Story last updated at 5/21/2014 - 5:37 pm
A soft, yet steady wind blows quietly from the north across Berners Bay as flocks of Arctic Terns and Bonaparte gulls drop from the cerulean sky like tiny darts. One by one they fall, each puncturing the glassy water. Together, their raucous chatter echoes loudly in the cove.
Within minutes, their behavior attracts several bald eagles that arrive hastily. Off in the distance, three humpback whales spout a deep baritone cadence. Their heads roll playfully to the surface then quietly pause in unison before vanishing in a soapy film of bubbles.
It's midway through a fast ebbing tide, and the estuary is alive with activity. The gulls and terns 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 terns, gulls, 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 the Sand Lance (genus Ammodytes).
Sand Lance or Sand Eels are small, eel-like fish with a forked tail and a sharply pointed snout used for burrowing. They have bright silvery sides with dorsal regions that vary in coloration from grey-green to deep metallic blue.
Ranging in size from 3 inches to 7 inches long, 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 feed ravenously like hungry jackals along sandy shores of estuaries and beaches preying on an abundance of Sand Lance.
Because Sand Lance are a dominant, high-energy food source for estuary-dwelling game fish, every fly fisher in Southeast should have at least one fly box committed solely to Sand Lance patterns of various sizes and colors. There are many established and field-proven Sand Lance fly patterns, and because of their effectiveness, many of these patterns are commercially tied and readily available through fly shops and online stores. These include Ray's Rabbit Sand Eel, the Miraculous Sand Lance, Fox Statler's Sand Eel and my personal pattern, Culver's E-Z Body Sand Lance.
Though all Sand Lance patterns vary slightly, they share several identifying characteristics. For the personal fly tier, these characteristics are 1) a sleek body profile, 2) a pronounced eye, 3) a white ventral underbelly and 4) a sparse grey, green, black or blue dorsal region.
In their environment, Sand Lance are fast swimmers. Because of their slender body shape, their swimming behavior is similar to that of a small eel, and they tend to dart erratically from side to side. When fishing Sand Lance patterns, fly anglers should closely mimic this swimming behavior while retrieving their fly after casting.
Erratic short strips, twitching the rod tip from left to right with occasional pauses tend to work the best. I fish Sand Lance patterns 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 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 at the right tide and with a fly box full of assorted Sand lance patterns and I leave you with this advice: brace yourself to be in fish-thick! Good luck, and tight lines!
Rich Culver is a fly-fishing freelance writer and photographer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.