Catch & Release: Doing It Right

Catch & Release, large salmon

When I first began thinking about how I would approach an article on catch and release, my brain got all tangled up with thoughts about why I fish, whether I would fish if I was convinced that fish feel pain, and if catch and release really achieves the goals that anglers believe it does.

It goes without saying that fishing is a wonderful way to be outdoors, that it is an enjoyable challenge for most of us to pit our large, human brains against the much smaller brain of a creature from another world, and that we do, at certain times, fish to eat. So, where did the concepts of fishing just for fun and practicing catch and release come from?

Anglers have probably always engaged in some catch and release activities, even if we didn’t call them that. We’ve let fish go because they were smaller than the legal catch limit, because we just wanted to catch a bigger fish, or because we hooked a sucker instead of the trout that we were after.

Now, however, even when we catch the trout that we targeted, we release it.  How come? When did things begin to change? Who is responsible for the concept of “limit your catch, don’t catch your limit” or the “zero limit” phrases that have become so popular?

Most fly anglers credit Lee Wulff, a giant in the world of fly fishing, author of eight books, inventor of the fishing vest, and a founder of the Federation of Fly Fishers, with being the “father” of catch and release. They use his now-famous 1936 quote, “A game fish is too valuable to catch only once,” as the rallying cry for the conservation movement.  Michael Gold, the photographer/videographer who captured Wulff on film, said, “He believed that it was important to release a fine fish so that the next angler could have the same experience. That no-kill concept changed angling forever.”

In Wulff’s early days governmental agencies regulated fishing through bag limits, slot limits, retention/non-retention rules, and open and closed seasons, if they regulated it at all. Management or conservation through catch and release was almost unheard of. Anglers who practiced it did so strictly voluntarily. Over time, though, catch and release (called “delayed harvest” or “selective harvest” in some states) has progressed to being a legal requirement on many waters. In Alaska, those requirements often coincide with “fly fishing only” or single barbless hook restrictions.

After years of practicing catch and release both voluntarily and as a legal imperative, we know that both fish and fishing derive benefits from its usage.  First and foremost, anglers receive the satisfaction that they have contributed to the future of their sport as Wulff’s comments suggested. If permitted by local law and regulation, they may also be able to extend the fishing day by releasing the additional fish they catch after reaching their limit.  In addition, catch and release is now an instrument used by governmental agencies as conservation and environmental protection mechanisms. Simply stated, returning fish to the water helps avoid the depletion of resources, and ensures enjoyable fishing experiences for ourselves and other anglers.

Objections to Catch & Release

Clearly, not everyone agrees with the catch and release philosophy, regardless of its benefits. Disagreement takes several different forms. Some see catch and release as an onslaught on the use of conventional fishing methods and equipment, others claim that fish mortality from catch and release is so high that it is not achieving its species conservation objectives, groups like PETA view it as fish torture, and a few simply see it as a ridiculous waste of time to catch a fish and then not kill it and eat it.

In Alaska catch and release sometimes engenders a cultural debate as many Alaska Native people characterize returning fish to the water as disrespectful of the fish. Raised in a culture that reveres fish as a major subsistence food source, they consider this mistreatment of the fish. Their belief holds that when animals are mistreated, the natural order becomes disrupted and people may risk food shortages in the future as a result. This position is not a debate but a cultural ethic. Anglers should respect such beliefs and traditional hunting and fishing grounds and move away from obvious traditional use sites.

Rather than enter into any of these debates, I’d rather concentrate on some of the reasons for fish mortality in fresh water catch and release fishing and how its correct practice can lower those numbers.  We’ll leave salt water catch and release and tournament release discussions for another time.

Fish Mortality With Catch & Release

Biologists have conducted many studies of fish mortality in fresh water resulting from the use of catch and release fishing methods. Some have to do with survival in particular species, some have focused on specific reasons for fish mortality including the use of certain gear and equipment, hook site factors, and fishing methods, and some have addressed the link between mortality and the actual techniques of catch and release.

The picture is increasingly clear that catch and release practices impact different fish species in different ways. Water temperature, salinity and fish size are three important interactive factors that affect survival of released striped bass, for instance. Spawning sockeye salmon tend to remain near their redds and are, therefore, more vulnerable to being caught and released multiple times, which can lead to incidental mortality. Adult coho salmon, on the other hand, may be more susceptible to high mortality rates from catch and release in estuaries since they may still be actively feeding and thus more apt to swallow bait and incur deep hooking injuries. Some fish caught and released during times of very high water or very low temperatures may show increased mortality when released, and fish such as lake trout, caught at great depths and brought too quickly to the surface of the water, may die from the fish version of “the bends.”

In spite of the fact that there are not yet species-specific catch and release methods, there is a growing body of evidence about which fishing gear, methods, and release techniques contribute significantly to increased mortality in catch and release fishing. Location of the hook and deep hooking, certain extraction methods, and the use of treble hooks and barbed hooks are some of the equipment considerations. Playing a fish to exhaustion, keeping it out of the water too long, and releasing it too quickly are types of fishing or release techniques that contribute significantly to fish mortality.

Studies show that fish hooked in the gills, throat, or lower internal organs are considerably more vulnerable than fish hooked in the upper or lower jaw. In fact, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Recreational Catch and Release Mortality research program has concluded that the location of the hook wound is the single most important factor influencing catch and release mortality. The mortality rates may differ, however, depending on the species’ mouth construction, (grayling have softer mouths than trout, for instance), location of vital organs in relation to the throat, feeding methods, the activity level of the fish in the particular fishing environment, and the type of terminal tackle used.

It is true that a baited hook, whether treble or single, is more conducive to deep hooking than other methods of fishing simply because the fish is more apt to swallow bait. Many biologists recommend that the angler could reduce fish mortality by simply deciding not to use bait except when keeping fish. The type of hook the angler uses is the subject of many related areas of study.

Treble hooks and single hooks are another area of interest in the study of fish mortality with catch and release methods. The purpose of a three-pronged hook is to increase the anglers’ chances of hooking up the fish. More often than not, two or even three prongs of the hook will have impaled the fish. That makes the treble hook three times more likely to injure the fish and two to three times more difficult to extract. If these injuries are in the gills or the throat, the fish is increasingly likely to expire.

What about the barb or barbs on the hook? What difference does that make? The barbed v. barbless hook debate is another of the gear considerations in catch and release fishing. Studies have shown that while even barbed “j” hooks (which are, of course single hooks) reduced the time it took for the angler to land the fish, they also caused more hooking injuries. They also took longer for the angler to remove, increasing the potential for injury to the fish as well as its time out of the water.

Studies comparing the circle hook with the “j” hook generally show that use of the circle hook results in somewhat lower mortality rates in fish, especially when the fish are hooked in the upper or lower external jaw. Circle hooks are less apt to cause internal injuries than are “j” hooks. The fact that fish are often harder to hook with circle hooks than with “j” hooks, makes it likely that anglers will be less apt to use them, however. Studies related to types of hooks  used in catch and release fishing stress that other factors such as length of time the fish has been played, time the fish is out of the water, and skill of the angler in removing the hook all have a significant affect on the comparisons.

Some anglers object to fishing with barbless hooks because they believe that they will lose too many fish. In fact, the barb on a hook may make hook penetration even more difficult in fish with bony mouths. Just think how often it is necessary to set either a barbed or barbless hook several times on a large coho.

“J” hooks, circle hooks, and treble hooks can all have barbs. It’s easy to remove them by taking a needle-nosed pliers and pinching them down.  Japanese hooks, which typically have what is referred to as a “miro-barb,” are easier to flatten than stainless steel hooks or hooks with larger barbs.

Anglers lose just as many fish with barbed hooks as those who are fishing barbless. If you watch carefully, you’ll see that the successful angler is one who can set the hook well in the first place and then keep the line tight while playing the fish, regardless of whether the hook is barbless or not.

Correct Catch and Release Methods

Besides wounding, the other primary cause of mortality for caught and released fish is stress. Stress on the fish results from being played to exhaustion, and/or being released incorrectly. Here are some guidelines for playing and releasing fish.

  1. Get the fish in quickly 

    Protracted fish-fights are the stuff of legend. Many’s the angler who brags about the length of time it took to land a fish. That seems to verify that the fish was extraordinarily large and that we have been the victor. A fish that rolls over or lays on its side is clearly exhausted. It must be revived and released correctly to survive. The goal should be to land the fish before those signs of exhaustion appear and then to release it quickly, correctly, and safely.

