PUBLISHED: 11:38 AM on Thursday, September 28, 2006
Success in high water conditions
Late fall in Southeast Alaska

Rich Culver photo
  A solitary fly fisher surveys a remote Southeast Alaska watershed for late-fall silvers.
The transition into fall is a beautiful and peaceful time in Southeast Alaska.

The long days of summer have all come and gone and daylight, once ubiquitous in June, is now precious and rare.

Pewter skies laden with clouds the color of gun smoke etch the horizon while riparian valleys roar in harmony to the cadence of steady rainfall and swollen streams.

This is a time when a majority of anglers in Southeast Alaska begin sitting behind computers conducting Internet searches hoping to find bargain-based airfares in order to escape to warm weather fly-fishing destinations.

Local rivers once flowing like gin now flow like mocha with angry currents that despise flies. But even during these periods of heavy rain, late season fishing opportunities are still available.

To be successful, however, one must not only understand the dynamics of high flow conditions, but one must also modify their techniques and tackle to successfully combat them in order to effectively reach bottom hugging fish, primarily late-run cohos.

High water conditions present a number of obstacles to every sport angler. The most obvious hurdles are water clarity, volume, flow rate and increased depth. Combined these parameters can create a formidable and challenging barrier for locating and catching fish.

Rich Culver photo
  The author battles a late fall silver on a high water head sinktip.
One innate characteristic of silvers that will greatly assist you in locating potential holding lies is that silver salmon prefer, and will actively seek out, slow, quiet currents regardless of water clarity.

These quiet current seams may or may not be the same during low and high water conditions, but anglers who make special note of these subtle regions will undoubtedly increase their angling success during high flow conditions.

In fact, many times these soft water areas, channels and carved out bottom depressions are found only several feet from shore, along the river's edge, where many anglers haphazardly step in to wade without thought and begin their fishing.

Remember this feature when fishing high water as many times the slowest currents can be found directly in front of you.

Another important concept to understand when fishing high water conditions is current stratification.

In flowing rivers and creeks, currents are stratified; the faster currents tend to be located on top and along the surface, and they gradually become slower towards the river's bottom.

This is why silvers, like all salmon tend to hug (and be found) in the deepest part of their resting lies in order to conserve valuable energy.

This site preference means flies must now be presented quickly and deeply while slicing through layers of fast and unpredictable currents in order to reach potentially holding fish.

To do this requires a change in tackle from a standard sink tip to one that can easily turn over bigger and more robust flies with extremely heavy sinking tips.

Unfortunately such lines are not commercially available, but here's how you can make one!

Generally speaking, fly lines are comprised of two parts; the belly or head and the running line. Most standard fly lines have a belly region that measures approximately thirty feet in length. The belly or head is the part of the fly line that is responsible for the line's mass (usually measured in grains) and is specifically matched to perform with an assigned rod weight( ie-6 weight, 8-weight, etc.). Because high water sink tips must deliver large, heavy flies and at the same time turn over high density sinking lines as tips (with a lot of mass) they must be modified to work with your rod's assigned weight. I construct my high water sink tip heads following these simple guidelines. First, I calculate the total length of my desired sink tip head. For most anglers this will generally be thirty feet in length. Some anglers, however, choose to be a bit more precise and go by the formula of "3.2 times the length of the rod" when determining the overall length of their high water sink tip heads. A nine-foot rod would therefore require a head length of around twenty-nine feet. It's important to note that this is the total length of the belly plus the added sink tip. To determine the length of the floating belly, one must first decide on the various lengths of sinking tips most commonly used and then subtract this value from the overall length. For example, if one intends to use fifteen foot sink tips, then the length of the floating belly would be twenty-nine minus fifteen or fourteen feet.

Proper construction of the floating belly is crucial to smooth delivery of the sink tip. If not, no matter how well one casts serious hinging or "kicking" will result during the forward presentation instead of smooth curved loops. The reason this "kicking" occurs is because the floating belly does not have enough mass to delivery the required energy to turn over the heavy sinking high density tips. The solution to this is easy, however. The floating belly must be of higher density than the sinking tips. Here's a general rule that I follow that will assist you in constructing high water sink tips that will turn over smoothly and at the same time, easily delivery robust flies while using aggressive sinking tips. First, I begin with a floating line that is at least two rod-weights over the rod that I will be fishing the line on. For example, if I intend to fish the high water head on a nine-weight fly rod, I begin with an eleven-weight floating line. I cut the attached uniform running line (and discard it) which then leaves me with just the head/belly region. After this, I measure out the appropriate length of belly section from the thickest part of the belly. This ensures me enough mass to turn over even the heaviest sinking tips. Second, I attach braided nylon loops to both ends and color code them-one end will be attached to my running line and the other will be attached to the sink tips. By following these guidelines, the newly constructed high water head will gracefully turn over sink tips made from lines up to a ten-weight (or one weight above the rod).

Late fall water conditions usually dictate when and where one can fish and many times in Southeast Alaska this means calling it a season or even leaving the State to seek out fishable water. However, with a little understanding of current stratification and the use of high water sink tips, one can still be successful and many times find a coho or two lurking in the depths of chocolate flows that would otherwise be left untouched. Good luck and tight lines!