ledges or on the bottom to depths of forty feet. After the females arrive, spawning takes place at night.  Biologists report that most populations of lake trout spawn only every other year.

Lake trout do not become sexually mature until six or seven years of age, and they do not build redds as other fish do.  Instead, the fertilized eggs simply drop to the bottom or scatter among the rocks. The eggs are on their own, surviving in the crevices between the rocks until their yolk sac is absorbed, a process that takes nearly five or six months in their cold-water environment.  Typically in late winter or early spring, the fingerlings move into deeper waters in search of zooplankton and other food.

Fishing Lakers in Mid-Summer

Heading out to fish for lake trout in mid summer is a much different experience than “smolting” in the spring. Now the lakers have gone deep and trolling is the preferred method for taking them. Many lake anglers report that the fish’s propensity to hang off of ledges in various lakes often makes them accessible at less than the 50-100 feet of water that characterizes their typical hot weather haunts.

We set out to test that theory this past summer with a trip to Lake Louise off of the Glenn Highway. With the reputation for harboring lots of big lake trout (a 30-lb 15-oz fish came from there in the early 70’s) and being relatively accessible to the Anchorage area, it was the perfect place for a quick week-end trip in mid-July.

Extremely hot, dry weather had driven the fish even deeper than normal, but we tried thinking positively. We’d arrived in the midst of a wake for a recently deceased local old-timer, but the historic Lake Louise Lodge (where one can easily see the walls of the original lodge that has now been significantly enlarged) made us welcome. We decided to just relax until evening, when, we hoped, the water would be cooler and the fish more cooperative.

The extraordinary light that Alaska’s long July evenings are famous for brought a sheen to the glassy water as we set out that evening. Four mountain ranges were visible from various points around the lake where we trolled (unsuccessfully) with both spinning rods and fly rods rigged with sink-tip lines. Bill & Shirley Uptegraft of Lost Lure Tours, our guides, finally suggested that we head back toward Susitna and Tyone Lakes where some areas had been fishing well. Unfortunately, the action there was just lukewarm.  Several times we hooked up, but they were small fish, and we never really experienced that adrenalin rush that accompanies truly exciting fishing. Opting for an early morning departure the next day, we headed back. Mists were rising on the lake and, nothing stirred.

Absolutely still water greeted us early the next morning and we headed for one of the well-known ledges that had not produced the night before. Things were different now, and we had a fish on almost immediately. The rod bent, Melissa hauled back to set the hook and we were in business.  Fishing one of Bill’s huge green tadpole lures had done the trick. Probably a near 30-inch fish, (we’d forgotten the measuring tape) this one definitely got us interested.

Two more fish almost as large followed in quick succession and it was clear that we were now in laker territory. Trolling at about thirty feet of depth right off the ledge seemed to be the ticket, and I was wishing I’d brought my Teeny 450 line instead of just my 200.  Bill was towing the raft behind the boat in case we wanted to go to shore in it, so Wayne and I decided to take it out and troll with the fly rods right at the ledge. We had a couple of fish on but had trouble keeping them hooked in the squishy rubber raft. Meanwhile, three more nice fish had been brought to the boat, but then it was time to go. We had a long drive back to Anchorage.

More Summer Lakers

If you’re prepared to troll, summer fishing for lakers is good on many of Alaska’s lakes. One that I particularly enjoy is Brooks Lake in Katmai National Park. After my annual guide trips to Katmailand’s Brooks Lodge in June I always stay to fish for awhile. Sometimes it’s for trout, sometimes for pike, and sometimes for lakers.

One particular day we had a chance to take one of the lodge boats out to fish while waiting for the late afternoon plane. Rex, one of the lodge guides took us right to an underwater ledge not too far from the boat launch. While he regaled us with the tale of a huge laker that had been caught there just that morning by an 8-year old girl, we hooked a couple of fish. Nothing like the 8-year old’s fish, he declared, and we kept on fishing. I was glad to hear that it had been a girl who was besting us, however.

In a nearby cove, where the pale green water changed quickly to dark aqua indicating a steep drop off, we scored.

“What do I have?” Sandy asked. “It’s a really dark fish, nothing like the others we’ve been catching.” It had slammed the fat, green lure, drawn the line tight, and maintained a large bend in the rod in spite of Sandy’s best efforts to control him. He never jumped and his runs were more like the steady pull of a tractor than the rambunctious gyrations of a fish.  “I wish I had a heavier rod,” was about all she could say.

We landed the fish after a long contest, amazed at how darkly colored it was. No golden sides or belly on this guy. Even his caudal fins were rusty colored and dark instead of the typical tangerine hue that tints most laker fins.

Lots of other fish came to our different lures and flies that afternoon. One particularly good fly, always for sale at Brooks lodge, is a white-orange concoction of snowy cactus chenille with a zonker-type bunny wing and tail, a hot pink chenille head, and matching rubber legs, known as the Katmai Leech.  I thought it was pretty smolty-looking in the water, but its attraction just might have been that it was just so big and wiggly.

At the opposite end of successful flies was the old salmon stand-by, the starlight leech. In both black and purple, they proved as good at laker-getting that afternoon as they always are at salmon-getting. But, fly fisher that I am, I have to admit that the best fish takers of the afternoon were definitely deeply trolled lures.

Ice Fishing for Lake Trout

Lake Trout, along with northern pike and burbot, are species frequently targeted for winter fishing in the Great Lakes, in Canada, and also in Alaska. Lakers taken from under the ice can weigh up to twenty pounds. Prized for their tasty, pinkish flesh, these large fish are much sought after during the winter. Most ice-fishers that fish where lakers are present find that their day’s catch will almost always include a variety of species including a fat, tasty laker or two. Surprising to many, lakers tend to forage in shallow water under cover of the ice and often are taken in twenty-feet of water or less.

The preferred method for ice fishing for lake trout is by jigging brightly colored lures that are baited with fresh herring, whitefish, or smelt, all particular favorites in the lakers’ diet.  Spoons are the favorite lure and red, orange, fluorescent blue and green with silver or white are recommended colors.

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game sport Fish Division has an excellent pamphlet entitled “Winter Fishing” that is available from the ADF&G office at 1300 College Road Fairbanks, AK 99701.

Laker Hot Spots Around the State

The Richardson Highway in Interior Alaska also provides road access to several lakes that have earned a reputation for good laker fishing. They include Summit, Paxson, and Fielding Lakes. Crosswind, a fly-out lake nearby, is another hot spot. Paxson is well known as the lake from which the Alaska Department of Fish & Game took brood-stock to begin its lake trout stocking program in 1988.

Harding Lake, located about four miles southeast from the confluence of the Salcha and Tanana Rivers, lies about 45 miles south of Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway. Although currently experiencing dropping water levels (and a ban on pike fishing as a result) lake trout fishing continues to be good due to the now naturally reproducing fish that have been stocked there in years past. Monster fish are reported, and a 31 lb 13 oz fish was caught there in 1997.

The Delta Junction Chamber of Commerce web site www.deltachamber.org lists good lake trout fishing on the North Slope of the Brooks Range in Shainin, Chandler, Kurupa, Elusive and Itkillik Lakes, and in Selby-Narvak, Wild, Helpmejack, Chandalar, Swuaw and Walker Lakes on the South Slope.

Of course, in the Bristol Bay area, we must list Grosvner and Kulik Lake, both famous lake trout producers, as well as the daunting but productive Lake Clark, which has given up a 33-lb fish.

In South Central Alaska lakes Louise, Stephan, Susitna and Tyone  are good producers. Both Hidden and Skilak Lake on the Kenai Peninsula have good stocks of lake trout as does Kenai lake. The turbidity of Kenai Lake makes it one of the more difficult to fish, however. Tustemena is another favorite lake on the Peninsula with catches of 20 lbs or more reported.