  2. Use the size of tackle recommended for the fish you’re after 

    Using the proper tackle is a pre-requisite to getting the fish in rapidly. A rod and line too light for the size of the fish will always cause a prolonged battle. Unfortunately, people insist on using the lighter weight rods that are now on the market to pursue heavier species than they are intended for. Sure, you can probably land a four or five pound rainbow that you have accidently hooked on a two-wt rod, but by the time you do, the fish is so exhausted it you cannot revive it. Even if it appears to be o.k. when released, it may die later of the delayed reaction to stress. Better to just pop out the fly or break the leader to let the fish go. There’s less damage to the fish with a hook in its mouth than there is from being played too long.

  3. Use single barbless hooks
    Barbless hooks are much easier to remove from the fish than hooks with a barb, and single barbless hooks are the easiest of all. Rather than just clip off two of the hooks on a treble hook, replace the hook with a single, barbless hook. Pinch the barb down with a needle-nosed pliers (and keep the pliers accessible for hook removal.)
  4. If using a landing net be sure it is soft, knotless mesh or rubberSome anglers use landing nets and others do not. There are many excellent landing nets on the market now that are made of soft, knotless mesh or soft, flexible rubber. Avoid using old-style nets made with knotted cotton or twine.  They scrape slime off of fish.Some anglers choose not to use a net at all. They prefer to land fish by “tailing” them. If the fish has a soft mouth, “lip-landing” may be the method of choice. Either method requires that the fish’s belly be supported during handling and release.
  5. Keep fish that are going to be released in the water. Don’t haul them  up on the bank 

    Fish starved of oxygen often cannot be revived. Even when they appear to be o.k., they’ll still risk delayed mortality. Fish allowed to thrash around on the bank or in the rocks suffer serious injuries to their internal organs. Stand in the water and remove the hook without taking the fish from the water.

  6. Hold it correctly for hook release so you don’t remove its slime 

    Take hold of the fish right in front of the tail to avoid removal of their slime. Keep hold of the tail during hook removal and picture-taking so that the fish does not escape prematurely and return to the water without proper revival. Better yet, take a picture of the fish in the water.A fish’s slime protects it from bacteria and parasites. It is important not to wipe it off by handling the fish. Fish also need to remain in a horizontal position to avoid damage to their internal organs. Don’t just hang the fish off the end of the line without supporting its body during the hook release or picture taking.  A release that just tears the hook out of the fish’s mouth while it is struggling in a perpendicular position can do extensive damage. Hold the fish in front of the tail with one hand and support its belly with the other. Lift the fish out of the water for hook release or picture taking just briefly, returning it immediately to the water. Maintain a hold on the fish’s tail to help control it so that you can properly re-stabilize and re-oxygenate it during revival.

  7. Keep your fingers out of the fish’s gills and away from its eyes. 

    Putting your fingers into a fish’s gills can puncture its gills and kill it. Regardless of whether the fish is in the water or out, it will begin to bleed, and will die because it can’t breathe. It is also easy to put out a fish’s eye with your fingers. Although a fish might be able to survive with only one eye, there is an effect on its feeding habits and a risk of infection from the open wound.

  8. Remove the hook with a commercial hook-release tool or needle-nosed pliers, and not with your hands 

    Hook removal is one of the most sensitive aspects of releasing a fish. Much depends on where the hook is lodged. Lip and jaw hook-ups are the easiest to remove and generally result in much lower mortality rates for fish. Hooks lodged in the gills, throat, or stomach are the most problematical to release as well as the most lethal.Many people use a needle-nosed pliers or hook-release tools to extract hooks from fish. With a needle-nosed pliers, the angler just needs to grab the bend of the hook with the nose of the pliers and rotate the hook backwards from the way it entered the fish.  When using a commercial hook-release tool it is important to learn to use the device before going fishing to avoid hurting fish while you learn. Some people practice by inserting a hook with a line on it into an orange or an apple and using the tool to remove it. Others stick a hook inside a small cardboard box (to give the illusion of a deeply-hooked fish) and practice for removal of a hook that could be in the fish’s throat or gills.

    Since inserting a tool or pliers into the fish’s throat or stomach frequently results in bleeding, catch and release studies recommend simply cutting the leader and leaving the hook in the fish. Even that can cause the fish to die, however, because the hook can impair natural feeding. A barbless hook is, of course, more apt to dislodge no matter where it is located. Unless prohibited by catch and release regulations, it

  9. During revival hold the fish underwater with its head facing into the current 

    When reviving a fish, one hand should be holding it tightly right in front of the tail, and the other should be cradling the fish’s belly. (In front of the tail is the only place you can safely squeeze a fish.) Do not move the fish back and forth, as this forces water backwards into its gills and can actually slow down the revival process or even drown it. Simply hold it without letting the current turn it sideways.To revive, the fish must re-stabilize and re-oxygenate. That process takes time. Released too soon, the fish will wobble out into the current, turn belly-up and drown.As re-stabilization and re-oxygenation begin to occur, the first thing the angler will notice is that that the fish’s gills start to open and close naturally. Next, the fish will begin to wiggle and appear to be ready to go. It isn’t. Keep its nose pointed into the current, and continue to hold it there. Make sure it stays straight into the current and don’t let go of it. A fish that is completely revived and re-oxygenated and ready to swim away safely will forcefully trust itself out of your hand. You won’t be able to hold it. Releasing a fish prematurely is a very common mistake in catch and release. Follow the rule that it is the fish that decides when it is ready to return to the water, not the angler.

    Just a word about releasing a fish in a lake from a float tube or canoe. When there is no current in which to revive a fish, the angler needs to create one. When releasing a fish from a canoe, most anglers simply paddle along with one hand holding the fish in the water until it revives. It’s harder to do in a float tube because you’re paddling backwards. In that case, secure your rod, hold the fish in front of the tail and under the belly with its head below the water.Then begin to paddle slowly with just one flipper around in a circle with the fish’s nose pointed into the current that you’re creating.  If it takes awhile and you are feeling dizzy, just carefully turn the fish around and paddle with the other foot in the other direction. Just as in moving water, the fish will force itself out of your hands when it’s ready to go.

    Certainly, there are some fish that we’ll keep. We all want a few salmon in our freezer. But with other species, it’s a good idea to follow the recommendation to limit your kill to just fish that you’ll be eating right away. Finding that you’ve put fish into the freezer only to get freezer-burned and then thrown away will make you wish you had.

    When you do keep a fish, dispatch it quickly. Just one sharp blow right on the top of the head where the head and body meet is usually all it takes. If you have a knife, just one stab into that same spot will achieve the same result.

    I think that it’s great to see a healthy, revived fish take off like a rocket back into the watery depths. Saying goodbye isn’t nearly as hard when you know that you’ve released the fish correctly so that it will be around for you, your children, or other anglers to catch another time.

    “Catch & Release: Doing It Right” was originally published in Fish Alaska Magazine, October 2008

There’s No Place Like Nome

Nome Grayling

O.K. click your heals together and repeat after me, “There’s no place like Nome, there’s no place like Nome.” Now you’re in the right frame of mind for me to tell you that the far north’s Seward Peninsula, and the Nome area in particular, provide some fishing opportunities that you may have been missing.

Salmon in the North Country

Many people find it hard to believe that northwest Alaska rivers experience runs of salmon. But they do. Some are accessible only to fly-in or rafting anglers, but the Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game’s Kotzebue or Nome offices have information about lots of possibilities. In the case of the Nome area, ADF&G publishes an informative little booklet, The Nome Roadside Fishing Guide that details the different species of fish present in the nearly twenty creeks and rivers along the three gravel roads that lead out of town. Pink salmon are present in most of them, as are chums, but spawning populations of silvers, sockeye, and king salmon also occur.

One of the best known of the sockeye runs along Nome’s road system is found in the Pilgrim River, which drains popular Salmon Lake. The Nome-Taylor (or Kougarok) Road parallels the river for nineteen miles from the lake to a bridge at milepost 65. A popular boat put-in spot, the bridge also offers wading access both up and down river.

We didn’t have a boat, one year, so we’d taken our rental car and driven to the lake and its BLM campground/picnic area on a sunny August afternoon. It’s a beautiful, if very buggy, spot with a number of cabins lining the shore. Big pods of sockeye were splashing and pairing up for spawning just off the beach. We did our best to eat under and around our head nets as we sat on the bank to watch. “I didn’t realize that there was such a large run of sockeye up here,” my friend said. She saw for herself that she had been mistaken.

Since the river was open for salmon fishing some distance down from the lake outlet, we rigged up the 8-wts and hiked off downstream to see if we could find any keepable sockeye, or in the alternative, to fish for Dollies and grayling as we went.

