Story last updated at 7/24/2013 - 1:56 pm
The coastal waters of Southeast Alaska are not only breathtakingly beautiful, but also a fly-rodder's paradise. Ocean and islands create a tapestry of brilliant water and trackless land where ancient glaciers descend mountain spires to the sea. With water types as diverse as the land that embraces them, sport anglers in Southeast Alaska have a smorgasbord of waters and locations to target anadromous fish depending on angling preference and specific fish run timing. These waters include remote bays, estuaries, or coastal straits; broad rivers or small cascading creeks, chains of lakes and basins to brackish tidally influenced salt chucks. But during the commencement of our summer salmon runs, no single location offers better angling opportunity for hot, aggressive and mint-bright fish than our local estuaries.
Most estuaries in Southeast Alaska have relatively long tidal flats. These flats are exposed only during moderate to low tides, and anglers should fish both periods (the ebb and the flood) within the tides for best results. Similar to warm water flats fishing or still water angling in shallow lakes, the fish in estuaries tend to cruise and navigate in and along channels and submerged estuary braids. While cruising or milling, there are times within the tide or specific depths when fish become more visible, and visible fish are vulnerable targets to "in-the-know" fly anglers. I use the phrase, "in-the-know" because these anglers have developed the skill of consistently and accurately spotting fish. This skill of sighting fishing comes from hours of experience and can only be obtained and refined by logging in numerous hours on the water. The objective is to develop a mental search image, the color of a gill plate or the shade of a tail fin for example, to help you to key in and spot fish, then anticipate their next movement and intercept them with a fly offering. And lastly, to be successful while estuary fishing it takes an understanding of the surrounding area, and with that comes a word of caution: know and respect the tides.
Carrying a local tide book and consulting it often is critical to safe and successful fishing in Southeast Alaska estuaries especially when tidal fluctuations on some days can be as much as 22 feet. If that sounds big, it is, and the tide can quickly creep up on an unwary angler at an alarming rate suddenly turning a day of exciting fishing into a life-threatening swim. However, these same tidal dynamics that can be so dangerous also bring processions of fresh fish into the estuaries. During the summer salmon runs, schools of fish gather in bays and channels awaiting the push of the flood tide to move into and through the estuary before navigating to their home waters. This is the prime fishing time, and the action can be electrifying. Sometimes schools of migrating fish are so dense that they displace enough water that it almost appears as if boulders are marching upstream.
Ebb tides are worth fishing, too, especially near the bottom of the tidal cycle. I've noted on many occasions that an ebb tide in the early morning hours usually leaves a generous number of fresh fish holding in the channels, and most will aggressively grab the first fly they see. So once again, note your tide book to target these channels during morning ebb tides. Stalking and sight casting to fresh, bright fish, resting in estuary channels or braids is not only exciting, but also highly rewarding. Once familiar with stalking and sight casting to resting fish in estuary channels, many fly rodders become passionately addicted to ebb tide estuary angling. The fishing is more technical as it requires accurate casting skills but it also opens up more opportunity within the tidal cycle to fish.
The summer angling season is now upon us. Fireweed is in full bloom and our meadows are a mosaic of brightly colored wild flowers. Our local estuaries are once again a place of heightened activity dictated by the cyclical nature of the tides. Learn to known your local estuaries and become intimately familiar with their relationship between the fish that roam there and the tides that quietly dictate their presence. Good luck, be safe and tight lines!
Rich Culver is a fly-fishing freelance writer and photographer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.