Clarence Lake, a fly-in lake northeast of Talkeetna in the Talkeetna Mountains, also ranks at the top of many lists, if for no other reason than because the Alaska record lake trout comes from there. That fish weighed 47 pounds and was caught in 1970 by then 12-year old Daniel Thorsness of Anchorage. Although not stocked for the past 8 or 9 years, Clarence still contains a good population of naturally re-producing lakers according to ADF&G. (The world record laker is a 72 pound fish caught in 1995 in Canada’s Northwest Territories’ Great Bear Lake.)

The longest lived of all of North America’s fresh water salmonids, growth rates of lakers vary from place to place depending on diet, water temperature, altitude, and genetics. Alaska lake trout are known to live longer than 40 years but the typical life-span is 20 years. Still, that longevity has earned lakers the nickname, “old man of the lakes.” The maximum size attained in some Alaskan populations probably exceeds 50 pounds, and 8- to 10-pound fish can be taken in many of the state’s fisheries.

Daily bag and possession limits on most Alaska lakes are kept to one or two fish, due to the lake trout’s low growth rates, which result from alternate year spawning, older age at maturity, and occasional scarcity of food in the large, deep, cold lakes that lake trout prefer. Because these same factors make lake trout susceptible to  overharvest by commercial and recreational fisheries, typically, just one or perhaps two fish per day can be retained. Occasionally a 24-inch slot limit is in effect, with release required of all fish below that size. It’s always wise to check ADF&G regs when fishing a specific spot for lakers.

Promise Yourself Some Spring Fishing

Lake trout are definitely not the most actively pursued of Alaska’s sport fish. In fact, they are pretty much ignored in many areas of the state. Especially in the spring, before the salmon arrive, and when many areas are closed to protect spawning rainbows, lake trout can provide some heart-stopping excitement for anglers anxious to get out on the water, however.

So, promise yourself that this spring you’re going to hitch up the boat, inflate the float tube, or load the canoe on the top of the car and head out for a spring camping and fishing week-end to re-introduce yourself to this great sport fish.  You just might get hooked all over again on a fish that you’ve been neglecting, “the old man of the lakes.”

 

Some Interesting Facts about Lake Trout

  • For more than half a century, lake trout comprised the most valuable commercial fishery in the Upper Great Lakes. Then overfishing and the onslaught of the sea lamprey from the late 1930s and into the 1950s effectively eliminated this fish from most of the lakes. With control of the lamprey, laker population levels are now rebounding well.
  • An unusual form of lake trout, called the cisowet, occurs in the deep waters of Michigan’s Lake Superior. This “fat trout” spawns at depths greater than 300 feet and is edible only when smoked. In Lake Superior individuals exist that cover the entire spectrum from this odd species to the familiar form of lake trout.
  • Lake trout are known to hybridize with brook trout where the range of the two species overlap. Hatcheries have successfully hybridized them by fertilizing lake trout eggs with brook trout sperm. The resulting hybrid is called the “splake.” Splake released in the Great Lakes and recaptured 5 or 6 years later have weighed up to 16 pounds.

(Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Fish Alaska magazine)

Starting Out in Fly Fishing

Starting out fly fishing

Did you know that probably 75-80% of people who take up fly fishing started out as folks who fished with conventional gear? Switching over to fly fishing means switching some gears. There’s lot to learn and some new skills to master, not to mention the equipment that you have to understand and acquire.  We’re going to go over some of that information for you, focusing on the wading angler.

What’s involved in starting to fly fish fits into two different categories, 1.) What you need to know to fish with a fly rod, and, 2.) What you need to have to fish with a fly rod; in other words, knowledge & skill, as well as gear and equipment.  

What you need to know

Keep in mind that you certainly won’t know everything you need to know about fly fishing within the first few months after you start fishing with a fly rod.  Don’t worry, your casts don’t have to be perfect for you to catch fish. Besides, that there’s always something new to learn in fly fishing. Nevertheless, you do need the following fundamental information. 

 Starting to fly fish requires that you have rudimentary knowledge of:

  • the basic differences between different fly rods, fly reels, and fly lines;
  • how to rig up the fly rod with the correct line and leader for different kinds of fish and for different fishing locations such as lakes or rivers;
  • how to cast a fly rod and how to cast both lighter rods for smaller fish and heavier rods for bigger fish, depending on the species of fish you’re after;
  • the four different types of flies, and how to select the right fly for the fish you’re after and the type of water you are fishing;
  • how to put that fly in the right place on the water and make it drift or move in the right way to interest your target fish;
  • how to set the hook and play a large or small fish on a fly rod (because it’s different from either a spinning rod or a bait/casting rod); and
  • how to release a fish correctly.

What you need to have

Just as your knowledge of fly fishing grows over time so, probably, will the amount of your fly fishing gear. Most people find that until they decide they want to fly fish for king salmon or saltwater fish they can do just fine with one or two fly rods.

Starting to fly fish requires that you have

  • someone who knows what they’re doing to teach you the basics;
  • a valid fishing license and/or other permits where required;
  • a fly rod, a fly reel, and a fly line that enable you to catch the fish you’re after;
  • various flies that are known to be successful with the type of fish that you’re targeting and a box to put them in;
  • neoprene or breathable chest-high waders, wading boots (not with felt soles as of 1/1/12), a wading belt, and a good rain coat to help you move around in the water and keep you dry, plus good wool socks to keep your feet warm;
  • Polarized sun glasses, made specifically for fishing (I recommend Habervision glasses http://www.habervision.com/sunglasses/fishing.aspx in the copper-rose tint.) They protect your eyes and help you to see fish in the water. A baseball hat with a good brim and a warm, fleece or wool hat and gloves to put on when the weather turns nasty are other necessities;
  • A collapsible wading stick for safety and mobility in moving water. Some list this as optional equipment, but I believe it is absolutely essential, especially since felt-soled boots will soon be outlawed. (Folstaf is the best collapsible staff on the market. Be sure to order/buy the ¾ diameter staff combined with the best length for your height for Alaska waters. Go to http://www.flytyerscarryall.com/index.htm and see the video. )  Once you drown, it will be a little late to say that you wish you had one.
  • A fishing vest or gear-pack in which you can carry your fly boxes, water bottle, extra leader, gloves, map, compass, flashlight, whistle, etc..

What do you need to know to fish with a fly rod?

Now that you’ve got the outline, let’s return to the aspects of what you need to know when starting to fly fish and discuss each part in a bit more depth.

1.    Fly Rods, Fly Lines, and Fly Reels The basic differences between one fly rod and another boils down to the combination of three things, its weight, its length, and its flex or action. The weight of the rod is determined by the diameter and strength of the fly line it will cast. We match the rod weight with the weight & size of the fish that you aim to catch. Lower weight rods (3-wt, 4-wt, 5-wt 6-wt) cast smaller & lighter lines and generally catch smaller fish such as trout, bass, grayling, bluegill, etc. Rod weights 7-wt, 8-wt and 9-wt are the larger rods and lines that can catch larger fish such as steelhead, pike, redfish, stripers, salmon (except for kings), etc. When it comes to fishing for king salmon, and saltwater fish, then the rod weight needs to be  10-wt or higher. The larger the fish the larger the line-weight of the rod needed to fish for it.

Fly rods come in different lengths just as they come in different weights. Shorter rods are typically used to fish in small, brushy streams. If you’re going to be fishing such a place, and fishing for larger fish, you’ll need a rod that is probably 7 ½ feet to 8 ½ feet long, that casts a  #7 or even a #8-wt line. For smaller fish, it will be a #5 or #6 line. For most other fly fishing, a 9-ft long rod is preferred because the length helps to make longer casts. So you should be buying a 9-ft 8-wt rod if you’re going to fish for salmon or steelhead. But, you’ll buy a 9-ft 5 or 6-wt rod to fish for trout or grayling.

