It's no joke: You can catch Alaskan rainbows on dry flies
- By: Will Rice
We all know what Alaskan trout fishing is like--big fish and lots of them, most of them caught using techniques that leave traditional fly fishermen feeling a little like they opened a jar of Pautzkes. Salmon egg-patterns (or worse, beads), big leeches dredged along the bottom, heavy sinking tips--it is just not the same as drifting a Parachute Adams over a trout sipping mayflies. Although big fish are great, there is something unmatched about taking trout on the surface. But think how much fun it would be if you could do both--lots of three- and four-pound rainbows eating whatever floats over them.Actually, this is one of Alaska's best kept secrets. The common wisdom is that trout fishing is good for a week or two in June, and then dies out until mid-August, when the fish start feeding heavily on salmon eggs. And on many rivers that is true. Early season trout are pushed back into the lakes or into unfishable lies by the incoming salmon. But there are plenty of streams where the rainbows simply move into places that the sockeyes don't use. Those fish don't go hungry all summer; they are feeding on whatever food is available--sculpins, nymphs and, more frequently than people realize, adult mayflies, midges, caddisflies and stoneflies. I grew up fishing blanket hatches on the Henry's Fork and the spring creeks of southern Idaho long before those rivers became popular. But the best dryfly fishing that I have seen in this country has been in Alaska. Granted, it is not very predictable, but when it's on it can be unbelievably good. Two examples: Last summer I took 23- and 24-inch rainbows on consecutive casts with a big attractor pattern. And Nanci Morris, who guides in Bristol Bay, says two of her clients each took a 33-inch rainbow in a single day. Her clients were using an Adams and a Wulff. Big Alaskan trout can be as willing to eat a dry fly as their counterparts in Kamchatka or New Zealand. The primary difference is that there is more food in the water during the late summer in Alaska. This is the very time that most trout fishermen head for the streams of Bristol Bay, and they find fish that are totally focused on salmon eggs and flesh. Similarly, the beginning of trout season coincides with the migration of salmon fry and smolts. The slashing strikes that you see on opening weekend are not fish chasing caddis. The trout are pinning the fleeing baitfish against the surface, and they are not going to pay much attention to a dry fly. But during the middle of the summer, the rainbows holding in the smaller streams and rivers take advantage of any opportunity to feed. While Alaskan streams don't get the heavy hatches that you find on warmer waters, there are often enough bugs to get the fish looking up. And those fish usually are not too selective. The dryfly action starts when the days begin to warm in mid-June. The fishing continues through July and slacks off when the salmon begin to dig their redds. Even without eggs in the water, nest-building by female salmon stirs up enough nymphs that the trout focus on underwater prey. The scent of the ripening salmon seems to make the trout hungry though, and a big attractor will sometimes get their attention even then. Unlike rivers in the Lower 48, there is little predictability to Alaskan dryfly action. Nanci Morris says that she can fish dries about 30 percent of the time on the streams where she guides. I have seen some rivers where we can count on fairly consistent topwater action, and others where it is a rare occurrence. Usually it is a matter of seeing a fish or two sipping something and giving it a shot. If conditions seem right, I will often start with a dry, even without seeing any surface activity. I am particularly inclined to try dries if I can see the fish and judge their response. The best dryfly fishing in Alaska is usually sparked by hot, sunny weather. With cold water and a maritime climate, the rules are a bit different from the rest of the country. We usually don't start thinking about dries until about 11:00 am, and the fishing often peaks in mid-afternoon. Some bugs will come off in a bit of mist or overcast, but rain, wind or cold weather usually means that nymphs or streamers are a better bet. The most common bugs by far are caddisflies. They are found in fishable numbers on almost every small- and medium-size stream. Most are dark brown with brown or olive bodies, but there are some smaller (size 16) dark dun caddis and some that are a light tan. Elkhair Caddis imitations in the appropriate colors, usually a size 14 or 16, will cover these hatches. There are also stoneflies in many rivers. The most common are small black stones, which emerge in the spring, and Lime Sallies, a bright green stonefly that can be seen in June. Both are about a size 14. A few streams also have large black stones, almost two inches long, that emerge in late June. They climb out on rocks and logs, and their empty nymphal shucks are a clear sign that you should try a large attractor pattern. There were some of those telltale shucks on the logs the day I took those two big fish back-to-back. And there was a third fish, much larger than the two-footer, feeding steadily in the middle of a logjam with no possible way to get a fly to him. When the stones are moving, everything eats them. One of the biggest surprises is the Green Drake hatch that occurs on some rivers. John Holman, of No-See-Um Lodge, says that an extended-body parachute Green Drake pattern is his go-to fly for late June all the way through July. John says that the drakes are an exception to the sunny-day rule: He sees the best hatches when the weather is overcast and drizzly, and those hatches can be heavy. Although I have seen drakes occasionally on late July river trips, I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical about the idea of big hatches. At the time we talked about this, John