Why is it that the same sockeye that refuses to strike a fly when they are silver and fresh, absolutely inhales anything that drifts their way when they’re all toothy and scarlet-bodied in their spawning phase? Over and over again we ended up with one of these feisty reds on the end of the line with the tiny egg imitation, intended for a fat grayling, stuck firmly in their jaw. Still strong, even though nearing their end, it was a battle to get them to shore for the release, especially when we’d hooked them on the 5-wts.

Of course, grayling, Dollies, and even the stray whitefish also took these flies. Following up tight behind the salmon, they were as eager as fish anywhere to pounce on what looked like stray eggs to them. As often happens, some of the Dollies up-chucked real eggs as we worked to dislodge the hook and return them to their feeding. We never did encounter any bright sockeye that afternoon, but we had a great time just the same.

While king runs in the north are typically small, and chum runs have been depressed in recent years, a respectable run of silvers often makes an appearance in some of these arctic rivers. The Sinuk and the Cripple River, on the Nome Teller Highway as well as the Niukluk at the termination of the Nome-Council Road, and the Fish River into which it drains, can have some good silver fishing at times. Many Nome residents also head to the Nome River on the Nome-Taylor Highway for silvers when it is open. Some of the rivers, like the Niukluk, require a boat to access the best fishing, but many do not.

Summer of 2004 produced some strong early runs of coho in several of these creeks after a number of closures in recent years. Before the run tapered off and emergency regulations went into effect to end the fishing, we experienced some exciting silver action during our annual trip to the Niukluk River in mid-August. Most of the fish were fairly “colored-up,” but aggressive and acrobatic just the same.

Nichole, who was just learning to fly fish, and her dad, who had given them both our Nome trip for her college graduation gift, could hardly decide whether they liked the grayling fishing or the silver fishing better. Since they didn’t have to choose one over the other, they just spent the days alternating their time between the two.

The strength of these northern salmon runs varies widely from year to year, resulting, at times, in stricter bag limits or complete closures, but a call to the Nome office of ADF&G can easily provide information on which to base a fishing excursion to the area.

More Than Salmon-Dolly Varden

Just because the salmon runs might not be as prolific as those on the Kenai or in Bristol Bay, don’t think that the farther north you go, the less enticing the fishing

possibilities are. It’s just not true. Merely shift your perspective (and the size of your fly or spinning rod) a bit and you’ll be surprised at the marvelous Dolly Varden and

Arctic Grayling fishing with which you can while away the long-light Arctic days on a trip toward the top of the state.

Especially in even-numbered years when the pink salmon runs have been strong in the Nome area, the Dolly Varden char fishing can be excellent. In typical Dolly

fashion, these pink-spotted beauties key on the eggs of the spawning fish and provide exceptionally fast action in Nome’s shallow, riffly streams, which are generally very wadable and crystal clear.

A few years ago, the perfect conditions made for a day of truly “every cast” success. The water was low and just the right temperature. Dozens and dozens of pinks were busy digging their nests and laying their eggs in the dish-shaped indentations among the riffles. The Dollies were absolutely everywhere. With good Polaroid glasses, their gray shapes were clearly evident flitting back and forth between mating pairs of salmon or holding right behind a nest. Big ones, small ones, silvery ones, and brightly colored ones in their own spawning colors, they seemed to rival the salmon in sheer numbers. It was Dolly nirvana.

It hadn’t taken Sally long to find just the right color and size for her Iliamna Pinkie egg fly. She was surprised by the fact that the first dozen or so fish she caught were in water only about five inches deep and less than a foot from the bank. She’d been smart enough to follow the rule to “fish the water before you walk through it,” and was rewarded with a mother-lode of fish.

With so many targets so close at hand, she just kept meandering along the bank casting to waiting fish. She didn’t even get her boots wet for the first couple of hours of fishing! “I’ll never forget this lesson,” she promised. “I’ve been as guilty as anybody of thinking that I’ve got to be half-way across the creek and cast for 40 or 50 feet to catch fish. Not anymore.”

More Than Salmon – Arctic Grayling

Grayling fishing can be even better than Dolly fishing in Nome’s streams because grayling are resident fish, not dependent on the salmon runs. And, while they, too, key in on salmon eggs when such protein-rich fare is available, they never completely abandon their craving for bugs. The lovely Niukluk River, typical of the crystal clear rivers with firm gravel bottoms which characterize the area, is reported to shelter more than 1,000 grayling per mile.

“You will think you have found fly-fishing heaven when the surface of the river is alive with rising grayling,” says John Elmore, owner of Grayling-On-A-Fly Camp (Formerly Camp Bendeleben) on the Niukluk. “All of our guests have caught trophy grayling larger than 18 inches; some say that they have trouble catching one smaller,” he adds with a chuckle.

“Right there,” Maggie said as we fished the Niukluk one year. “That large grayling just keeps rising right on the edge of the outside current seam. I’ve got to get my fly to drift to that exact spot.”

She was right; we could all see the regular swirls of steady rises, one right after the other. The fish was feeding in such a leisurely fashion that it appeared to be waiting patiently for Maggie to present her #12 elk-hair caddis just perfectly. When she did, it was like watching the ballet. The fish zoned in on that floating bit of deer hair and tracked it briefly as it drifted downstream. Then, as we watched, he eased up and, with a fin-flared rise over the fly he made it disappear by sipping in gently as he re-entered the water. Hardly a ripple revealed where the event had taken place.

“Yessss,” she whispered. “I’ve got him.” She’d remembered that grayling often take “on the down” and had been accommodating enough to give him just an extra second or two to get solidly hooked up before she’d made her set. Now, she did, indeed, have him.

“What a bend I’ve got in my rod,” she marveled. “This is some grayling.”

Some grayling, indeed. It was evident from the size of the dorsal fin protruding from the surface of the water as she played him, that this was a very large fish. Maggie is a focused, experienced angler, and she knew not to rush things. On just 6 lb tippet, she didn’t want to risk breaking off her prize.

As she finally slipped her hand gently under the fish’s belly and brought it just slightly out of the water to remove the hook, it was evident to us all what an accomplishment we’d just witnessed. The tape showed a 21-incher, a trophy by anyone’s standards.

Seven Arctic grayling are listed in the 2004 International Game Fish Association’s book of World Record Game Fish. Five of the seven come from Canadian waters. The remaining two are Alaska fish. The largest of these record grayling (4 lb- 8 oz) was caught in western Alaska’s Goodnews River. The other, a 3 lb-4oz fish, came from the Nome area’s Niukluk River.

In Alaska, a trophy grayling is consider to be any fish 18-inches long or over. Generally, those fish approach 2 ½ to 3 pounds in weight, but this can vary greatly in different watersheds at different times of the year. Eighteen-inch long trophy fish do not at all reflect the largest of the State’s grayling. Many anglers fishing rivers throughout Alaska have caught larger fish with both fly and spin gear, but have not been willing to kill them simply to acquire a record. Grayling are the slowest growing of all sport fish, and an 18-inch specimen is typically much older than the same size trout or char.

ADF&G’s Fred DeCicco of the Fairbanks office has been conducting studies of grayling around the state. He aged one 18½-inch grayling from the Nome area, and determined it to be 30 years old! Certainly not all the Nome area fish are of this size or age, but for the serious grayling fisher, the sheer numbers of large fish can definitely enliven a trip to Alaska’s north country.

Because it takes grayling longer to achieve significant size, it doesn’t take much convincing to get people to treat them with special care and to release them for another day. A just-released fish will often rest quietly in just three or four inches of water right next to the angler’s foot. “I’m surprised,” one of my clients remarked on a recent Niukluk River trip after carefully releasing a gorgeous, slate-colored grayling. “My fish is just sitting there. Is it all right?”

I told her that it was and suggested that she stay squatting down without moving for a few minutes and watch him. “I don’t think I’ve ever had such a great opportunity to just look at a fish in the water and see what it’s doing,” she commented after a few seconds. “Look, you can see its white mouth opening and closing as it rejuvenates itself. And, those wonderful golden eyes are clearly looking right at me. He’s not afraid at all.”

“You’re actually breaking the current for him and providing an easy resting spot,” I told her. “He’ll stay there until he’s ready to resume his feeding or until you move and spook him back into deeper water.” Sure enough, within a few minutes that extended fin waved good-bye and the fish headed back to the drift from which he’d come.