Flex, or action, is the third important factor in a rod. That simply describes how the rod will bend when it has a fish on. A rod that will be fighting larger fish has to have plenty of stiffness in the butt of the rod to land such a fish, while a rod that is used for trout requires less stiffness in the butt. A rod that combines a stiff butt section with a more delicate tip so that the rod casts easily is usually referred to as a medium-fast action rod. Rods used for smaller fish are generally referred to as medium action or medium flex rods as they have less stiffness in the butt. Put simply, if a rod bends more than one-fourth to one-third of the way down from the tip, it will have a difficult time landing large fish.

Fly Lines  As you can see from the above discussion, fly rods and fly lines need to be matched up for the whole rig to cast properly eg. 7-wt rod = #7 line. Most people buy a weight-forward floating fly line to start with since it is the type of line that you will use on most rivers and streams. If you fish large, deep rivers, or lakes, then you will probably need a sinking-tip fly line. The store will help you select the best one for where you will be fishing.

Fly reels  must also match-up with the rod and the line because they have to be the correct size to hold the line that the rod is casting. They also must be a certain size in order to balance the rod when you are casting. Reel manufacturers tell you on the box which size of rod & line that particular reel works best with. Less expensive reels usually have less drag (the function of the reel that helps slow down the revolutions of the spool when you have a fish on). So, since we have large, feisty fish in Alaska, I recommend buying a reel with a good drag. The salesperson at the store will demonstrate the strength and power of different reels for you. I also recommend that you buy a reel that has what is called an “exposed rim.” Those are reels designed to enable you to put pressure underneath the spool to help slow it down to keep your fish under control. Be absolutely sure that you know how to take the spool on and off the reel-base before leavingt he store. O.K. that’s your basic set-up. Now, let’s get to rigging up.

2.    Rigging the fly rod and reel When you buy your rod, reel, and fly line, the store will put the line on the reel for you. All you need to do is decide whether you want to wind it with your left or your right hand. If you don’t know at first, the store will set you up with a left-hand wind, which can be switched over to right-hand later, if you change your mind. (Be sure to buy a reel that can be used with either hand so you can do this.)

Now, you’re going to need to have a length of monofilament on the end of your fly line to tie your fly to. That’s called your “leader.” Leaders come pre-made, or you can learn to tie your own. Unless you are taking a class that teaches you how to tie leaders, you’ll have to buy them. The store (or your instructor) will explain what length and strength of leader (pound-test) you will need for different sizes of fish and different fishing situations. They  will show you how to attach the leader to the little loop pre-made on the end of your fly line. You can use the knot that you always use to tie on a lure to also tie on a fly. If you don’t know any knot like that, then have the store or your instructor show you one.

3.    Casting the fly rod is the heart and soul of fly fishing.  In fly fishing the caster needs to get the line out on the water because there is no heavy metal lure or chunk of bait on the end of the line to pull it out.  A novice fly angler needs to know three basic casts to get on the water. The beautiful, back and forth cast so familiar to everyone who has seen “A River Runs Through It” is called the basic, overhead cast. There, the caster learns to grip the rod with the thumb up on the handle and then to move the rod back and forth between two distinct stopping places (one at the end of the brim on a baseball cap, and the other behind the caster’s ear) with a certain rhythm in order to help the tip of the rod fling the line out. (Some people refer to it as moving the rod tip back & forth between 11:00 and 1:00 o’clock to make the cast.) It’s the cast most-used in fly fishing.

The other two basic casts are the roll cast and the side-arm cast. Roll casting is done where there is no room for a back cast or where some obstruction behind the caster prevents the line from going out in the back. When roll casting, the caster lays twelve or fifteen feet of line on the water and then slowly pulls their thumb and the rod up to his shoulder and tips the rod slightly out to the side. After a brief pause to let the line settle, the thumb and the rod are poked about six inches straight up, followed quickly by a flick of the wrist. That enables the rod tip to send line out in the front and escape the perils of a back-cast.

The side arm cast is used when the cast must be made into the wind or underneath a branch or other obstruction. It simply involves doing the basic overhead cast turned on its side. Instead of the stops of the rod being made beside the caster’s head, they are made perpendicular to the ground. The caster is looking down at the flat face of the fly reel as the rod moves back and forth.

4.    Selecting the fly  The flies for fly fishing fall into four different categories and selecting the right one for where you are fishing means selecting from these categories.

Four Categories of Flies for Fly Fishing

Categories of FliesWhere fly is typically usedType/species of fish these flies are used for
Dry flies – small (usually) wispy bits of fur & feathers that imitate bugs floating on the surface of the water. Fish’s favorite bugs are caddis flies, mayflies, and stoneflies

 

Used in moving fresh water where fish would be feeding on insects.  Only caddis flies and mayflies are found in still water.All types of trout, all types of pan fish and warm water fish, char, grayling, steelhead, pike in various sizes
Nymphs –small flies that imitate immature bugs and other small creatures living beneath the surface of the water—also known as “wet flies.”

 

Used in both moving and still fresh water where fish would be feeding on insects under the surface of the waterAll types of trout, all types of pan fish and warm water fish, char, grayling, steelhead, pike
Streamers – larger flies (also referred to as “attractors”) that imitate things like leeches and small bait fish, living under the surface of the water—also known as “wet flies.”

 

Used in both moving and still fresh water where fish are feeding under the surface of the water. Also used in salt water in larger sizes and/or for larger fishAll types of trout, all types of pan fish and warm water fish, char, steelhead, and grayling in various sizes. Also used for pike and musky in fresh water in larger sizes and for most saltwater species usually also in larger sizes
Salmon flesh & egg imitation flies – flies that imitate chunks of rotting salmon flesh and salmon eggs under the surface of the water Used mostly in moving fresh water where salmon are present. Sometimes used in still fresh water.All types of trout, char, grayling, whitefish, steelhead

Now, here are the names of three of the most commonly used flies in each category and the typical size or sizes and color(s) to buy. (Just so you know, flies are sized according to the following formula: “the larger the number, the smaller the hook.” A #8 fly is larger than a #12 fly.

Most Commonly Used Flies

CategoriesNamesSizes & color(s)
 Dry fliesElk-hair caddis

Parachute Adams

Royal Wulff

12-14   tan -olive

   “        gray

   “        standard

NymphsGold-ribbed hare’s ear

Pheasant tail

Prince Nymph

12-16    tan or olive

   “        standard

   “        standard

StreamersWoolly Bugger

Muddler Minnow

Egg-Sucking Leech

2-10      black, olive, brown,

             purple   

2-10      standard gold or silver

2-6        purple/ hot pink

             black/orange

Salmon fleshGinger bunny

Bunny fly

Egg-sucking bunny

2-8        ginger

2-8        grayish/off-white

2-8        ginger or off- white with

             pink or orange egg

Egg-imitationGlo-bug

Iliamna pinkie

plastic bead

6-10      salmon-pink/pale orange

8-10      salmon pink/pale orange

6-8        various colors to match

              naturals

5.    Presenting and drifting the fly -How the angler presents the fly to the fish and then controls the action of fly once it is in/on the water are the two most important aspects of catching fish. The fly must land just up-river of a spot where the angler actually sees a fish or expects fish to be. That skill involves learning where different types of fish hold. Trout, for instance prefer well-oxygenated water along the edges of currents, and salmon are typically in slower water near the banks. Bass and other warm water fish like slow water with lots of cover.

Dry flies must light gently on the water, much as a real bug would, and then drift down with the current “drag-free”. That means that the angler must not just slap the line and fly on the water, and that both the line and leader must land and drift behind the fly for it to look natural to the fish. Nymphs must be fished along the bottom of the river, where the bugs live, and the line and leader must not just drag the fly along but rather help it to bounce and tumble along naturally. Streamers are usually cast a little downstream and across the river from the angler. Then they are moved either across the current or along the bottom and made to act like a small bait fish or a swimming leech.

