Story last updated at 5/20/2009 - 11:05 am
A soft wind blows from the north across Lynn Canal as flocks of black-legged kittiwakes drop from the sky like tiny darts. One by one they fall, each one puncturing the glassy water. Their raucous chatter echoes loudly in the cove and within minutes attracts several bald eagles that arrive hastily on the scene. Off in the distance, three humpback whales spout a baritone cadence. Their heads roll to the surface then quietly in unison they vanish in a film of bubbles.
It's midway through the ebb of the tide and the estuary is alive with activity. The kittiwakes continue to flock and dive and my eyes are fixed on them. It's not salmon that they are attracted to nor is it salmon fry. Instead, the kittiwakes, bald eagles and humpbacks have all gathered at the head of the estuary to dine like royalty on a Southeast Alaska seasonal delicacy, a small eel-like fish known as sand lance.
Sand lance or sand eels are small eel-like fish with a forked tail and a sharply pointed snout used for burrowing. They are an integral food source for many aquatic birds, marine mammals and salmon in Southeast Alaska. Sand lance have bright silvery sides with dorsal regions that vary in coloration from grey-green to deep metallic blue. Ranging in size from 3 to 7 inches, they swim in large schools near the surface of the water, but they are more commonly noted and found along sandy estuary shorelines where they spawn from early April through June. During these schooling and spawning months of late spring and early summer, salmon, Dolly Varden and sea run cutthroat trout ravenously feed like hungry jackals along sandy shores of estuaries and beaches preying on an abundance of sand lance.
Because sand lance are a dominant food source for estuary dwelling game fish in Southeast Alaska, every fly fisher in Southeast should have at least one fly box garnished with sand lance patterns of various sizes and colors every time they venture to the brine. Currently, there are many established and field-proven sand lance fly patterns and many of them are now commercially tied and readily available through fly shops and on-line stores, including Ray's Rabbit Sand Eel, the Miraculous Sand Lance and the Fox Statler's Sand Eel.
Although all sand lance patterns vary slightly from pattern to pattern, they all share several key characteristics. These characteristics are a sleek body profile, a pronounced eye, a white ventral underbelly and a sparse grey, green, black or blue dorsal region. These are the staple features and anyone who wishes to tie their own sand lance patterns should always begin with these key features in mind.
Sand lance are fast swimmers. Because of their very slender body shape, their swimming behavior is very similar to that of a small eel, and they tend to dart erratically from side to side. Fly anglers should closely mimic this unique swimming behavior while retrieving their fly after casting. Erratic short strips with occasional pauses tend to work the best. I fish sand lance patterns in Southeast with an intermediate line and a long leader, but a floating line with a short, five-foot sinktip also works very well.
Sand lance are a primary food source for Southeast Alaska game fish. They congregate to spawn in gregarious numbers along the sandy shores and beaches of most estuaries in Southeast during the early summer months, creating a window of opportunity for blistering angling action for salmon, Dolly Varden and sea run cutthroat trout. Catch this window of opportunity and I can assure you this, you will not only wear a smile from ear to ear, but you will also be in fish - thick! Good luck, and tight lines!
Rich Culver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.