Story last updated at 11/18/2009 - 11:59 am
Generally speaking, the cold month of November is a transition month for fly fishers in Southeast Alaska. Most of our fall-run silver salmon have moved far upstream, having found their natal waters, and with few exceptions, they now glow like fiery embers resting in deep quiet pools. Fall Dolly Varden are also on fire at this time, fully dressed in festive spawning colors. Their deep olive shadows sway in harmony in the soft edges of currents as they rest patiently behind deeply cupped redds carved by cohos, opportunistically waiting for a tasty egg or chunk of carcass to drift by. In November, local rivers can rapidly swell from repetitive days of rain. But just as fast as they rise, they can also drop and soon 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 and spreading darkness, fish can still be charmed into taking flies. The flies we choose and the techniques we use, however, must take into consideration these ubiquitous cold and late season conditions in order to be effective. I particularly enjoy this unique time of the angling season 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 angling? The answer is movement. All successful coldwater fly patterns exhibit this critical component and that is the characteristic of subtle movement. This subtle movement is the primary ingredient to getting cold, lethargic fish into grabbing. As water temperatures drop, fish generally migrate to deeper pools or to those areas of the stream where currents are the slowest or softest. Because most coldwater lies have slow currents, the flies we present will drift by at a very slow rate, and fish unfortunately get plenty of time to evaluate it. The important point here is to use this slow drift to your advantage and to benefit from it, but to do so requires that you use fly patterns tied with select materials.
To achieve the goal of subtle movement when designing and tying coldwater flies, I select materials such as marabou, long soft hackles and traditional 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 and early winter. 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, particularly in high turbulent medicine. 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, the key is to go sparse!
So as the month of November quietly unfolds and we begin to dodge the subtle hints of cabin fever that inevitably come 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, a lunch and a box or two of flies specifically tied to move in soft, gently flowing water. Remember, this is the quiet time of the year, but it's also a wonderful time to simply get out to enjoy some of the last fishing of the season. Good luck and happy fishing!
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.