A unique reward of releasing grayling is that it provides one of the best opportunities to observe the full extension of that unbelievable dorsal and the exceptional coloration these fish are noted for. If camera-ready while the fish is resting after a release, an angler can often get great photographs, shots that never seem to be as successful when the fish is being held for a hero/heroine shot. Light refraction through the water highlights the glistening emerald, lavender, fuscia and blue spots and spines on the fish’s fins as well as the gold sheen that often dusts the gill plates and body. The luster of the grayling’s scales is also much more pronounced under water. It’s worth the extra time and effort to try to photograph the fish there.

Driving the Roads

I always get the feeling that I’m in the western U.S. as we drive the Nome road system. The wide-open sky, the almost treeless hills, and the far-away Kigluaik or Bendeleben mountains on the horizon enable me to see for miles. I can easily imagine myself on horseback riding off into some gorgeous sunset. But just when I get too nostalgic, suddenly a weird and wonderful pile of rocks will appear at the crest of a hill, reminding me of the mysterious rock cairns of Ireland. It’s impossible to believe that these are not man-made. Many are so symmetrical I can hardly accept that nature could fashion them all by herself. They certainly enhance the mystique of the drive.

In August there are always cars parked along the road with the bright-colored windbreakers of berry pickers high up on the hillsides. People invariably wave as we pass by. Often, the crests of other hills will host bands of reindeer with the big, wide-antlered bulls carefully leading their harems away from any danger or grazing herds of caped and bearded musk-ox.

“Stop, stop,” Ellen cried as we rounded a curve just out from Nome one day. “Musk-ox, there, on the hill,” she said.

We stopped the truck, grabbed our cameras, and slowly climbed the small ridge next to the road where we could see about a dozen animals grazing contentedly. Two were moms with young ones. Even though they didn’t run, they and the other members of the herd were very aware of us and managed to stay a safe distance away. Every time they’d stop, though, one of the babies would insist on nursing again. As we’d move closer to try for a better picture, his mom would automatically lead him off. What a game of cat and mouse. We could have stayed there all afternoon if we hadn’t been on our way to the airport.

I couldn’t help but think of Carolyn, one of my clients who had come to Nome fish with us a few years ago and wanted so badly to see the musk-ox. She’d had to “settle” for seeing a cinnamon grizzly move into the willows near the creek as we watched and then paying a visit to the Anchorage zoo on her way back to California.

The Nome-Council Road is especially inviting in the fall. Not only is the tundra flushed gold and russet as far as the eye can see, but birds and ducks by the thousands are gathering for their southward migrations. Groups of snowy tundra swans dot the ponds along the road and a wide variety of ducks, resting in sloughs right beside the road, take flight when a vehicle approaches. We’ve had snowy owls and peregrine falcons fly up in front of us as we pass. Many people consider this area a birder’s paradise.

The very informative Roadside Guide, the mile-by-mile manual of species, fishing locations, access, and more refers to Nome’s road system as “unique in rural Alaska.” It documents the fact that the hills around Nome are vastly more accessible than most “bush” areas of our state. Besides the birding, fishing and wildlife watching, there are almost endless opportunities for hiking and backpacking.

Historic Nome

A fishing trip to the Nome area has the extra special benefit of permitting the visitor to take step back into Alaska history. Nome is, of course, where Alaska’s famed Gold Rush took place. Remnants of this great saga are everywhere in the area. A dilapidated gold dredge rests in a salt marsh right outside of town, and the often photographed “little trains to nowhere” with their attendant ore buckets and other mining paraphernalia all lie rusting in the sun along the Nome-Council road in the Solomon area.

The tiny, but engaging Gold Rush historical museum in Nome is also a delight. Everyone finds that they can spend hours and hours there imagining the hardships and achievements of those gold-crazed men and women as they panned and dredged the beaches, mined the mountains, and built a system for ore transport. The old

pictures alone are the stuff of legends. Book after book of them waits for modern day admirers. But it isn’t all just the stuff of museums. A walk along Nome’s nearby beach reveals active dredges still pursuing the dreams of gold to this very day.

Another special museum and shop in Nome is operated by the local Sitnusak Native Corporation. It houses marvelous native artifacts and dolls as well as one of Alaska’s very best libraries of historic books and films. I spent one of my most memorable airport delays on one trip whiling away the hours in that library viewing some truly remarkable films.

Modern day history also includes the incredible Iditarod Sled Dog Race that ends under the much photographed burled arch on Nome’s main street. Commemorating the historic thousand mile serum run when dog-sleds delivered life-saving medicine during an epidemic in the Nome area, the Race is now world-famous. Out on the Nome-Council road one can see the wood tri-pods that mark the trail into town that would otherwise be obscured by deep snow in the winter. In town the famous arch, under which so many race winners have posed with their lead dogs, can be photographed just off the street.

The Nome Visitors Bureau provides a wealth of information for anglers, birders, history buffs and more. It seems a shame to me that so many Alaskans have never visited this very intriguing part of our state. Now that you know that you can take your fishing rod along, there’s no excuse for you not to head north.

~Pudge Kleinkauf

“There’s No Place Like Nome” was originally published in Fish Alaska magazine, April 2005

An Arsenal of Great Grayling Flies

An Arsenal of Flies

Grayling take lots of different flies. Some that you might not ever expect. So, let’s do a run-down of some of the best traditional and non-traditional patterns to help you build your fly arsenal for these great fish. I’ve listed a few great flies in each of six different categories for you, and added my personal “top three” favorites in each category. Here’s the list.

Category #1 Dry Flies & Emergers

-Elk Hair Caddis                                                -The Humpy

-Parachute Adams                                            -Blue Winged Olive

-Irresistible                                                        -Pale Morning Dun

-Royal Wulff                                                       -Griffith’s Gnat                                       

 There really isn’t a dry fly tied that grayling won’t take-as long as it is properly presented. These are simply the best, I think. Here are my favorites. 

  1. The Elk Hair Caddis is, without question, grayling’s favorite dry fly (mine too), probably because caddis are so prolific in Alaska. Don’t forget, though, these juicy little morsels come in different colors and different sizes. You’ll need #10-16 to cover nearly all the bases.  
  2. Second on my list of grayling flies would be the Parachute Adams in sizes ranging from #10-16. The basic Adams is a great fly, but the Parachute tops it big time for improved visibility.
  3. Hard choice for # 3, but I’d have to say it’s the Royal Wulff in the same size ranges as the others. You’ll have exceptionally good success with the Royal Wulff tied with a white Antron or calf tail post or wings.

More tips: Emergers such as the comparadun and the super-pupa, chronomids, spa rkle pupa and other larvae and pupa imitations are also good bets for grayling at times, as are San-Juan worms.

Category #2 Nymphs (with or without bead/cone heads)

-Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear                                  -Pheasant Tail                  

-Prince Nymph                                                  -Copper John                   

-Brassie (copper, red, green)                           -Black Stonefly                

 Unless fish are feeding just under the surface, I use the bead-head version of these nymphs, especially when the water is faster, or my fly needs to get deeper.  Here’s my top three.

  1. Unquestionably the gold-ribbed hare’s ear, either bead-head or not, is my all-time favorite nymph for grayling. Tied in size 8 and smaller, it is useful on both lakes and rivers, although, when used on lakes, I tie it in olive.
  2. I love Prince Nymphs, and so do the grayling. Don’t leave home without some in size 10 and smaller. I definitely prefer the bead-heads.
  3. Sorry, but it’s a tie here between a pheasant tail nymph (preferably with a bead-head) and a black stonefly, bead-head or not. Sizes here are also #8 and smaller. (But, I also carry a few larger ones too.)

Czech nymphs would definitely be on my list and in my top three nymphs except that not all water is conducive to using them. Where the flow is right, they are fast becoming my preferred way to fish for grayling. (See my article on Czech nymphing  Fish Alaska Magazine.) Don’t forget that you can drop a tiny nymph off the bend of a larger dry fly or nymph for some fun grayling fishing, too, where fishing regulations permit the use of two flies. (See my article on fly fishing with droppers in the April, 2009 issue of Fish Alaska Magazine). 

 Category #3 Terrestrials


-Beetles                                                   -Ants

-Grasshoppers (where they exist)        -Deer Hair Mice

-Bass Poppers                                      

 Here’s where the real fun is. Grayling eat other things that land on the surface of the water besides bugs. Plopping large ant or hopper patterns on the water brings up more grayling that you can imagine. And, doing the quick, short, up-ward little jerks of the rod tip to make bass poppers “pop” on top absolutely sends grayling into ecstasy. Keep your poppers small and use the flat-faced ones. Top three terrestrials?