6. Playing and landing a fish are, of course, the highlight of the fly fishing experience. Setting the hook with a fly rod involves tightening your fingers over the line and the rod handle and lifting the rod tip quickly. Then, rather than just dragging the fish in, the angler eases up a bit on the tight line to let the fish “play” while slowly bring it closer and closer. The most important difference in playing a fish on a fly rod is that the angler must not hold tightly to the wind-knob on the reel but must learn to only wind when the fish is not pulling.

7.    Releasing a fish correctly involves holding it gently in the water with its nose turned into the current until is re-gains enough strength to thrust itself out of your hand. Do not move the fish back and forth. Remember, it’s the fish that decides when it is ready & able to swim away, not the angler.  (See my article on catch & release in the October, 2008 issue of Fish Alaska Magazine.) 

What do you need to have? A couple more tips

As part of the discussion of what you need to know to fish with a fly rod, we’ve pretty much covered the fly rod, reel & line and the basic flies that you must understand and acquire. So, now let’s quickly add a few words to the discussion of the gear you need to have.

Buying your fishing license each year until you qualify for the State of Alaska Lifetime license for senior citizens is a must, and finding someone who knows what they are doing to teach you how to fly fish isn’t really hard.

The Alaska Fly Fishers club in Anchorage offers an inexpensive beginner’s seminar each spring right after the Great Alaska Sportsman Show in April. You can get the exact dates at www.akflyfishers.org. It includes equipment, casting, knot tying, and finding places to fish along with a great introductory book produced by the club. 

The fly fishing shops in Anchorage and around the state can also be a good place to locate beginning fly casting lessons, and several guides advertise that they include some instruction in their guided fishing days.

The well-known Kenai River Fishing Academy also does one of its two annual sessions on fly fishing. www.kenaifishingacademy.org

 The remainder of the items to have that are listed above are pretty self-explanatory. Now then, with a good book (try my “River Girls: Fly Fishing for Young Women”) or two, you should be on your way to becoming a reel “flyfisher.” 

 

(Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Fish Alaska magazine

Switzerland of the North: Lake Clark & Lake Clark National Park

fishing in lake clark alaska

“The movie today will be Lake Clark Pass,” Glen Alsworth or Glen Jr. announce as you board your Lake Cark Air flight at Anchorage’s Merrill Field heading for Lake Clark National Park. It’s a great trip. Along the way everyone sits absolutely enchanted by the views of Mt. Redoubt and Iliamna, the Park’s two volcanoes, both over 10,000 feet tall. And then, suddenly, there it is, right out in front of Lake Clark Air’s Piper Navajo, the entrance to the splendid and notorious Lake Clark Pass.

Miles and miles of bluish glaciers, glacial rivers, ice fields, waterfalls, jagged mountain peaks, and sheer rock walls absolutely dwarf the plane. Too magnificent for mere words, they all seem almost touchable as you navigate through this narrow, twisty, and extraordinarily scenic corridor toward the majesty of Lake Clark and its surrounding National Park. It’s not called the “Switzerland of Alaska” for nothing!

Even though I’ve flown through it many times, I still find my heart pounding and my nerves somewhat on edge every time we approach the entrance to this intimidating legend of small plane air transport in Alaska. Some years the weather is simply too bad for planes to traverse the Pass, and we fly over it instead. I am always terribly disappointed when that happens.

Port Alsworth

The tiny settlement of Port Alsworth, (population about 120) tucked into Hardenberg Bay, right on the shores of the lake, is our destination. Tanalian Point, just below the end of the runway, was utilized for generations by Native Alaska people practicing their subsistence lifestyle and was a bustling hub for trappers, prospectors, and travelers during the first 50 years of the 20th century. Settled by Babe Alsworth, a legendary bush pilot in Alaska who founded Lake Clark Air and The Farm lodge, the budding community took his name and got its first post office in 1950. It seems to consist mostly of two airstrips, one of which is owned by the National Park Service, lots of summer homes, a number of local Alaska Native families, a few other fishing lodges, and the Park Headquarters. The airplane fuel dock is the busiest place in town.

The Farm Lodge is the headquarters for our trip. The fishing commences just as soon as we get assigned to our cabins, dump the bags, don the waders, rig the rods, grab the sack lunches that are waiting for us, and take off for the river nearby. The mouth of the clear water Tanalian River is about a mile hike from the lodge, and the grayling are waiting for us there. Our first afternoon is always spent connecting with them, one after the other with nymphs or dry flies. Like grayling everywhere, they hit #12 elk-hair caddis with abandon. Occasionally, if our timing is good, we can also entice them with various smolt patterns farther out in the lake. By the time we head back to the lodge for one of their absolutely scrumptious dinners, everyone is ready for more adventure.

Lake Fishing Possibilities-grayling, lake trout, and pike

The lake is an absolute paradise just waiting to be explored, and we always spend a day having the lodge’s boat take us to some of the small tributaries that always hold grayling. Depending on the water levels and temperature, we often also encounter lake trout patrolling the creek mouths looking for salmon smolt or a tasty grayling for their taking.

One very special place on Lake Clark is a shallow, weedy back bay that holds a treasure-trove of pike anxious to attack our large black, brown, yellow or white bunny streamers. One trip, three of the gals had three pike on the line over and over again all afternoon. The “triples” were keeping me and Jeff, our boat driver, busy with pictures, releases, and leader repair.

Although many people rig their pike flies with wire leaders, I prefer to attach a two-foot “bite tippet” of 40lb test monofilament to a twelve or fifteen pound leader. It seems to me that pike are less wary of that set up than they are of the wire leaders. The monofilament tippet gives the fly a more natural action when stripped through the water. I tell the group that it is important to check their tippet after every fish to see if the pike teeth have frayed it, and, if so, we either cut off the frayed portion, or replace the entire bite tippet.

On one trip, Leigh had initially not been setting her hook hard enough, and several of her fish had quickly done a long-distance-release. “I’m getting practice feeling them take the fly,” she reported as she worked away. “I’m afraid to lose a lot of flies while I’m practicing,” she wailed, and I told her not to worry. We had plenty of flies.

Suddenly, she was calling for help, as her 8-wt bent nearly double with the weight of a huge pike. “He’s going to break my rod,” she yelled. And, he almost did, because she was palming her reel so hard that he couldn’t run. “Ease up on the palming to let him play,” I told her. Luckily, she was able to do it just in time.

Once he could run, the fish took advantage of it and headed for the middle of the bay like a runaway freight train. Then the real work began. Pump and reel, pump and reel, and pump and reel finally brought him in. He was every bit the monster that we guessed he was. Nearly forty-inches in length, he had a massive head and teeth to match. Definitely, the catch of the day.

More Grayling

Another of our destinations on the trip is typically the breathtaking Tanalian Falls. About a two and one-half mile hike from Port Alsworth provides sweeping views of the lake and it surrounding mountains. The roar of the falls becomes noticeable when we are about three-fourths of the way along. Shortly afterwards, the trail turns suddenly into the trees, and ends on a fairly steep, narrow incline down to the river. Using our wading sticks as hiking sticks always makes the trip a lot easier. A hike to the overlook for the falls lets everyone can get a look at the maelstrom from that viewpoint. It’s pretty awesome.

Once down to the water we usually can see rising grayling all along the edge of the seething and frothy current that is boiling down out of the rocky plunge pool below a thirty- foot lava cliff. The mist feels like a soft rain, and we have to almost holler to hear each other. If we’re lucky the big stone flies are hatching and the fish are after large, black nymphs and the adult flies that are well imitated by size 8 stimulators. Like stones everywhere, they are maddeningly unpredictable.

“How come the fish have stopped biting?” Ella asked one afternoon as the fish had absolutely turned off. I told her that I thought that it was because the large stoneflies that had been flying around our heads just a half-an-hour earlier had suddenly disappeared. “The hatch is over right now,” I said, “So it might be smart to switch to nymphs for a while.” They shortened their leaders and tied on small, bead-head prince or hare’s ear nymphs accompanied by a tiny split-shot about a foot above the fly and went right back to work.

