Story last updated at 5/29/2013 - 2:07 pm
Within sport fishing and adventure travel circles, Alaska is widely recognized as the premier target destination for anyone wishing to intercept salmon on fly gear. Each summer, Alaska's countless rivers and streams become the centerpiece of attention for fly fishers of all skill levels as salmon-pinks, chum, sockeye, cohos and kings-return to their natal waters like clockwork creating some of the best angling opportunities for salmon found anywhere on the globe.
The arrival of fresh salmon to our Alaska watersheds is a significant event not only for sport fishers, but also from an ecological point of view. Salmon are our watershed's lifeblood and their presence or absence dictates the unique character of all our rivers and streams. But during a few select weeks preceding the much-anticipated arrival of our summer salmon runs, exists a small window of angling opportunity that has nothing to do with the return of salmon. Instead, this unique window of incredible fishing occurs because of a downstream flushing of highly vulnerable migrating salmon fry. If timed properly, this annual downstream migration opens the door for angling opportunities of epic levels that many sport fishers unfortunately only read about. It's this annual event of salmon fry dropping out to sea that creates a biological smorgasbord that grabs the attention of fly-fishers from ardent locals to adventure bound anglers from all around the country.
Each spring, the estuaries and river mouths of Southeast Alaska bubble with excitement as hundreds of thousands of salmon fry instinctively begin to swim and migrate downstream towards the salt. This seasonal parade of juvenile salmon, vulnerable in the current, attracts the predatory eyes of opportunistic Dolly Varden and coastal cutthroat trout. During these times, famished Dolly Varden and cuttys feed like hungry jackals, carelessly gorging themselves beyond satiation until their bodies are so distorted from feeding that they more closely resemble footballs or maracas than fish. Fly-fishers who commit themselves to monitoring the timing of this fascinating ecological event can usually expect to enjoy some of the hottest, most blistering fly-fishing that Southeast Alaska has to offer.
The exact timing of salmon fry dropout migration, however, is often difficult to predict. This is because the event is tightly synchronized to our local spring weather conditions that unfortunately vary from year to year. Specifically, dropout migration is dependent upon water conditions and in particular, to ice-out, which also dictates flow and water temperature. During years where we experience an early spring, or a mild winter, dropout conditions are pushed forward and tend to take place early. In contrast, when winter conditions have been extreme or when cold weather tends to linger well into the spring months, one can expect a dropout period that takes places later in the season. The key point to address is to monitor your local weather.
Although Dolly Varden feed like chowhounds in the spring on salmon fry, they can also at times become very selective in their feeding behavior. During these stifling occasions, proper fly selection or the willingness to change flies frequently can be the difference between a day filled with refusals and empty casts, or a day filled with unlimited, frenzied action. It's been my experience while fishing Dollys that almost any salmon fry pattern will work as long as you give particular attention to the size, silhouette and color of the fly pattern you are offering. Personally, I try to match my fly pattern as close as I can to what the fish are preying upon on that given day. I have found this to be crucial as dropout fry grow rapidly and their colors change once they reach the salt water or estuary areas. Commonly used productive patterns are various themes of alvins, mico-alfs, small marabou leeches and Clouser minnows.
Salmon fry fishing offers some of the finest angling opportunities that Southeast Alaska has to offer. As warming weather slowly creeps into our neighborhood, and local watersheds begin show increased flows, it's time to review our local tide books and break out the waders for now is the time to take full advantage of this remarkable stage of the angling season. Good luck fishing!
Rich Culver is a fly-fishing freelance writer and photographer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.