Story last updated at 2/27/2013 - 2:33 pm
Pick up any book on Alaska fly patterns and flip through the pages - or better yet, rummage through a few fly boxes of any hard core Alaska fly fisher - and you'll quickly note that fly patterns for Alaska come in a wide variety of styles, sizes, colors and profiles. In fact, on the market today, there are well over a thousand different fly patterns commercially advertised as "Alaska Flies." This enormous number, however, is quite conservative and the true value could well be five times this figure because most of these patterns are also available in several different sizes. With all of the various styles and patterns of flies available today choosing the most appropriate fly pattern (or patterns) for any given fishing trip can - at first glance - seem highly intimidating, even for advanced anglers. But it doesn't need to be so. Fly selection can be streamlined tremendously if you first obtain a general knowledge of the local fishery where you'll be will be fishing, and specifically, its run timing.
Understanding Run Timing - The General Rule - Know what you're fishing for
Generally speaking, sport fishing in Alaska can be described as feast or famine. In other words, when fish are present and the summer salmon runs are in full swing, fishing is usually blistering hot. On the other hand, when rivers are barren and void of fish, the day might be better spent doing domestic chores gaining spousal points than casting in vain into vacant water. The key point here is to know the local run timing of the specific waters where you intend to fish. Although there is always some degree of variability with respect to precise run timing among watersheds in Southeast Alaska, the following outline can be used as a ruler, or guideline to determine what fish might be present during the spring and summer months here in Southeast Alaska.
Spring - March, April and May
The months of March, April and May open the doors of angling opportunities throughout the region of Southeast Alaska. With the beginning of the spring fry drop out migration, our local waters will see Dolly Varden and coastal cutthroat trout keying in on this naturally abundant food source. Also during this time, select watersheds will note small numbers of steelhead returning to their natal systems. This period is also when sand lance, a small, slender baitfish, spawn by the thousands in sandy estuaries or sand bars situated along river mouths. Such massive congregations of spawning sand lances attract schools of large Dolly Varden and aggressive feeding spring king salmon. The flies of choice for this time period should accommodate these characteristics: small fry or baitfish imitations; estuary prawns and steelhead attractors like leeches or comets, and lastly full sized sand lance patterns or large baitfish imitations for salt water kings and large Dollys.
Early Summer - June and July
The months of June and July are the "Gateway to Summer" months in Southeast Alaska. June is often considered a transition month with most fish still actively feeding and residing in the salt. Fortunately, in some select regions of Southeast Alaska this fresh water seasonal lull has been augmented through the introduction of hatchery produced king salmon. Hatchery king salmon offer recreational sport anglers excellent angling opportunities without negatively affecting naturally occurring wild populations. As June winds down and gives way to July, Southeast Alaska watersheds experience a major influx of salmon, specifically chum, pink and sockeye salmon as well as nomadic schools of Dolly Varden. With these species of fish now in abundance throughout the region, fishing in Southeast Alaska is a mixed Smorgasbord. During these months, if one were to choose a single fly color to intercept all of the available fish species listed, it would surely be pink. The exception to this generalization might be for chum and sockeye where one could add the color chartreuse to their box.
Fading into Fall - August through October
As summer begins to wind down, so does the influx of fresh salmon to local Southeast Alaska watersheds. Most of the summer salmon have either already spawned or are paired up on reds. Dolly Varden now school up behind spawning salmon, while gorging themselves on fresh salmon caviar. The summer salmon cycle completes itself with the fresh arrival of cohos, silver salmon, that usually begin entering freshwater systems in late-August. Silvers are the last of our local salmon to return to their natal streams and they continue to migrate into our watersheds throughout the month of September and in some years into early October as well. Finally, searun cutthroat trout also migrate back to home waters to over winter. With this knowledge, the flies to select would include egg patterns for Dollys, small fry or attractors for cuttys, and any personal coho favorites.
Choosing flies for Alaska is no different than anywhere else. To ensure yourself the best opportunities of success, you must first understand your target species. In Alaska, this means knowledge of specific run timing. With a more complete understanding of what fish are available (or may not be available) coupled with information on the prevailing water conditions; you aid yourself tremendously in selecting the most appropriate fly or flies for your day fishing. Good luck and tight lines!
Rich Culver is a fly-fishing freelance writer and photographer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.