  1.  Ants are #1.  Be sure to tie or buy flies with a white or florescent post for visibility, though. The fish can see the ant, but without a post, you usually can’t. Anything from a size 4 or smaller will work.
  2.  Definitely, definitely, poppers! Watching grayling play with them makes me giggle. Just wait until you see a determined grayling going after a popper again and again, each time it pops! Use them when smolt fishing, too.
  3. My third choice for big stuff on top is a grasshopper. Alaska doesn’t have nearly enough hoppers to my way of thinking, but don’t let that stop you from using them. Just wait till you see how often grayling will rise for a hopper pattern if you offer one. Try large Stimulators to imitate hoppers, size #4 and smaller.

 Category #4 Spring Smolt

-Thunder Creek                                                 -Woolly buggers (small-white)

-Alevin                                                                -Epoxy smolt

-Marabou Lake Leech                                       -Thorne River Emerger                         

Just like all the other species of fish, grayling chase salmon smolt in the spring as these tiny food bites wend their way down from the waters of their birth to the sea. Watch for disturbances in the water and birds diving on them to show you where the “bait balls” of smolt are. My picks? 

1-2.     This time it’s hard to pick my #1 smolt pattern. It’s a tie between the Thunder Creek, and the Thorne River Emerger. Depending on which species of salmon smolt the grayling are after, one or the other of these flies will nearly always work. Generally just keep them to a #10 if it’s pink salmon smolt, and to a #8 or maybe even a #6 if its silvers, kings, or chum smolt.

3-4.        I’ve also got a tie for #3 choice. That would be either a white or off-white marabou lake leech, or a small, white or off-white woolly bugger. Sometimes I clip the legs short and put eyes on the bugger with a black, waterproof marker. Again, stick with #10 or #8 flies. 

Category #5 Egg Imitations

-Glo-Bug                                                            -Iliamna Pinkie

-Two-egg Marabou                                            -Two-toned yarn flies      

-Plastic Beads

Where salmon exist, grayling bulk-up on salmon eggs just like rainbows and dollies do. Unlike rainbows and dollies, though, grayling will continue to take dry flies when eggs are available. Nevertheless, egg-imitation flies are must-haves in your fly box. If king eggs are present I carry #6 flies, and for every other type of eggs I use #8-#12 in a variety of colors from bright to pale, depending on the length of time the eggs have been in the water. It’s not hard to pick the top 3 here.

  1.  Glo-bugs are still # 1 for me even though I use all the others.
  2.  Plastic beads have to be #2, but the time it takes to rig them, the difficulty in matching the real egg color, and the fact that fish often get smart to them because they are hard, makes it difficult to rate then #1.
  3.  I’d rate the two-toned yarn flies third on my list because they represent an egg/flesh combo, and I can use them alone or with a plastic egg if I prefer.

Category #6  Streamers (with or without bead/cone heads)

-Woolly Buggers                                                         -Muddler Minnow

-Bunny/Flesh Flies or Egg-sucking bunnies                   -Polar Shrimp

-Egg-sucking leeches -Lake Leeches or bead-head  lake leeches

Grayling will take salmon-sized leech patterns at times. Usually, however, I stick to size #8 or #10 in most of my grayling streamers. The top 3?

  1. Muddlers really shine as a grayling catcher. Last summer I caught 36 fish in the same spot with the same little muddler in less than an hour and a half.
  2. Especially when rotting salmon flesh is in the water, I put bunny leeches second on the list. Just vary the color for different times of the year.
  3. Polar shrimp is an often over-looked but very productive grayling streamer. Be sure to have some in your box.

Streamers aren’t what people typically use for grayling fishing. Nevertheless, I’ve been salmon and trophy char fishing when grayling beat the larger fish to our big streamers so often we stopped trying to guess which species of fish we had on the line. Biologists tell of grayling with big mice, bait fish, and frogs in their stomachs. Just because they’re smaller fish, doesn’t mean they have a smaller appetite.

Now, load up your fly boxes and go enjoy the grayling fishing!

The Aniak River

Aniak Silver salmon

A Prolific Playground

There are just some rivers that seem to nuzzle their way into your psyche whether you like it or not. You may not even know that it is happening at first. One day, however, you realize that they are firmly embedded there and you just can’t get themout of your mind.

The Aniak is such a river. Interesting, treacherous, and studded with log jams higher than a three story building, it has a certain something about it that entices you back again and again. Certainly, the incredibly prolific runs of fish promise (and deliver) fly rodding beyond belief, but somehow, it’s more than that. Masking its secrets in constantly shifting channels and gravel bars as well as deep, snag-filled holes beside undercut banks, it’s a river that is always challenging and never quite the same, no matter how many times you visit.

The Aniak is not a river that one would call “gorgeous,” except, perhaps, in its upper reaches where the nearby mountains offer scenic views. Tucked between the Kilbuck and Kuskokwim Mountains, the river originates at the outflow of Aniak Lake about 317 miles west of Anchorage. Initially it is a fairly swift, rushing spate of cellophane-clear water that runs to the north (believe it or not) and broadens considerably upon meeting up with its other branches, the Kipchuk and the Salmon,  sixty miles down from the lake.

The fishing, for grayling and char particularly, is reported to be good in the reaches just above the joining of the three branches because of the extensive spawning areas there. Buckstock Creek, about forty miles from the Aniak/Kuskokwim confluence is another popular up-river fishing area.  The entire stretch from the confluence of the three waterways down to Doestock Creek, about fifteen miles from where the Aniak joins the incredible Kuskokwim, holds the greatest variety of fish.

As the river moves out of the mountains and enters the Kuskokwim lowlands, cottonwood, willow and scrawny black spruce predominate. Here a myriad of back channels and sloughs characterize the sinuous bends of this tundra flow. Then, the water slows and widens and the silt from muddier banks makes it less visually appealing. Less appealing perhaps, but this is where some great fishing takes place.

The Aniak’s Salmon

From Kings to cohos and sockeye to chums and pinks, the fishing in the Aniak offers fantastic opportunities. All five Pacific salmon species return to spawn in the Aniak and its native rainbows, char and grayling grow absolutely porky on all the food that such returns produce. Two other often-overlooked species, pike and sheefish, round out the veritable smorgasbord of piscatorial possibilities here.

Like all Alaska fishing, one has to be alert to the timing of various species to best take advantage of good fishing. Flowing into the Kuskokwim at river mile two-hundred-twenty five (one hundred forty seven miles upstream of Bethel, the region’s major community) the Aniak is not the river for dime-bright fish right at tide-water. It takes the salmon awhile to travel this far up from the sea, avoid the commercial and subsistence nets, and determine whether or not the Aniak is home. Then, of course, the farther up the river toward their spawning beds they navigate, the less desirable they are for eating. So, the lower river can be a prime area for the freshest fish.

“King fishing in early to mid July can be fantastic,” says Woody Wooderson, owner of Aniak-based Hook-M-Up Fishing Adventures, who has guided on the river since 1982. “Three hundred miles from where the road ends, our adventure begins. This is a place where a thirty-pounder isn’t necessarily a keeper.”

He relates the story of some clients who fished the river with him in 2005. “One fly fisher and three spin fishers from New Mexico and New Jersey landed thirty-five Kings in eight hours,” he says. “Finally, the fly fisher decided to try a spey rod that he had brought with him especially for the trip. Within just a few casts he hooked into his first King, and was he ever happy. Lots of the fish that these guys caught were 30-plus pounders. Several were over forty-pounds.”

Woody takes his King salmon fly fishers a bit up river from the mouth where the fish are more concentrated in the holes, which also allows better bank access for fly anglers. He recommends purples, oranges, and white flies with Flashabou and tinsel to provide the sparkle that attracts the fish.

I take anglers to the Aniak River each year in August for the silvers and other bounty that awaits. Running close to the bank on the wide, slow lower river, where we fish during part of our trips, the coho are, at times, easy pickings.  Pods of ten to fifteen pound lunkers roll and fin and disturb the water’s murky surface. When the light is right, and with a good pair of Polaroid glasses, their dark gray shapes can be startlingly visible, just a fifteen-foot cast away.  Bright flies with lots of glitter and flash, easier for the fish to see in the shadowy water, usually do the trick.

A #4 silver and red flash fly or purple egg sucking leech tied with a sparkly cactus chenille body, stripped fast, usually manage to entice one after the other fish to break ranks with the pack and give chase. They’ll follow right up to the bank, and we can frequently watch them open their mouth for the take. What a blast!