The fishing here can be challenging because of the rocky bottom of the river at that point and the possibility of losing your footing while playing a fish. It’s usually wise to back up into very shallow water to release fish, and we help each other with releases when necessary. If the water is high, as it was this year, the fishable area can be very narrow and slippery. I often hold on to a person’s wading belt as they cast.

Often we stop by to visit the Park Service headquarters building on our way back to the lodge. Everyone loves to see the reproduction of the sailing boats that commercially fished for salmon in the early days of Bristol Bay, and we all have to have a turn trying on the bear-gloves that everyone wants to buy, but which are not for sale. A relief map of the area is another one of the highlights of the tiny building. I could stay entranced with that for hours, but, of course, I don’t want to miss dinner. The food at the lodge is just too incredible!

Fly Out Possibilities-sockeye

Women fishing in AlaskaThe fly-out fishing possibilities in the Park are almost endless. On the fly-out day that our trip includes, the group nearly always votes to have it be a day to go sockeye fishing. This gives us the opportunity to fly out over Lake Iliamna and the village of Egegik, Alaska¸ to the world-famous Kvichak River that hosts one of Alaska’s most prolific run of sockeye (red) salmon.

“Is this the way you do it?” asked Carolyn as she flipped her fly upstream into the slower current right beside the river bank right in a spot I’d shown her, made a quick upstream mend, and began to follow the line with her rod tip. She had hardly gotten the words out of her mouth before her line came tight and a glistening sockeye with a hot pink fish candy fly in its jaw leapt out of the water and splashed back down right in front of her. “Yep,” I said, “That’s the way you do it.”

“I didn’t even feel him take the fly,” she reported while managing his repeated runs. “Sockeye seldom grab,” I told her. “Be sure to keep your eye on your line to help get some indication that a fish has the fly in its mouth. If your line hesitates or stops, set the hook, immediately.”

She kept that fish to take home, and Jeff promised her that the lodge would fillet, vacuum seal, and freeze it for her to do just that. She headed right back to the water and joined the others in getting a limit of fish in one of the lodge’s favorite spots on the river.

When the salmon run is strong, everyone limits-out, usually before noon. So, after eating our lunch on the beach right beside the plane, we take off and head for one of the other lakes in the area. It’s a great chance to do some flight-seeing in this magnificent region. Kontrashibuna or Kijik Lakes are two of our favorites for the afternoon’s fishing.

Kijik Lake is a National Historic Landmark and an Archeological District, one of only three areas in Alaska with both designations. Kijik is also a documented cultural landscape. Its waters support runs of sockeye salmon, traditionally harvested by Alaska Native people in the region, and wonderful Arctic grayling fishing. Two small tributaries to the lake, just a couple hundred feet apart, always make for fun fishing right off the bank.

It was here that my photographer friend, Mike DeYoung, and I did some great photographing for new my book, “Fly Fishing for Alaska’s Arctic Grayling: Sailfish of the North.” We couldn’t miss. The reflection of the mountains, the water displaying several shades of green, and the orange, yellow, and gray rocks and gravel on the bottom of the nearly invisible, cellophane-clear river made for some awesome images.

The entire area is one fantastic photo opportunity after the other. Turquoise lake

is a particularly scenic lake nearby on everyone’s must-see list, but one where the weather had other ideas for Mike and I. Many visitors come to the park just to visit Dick Proenneke’s cabin at Twin Lakes, immortalized in both print (“One Man’s Wilderness”) and film, “Alone in the Wilderness.” Hikers come from all over the world to see Telequana Lake and to tackle the famous Telequana Trail, an historic Dena’ina Athabascan route from Telequana Lake to Kijik Village on Lake Clark. The Park Service’s web site says,” Continuously inhabited since early prehistoric times, the Lake Clark region nevertheless remains sparsely populated by humans.” It is just that characteristic that seems to draw us there.

We always schedule a very late afternoon flight back to Anchorage from this trip so that we can keep our flies in the water just as long as humanly possible. There’s so much to explore in Lake Clark, and never enough time to do it. It is, what one writer called, “the most under-appreciated of all the National Parks in Alaska.” WelI, I certainly can say that I appreciate it, and that I’m always ready to go back.

(Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Fish Alaska magazine

Getting Down There Tying Flies with Beads, Cones and Eyeballs

Tying Flies with Beads, Cones and Eyeballs

One of the newest trends in fly tying is the use of beads, cones, and eyeballs to add enough weight to the fly to reduce or eliminate the need for split shot on the leader. For many years most of us have encouraged our flies to sink by wrapping soft lead of various weights around the shank of the hook before constructing the pattern. Together with that trick, we’ve now learned the value of adding additional weight to the front end of the fly by making a bright and shiny add-on an integral part of the finished product.

Beads, cones and eyeballs can all be used to achieve additional weight while at the same time giving our flies a very realistic look and differing sink rates. Beads and cones slide right onto the hook, while eyeballs are tied on top of the hook. For that reason, I’m going to discuss then separately.

Beads & Cones

Beads or cones can be gold, silver, brass, tungsten, plastic, glass, aluminum, or baked-on enamel, sized to fit different hooks. All of them come with holes drilled into them so that they slide onto the hook. To prepare the hook, however, the barb must be flattened to make insert easier.

There are two major considerations when using beads or cones. First, the holes must be drilled specifically for fly tying so that the bead or cone slides easily around the bend of the hook. It’s important for tiers that are just starting out with beads to understand which way the bead or cone fits onto the hook. A close look at the bead will reveal that one of the holes in it is smaller than the other. Typically the point of the hook will be inserted into the smaller of the two holes. Inserting the hook-point into the larger hole will result in the bead or cone sliding down over the hook-eye when it is shoved forward.

The second consideration with using beads has to do with different types or sizes of wire, and different hook-eyes. The smart fly tier takes the hook she or he wants to use for the fly into the store with them when they buy the beads or cones. That way they can try out different sizes of beads or cones to make sure that the ones they buy will slide around the bend of the hook they plan to use for the fly. Remember, when using an up-eye or bend-back hook, the hole in the bead will also have to be wide enough to slide over the double wire just before the hook-eye. Many up-eye or bend-back hooks now have tapered wire next to the eye to help facilitate the use of beads and cones. One brand that I like is made by Daiichi.

Beads and cones are of variable weight, so it’s important to consider how much weight you want to add to the fly before selecting one or the other. Generally, the plastic and brass beads and cones provide a nice “look” to the fly, but weigh very little. These add-ons will provide a slow sink-rate for the fly. Lead or tungsten cones and beads provide much more weight for a faster sink.

Tying with Beads and Cones

Here’s a few general tips to help you get started. Always be sure to place the bead or cone on the hook, and then begin to tie the fly. If you’re also going to wrap lead on the hook shank, be sure to put the bead or cone on first. Often, the bead or cone slides around up at the hook-eye while the tier works. If this becomes a problem, just position the hook in the vice with a bit of a down angle to make the bead or cone stay up against the eye.

As the fly is tied, work the body material up into the space under the cone or eyeball as far as possible to help fill up the gap that will exist there and help stop the cone or bead from sliding around. Generally, cones present more of this problem than beads do. Depending on the design of the fly, consider finishing the fly by adding a hackle collar or a maribou wing to help disguise the “gap” that appears between the finished fly and the edges of the cone or bead. Instructions for adding a hackle collar are included with the pattern for the Starlight Leech below.

A Cone-Head Woolly Bugger

Hook: Daiichi #2441 #2 or #1

Tail: Maribou feather (white, black, brown, purple, white, olive, etc.)