and I were fishing a small stream whose name I am forbidden to reveal. "I have had some great dryfly action with drakes here," he said. "We're a little early for the hatch, but this stream is full of nymphs." He lifted his leg from the water and pointed to two large, olive larvae crawling up his waders. Maybe that explains why Prince Nymphs are among the most effective flies in Alaska. Brown Drakes are also found on some rivers, usually later in the summer. My first real experience with Alaskan dryfly fishing came many years ago, when a friend and I found a good hatch of them coming off on a river in Bristol Bay. We hooked fish after fish, but the water was too fast and deep to follow the fish downstream, and the fish were too big to drag back up against the current. We had a lot of long distance releases. The hatch finally died, and I switched to a deerhair mouse. The fish, which had begun to ignore our Humpies and Wulffs, continued to hammer the mouse. My buddy didn't have a mouse in his fly box, so he tied on one of those five-inch-long articulated lemming flies that are pretty much a joke for anything except Mongolian taimen. Even the 20-inch plus fish we had been catching couldn't get it in their mouths. But suddenly, something came up, engulfed the entire fly and headed downstream. It never stopped. When the spool began to show, my buddy put the brakes on and the fish just kept going. He didn't even get to see it. It is not uncommon to see some smaller mayflies on many rivers, but I have never observed any serious feeding activity associated with them. These hatches are almost always simultaneous with emerging or egg-laying caddis, and I usually opt for the larger imitation. But Chuck Ash, who guides float trips in western Alaska, says that he gets some good Baetis action in early fall. Midge activity is infrequent, although I have seen pods of smaller fish that are feeding heavily and are selective to size 18's and 20's. More important are the hatches of large chironomids, including a black one with bright red hind legs. It is about a size 16 and fish love it. A black gnat or a very dark parachute pattern will catch a lot of nice fish when these bugs are hatching. Don't expect the steady, rhythmic feeding patterns that you find on most rivers in the Lower 48; there are simply not enough bugs to get the fish to feed steadily. Rises will almost always be sporadic. However, if you do see a fish come up even once, you know that it is looking at the surface and you can usually draw a strike. Rises are often difficult to see. When salmon are in the rivers, as they are during most of the best dryfly action, they push trout into secondary lies, which usually means faster water with a more broken surface. You need to look closely to spot sporadically feeding trout in the riffles and heavier water. Trout will also hold right along the cut banks, inside the migrating sockeyes. Look for rises right at the edge of the grass. One of the best places to find rising trout is in the seams between faster and slower currents. The salmon will usually take over the softer water, but the trout will hold on the outside edge of them, often right in the seam. It is frequently impossible to distinguish between small trout sipping bugs and big fish. So, never pass up a dimpled rise form on the assumption that it is a six-inch parr. More than once, I have been stunned to see a four-pound rainbow come out of the water when I was expecting a 14-incher. I like to look for feeding trout on the edges of oxbows and back eddies, particularly if there is a good current running alongside the dead water. The seam running down along the bank below those areas can also be productive. The slow water will produce large numbers of chironomids and other food, and the trout can move away from the salmon. Emergers can be very effective in that type of water. Pocket water is another good place to try a dry fly. The trout will move into these areas once the salmon show up, and some of the best fishing in the river can be in those rock-strewn rapids. You won't get much of a drift, but if you are careful, you can get very close to the holding lies without spooking the fish. Work your way upstream if possible, and drop the fly, with lots of slack in the leader, on both seams and in the slack water behind the rock. You should also be sure to make a couple of casts to the pillow upstream of the rock. That is often the prime feeding lie for any given pocket, and holds the biggest trout. I like big, buoyant and easily seen flies in this kind of water. Royal Wulffs, Humpies and Elkhair Caddis are good choices. You can't, of course, discuss dryfly fishing in Alaska without mentioning the quintessential Alaskan topwater pattern--the deerhair mouse. Voles, lemming, shrews and other small rodents are abundant along many streams, particularly on tundra rivers. Some of them invariably end up in the water, and trout recognize a steak dinner when they see one. My experience is that mousing is river-specific. On some streams it's like rolling a bottle into the drunk tank. On others, the fish couldn't care less. Of course that also may just be a matter of timing on my part. Many years ago, I was fishing the Kanektok with a friend. Right in front of our tents one evening, we found a big pod of char so eager to eat our mice that they were fighting over them. Whenever one fish would throw the fly, another one would grab it. We took a break when cocktail hour hit. When we returned after dinner, not a single fish would look at a mouse. The best mice are not the realistic ones with the cute little ears and pointy noses. The ears may be okay, but that down-sloped face causes the fly to dive when you try to skate it. Flies with a foam back and an upturned lip will give a much better action. You want a fly that will skate on the surface and leave a nice wake when you swing it across the current. Flies that dive are much less effective. Mice can