Using the two-handed retrieve is one of the techniques I recommend to my clients for successful silver fishing. “Just put your reel under your arm pit and strip as fast as you can with both hands right down by the stripping guide,” I tell them. “The faster you strip, the more they’ll chase.” That seems to be all it takes for the hook-ups to start.

On the upper river, Buckstock creek is another coho hang-out. Bill and his wife, Mimi were the first to connect one morning as we found silvers finning slowly in a shallow channel. Using the fast strip technique and one split shot about a foot up on the leader they already had fish on the bank when Donna and her husband, Cliff, waded in near them. They started keeping count of how many times they had fish hooked simultaneously, but they got so excited they kept losing count.  “Once they see the fly they take right off after it,” they marveled.

Red, chum, and pink salmon also populate the Aniak during mid summer, and it is these species’ spawning that produces many of the eggs that keep the rainbows, char and grayling fat and sassy in the upper river. Because these runs are spread out through July and August, the table is always set for their smaller scavenging cousins.

Other Aniak Surprises

Certainly it is salmon, trout, char and grayling that we look forward to on the Aniak, but two other species often give us a real thrill. Even though we are not there in the spring when they usually appear, we’ve been surprised more than once by a large scaled, jutting jaw sheefish on the end of someone’s line. Not a year round resident of the Aniak, sheefish appear at the river mouth while resting during their up-stream migration on the Kuskokwim.

The Sheefish is a true wilderness fish. Known for their incredibly long migratory journeys to the headwaters of their natal river, they are infrequently targeted by sport anglers.  Because of the water discoloration, we can’t actually tell that a hookup is a sheefish by looking at it from the surface. Once someone connects with one and we know they’re around, though, we set out to land them. Large, white flies with lots of silver or gold Flashabou often entice them to strike, and their fight is every bit as dramatic as a coho’s.

Sheefish display some of the same exciting acrobatics as their salmon compatriots. Repeated, twisting jumps and long, strong runs characterize their fight, leading them to be called by some the “tarpon of the north.” We’re not sure when we hook them in August if they are on their return journey to the Kuskokwim’s delta or if they moved up river to feed but not to spawn. It doesn’t matter. An encounter with one of these brutes is a memorable experience.

Pike are another fish treat (in my opinion) on the Aniak. I know that may anglers consider them voracious predators whose only purpose in life is to eradicate the trout and young salmon that we revere. In a large river like the Aniak, however, they are a resident fish and an important part of the eco-system. And, they can be great fun to fish on a fly rod. Particularly in the sloughs and slow water of the lower river, they can be caught ridiculously easily with large flies at the mouths of back-waters or along weedy banks. An angler who has never fished pike with a fly has some fun coming their way. Just make sure NEVER to try to remove a fly or a lure from a pike with your hands. If you can’t get it easily with a needle-nosed pliers, just cut it off.

More Than Salmon and Pike-Fishing Up-river

We primarily fish the Aniak from an up-river tent camp for easier access to a wider variety of water and fish. It’s all set up and waiting for us when we arrive. Woody picks us up at the Aniak airport, and while we may do some silver fishing while the boats get loaded, we’re on our way in no time.

The hour-long boat ride to camp is one I look forward to each year. I love zipping along the twists and turns of the river, watching the moose that trot quickly into the bushes when they see us, and noticing the increasing number of fish we spook as we get closer and closer to camp.

Piloting one of the camp’s jet boats, Woody skillfully navigates the sharp sweeper-studded bends with the ease of a twenty-five-year resident of the river. The oldest guide service using the Aniak River, he knows every inch here including just where the building-high log piles threaten to come loose, where the eagle’s nest is hidden in a large spruce tree, and where a submerged branch could rip the bottom right out of the boat.  He also knows right where the salmon are spawning and, therefore, right where the char, grayling and rainbows will be. Unerringly, he cuts the motor and noses the boat into the bank right above a cache of waiting fish. The sheer number of Dollies always amazes people.

Hannah and Julia had a particularly productive couple of hours one afternoon in spot that he’d selected for us.  Hannah accidentally located a school of char when one of them took her sunken caddis fly that had been hooking grayling on the surface.  (Grayling never completely abandon dry flies.  Even when surrounded by more protein-laden possibilities these spiky-finned beauties with bulging bellies, still sip away at the properly presented surface delicacy.)

“I didn’t know that char will come up for a fly right under the surface,” she said. Just to see if they could make it happen again, the two of them purposively water logged a dry fly and set to work. Surprisingly, Dolly after Dolly took their underwater offerings and they matched each other fish for fish. Then after they had proved their point, they switched to an egg pattern and really turned on the spigot.

This mix of species enjoying the banquet is typical on the upper Aniak. On a different trip two women and two other couples had formed our group. The gals had tired of fishing for silvers in a nearby slough where we’d spent more than an hour. While the guys stayed put with the silvers, they went back to the boat to get their 5-wts to fish something lighter. It was Maggie that decided to head down below the outflow of the slough where she figured that rainbows, char and grayling should be waiting along the steep gravel bank for the eggs being brought down by the current. She was right! “Come on down here,” she invited the others, “I’m catching a fish every cast.”

In no time at all, so were her three companions. I could hardly believe that the four of them, standing just a few feet apart, had triples after triples after triples. On a few occasions all four of them had a fish on at the same time. Most were Dollies, but the occasional fish was a grayling or a rainbow just for some variety. All were in prime condition. “Wow,” someone would say, “look at this color,” as they landed a fat, feisty char with its flaming red belly, spots, and mouth or a chunky, rouge-cheeked rainbow.

We generally find Dollies in quite large schools on the Aniak, unlike the rainbows. The bows seem to be more solitary feeders, scattered among the other fish rather than bunched up in one area. The really large rainbows are thought to stay up behind the still-spawning kings until quite late in the summer. Nevertheless they are well represented among the fish feasting on the smaller eggs of the chums, sockeye, and pinks.

One particular day Dorothy seemed to have a magical knack for finding the rainbows in amongst the spawners and other feeding fish. “Here’s another one,” she’d say, lifting her rod tip to set the hook before treating us all to yet one more display of skill in playing and guiding a crimson-cheeked beauty to the bank. After a quick picture she carefully returned each one to the water, as is required for all rainbows on the Aniak. I lost track of how many gorgeous fish she landed that trip.

Regardless of which species we target each day, we look forward to Woody’s great camp cooking each night to fortify ourselves for the next adventure. Whether it is his excellent shish-ka-bobs grilled over the ever-present camp fire, the lip-smacking good egg, cheese and veggie breakfast casserole, or my favorite, the caribou stroganoff, we never go hungry. His fresh salmon shore lunches are to die for!

At the end of the trip we head back to the main lodge reluctantly, but look forward to a little more silver fishing on our last night and last morning there to be able to take some fish for the freezer.

Accessing the Aniak

The Aniak is a river that is reachable in two ways, with a raft, or with a guided jet boat. Either way, people arrive in Aniak by either Alaska Airlines jet or Penair or Frontier Flying Service commuter flights. Rafters then make the thirty-minute bush plane flight to a small gravel landing strip and the put-in at Bell Creek a short distance from the Salmon River. This is the easiest access and most navigable water of the three branches that form the main stem Aniak.

The towering log-jams and unexpected sweepers make most of the river a very dangerous float, and only the most experienced attempt it. The one-hundred-ten mile distance from Aniak Lake to the village requires a six or seven night trip. An article in the November, 2003 edition of Fish Alaska Magazine contains a good description of the hazards and difficulties (as well as the rewards) of such a float.

More frequently, fishing access to the river is by guided jet boat.  Hook-M-Up Fishing Adventures is located right at the confluence of the Aniak and the Kuskokwim rivers where the prime fishing for king and silver salmon takes place. Bank fishing on their property can also be excellent for both chums and silvers.  Other guides and outfitters are located across the Kuskokwim at the village of Aniak.  With such close access, the mouth of the river is often dotted with skiffs when the fish are running.

Gear for the Aniak

Fly anglers who fish Kings on the Aniak use a ten-wt rod with a tough, reliable reel equipped with an exposed rim for drag-reducing palming. These fish hold deep, so sink-tip lines are recommended. The deep, snag-filled pools eat flies like a dog eats table scraps, however, so the very line that gets your fly down to where the fish are may also send it into oblivion.

Silvers, chums, sockeye and pinks can all be fished on an eight-wt rod. I fish only with nine-foot long rods to help manage a larger than expected fish and to punch a #2 fly into the wind. All my rods are equipped with Ross Reels because of their excellent drag systems and exposed rim palming features.

