PUBLISHED: 10:33 AM on Wednesday, September 14, 2005
The fish of fall: Tale of two silvers

September may be my favorite month in the Southeast.

The fall hunting seasons are in full swing and the toughest choice is which to pursue.

But before the fishing rods are packed away, there are still days, a few blessed weeks, for the best salmon of them all. Whether you call it silver or coho, it is the fastest, most aggressive, most abundant and best of the year.

There are two very different silver salmon this month.

Early in the month, trolling the deep cold waters off Admiralty and Shelter Island and Icy Strait, we find huge schools of silvers, running from a few feet to a few hundred feet deep, following the schools of bait on the way to those creeks where they will eventually spawn and die.

Photo by Lee Leschper
  Ron Hulstein, UAS assistant professor of accounting, who also teaches fly fishing, displays a late September silver taken from the Gastineau Channel.
But for now they are fat and bright as a new dime and full of more energy and power than they will ever be, before or since.

Trolling plastic hoochies from 40 to 60 feet deep, it's just a matter of intercepting the schools of ocean-fresh silvers. They are ravenous and eager to hit almost any bait. They are also a moving target, quick to relocate as the bait and the whims of the spawning drive move them, so this is no time to get married to a favorite spot. One day there will be thousands in a small area, that the week before and after will be devoid of fish.

The spot to fish is where the salmon are right now.

***For example, Labor Day Weekend George Thorp, visiting from Hawaii, and I spent a quick day trolling off the back side of Admiralty Island, not far from Point Retreat, with guide Mike Duby. Mike had located a huge school of silvers and it was just a matter of moving along the rugged shoreline until we found them.

Photo by Lee Leschper
  Lee Leschper with a pair of nice silvers caught on a Clouser streamer from the Gastineau Channel last September.
I learned another intriguing aspect of these fickle fish. Every time we trolled with the current, silvers slammed the hoochies, often two at a time. Most of the fish were at 45 feet, but every time we fought a fish to the surface, a half dozen other silvers would be following along, eager to hit a bait. More than once, we'd flip a weighted dart or diamond spoon behind the fighting fish, to have another following silver slam the artificial.

We were only trolling two baits, to string out the day. Yet often two silvers would slam the baits at the same time, adding to the fireworks as we tried to keep two 12-pounds beasts from tangling. Often one would jump and throw the hook. But just as often, we'd managed to keep both silvers in line, somehow. And more than once Mike's brother Joel, working the deck, would scoop both beautiful silvers into one net.

In four hours of fishing on a gorgeous early-fall day, we landed 22 gorgeous silvers up to 14 pounds. And George added a nice bonus, a 8-pound sockeye that glowed brilliant green in the clear water as it came to the net.

Photo by Lee Leschper
  Fleeting beauty - a fly fisherman battles a leaping silver in the Gastineau Channel on a rare clear late September day. Note the low tide, which makes it much easier to find the concentrated schools of fish.
• • • • •

If that trolling action was all that September offered, it'd be enough. Yet it's just the beginning.

Later in the month, it's time to pack away the trolling gear and pickup the fly rod.

That's the second, the special silver that I love so dearly. It doesn't matter if it's the current-bucking big silvers of Kowee Creek or Montana Creek, hanging in each deep hole on the way upstream to spawn, or the flood of smaller, more numerous silvers that jam Gastineau Channel through September. Many will wind up in the DIPAC hatchery, but many more will be ready for any angler to intercept, whether with a snagging rig or a 5-weight fly rod.

The first silver I met in Alaska was a 12-pounder trolled up off Shelter Island in late August.

Smoked, that salmon was a memorable memento back in Texas.

The next real Alaskan salmon I met was a silver on the Gastineau Channel, the second week in September last year when I'd moved to Juneau. That fish inhaled a chartreuse Clouser minnow. It was the first of many silvers I caught on a fly rod from the Channel in late September.

Photo by Lee Leschper
  Visiting Hawaiian angler George Thorp with a hefty September silver caught trolling off Point Retreat.
It's not like fly fishing I'd known down south, where it was a finesse game. In Colorado or Idaho, drifting a tiny dry fly or nymph was a percentage game, because eventually a brown, brookie or rainbow would draw close, although more often they'd veer off instead of taking the fly.

Making the transition to big water, bigger tackle and much bigger fish was an eye-opening experience.

Until a few hapless smolt and Dolly Vardens this summer, the smallest salmon I' caught on a fly in Alaska was biggest than the biggest rainbow or brown I'd caught anywhere Down South, and this including some pretty fair rainbows from the San Juan and browns from the South Fork of the Snake.

Wading the Gastineau Channel for September silvers is a low-tide game. The fish are always there, but the minus tides will concentrate them. If you can spot the passing schools, so much the better. If you don't see the fish, blind casting can still work.

The DIPAC terminal fishery is prime time for snaggers, who use the finesse of eagles to snatch prime silvers for the smoker from the passing schools.

But fly tackle is equally productive, when conditions are right, with a bright chartreuse Clouser Minnow sure to be inhaled by any passing silver.

Flyfishing for fall silvers plays on their propensity to attack any colorful, bright bait, whether a bright Pixie spoon or a chartreuse Clouser Minnow, twitched slowly along the bottom.

The other joy of fly fishing is that it takes very little gear. While I've gone as low as a 5-weight, you will take much more time and have more risk with every fish. A 7- or 8-weight makes more sense. My standard gear is a 9-weight that handles the heavy weighted flies better.

Occasionally a sinking line will help, but usually the silvers will be cruising relatively close to shore and a weight forward floating line works fine. Add an assortment of bright streamers-chartreuse Clousers in salt water, magenta Egg Sucking Leeches in fresh, and you'll be ready for most situations.

If you choose one of the creeks, remember the fish will be on bottom, often in the deepest holes. Fish deep and slow, whether you're using a fly or spinning tackle. The creek fish are also prone to hit a Pixie spoon or a gob of salmon roe.

While there are silvers to be had in some of the creeks into October, the prime fishing will be from early September through the end of the month. This will peak sometime between the 15th and 25th with huge schools, but it could be sooner or later. An early rush of big 15-pound silvers showed up at DIPAC in late August, but the bigger schools of smaller fish were still beginning to appear by the 7th.

You have to be a bit lucky, and ready to make the most of every opportunity.

Too much rain, tides too high, and the fish, if there, will be impossible to find.

So it pays to be vigilant for the perfect day, the perfect hour, and the day when all things combine to perfection.

And when that day comes, forget work, school, chores or good intentions.

It's a long winter coming-today is the day to fish!

• • • • •

Leschper is regional advertising director for Morris Communications in Alaska, including the Juneau Empire and Capital City Weekly. He is also an award-winning outdoor writer who moved to Juneau a year ago, just in time for the fall silver fishing. Email him at