be cast into the grass and skated away from the bank in a realistic manner. However, they are equally effective when fished in midstream. Try swimming them into the eddy behind a rock. I like to skate the fly just fast enough that the fish knows it will escape if he doesn't hit. Triggering a predatory response is the key to successfully fishing mice. Rainbows are not the only fish that will hit a dry fly. Grayling are the quintessential dryfly fish. They love to feed on top, and they can be a lot of fun if you don't go over-gunned. Catching big grayling on the surface with a 4-weight is a blast. The only problem is that you never know when a big rainbow is going to eat the fly and make you wish you had rigged the big rod. Char will also hit dry flies, although they seem to prefer skated flies to those fished dead drift. There are a lot of streams that don't hold rainbows or grayling but get big runs of char in August. If you are fishing one of these creeks, take some Elkhair Caddis and drag them over any likely holding water. Cohos on the Surface There are few freshwater opportunities more exciting than catching salmon on topwater flies. Even the most jaded coho fisherman will find his interest rejuvenated by watching a big buck move up behind his fly, stick his nose out of the water, and engulf it. In conjunction with a book that I was writing, I recently spent some time fishing in Icy Bay with George Davis. George was one of the first people to discover that cohos, usually called "silver salmon" by Alaskans, will hit a skated dry fly. He taught me the keys to drawing them to the surface. Catching silvers on top requires certain conditions. The holding water should be about two- to four-feet deep, and have a shallow gradient, creating a smooth surface with a moderate current. They will hit a surface fly in still water (including in salt water), but skating doesn't work very well in fast current. Silvers love those barely moving seams, eddies and back channels collectively referred to as frog water. The best fishing is when the fish are schooled up. Silvers often hold high in the water column, their backs so close to the surface that their dorsals stick up like tiny sails. They are particularly vulnerable to a surface fly in those situations. Cast the fly right in front of the fish so that you are stripping it away from them rather than through them; silvers, like tarpon, don't like to be attacked by anything, even something as small as a size 2 popper. And you'll need to put the fly close to them. Although silvers will follow a fly for a long distance, they won't move very far to get to it. At the mouth of a river near George's lodge, I had good luck with fish that were just entering their spawning stream by skating flies in the last part of the current before the river hit the high tide's confluence line. The fish were moving up with the rising tide, and as it began to ebb, they made the move into fresh water. Only inches from the salt, they were surprisingly aggressive. Topwater flies for coho are designed to attract attention. Not only do they skate and gurgle but they are invariably tied in the brightest colors possible. Hot pink and chartreuse are the two favorites, and a bit of flash is usually added. The original dry fly for silvers was the Pink Pollywog. It was so popular that the technique became known as "wogging salmon." In spite of the fly's effectiveness however, George doesn't recommend them, for a reason that will become immediately obvious the first time you use one--they are miserable to cast. He prefers a Dahlberg Slider, tied in bright colors, which is a bit more aerodynamic. After a couple of days of fishing, my favorite pattern turned out to be a foam and crystal-chenille fly that goes by various names, including the Techno Spanker, the Hotlips or the Coho Seizure. The fly floats well, casts easily and is quick to tie. All of these flies should be tied on wide-gap hooks, such a Mustad 3366. Bass stinger hooks have a wide gap, but are too light to consistently hold fish as big as Icy Bay silvers. "Use a steady, moderately fast popping action," George says. "Keep stripping when you see the wake coming behind the fly, but when you see that beak come out of the water to take the fly, you need to hesitate just slightly. If you continue stripping as the fish goes for the fly, they will often turn away at the last second and you won't get anything but a boil behind it. Remember, the fish will be coming directly toward you, and it is very easy to pull the fly right out of its mouth. In order to set the hook, you have to give the fish time to close his mouth and turn." With silvers, though, nothing works all the time, and everything works some of the time. "If you aren't getting strikes, change the strip speed. If that doesn't work, change color. I usually use a pink, chartreuse, orange, dark sequence," George says. Like most dryfly fishing, you won't catch as many silvers on the surface as you will by fishing deep. But you will remember them far longer. An Alaskan dryfly box An Alaskan dryfly box is pretty simple. If you are carrying a few flies in hopes of spotting some risers, you can get by with a few big attractors, some Elkhair Caddis, Parachute Adams and a big Wulff or two. For a more serious shot at dryfly action, though, I carry the following flies: Elkhair Caddis, sizes 14 and 16, with a few 10's and 12's. Olive and brown bodies with both light and dark wings, and a few dark duns in 16. Parachute Adams, sizes 14 and 16. Black Gnat, either traditional or parachute tie, size 14 and 16. Royal Wulff, sizes 8-12. Yellow Humpy, sizes 10-16. Attractors, such as Turk's Tarantula, Katmai Slider, Bugmeister, Madam X or Stimulator, size 8. Katmai Emerger, or similar pattern, sizes 14 and 16. Green Drake imitation, either a parachute, extended body pattern or a Wulff, size 10. Midge imitation, size 18. Size, not color or pattern, is the key here. Morrish Mouse, size 4.