Rather than debate the pros and cons of floating vs. sinking tip lines, most anglers take both. There are times when a floating line weighted with heavy split shot makes for the better choice.

No matter which line you use, you’re going to lose flies when fishing the Aniak. Be prepared with plenty of #4-#2 and even #1/0 weighted everglows, flash flies, and egg-sucking leeches, some with lead dumbbell eyes and some without. The starlight leech is another good choice, but it might be too heavy for some areas. The old reliable Fat Freddie is a standby fly that works well on Aniak Kings.

All the flies recommended above, except for the Fat Freddie, can be counted on to take the Aniak’s silvers and chums as well as can my Mardi Gras fly and the Little Red Riding fly that were featured in the August, 2005 and May, 2005 editions of Fish Alaska Magazine.

Flies for sockeye and pink salmon are a little different. Like reds everywhere, the Aniak’s sockeye prefer a small, sparse fly. A #6 sockeye orange is usually a perfect choice as is a Fish Candy fly, (just some bright colored cactus chenille wrapped around a hook). Many people rely also rely on the same size Comets in any color, the Montana brassy, and the Red Hot, all of which can be found in the Alaska Fly Fishers’ book Fly Patterns of Alaska.

Many of the flies recommended for sockeye will also take the pinks. The color just should be pink. “Pink for the pinks” is not an idle saying. It really works. Pinks are not very fussy takers. Just put something the right color and with a little flash in front of them, and they’ll usually step right up to the plate.

Gear for the Aniak’s rainbows, char, and grayling is basically a nine-foot five-weight rod with a good reel and a floating line. I take along a few sink tip lines for my clients just in case, but we seldom use them. Since we are generally fishing dry flies, egg imitation flies, or beads in the fairly shallow water that spawning salmon prefer, there isn’t much call for anything more than the right amount of split shot on the leader to get the fly to the fish.

Like egg-imitation fishing anywhere it’s important to have a variety of colors and sizes for the flies and beads. I never go larger than a #8 hook or a 6 or 8 mm bead size. (I either attach the beads directly to the hook or make sure that they are pegged no more than an inch above the hook-eye to avoid harming fish.) You can fish with a strike indicator, if you prefer, but I find that using a nymphing technique with a short line to keep in contact with the fly is a better way for people to develop a “there’s a fish there” instinct.

Besides egg flies and beads, I always have small black woolly buggers and leeches available to let the fish see something different from time to time. Bunny/flesh flies are also in my arsenal as are egg-sucking bunnies. At times the fish seem sated with eggs and we discover that the fly that will catch them will be a flesh-imitation. Other proven rainbow/Dolly flies like a Battle Creek Special take a lot of fish as well.

#12 dry Elk Hair Caddis, Parachute Adams, and red and yellow Humpies are all you’ll need in the way of dry flies for the grayling.

What a Place

Besides having enough fish to satisfy even the most die-hard angler, the Aniak also has some great wildlife and bird watching to offer. Its vegetation is perfect moose habitat and we see them, or their tracks everywhere on the lower river, particularly. We watch the side sloughs intently for sightings of cows and calves back in the shallow water as we move up or down the river.

Bears are, of course, a fact of life on the river. Their tracks dot every gravel bar we fish from and every slough where the salmon rest. We see them occasionally as we round a turn in the river, but they usually take right off at the sound of the motor. We take pains to keep a clean camp and to pitch the tents well away from any cooking areas.

Last year, a juvenile bear emerged from the bushes right across from us as we were finishing one of Woody’s great shore lunches. Worried that he had smelled our cooking, we quickly cleaned up and prepared to launch the boat.  He ambled along sniffing the dead fish lying on his bank.  Then, as we watched, he crashed into the river and quickly emerged with a wriggling fish in his mouth. Surprisingly, however, he didn’t eat it, but just dropped it and charged back in for another, which he didn’t eat either. After playing with them for awhile he finally waded nonchalantly across to our side. We waited for him to emerge from the bushes, but we never saw him again. That’s the kind of bear encounter I prefer.

We’ve also seen and heard the sand hill cranes on the river, and watched ‘day-care ducky” mergansers with their and their friends’ huge contingent of babies floating along. One misty morning, rising earlier than the rest of the group, I heard the calls of swans and stood mesmerized in the golden, misty light as their great wings took them just over me and on down the river on the start of their southerly migration. It was just another example of how the Aniak entices me.  It’s an intriguing river.

Fish Species Running Times on the Aniak River
    June   JulyAugustSeptember
Kings      X-     X(still present upriver)
Silvers     X(still present up river)
Sockeye      X
Chums      X     X
Pinks      X
Rainbows     X      X     X      X
Dolly Varden Char     X      X     X      X


     X      X     X      X
Pike     X      X     X      X


     X     X      X

A Short History of Aniak

Location: On the South bank of the Kuskokwim River at the head of Aniak Slough, 92 air miles northeast of Bethel and 317 miles west of Anchorage

Community area: 5 sq miles of land and 2 sq mile of water

Yup’ik meaning: “the place where it comes out,” which refers to the mouth of the Aniak River

History: the river played a role in the placer gold rush of 1900-01. Homesteading began in 1914 with the opening of a store and post office. The Yup’ik village of Aniak was reestablished about that same time. A Russian-era trader, Semen Lukin, is credited with the discovery of gold near Aniak in 1932.  The Territorial school opened in 1936. (Alaska Dept. of Community and Economic Development)

(Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Fish Alaska magazine)

Lake Trout: Alaska’s Tyrant of the Lakes

Alaska Lake Trout

Lake trout are called by many different names in the places where they exist. Probably one of the most common is “mackinaw” a word that is just as symbolic of the great north woods as are the words pike or muskie.  In Canada and the Great Lakes, the strongholds of lake trout in North America, one commonly hears these brutes referred to as lakers, salmon trout, lake char, toulandi, fork tail trout, Great Lakes trout, gray trout, forktail trout, mackinaw trout, togue trout, or salmon trout.  Whew!

In Alaska we call them simply “lakers.” Lakers, whose scientific name is (Salvelinus namaycush) are as native to Alaska as they are to Canada or the northeastern or upper mid-west parts of the U.S. The word, Salvelins puts lake trout squarely in the char family and the namaycush part of their nameis said to derive from a native American word meaning “tyrant of the lakes.”  Massive in size and aggressive in their feeding habits, lakers are every bit the bully and are as likely as pike to feed on other fish, aquatic creatures and small birds or ducks.

Lake trout have a body shape similar to that of trout and salmon. Unlike other char, they generally have small, light-colored, irregular shaped worm-like spots on a silvery-to-dark background; but color can vary considerably at different seasons, in different habitats, and between populations. Males have a slightly longer, more pointed snout than females. The flesh of lake trout varies from creamy white to deep orange and is delicious eating.

The Tyrant in Action

Melissa Norris of Fish Alaska magazine and I were lucky enough to be right smack in the middle of nearly non-stop lake trout action one bright June day in western Alaska. Anchored up just below the “Narrows” where Grosvenor Lake drains into Coville Lake at Katmai Land’s Grosvenor Camp, we fished like maniacs as these brawny torpedoes engaged in an absolutely classic example of laker-frenzy in the spring. 

Flying over the area’s lakes and streams that day, I could see in my mind’s eye the thousands of lake trout that I knew had to be cruising the shores, patrolling the creek outlets, and ambushing most anything that swam during their brief, early-summer time in shallow water. We couldn’t wait to get at them. 

A perfect landing at the camp brought us right to our waiting boat. Quickly attaching the motor and rigging up the rods, we headed straight for the frothing turmoil that was clearly evident right off the bank just beyond a huge set of bleached moose antlers that seem to point the way right to “the” spot. 

Sea gulls and terns crashed into the water all around us dive-bombing the sockeye salmon smolt that were moving down from one lake to the other on their out migration journey to the sea. The lake trout, plus a few Dolly Varden char, accounted for the astonishing piscatorial action that was occurring simultaneously on both the surface of the water as well as beneath it. As we stared down into the water through Polaroid glasses, it was easy to see dozens of huge, schooled-up yellowish bodies darting everywhere after their nearly helpless little victims.

Soon, we had those flaxen sided bodies darting after our flies as well. Tan, yellow and white bunny leeches and articulated bunnies on ten pound test did the trick on lots of seven and eight pound lakers and Dollies, as did orange bead-head woolly buggers and zonkers of various colors. Some of my yellow maribou pike flies were big winners too.

