Story last updated at 3/26/2014 - 1:36 pm
For most freshwater sport anglers, one of the hallmarks of spring is "ice-out" on local lakes.
Ice-out, or the breaking up of winter ice cover that takes place during early spring, creates a dynamic window of opportunity for restless sport fishermen.
Timed properly, still water lake fishing can be excellent. Many times, the limited ice-out period is epic and explosive as hungry cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden begin to feed voraciously after their long winter under the ice.
Placing you in this narrow window of opportunity is often difficult because the timing of the key event varies from year.
This variation from year to year is because ice-out in lakes is largely dependent upon a number of environmental factors of which two - the severity of the past winter coupled with ambient temperatures during the month of March - play a major role in determining when this much-heralded event will take place.
Still, anglers can get a general idea of when ice-out may occur by monitoring local weather data.
As a general guideline, years with cold winters, heavy snowpack and unseasonably cold temperatures in March will push the ice-out event back several weeks in the calendar, usually into late April or even early May in some years.
In contrast, when both winter and spring temperatures are relatively mild and our area receives minimal snowpack, the ice-out window is pulled noticeably forward and can occur as early as the middle of April, if not sooner.
The physical process of ice-out usually begins along inlets and outlets. Because of this fact, early anglers should concentrate their efforts along these initial open areas and target them specifically as they will be the first regions to attract foraging cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden. As spring temperatures begin to warm and fresh runoff drains into lakes, these early open areas will widen rapidly until the entire lake becomes ice-free.
At this point, angling will stay productive along inlets and outlets until the lake undergoes its dynamic turnover.
This turnover event, which circulates water within the lake, stimulates resident fish to redistribute themselves ecologically throughout the lake and into areas of preferred water temperatures and favorable foraging locations.
At this point, fish are no longer heavily concentrated. Cuttys and Dollys (those varieties which are anadromous) have begun to migrate to salt water and the ice-out window of opportunity is now closed until next year.
Because early still-water fly fishing in Southeast Alaska primarily targets cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden, the fly rods and general tackle are much lighter than those used for salmon angling.
For most of my still water fly fishing, I prefer six-weight fly rods. A six-weight is light enough to still enjoy the tussle of a 12-inch fish, yet strong enough to push a tight, graceful loop through bitter cold early season winds that mix snow and rain. I also prefer a longer rod - 9 1/2 to 10 feet in length - when still-water fishing as most of the angling takes place from canoes, prams or float tubes.
This added length facilitates lifting fly line off the water during extended casts, because float tubes, canoes and prams position the angler low to the water.
As for fly lines, the ideal line for still conditions is one that sinks slowly and places the fly 1 foot to 3 feet below the surface. I prefer a type 1, intermediate, and I fish it slowly with deliberate two-to-three inch strips while pausing briefly between each strip.
The flies I use are small, size 8, marabou leeches. The natural marabou barbules move freely in the soft water, undulating and pulsating when slowly retrieved.
Furthermore, I believe both cuttys and dollys find this movement irresistible.
Still-water fishing at ice-out is one of the most underrated and least exploited segments of recreational sport fishing available in Southeast Alaska.
At a time when most anglers are trolling countless hours hoping for a king salmon, ice-out fishing in local lakes offers excellent early season angling opportunities in a peaceful, solitude environment that if present at the right time can be simply amazing for cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden.
Our local weather might still seem a bit cold and a bit chilly at night, but it won't be long until our lakes and salt chucks undergo their annual spring ice-out. Be ready.
Good luck fishing and tight lines!