PUBLISHED: 2:47 PM on Thursday, October 26, 2006
Go low, slow when conditions get cold
By Rich Culver

Rich Culver photo
  Late fall fishing in Southeast Alaska is for die-hard anglers who chose to stretch the season and fish through the month of November The fly and technique that one employs will ultimately dictate success or failure during cold-water and late season periods.
It was barely November, but winter came early this year in Southeast Alaska. Under my boots ice cracked like plates of Depression glass as I carefully walked through soft mounds of freshly fallen snow that carpeted the river's edge.

Off in the distance, downstream, the deliberate call of a raven echoed through the lichen rich canyon.

Pausing, I began to read the gin clear water-surveying the pool, systematically, while carefully noting the presence of subtle seams and definitive ledges.

Then, my eyes began to swell, as I noted a small pod of late season cohos calmly swaying in the soft current like ghostly shadows.

They were holding in moderately deep water just before the tailout of the main pool. With shaking hands I hastily reached for my fly box. My fingers now burning from the cold worked slowly as I struggled to tie a fly on.

Rich Culver photo
  The author with a beautiful chromer that fell for a slowly drifted soft hackle fly.
After what seemed like an hour, I made my first cast of the day. With each new drift, I allowed my fly to sink deeper into the pool each time carefully guiding the drift with my rod tip.

Then, without warning, one of the resting silvers intercepted my drifting fly and ruptured the pool's quiet surface.

Generally speaking, November 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 already packed up their gear and have chosen other outdoor recreational activities.

November is also when temperatures 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 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 moving fresh water environments such as rivers, when water temperatures begin to plummet fish tend to seek out regions of the river with the slowest currents that also provide both safety and comfort.

Rich Culver photo
  Choosing flies comprised of materials that "move" in slow currents is critical to angling success when times get cold.
Fly- fishing in slow water such as this might initially sound easy but such conditions allow the 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 and they are: marabou, bunny strips, spey hackle and hen back. Flies tied using any of these listed materials are extremely effective in cold-water conditions, for these materials tend to move freely and undulate 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, the way one presents and drifts the fly is equally as critical when fishing in cold-water environments. There's an axiom of fly-fishing that virtually all successful Pacific Northwest steelheaders live by when targeting bottom-hugging, winter-run steelhead and that is present your fly "low and slow" when conditions get cold. In the Pacific Northwest this means using full sink shooting heads or heavy density sink tip fly lines fished either down and across or perpendicular to the current while constantly guiding the swing of the drift with the rod tip. However, in Southeast Alaska the majority of our watersheds are not as prodigious as those found in the Pacific Northwest and as a result flies presented using sinking heads or tips don't drift as freely in slow currents. In fact, these techniques tend to restrict the fluidity of the swing and movement of the fly in general when fished using such lines in our smaller systems ubiquitous to Southeast Alaska.

In order to get my fly down to my desired depth and to begin drifting freely and quickly with unrestricted movement, I employ the right angle poly yarn indicator technique developed by Dave Hickson and Dean Shubert of Northern California. This particular technique is a highly specialized version of the simple strike indicator nymph technique but with several key modifications. The first modification is the application of a multicolored poly yarn "puff ball" indicator in contrast to a simple corky or foam pinch-on float indicator. The poly yarn indicator is multicolored for two fundamental reasons. First, it aids in detecting even the slightest strikes as noted as a subtle twitch and movement in color. Second, as the indicator drifts during the presentation it will spin and then settle when the indicator becomes directly above (or in a right angle with) the drifting fly, and this can be easily noted as a color shift in the indicator as it drifts. And third, using this technique, flies drift naturally in even the softest of currents, and they sink freely due to an absence of line drag. Together, these three features accommodate the two requisite components for both late season fishing and cold-water conditions in that it allows one to fish a fly "low and slow" throughout the drift.

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 shaded canyons. Late season fishing 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!