Crystal Flash: a few strands of pearl or multi-color Flashabou;

Hackle: Webby white saddle hackle feather

Body: White Chenille

Wing: A few strands of pearl or multi-color Flashabou or a tuft of maribou (optional)

  • Insert the point of the hook into the cone and shove the cone up against the hook-eye. Lead the hook (optional);
  • Select a fluffy white maribou feather and tie it in behind the lead to form a tail that is no longer than the shank of the hook;
  • Tie in the Flashabou at the tail;
  • Prepare a webby, white saddle hackle feather by stroking down a few of the fibers on the tip of the feather and then tying it in by the tip right in front of the maribou tail with the right side of the feather facing the tier (The right side of the feather is the side where the spine of the feather is least prominent. )
  • Tie in the white chenille and move the thread up to the front of the hook;
  • Wrap the chenille up to the front of the hook and tie off right behind the cone;
  • Palmer the saddle hackle up to the front of the hook and tie off right behind the cone being careful not to let it twist as you wrap;
  • Add the wing of Flashabou or maribou if you wish.

Eyeballs

Eyeballs may be bead-chain, lead, tungsten, plastic or aluminum to add both weight and visual simulation to the fly. There are, of course, also paste-on eyes that are used primarily in salt-water fly tying, but we’ll leave that discussion for another time. Besides providing more weight, many tiers also believe that eyeballs also add more realism to the fly and prefer to use them for that reason.

The original eyeballs that most tiers learned to use were the bead-chain variety. While they did indeed add lifelikeness to various patterns, they provided minimal weight. More recently, the lead eyes of different styles have become available to give more weight to the fly. Lead eyes have another advantage in that they are made with a greater distance between the two eyeballs providing extra space that enables the tier to add a chenille egg-head to the fly with those kinds of eyes. (See below.) With the wide variety of eyeballs now on the market, the tier can select one or the other based on both the amount of weight and the “look” that he or she wants on the finished fly.

Tying with Eyeballs

Beads and cones just slide onto the hook. But, because they are placed on top of the hook, eyeballs must be tied on.  Many people report that they can never get their eyeballs tied on securely and say that the eyeballs always seems to rotate around the hook. So, here are some tips to help you master this essential skill.

  1. Use eyeballs that are in proportion to the hook.
  2. Be aware that the heavier and larger the eyeballs are, the longer it will take to tie them in securely.
  3. Tie on the eyeballs before tying any other part of the fly so that you can position them just where you want them instead of trying to leave the right amount of space and tie them in later as you finish the fly.

Now, here are the instructions for tying on eyeballs:

  • Lay down a thread base for the eyeballs up close to the hook-eye and position them on the hook. (If using an up-eye or bend-back hook, lay the thread base on top of the double wire.)
  • Holding the eyeball which is farthest away from you as it lays on the hook shank in the fingernails of your non-dominant thumb & index finger, make ten or twelve thread wraps only over the eyeball that is closest to you and under the hook, binding down that eyeball.
  • Then, hold the eyeball closest to you in the fingernails of your non-dominant thumb & index finger and wrap thread over the eyeball farthest away from you and under the hook ten or twelve times to get it bound down as well.
  • Once the eyeballs are set, begin to make figure-eight wraps over one eyeball and back under the hook and then over the other eyeball and back under the hook.
  • Make about fifteen or twenty figure-eight wraps. Then make several wraps over each individual eyeball again.
  • Now make six or eight wraps in front of the pair of eyeballs and six or eight wraps in back of the pair of eyeballs. (This helps take care of the eyeballs’ tendency to move back and forth sideways as well as around the hook.)
  • Continue to intersperse the figure-eight wraps and the wraps over the individual eyeballs and those in front and back of them until the eyeballs do not slide around on the hook.
  • Whip finish behind the eyeballs to secure them while the rest of the fly is tied.

People often ask if a fly with eyeballs will ride with the eyeballs on the underside of the hook instead of the top of the hook when the fly is fished. Generally that will not occur unless the fly is fished dead drift. Most of the time stripping the fly in the water takes care of the problem and keeps the eyes on top of the fly. You’ll notice that for the flies where the tier wants the hook to ride up instead of down, the eyes are actually tied on the hook with the point turned up instead of  turned down.

Tying the fly onto a hook that already has eyeballs attached is not difficult. Just plan to work the materials of the fly up as close behind the eyeballs as possible to help avoid the “gap” that often appears there just as it does when tying with beads and cones.  If you want to also lead the hook shank, you can do that before or after tying on the eyeballs. Adding a hackle collar or a maribou wing will also help to give the fly a more “finished” look and will help fill up the “gap,” as will wrapping chenille or other material around the eyes as I do on the fly below.

Always finish a fly that has eyeballs behind the eyeballs rather in front of them. Generally there will not be sufficient room to finish ahead of the eyes. Even when there seems to be, doing so will often cover up the hook-eye preventing you from later inserting the leader.

Now, here’s a fly to illustrate tying with eyeballs.

The Starlight Leech

Hook: Mustad 36890- #4-1/0—or Daiichi 2441 #2 or #1  (leaded shank is optional)

Eyes: Lead eyes set back from the hook-eye (bead chain eyes aren’t large enough to give

this fly the correct look, and they don’t have enough distance between the eyeballs to  tie in the chenille head)

Head: Red, orange, fuscia or chartreuse chenille

Tail: Tip of a black of purple bunny strip

Body: Black or purple Cactus Chenille

Wing: Remainder of bunny strip folded forward

Collar: Black or purple saddle hackle

  • Lead the hook and tie in the eyes. (Set the eyes on the hook just at the end of the bend-back rather than on top of it to leave room for the wrapped chenille head);
  • Tie in the chenille right behind the eyeballs. Then wrap it around the eyes several times and tie off behind the eyes. Move the thread to the back of the hook behind the lead.
  • Tie in the tip of a bunny strip to create a one-inch tail and cut off the remainder of the strip;
  • Tie in the Cactus Chenille at just the same spot where you tied in the tail. Wrap the thread up to behind the eyeballs. Now wrap the Cactus Chenille forward to right up behind the eyeballs. Be careful to pull the spikes of the material back each time you wrap to avoid flattening them with the subsequent wrap;
  • Make a hackle collar by selecting a wide, webby saddle hackle feather. Strip off the fuzz and tie it in from the butt right behind the eyeballs with the right side of the feather facing the tier. Make three or four side-by-side wraps of the feather right up behind the eyeballs, stroking the fibers back with each wrap so that they sweep back along the hook shank.
  • Tie off and whip finish behind the eyeballs.

Casting Flies with Beads, Cones and Eyeballs

Besides varying the sink rate, heavier or lighter cones, beads, or eyeballs will also affect the way that the fly casts. The general rule is that the heavier the bead or cone or eyeball, the harder the fly will be to cast. Casting heavy flies requires a somewhat slower casting rhythm and a more open loop. (Getting hit in the back of the head with one of these leaded eyeball flies is not fun.) Since the extra weight on the fly can also un-balance the casting stroke, it’s also important to make firm, deliberate stops on both the front and back casts when casting large, weighted flies. A time-honored recommendation when casting flies with beads, cones, or eyeballs (or with the split shot you may have been using to get your fly down) is to “wait for the bounce” before beginning each forward or back cast.

 

There you have it. You’ll quickly learn that tying with beads, cones, and eyeballs adds a completely different dimension to your flies and to your fishing. Just the chance to eliminate the use of split shot on the leader makes them worth trying.

 

(Originally published in August / September 2007 issue of Fish Alaska Magazine)

Sheefish Sojourn

Alaska Sheefishing

Fly fishing for sheefish is both thrilling and challenging, but it certainly isn’t easy. You may have heard it said that, “To fish for sheefish, first, you have to find them.” It’s true. They are more elusive, mysterious, and harder to track down than any salmon, trout, char, grayling, whitefish, steelhead, lake trout or pike you’ll ever pursue. This dilemma doesn’t arise only because much of their habitat is up and around the Arctic Circle or the Kuskokwim or Yukon Rivers though. It’s also because of their migratory nature. Sheefish have been known to make journeys of up to 1,000 miles from winter habitat to spawning habitat and back again, all in one season. Obviously, they need to be almost always on the move.

