Story last updated at 11/7/2012 - 1:11 pm
Thin sheets of ice shatter like glass under my boots, and remind me that fall is rapidly waning. To the peaceful song of a distant water ouzel, I quietly wade into the lower end of the pool. My damp fingers ache from the cold and begin to tingle. Valiantly, I try to warm them by blowing repeatedly into a clinched fist until suddenly, a soft swirl in the middle of the pool catches my attention. It's a late-season coho. With numb and stumbling fingers, I reach for my fly box and struggle to hastily tie on a marabou spider. The November air is bitter cold and feels heavy and angelic mist spills from the canyon and hovers inches off the water. Alder branches on both sides of the river now void of leaves bow like arches from the weight of crystalline icicles. Still focused on the lower pool, I instinctively peel several arm lengths of fly line off my old Hardy Perfect and with a poetic sweep of my fly rod, I carefully launch my first cast - a gentle spiral roll that quietly sends my fly gracefully into the pool. No sooner had my fly completed its slow swing, I feel my line become heavy and taut. I slip my rod to the side, intuitively, to tighten the line. There's a sudden deep throb that radiates up my fly rod followed by a bending flash that boils in the pool. With a seasoned smile I mumble to myself, "game on."
Generally speaking, the cold month of November is a transition month for fly fishers in Southeast Alaska. With a few exceptions, most of our returning silver salmon have entered their natal waters. They now glow like red candy apples, resting in deep quiet pools. Fall Dolly Varden, fully dressed in spirited spawning colors, are also ablaze at this time. Their fiery shadows sway in harmony in the softer currents common in late-fall as they rest patiently behind spawning salmon, opportunistically darting for a tasty egg or chunk of carcass when they drift by. At this time of the season, local rivers rapidly swell in volume from repetitive days of biblical rain. However, just as fast as they rise, our local rivers also drop and settle into crystalline, slow flowing gems once ambient temperatures plummet and begin to hover in the low 30's and 20's. At this time of the season, in spite of the cold, fish can still be charmed into taking flies. The flies we choose and the techniques we use to present them, however, must take into consideration these coldwater conditions in order to be effective. I particularly enjoy this unique time of the year when days are short, fishing is challenging, and our local streams are both quiet and for the most part void of other anglers.
So what constitutes a good fly for coldwater conditions? In short, all successful coldwater flies exhibit one common attribute and that is the quality of subtle movement. This subtle movement is the key ingredient to getting lethargic, cold fish into grabbing. Generally speaking, cold fish tend to lie in deeper pools or in those areas of the stream where currents are the slowest or softest. Because coldwater lies have such slow currents, the flies we present will drift by at a very slow rate, and fish get a very good look at them. This can work for you or against you, and I prefer to take advantage of this attribute and let it work for me. In other words, let the fish have a good look at your fly by presenting it to them in a nice, slow, swinging (or dead drifted) presentation. Also let the fly, and in particular the fly material, move and undulate in the gentle currents. The materials one chooses for coldwater flies are just as important as the presentation and site selection.
To achieve the goal of subtle movement when designing and tying coldwater flies, I select materials such as bunny strips, marabou, long soft hackles and spey type hackles. All of these materials, although different in appearance, share one common feature - the ability to move and flow in subtle currents. When tied properly, all of these materials tend to "come alive" when fished in slow moving currents ubiquitous in the late-fall. But just using these materials will not guarantee success. It's also important to use them properly and to dress your flies sparsely. Coldwater flies are tied very sparsely and usually without underlying lead wraps. In addition, hackles tend to be longer, more heavily webbed, and usually folded in order to use fewer wraps. Together, this creates a fly that will swim and not spin as it crosses varying currents during the course of the drift. Flies tied using bunny strips are especially deadly. They are also easy and quick to tie, extremely durable, and the strips come in a wide variety of commercially available colors that fish love. But once again, they key is to go sparse.
Marabou is another material that is ideal to use when designing and tying coldwater flies. Marabou feathers lack adhesive barbules, so flies tied with marabou are very lively and tend to pulsate when fished in slow water. Similar to bunny strips, marabou feathers are available in a wide variety of commercially produced colors. When I select my marabou I prefer the longer feathers with the webbiest characteristics. These long, webby, hackle tips when folded create beautiful and highly attractive spider patterns. These marabou spiders, as they are called, are the rave in British Columbia and are a recognized cult fly used widely in steelhead circles throughout the Pacific Northwest. I personally love them. Soft hackles and spey flies are also wonderful coldwater flies and both are personal favorites of mine. They possess all the necessary attributes to entice fish in cold conditions, and they also highlight years of fly-fishing tradition.
Lastly, if spey flies, marabous, bunnies or soft hackles don't stir up a grab and you're confident that you are drifting over fish, go small, but still remain sparse. Fish in cold water have slower metabolisms and they generally do not pounce on drifted fly offerings. Instead, they tend to accept the fly very gingerly. You'll be surprised at the response you can get by going small and sparse. I have caught (and released) hundreds of 15-plus pound winter steelhead on size 14-soft hackles. But it's important to note that during these times, conditions dictated the use of small, sparsely tied soft hackle-type flies.
As the month of November quietly unfolds and we begin to dodge the subtle yet growing hints of cabin fever that inevitably comes with this time of the year, it's time to enhance that peaceful afternoon walk along your favorite stream by packing along your fly rod and a box or two of flies designed specifically for use in coldwater. Remember, this is the quiet time of the year, but it's also a wonderful time to simply get out to enjoy Southeast Alaska and some of the last fishing of the 2012 season.
Good luck and happy fishing!
Rich Culver is a fly-fishing freelance writer and photographer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.