Story last updated at 3/27/2013 - 2:16 pm
With the month of March nearing its end, it won't be too long before our regional lakes begin their annual spring break up. During this time of the year as daylight hours in Southeast Alaska quietly begin to lengthen and days become warmer, outlet streams and watersheds will soon become revived after a long winter hiatus by fresh run off, triggering a series of biological events. Of these major events, one that excites fly-fishers and sends their casting arms into autonomic twitches centers around all the salmon that spawned in our systems last summer and fall and that is the emergence of salmon fry.
Throughout the winter months, millions of deposited salmon eggs have been slowly incubating, nestled loosely within gravel beds and aerated by sweet water riffles that flow like gin. Soon these eggs will begin to hatch and creek and river bottoms throughout Southeast Alaska will bloom with millions of salmon fry. This benthic emergence of millions of salmon fry, referred to as Alevins at this developmental stage, creates a major unseen super hatch in our local watersheds. Relatively weak swimmers at this early stage of emergence, Alevins are highly vulnerable to predation and provide a valuable source of nutrition in the aquatic food chain as they move slowly within their graveled birth sites. During this narrow window of emergence, Dolly Varden and cutthroat trout rapidly key in on their unique silhouettes and subtle movements - developing a "search image" - and soon begin to feed and feast in binge-like fashion on concentrated patches of freshly emerged salmon fry.
The exact timing of spring break in Southeast Alaska is often difficult to predict primarily because the break up (or ice-out) of watersheds is tightly synchronized and dependent upon our prevailing weather conditions. As a guideline, when we experience locally mild winter conditions, spring break can begin as early as mid-to-late March. In contrast, when our local winter conditions have been extreme, like in 2008 and '09, or when cold weather tends to linger, expect a much later break up. The key point to remember is to closely monitor your local weather.
Just as important as timing is in catching the Alevin emergence window, specific knowledge of your watershed also plays a significant and vital role. For example, if your favorite fishing stream receives a solid, and abundant run of salmon then chances are strong that it too could have a prolific salmon fry emergence period. The key, once again, is noting when this emergence will occur so that you can take full advantage and capitalize on this annual period of frenzied fishing. As highlighted above this timing is dictated by water temperature and flows and also by the specific species of salmon.
Due to the wide attraction and following that salmon fry angling receives, a vast number of patterns have been developed over the years. These patterns are designed specifically to imitate baby salmon, both in the Alevin and fry stage, and any quick Internet search should provide you with plenty of proven patterns and recipes to choose from. In addition, because Alevins are relatively weak swimmers at this early stage, it is important to fish Alevin patterns as close to the bottom as possible. I fish Alevins using the Hickson-Shubert right-angle hinge nymph technique, but any standard nymph technique will work as long as your presentation allows you to dead drift your fly and fish it as close to the bottom as possible. Another important point to consider when fishing Alevins patterns is that many of the takes may be extremely subtle due to cold (38 - 42F) water temperatures common in early spring.
Barring any unforeseen cold spells, the next several weeks in Southeast Alaska could be the gateway to spring angling in our freshwater systems. Many people believe that the arrival of salmon to our local waters occurs later in the summer, but this, as some sport fishers know, is not entirely true. For hidden among select gravel beds, a massive super hatch will soon take place in Southeast Alaska and the question is, will you be "in-the-know" and ready to take full advantage of a hatch that never reaches the surface. Good luck, and here's to a safe and memorable upcoming angling season!
Rich Culver is a fly-fishing freelance writer and photographer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.