Years ago, when I first met and fished with Lorry & Nellie Schuerch, owners of Kiana Lodge on the Kobuk River, I learned that sheefish made these super-lengthy journeys. Wow, was I ever impressed by those gorgeous, tasty fish and their incredible “story.” Then, fishing the Kuskokwim and a couple of its tributaries a few years later, I was dumb-founded all over again. The fish’s journeys in both rivers explained why we’d search and search for them until we finally connected, but then, sometimes within just a few hours, they were gone again. Believe me, the hunt quickly became part of the allure of these magnificent creatures.

A lot of years went by before I was lucky enough to have another encounter with these remarkable fish. That opportunity presented itself this past summer, when Fish Alaska Magazine sent me back to fish with Lorry & Nelli in the sheefish mecca of Alaska, the Kobuk River.

A waterway over 300 miles long and surrounded by mountains that seem to go on into infinity, the mighty Kobuk slices a path between and around them until it reaches its broad delta in Hotham Inlet in Kotzebue Sound approximately 10 miles southwest of Kiana. The river’s headwaters lie within the Gates of the Arctic National Park just north of the Arctic Circle, and it traverses Kobuk Valley National Park, which includes the famous Kobuk Sand Dunes, as it heads to the sea. It is truly the lifeblood of the native people living along its shores.

The Kobuk is surprisingly shallow in many places, and requires an experienced boat captain to manage it. It is Lorry’s kingdom, and he watches over it with a lifetime of knowledge and experience. Every bend, every rock, and every gravel bar are intimately familiar to him, as are the deep, secret channels the sheefish use as they navigate up-river to spawn.

After taking the early morning plane to Kotzebue, we met up with Jared Cummings, the owner of Golden Eagle Outfitters, for our trip onward to Kiana. Jared’s dad was visiting and he became our pilot in one plane while Jared ferried other folks to a different location. The weather was not ideal, but the village came into view pretty quickly, and Lorry was there to pick us up. After a quick tour of the village, we jumped in the boat and went with him to talk to a couple of ADF&G researchers who were seining fish just below town. They were catching both sheefish and chum salmon in the net as we watched, and prospects looked good for our fishing.

Lorry, his granddaughter, Kaya, Tanya Pemberton, our angling photographer, and I took off on our first excursion up-river that afternoon to check out one of the channels that often holds fish. Lorry had recommended that we come armed with sink-tip lines and heavy white, yellow, and green and other light color flies decorated with lots of sparkle and flash, and we were prepared. I remembered the sheefish’s preference for white and for glitter, so I’d brought some of my large streamer boxes with articulated leeches, large bunny streamers, and lots of clouser minnows as well as some of my favorite pike boxes. Since I knew that we would also be catching pike during our trip, those flies really came in handy for both species.

Lorry anchored the boat near a fairly wide trough in the water between us and the bank, and Kaya checked out the scene with her spinning rod while we got set up. No hits for her, and none for us with the flies, either. We pulled anchor and maneuvered a bit closer to the channel before trying again. Still nothing. So, then we went back down river a ways, put the boat on the bank, and hiked back to fish the channel from the shore side. There we had a few hits that turned out to be white fish and chums. I gave Kaya a lesson or two on casting a fly rod, and then we moved on.

At a different spot later that day the sheefish were somewhat more cooperative. Lorry’s advice to cast as far away from the boat as possible and let the heavy fly drift deeply down along the channel, did the trick. Some of the hits were aggressive and solid, and a few were gentle and rather tentative, but we set the hook hard on all of them and brought a number of fish to the boat. True to their reputation, they put on dazzling displays of leaping and cartwheeling once they were hooked, re-enforcing their reputation as “tarpon of the north.” Their other similarities to the saltwater fish, a large, broad gill plate, huge scales, and a square mouth, were clearly evident once we landed them. We kept two fish for dinner, took some pictures, and carefully released the others.

Sheefish are excellent table fare both for subsistence needs and for sport anglers. We put our harvested fish on ice and Nellie baked them to perfection for dinner that evening in her well-appointed kitchen. I actually had “seconds” and then “thirds” without much urging. She also deep fries, cans, smokes, and dries sheefish for year-round use as does everyone else along the river.
As we talked about the importance of the sheefish to local people, Lorry gave me a copy of the amazing book, Iqaluich Niǵiñaqtuat “Fish That We Eat,” Anore Jones, US Fish & Wildlife Service, 2006, that contains page after page of recipes and recommendations for preparing sheefish the Iñupiaq “fish food wisdom way.” I was quite intrigued by the long-used and shared methods and techniques of preserving and utilizing this and other fish species for a variety of traditional dishes. For instance, on page 133, Jones advises that

“Smaller fish tend to be more lean and are not quite as good for general eating, but make better dried fish (paniqtug), whereas the medium-sized fish (15-25 pounds) are too fat to dry, but excellent for all eating, freezing, and fermenting. The fattest, largest fish (30-60 pounds) are perfect for roasting.”

Our fish were in the 10-15 pound range that day, so they would have been perfect for drying, but we kept our hopes up for larger ones on our next excursion.

The following day after a huge breakfast of Nelli’s sourdough pancakes and homemade blueberry syrup, Lorry said he was going into Kiana, so he asked if we’d like to go pike fishing in the Squirrel River that flows into the Kobuk near the village for a while before heading back to find the sheefish. He knows a very, very muddy, but incredibly productive back channel chocked-full of lots of toothy, cooperative fish, and we jumped at the chance.

We weren’t disappointed. We added some 40lb test monofilament to our leaders as bite tippet, tied on some #2 light-colored & weighted flies, and got to it. Every single cast produce a hit, and Kaya had a great time with the pike-release grabber tool taking off fish after fish like a pro. We had one large fish that broke me off, but about ten cast later I caught it again, and got my first fly back. Finally we were all filthy so we did our best to clean up ourselves and the boat, as well as the rods and the flies as Lorry pointed the boat up the Kobuk to the sheefish.

We stopped in a wide bend on the river with a small creek running into it to prospect for sheefish, and suddenly saw lots of wakes in various spots all across the surface. Some extremely beefy chums were the wake-makers, however, and not the sheefish we were after, but we had fun with them for an hour or so. Kaya suddenly hollered, that she had a monster fish on, and we all paid attention. Not a sheefish, but a 23 or 24 lb chum kept her busy and Lorry held on to her so that she wouldn’t get pulled out of the boat.

Further up-river Lorry slowed the boat at another of the special places he knows the sheefish will be in mid-summer, and, sure enough, we hooked right up. A few fish pushing 18 -20lbs were now the prize and with both large, tan & white clouser minnows, and white bead-head bunny and marabou lake leeches, we started hooking up consistently. One particularly large fish twisted and twirled in the air in several astounding leaps straight up out of the water, but, unfortunately it managed to get de-hooked with all the antics so we never got to measure it.

Sheefish are the only predatory whitefish in North America. Their distinguishing characteristic from other species of whitefish is a much larger, extended lower jaw. Female sheefish live longer and achieve a greater size than the male. He matures at age 6-9 years, depending on his location, while she will mature between 7-12 years of age. So, our large fish could have been a girl.

Sheefish generally spawn every two years rather than annually. This is thought to be because of the large amount of eggs a female produces. Sheefish are also “broadcast” spawners and do not dig a nest for the eggs. Instead, they release their eggs and milt directly into shallow water areas where most of them were, themselves, hatched. Fertilized eggs then drift downstream and sink, lodging in the gravel. Spawning fish leave the area within a short time afterwards and return to the brackish water of the bays.

