Story last updated at 10/21/2009 - 1:32 pm
It's late October, and fresh snow garnishes the high peaks of the Chilkat Range, a subtle, yet clear indicator that winter might come early this year in Southeast Alaska. Under my boots, ice cracks like plates of fragile Depression glass as I carefully walk through a tapestry of leaves that carpet the river's edge. Off in the distance, downstream, the deliberate call of a raven echoes through the lichen rich canyon. Pausing, I begin to read the gin clear water - surveying the pool, systematically from top to bottom, while carefully noting the presence of a few subtle seams and definitive ledges.
My eyes quickly began to swell as I note a small shadow, a pod of late season cohos calmly swaying in the soft current like a ghostly amoeba. They hold cryptically together in moderately deep water just before the tailout of the main pool. With shaking hands I hastily reach for my fly box. My fingers burn from the cold as I struggle to tie a fly on.
After what feels like an hour, I make my first cast of the morning. With each new drift, I allow my fly to slowly sink deeper into the pool each time carefully guiding the drift with my rod tip. The drift is soft and slow as the fly gently swings across the pool. Then, without warning, one of the resting silvers intercepts my drifting fly and leaps in the air, rupturing the pool's quiet surface.
Generally speaking, the latter part of October is late season fishing in Southeast Alaska. Although fish are available (predominantly late-run silvers, Dolly Varden and cutthroat trout) most if not all anglers in Southeast Alaska have packed up their gear and have moved on to other outdoor recreational activities such as hunting. Late October is also when temperatures in Southeast begin to fall. Both ambient and water temperatures soon begin to hover in the mid-to-low thirties and those fish that are available have metabolisms that are tightly affected by these cold water conditions. For those die-hard anglers like myself who chose to stretch the season and fish through the month of October or even into November, it is the fly and technique that one employs that will ultimately dictate success or failure during these cold-water and late season periods.
In rivers and creeks, when water temperatures begin to plummet, fish tend to seek out regions with the slowest currents that also provide both safety and comfort. Fly-fishing in slow water without intricate currents might initially sound easy, but such conditions offer fish plenty of time to thoroughly inspect and (more times than not) reject the fly offering. Because of this added time to visually inspect the fly as it passes during the drift, it is important to choose a fly based on its materials so that it will tantalize the fish into grabbing.
With this in mind, several fly tying materials are ideal for such conditions: marabou, bunny strips, spey hackle and hen back. Flies tied using any of these listed materials are extremely effective in cold-water conditions, because these materials tend to move freely and undulate and become "alive" when drifting in soft currents. Such movement, even if only subtle, may be just enough stimuli to elicit an aggressive predatory strike response from an initially lethargic fish.
Just as important as fly selection, how one presents and drifts the fly is equally as critical when fishing in cold thin water conditions. There's an old axiom of fly-fishing that Pacific Northwest steelheaders live by while targeting winter-run steelhead: present your fly "low and slow" when conditions get cold.
Here in Southeast Alaska, I choose to use a long delicate leader, and fish it on either a full floating line or a clear intermediate line with very little weight. I present the fly down and across and slowly swim and guide my fly with my fly rod as it gently swings through the suspected lie, or target zone. This approach maintains the fluidity of the swing and facilitates the gentle, pulsating movements of the swinging fly.
Late season fishing is not for everyone. Our local daylight is rapidly fading, and the days are often cold and mixed with rain or snow. But it's also a quiet and peaceful time in Southeast Alaska. Streams that once flowed like angry serpents fueled by coastal rains now meander gently through darkened valleys and deeply shaded canyons. Fishing in late-October allows the "die-hard" angler several more opportunities to say "one more cast" before finally hanging it up for the season. So remember, to fully reap the benefits of cold-water fly-fishing during the late season in Southeast Alaska, chose a fly that has plenty of movement and fish it "low and slow."
Good luck and tight lines!
Rich Culver is a fly-fishing freelance writer and photographer and member of the Scott Fly Rod Company's Pro Staff. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.