A great short guide preparing for an Alaskan fly-fishing trip.
A broad-shouldered rainbow trout tearing flesh off the back of a decaying king salmon. Several v-shaped wakes of ferocious silver salmon competing for a stripped topwater fly in a back eddy. A sow grizzly and two cubs arriving on the scene, marking their territory over a gravel bed full of spawning sockeyes. These and other “NatGeo” scenes will greet anglers arriving in Alaska, the crown jewel of North America. What follows is a primer for those unfamiliar with fly fishing “The Last Frontier”.
Fishing in Alaska need not be a lavish endeavor. All the rivers floated by the fancy outfitters can be had for a third of the price for intrepid anglers willing to forgo the creature comforts and guides offered by those services. Such plans of course require experienced oarsmen, a certain degree of aptitude in the wilderness, and an appetite for freeze dried meals. But many bush plane companies are available for hire, and some will provide rafts, equipment, and even local knowledge about when and where to go. But a trip like that will still set each individual back by several grand. True trout bum adventures can be had on the roadside if the angler is willing to stray off the beaten path. Get even a mile from the road, and certain streams will feel like remote drainages in the Bristol Bay watershed. Personally, I have found great adventures and trophy fish within minutes of the highway. Take a drive down the Parks, Richardson, Sterling, or Seward Highway with a guidebook and a topo map. Monster fish may exist within a stone’s throw of the highway, and if the angler is willing to walk or float a few miles, the opportunities are limitless. No one is likely to give up their secret Alaskan roadside stream, but there is more than enough information on the internet to get started. Make a list of candidate streams and check them out. You may strike out on a half dozen before hitting on the next one, but there are many great options.
What species am I targeting? This is the first question that must be answered when prepping for an Alaska trip. The time of year and location will play a great role in the opportunities experienced by the angler. In south-central and western Alaska, the heavily-desired king salmon are generally the first anadromous fish to arrive to freshwater and the reach of fly fishermen, between May and July. Sockeye tend to follow the kings several weeks later. The less-popular chums and pinks tend to peak between July and August. Finally, from a salmon perspective the year wraps up between August and October as the silver salmon are usually the last to show.
The non-anadromous fish, such as rainbow trout, dolly varden, and grayling, are present all season. These three species may be targeted similarly. Early in the year (June-early July), prior to arrival of the salmon protein buffet, these fish are notorious for targeting mice. While mice may pick up a carnivorous rainbow all season long, the early season is typically best for this technique. Various dry flies, nymphs, and leeches will also produce. Small baitfish streamers will also get it done, as this is the time of year when salmon smolt actively migrate downriver toward the sea.
As the salmon arrive, the non-anadromous fish turn their focus to eggs, and from July through the first half of September, this will be the most productive way to target rainbows and dollies. Rather than using egg flies such as globugs, most experienced Alaskan anglers use beads, as one could purchase in a craft store. There are several ways beads can be rigged, and I won’t bore with the details, as these set-ups are found easily on YouTube. Understandably, nymphing a bead will turn off many fly purists. But for those of us who actually enjoy catching fish, this is definitely the way to go during mid-summer in Alaska. There is a surprising amount of nuance when fishing a bead. I have spoken to several grown men who would rather give up their first born than their secret bead pattern. That said, I have learned several principles when fishing beads in Alaska.
1) Size matters. Consider the dominant species of salmon around when rigging up the bead. Kings and chums produce the largest eggs, at about 10 mm. Pinks and silvers release relatively large eggs, at 8 mm. Sockeye salmon make the smallest eggs, at 6 mm.
2) Trout and dollies prefer fresher eggs. As such, I generally fish with orange or pink beads even if I see washed out white eggs on the river bed. That said, I always keep a few white/yellow beads in my box in case the fish are starting to target the dead eggs, as happens later in the season.
3) Trout and dollies do not find all species of salmon equally attractive. Particularly, in systems that have been taken over by zombie hoards of pink salmon, the rainbows will often be absent. For whatever reason, trout seem to be drawn to kings and sockeyes, so I try to target systems with strong runs of those salmon species.
4) Dollies can’t seem to resist a bead on the swing. Don’t ask me why, as it makes no sense, but it’s true. I often finish dead drift casts by allowing the bead to swing down below me.
As the leaves on the riverside Alaskan birch trees turn from verdant green to autumn gold, rainbows and dollies start to key in on another option: salmon flesh. As the salmon start to decompose, rainbows can be found tearing flesh off living fish, from those washed up in eddies, and chunks of flesh floating downstream. There are plenty of dedicated flesh fly patterns, but I’ve found that any streamer in white, tan, or light pink tends to get it done. I caught my first fish on a flesh fly as a teenager on a South-central Alaskan stream. As I waded up behind a group spawning king salmon, I noticed that aggressive rainbows were pecking at the deteriorating flesh hanging off the 30 lb beasts. On my first cast with the a flesh fly, I hooked in to the first trophy fish of my life, an absolute beast of a rainbow. In fact, to this day, two of the three biggest rainbows that I’ve ever caught were on flesh flies… they seem to attract some of the bigger specimens and for obvious reasons! Flesh flies may be swung, dead-drifted under an indicator, or stripped like a traditional streamer depending on the situation and day.
Finally, familiarize yourself with the gurgler fly prior to a trip to Alaska. These noisy, bright flies irritate a variety of species in to attack. I really have no idea why gurglers work as well as they do. Maybe fish think they are an annoyingly-colored mouse. Perhaps the fish are so irritated by their presence that they simply want to revoke the gurgler’s right to exist. But I do know that I’ve caught dollies, rainbows, silvers, chums, grayling, and more on gurglers, and they can be a thrilling way to mix it up when streamers and beads have lost their excitement. Interestingly, there are times when gurglers seem to produce the largest fish of the day. And again, for reasons unknown to me, gurglers seem to be unfairly effective on dolly varden. These flies are generally swung and stripped similar to how one would fish a mouse pattern. Gurglers are easy to tie, and few belong in a box of every Alaskan fly fisher.
In many ways, 2021 seems like the perfect year for an Alaska trip for an American like me. With vaccinations increasing, Covid cases decreasing, but many international borders still closed, Alaska beckons like never before. I am in the midst of planning my own Alaskan adventure to take place at the end of summer in the Bristol Bay region. Certainly, opportunities abound for every level of angler on any type of budget in this northern land of adventure.