My research for this article produced an old report from ADF&G containing some interviews with residents of the area. One resident related that sheefish spawn in late September in the upper Kobuk, and that they hold very still in deep sections of the river while staging. When ready, they spawn in the evenings at the water’s surface in the main current. Subsistence fishermen said the splashing of the spawning sheefish is audible from the river bank, and that they consider it a signal to seine. According to legends, the sheefish ask a shorebird, the semipalmated plover, to make the weather stormy when they start moving around to spawn so that no one will catch them. In return, the sheefish promise to give the bird a bead necklace. Thus, the stormy weather that often accompanies spawning and the beautiful band around the bird’s neck.

Young sheefish hatch sometime in early spring before break-up. Spring run-off distributes them downstream to backwater eddies, off-channel lakes, and estuaries. They are known to grow rapidly feeding mainly on insects and other prey, but as they mature they feed almost exclusively on other fish, even other sheefish.

Our last day on the river started with Lorry and Jared on the phone making plans for our pickup that afternoon. Lorry wanted to take us quite a long way up-river to one of his special sheefish places, but that would mean that we would need to get picked up for our trip back to Kotzebue on the river. Jared knew the area where we would be, and they agreed that there was ample beach for the plane to land. We quickly packed our suitcases and loaded everything on the boat and took off.

On the run to the fishing site we dozed off, cleaned fly boxes, and snacked as we sped along. Eventually the boat slowed down and it was time to cast.

Tanya had yet to land a large fish, and she was determined to do that before we left. The fish were definitely in the area, and we hooked into several of them with different flies. Lorry did stand-by to take the camera from her so we could record her achievement. Finally her rod bent nearly double, and she was in business. This was some fish! Definitely larger than any of the others we’d caught, we knew that this was going to be a long battle. Her 8-wt rod and her reel were put to the test, and they were performing perfectly. Each time the fish leaped into the air we all worried that it would shake the fly loose, but the fly stayed put. Time after time it took line out, and we began to think that it was never going to tire. I lost track of how many times she brought the fish to the boat, but each time another spurt of energy helped it avoid the net. At last, it was over and the prize of the day quickly got photographed and released.

It wasn’t long until it was time to go. Just as arranged, Jared and his trusty 206 buzzed us a couple of times as he scoped-out the gravel bar. Then he made an absolutely perfect landing and taxied toward the wind-gauge we had made for him out of a white plastic bag tied to one of the oars. We loaded up our luggage and our fishing gear, said goodbye, and jumped aboard. Lorry waved as the plane skimmed over the top of the boat, and we (reluctantly) headed back to Kotzebue. Hopefully, I’ll get back to visit Kobuk sheefish again another day.

(Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Fish Alaska magazine)


More Information

Kiana Lodge:
Lorry & Nelli Schuerch, Owners
P.O. Box 89 Kiana, Alaska 99749
E-mail info@alaskasheefishing.com
Phone 1-907-475-2149
http://www.alaskasheefishing.com/

Where Sheefish can be found:

Life history: Sheefish in Alaska have been separated into five major stocks. In addition, smaller rivers such as the Nowitna, Black, and Porcupine have small local populations. The Minto Flats and Upper Yukon River populations are year-round residents in the eastern part of Interior Alaska. The Lower Yukon and Kuskokwim groups overwinter in the delta areas of these large rivers while the Kobuk-Selawik groups spend the winter in the brackish waters of Hotham Inlet and Selawik Lake. These latter groups can best be termed estuarine anadromous. Alaska Department of Fish & Game

Kobuk River: http://www.nps.gov/gaar/kobukriver.htm
http://dictionary.sensagent.com/Kobuk_River/en-en/

Selawick River: http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Selawik/about/wild_river.html

Nowitna River: http://www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/recEdMore.cfm?ID=75621
http://www.rivers.gov/rivers/nowitna.php
http://www.fws.gov/alaska/fisheries/fieldoffice/fairbanks/pdf/Sheefish_LM.pdf

Minto Flats: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=mintoflats.main

Kuskokwim River: www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=ByAreaInteriorKuskokwim.fishingInfo

FLIES FOR SHEEFISH: Sizes #4-#2/0 white, yellow, chartreuse green, light brown with lots of Flashabou or Krystal Flash to get the fish’s attention.

-Woolly Buggers
-Bead-Head or Cone-Head Rabbit Leeches
-Articulated Leeches
-Clouser Minnows-white and green or white and tan
-Bunny-winged Salmon Leeches
-White with Red, Yellow, or Black Double Bunnies
-Heavily Weighted Intruder patterns

Bead-Head Bunny Leech © 2012 Michael DeYoung

 

A Terrific Tangle Lakes Trip

Tangle Lakes Fishing Trip

There are some places that one never tires of. And no matter how many times I fish Alaska’s Tangle Lakes area, I am struck by just how perfect a place it really is. Anglers are, naturally, always looking for fish, and Tangle Lakes has them in abundance. It is famous for having the most grayling of any place in Alaska that one can drive to. But there is much more to savor here than just the gorgeous fish with the fuscia and aqua colors on dorsal and caudal fin and the florescent green tail.

Glaciers, mountain ranges, high plateau lakes, meandering creeks, cut banks dotted by the nests of mud swallows, and hills with constantly shifting shadow patterns make Tangle Lakes a feast for the eyes and the soul. And another panorama unfolds at the anglers feet. Wildflowers of every color and size lie hidden among the willows or sprout along the creek banks. Some are so tiny that they remain virtually invisible until we’re relaxing on the tundra. Others are massed in lush clumps of deep purple or yellow blossoms waving in the breeze.

This year two groups of women had the pleasure of experiencing all that Tangle Lakes has to offer. Like always, we began by fishing the very cooperative little grayling on the Tangle River right outside our tents. Faye, Cameale, and Jackie had attended last year’s fly fishing school, and were already adept at handling the 5-wt rods. They quickly mastered the techniques of dry fly presentation and were into fish almost immediately. Pam had caught grayling on the ’97 Smorgasbord trip and simply had to review what she hadn’t done in a year to get her started. Toni quickly caught up with the others once she tied on a yellow humpy with a white calf-tail post to help her see the fly against the glare on the water.

The lower river and two other creeks proved to be even more productive when the group traveled there. Even when we switched to nymph fishing, the hook-ups came fast and furious. Pam was especially successful with an orange soft hackle fly. Resting for awhile in the moss beside the river we had a discussion about strike indicators and why it was important to learn to nymph fish without them so as to develop a “feel” for the take. This group certainly didn’t need an indicator to tell them a grayling had taken their nymph.

The women in the second group were just as successful. Glenda seemed to hold the magic rod during a couple of our sessions and always shared her spot and her secrets with the others. Christine and her son, Alexi came from New York to enjoy this special place with us and they, too, caught an unbelievable number of fish. We could hardly move Christine from one short run where she completely lost count of all the fish that took her caddis. Alexi and Glenda took the honors for large fish from one stretch of river we especially love.

Jeannie got the first fish on a difficult stretch of fast water that we fished along the way to one of my favorite runs. Mastering the art of placing the fly in quiet water with three or four fast currents in between that are ready to drag your fly line down river requires skillful line mending. But Jeannie did it perfectly and was rewarded with one of the largest fish of the trip.

And it was in what I call the “aqua water” on one of the creeks that Ellen got her first fish on a nymph. She’d learned to feel the touch of a fish that she couldn’t see, and finally landed a beauty. She was off to the women’s school just a week later, and said she felt more than ready for the next challenge on the big rods.

Just because grayling are small fish, averaging 10-14 inches, (an eighteen inch fish is trophy size) doesn’t mean that they can’t put a real bend in a four or five weight rod. Their eagerness to take a properly presented fly and their plucky spirit when hooked make them a favored sport fish, as all of this year’s women discovered. And, I’ll bet that those of them that are Alaskans will make their way back to Tangle Lakes again and again, just as I’ve done for all these years. You’re invited to go along next year.

(Originally published in the April 2003 issue of Fish Alaska magazine)