“Wait till you see the nervous water on the surface and then cast right into it,” our guide, Sean Johnson, had recommended. It was easy advice to follow. Most of the time the bait balls of smolt sliding down the current were clearly evident with tiny silvery bodies bursting from the water like popcorn. But, even if they hadn’t been, the kamakazi birds would have given it all away. Pandemonium reigned. From time to time, though, the water would go quiet as the schools of smolt were swept out into Colville Lake behind us and spread out over a less concentrated area than in the narrows. 

“Hook-up,” Melissa called as she struggled with a fat, gold-plated laker. He didn’t even come to the surface after taking her fly but rocketed deep and fast away from the boat. Slowly but surely she coaxed him back within range of the net. But he was having none of that. Next thing she knew her rod tip pointed straight down as he headed under the boat.

“Feels like I’m fishing in saltwater,” she said, struggling to keep her rod from banging against the boat. “This is one hefty fish.” Carefully steering her rod around to the other side, she was finally able to tame him–a 30 inch-plus hog.

After dozens more hook-ups with a variety of flies, attracting these voracious predators began to seem almost too easy. So, we decided to switch to poppers on eight-pound test for some real surface action. Melissa had never fished poppers or cast them, so with a warning that they were more difficult to get distance with than most flies, we showed her the quick little jerk and snap on the surface of the water, which creates the “pop”that gets fish all excited.

Poppers, doing what they were designed to do, must seem to lakers exactly like wriggling, twisting, pulsating little fish doing their stuff because these large-mouthed behemoths slammed them with the same vigor with which they make lunch out of hapless smolt. Seeing that action on the surface is just as fun as watching an eager trout rise to a dry fly, but much more explosive. The bigger the popper, the more volcanic the strike. Sometimes the fish missed, and sometimes we struck just a second to soon or too late, but nevertheless, there’s nothing like popper fishing for rip-roaring fun.

River Fishing for Lakers

We also had some great after dinner fishing in the Kulik River during the two evenings that we spent at Kulik Lodge on this trip. Although we pursued (and caught) many of the rainbows that the river is famous for, we also hooked up a number of lakers that had forsaken their post where the Kulik River dumps into Nonvianuk Lake for a charge right up into the river itself to chase smolt.   

The recommended fly for the river was a flesh colored articulated cone-head bunny fly that had been reported by the guides to be “slaying them.” We thought (mistakenly, as it turned out) that they were just talking about rainbow fishing but were delighted to find that the lakers were loving it to death as well. It was wonderful to wade and cast to them.

A lovely narrow side channel where the river splits just before dumping into the lake turned out to be loaded with fish. At times I could see lakers in water so shallow that I couldn’t believe it. Just as in the lake, they were slamming the pods of smolt that drifted down the river, but they were also actively feeding in the deeper part of the channel.

“Put a split shot on your leader and drift the fly right down the middle of the channel and watch what happens,” I’d called to Melissa. A large laker smacked her fly on her first cast.  These fish weren’t as large as those we’d caught at the narrows earlier in the day, but we had no complaints. Just to have a fish on every second or third cast was satisfying enough.

Spring Feeding and Fall spawning

Spring and fall are the two seasons of the year where lake trout can be found in shallow water.  Emerging from under the ice during break-up, lakers come to the surface from great depths to feed along the shore and creek outlets for crustaceans, insects, and small bait fish before returning to the deep water when summer comes.

As the water cools in late fall, lake trout follow the warmer water and the food that it contains up toward the surface.  And, like all char, fall is also the time when lakers spawn. Typically a solitary fish, lake trout only school up or congregate during spawning season. Males will usually be the first to arrive at the spawning beds, where they are often observed preparing the locations for egg laying. They prefer rocky, cobbled substrate areas on ledges or on the bottom to depths of forty feet. After the females arrive, spawning takes place at night.  Biologists report that most populations of lake trout spawn only every other year.

Lake trout do not become sexually mature until six or seven years of age, and they do not build redds as other fish do.  Instead, the fertilized eggs simply drop to the bottom or scatter among the rocks. The eggs are on their own, surviving in the crevices between the rocks until their yolk sac is absorbed, a process that takes nearly five or six months in their cold-water environment.  Typically in late winter or early spring, the fingerlings move into deeper waters in search of zooplankton and other food.

Fishing Lakers in Mid-Summer

Heading out to fish for lake trout in mid summer is a much different experience than “smolting” in the spring. Now the lakers have gone deep and trolling is the preferred method for taking them. Many lake anglers report that the fish’s propensity to hang off of ledges in various lakes often makes them accessible at less than the 50-100 feet of water that characterizes their typical hot weather haunts.

We set out to test that theory this past summer with a trip to Lake Louise off of the Glenn Highway. With the reputation for harboring lots of big lake trout (a 30-lb 15-oz fish came from there in the early 70’s) and being relatively accessible to the Anchorage area, it was the perfect place for a quick week-end trip in mid-July.

Extremely hot, dry weather had driven the fish even deeper than normal, but we tried thinking positively. We’d arrived in the midst of a wake for a recently deceased local old-timer, but the historic Lake Louise Lodge (where one can easily see the walls of the original lodge that has now been significantly enlarged) made us welcome. We decided to just relax until evening, when, we hoped, the water would be cooler and the fish more cooperative.

The extraordinary light that Alaska’s long July evenings are famous for brought a sheen to the glassy water as we set out that evening. Four mountain ranges were visible from various points around the lake where we trolled (unsuccessfully) with both spinning rods and fly rods rigged with sink-tip lines. Bill & Shirley Uptegraft of Lost Lure Tours, our guides, finally suggested that we head back toward Susitna and Tyone Lakes where some areas had been fishing well. Unfortunately, the action there was just lukewarm.  Several times we hooked up, but they were small fish, and we never really experienced that adrenalin rush that accompanies truly exciting fishing. Opting for an early morning departure the next day, we headed back. Mists were rising on the lake and, nothing stirred.

Absolutely still water greeted us early the next morning and we headed for one of the well-known ledges that had not produced the night before. Things were different now, and we had a fish on almost immediately. The rod bent, Melissa hauled back to set the hook and we were in business.  Fishing one of Bill’s huge green tadpole lures had done the trick. Probably a near 30-inch fish, (we’d forgotten the measuring tape) this one definitely got us interested.

Two more fish almost as large followed in quick succession and it was clear that we were now in laker territory. Trolling at about thirty feet of depth right off the ledge seemed to be the ticket, and I was wishing I’d brought my Teeny 450 line instead of just my 200.  Bill was towing the raft behind the boat in case we wanted to go to shore in it, so Wayne and I decided to take it out and troll with the fly rods right at the ledge. We had a couple of fish on but had trouble keeping them hooked in the squishy rubber raft. Meanwhile, three more nice fish had been brought to the boat, but then it was time to go. We had a long drive back to Anchorage.

More Summer Lakers

If you’re prepared to troll, summer fishing for lakers is good on many of Alaska’s lakes. One that I particularly enjoy is Brooks Lake in Katmai National Park. After my annual guide trips to Katmailand’s Brooks Lodge in June I always stay to fish for awhile. Sometimes it’s for trout, sometimes for pike, and sometimes for lakers.

One particular day we had a chance to take one of the lodge boats out to fish while waiting for the late afternoon plane. Rex, one of the lodge guides took us right to an underwater ledge not too far from the boat launch. While he regaled us with the tale of a huge laker that had been caught there just that morning by an 8-year old girl, we hooked a couple of fish. Nothing like the 8-year old’s fish, he declared, and we kept on fishing. I was glad to hear that it had been a girl who was besting us, however.

In a nearby cove, where the pale green water changed quickly to dark aqua indicating a steep drop off, we scored.

“What do I have?” Sandy asked. “It’s a really dark fish, nothing like the others we’ve been catching.” It had slammed the fat, green lure, drawn the line tight, and maintained a large bend in the rod in spite of Sandy’s best efforts to control him. He never jumped and his runs were more like the steady pull of a tractor than the rambunctious gyrations of a fish.  “I wish I had a heavier rod,” was about all she could say.

We landed the fish after a long contest, amazed at how darkly colored it was. No golden sides or belly on this guy. Even his caudal fins were rusty colored and dark instead of the typical tangerine hue that tints most laker fins.

Lots of other fish came to our different lures and flies that afternoon. One particularly good fly, always for sale at Brooks lodge, is a white-orange concoction of snowy cactus chenille with a zonker-type bunny wing and tail, a hot pink chenille head, and matching rubber legs, known as the Katmai Leech.  I thought it was pretty smolty-looking in the water, but its attraction just might have been that it was just so big and wiggly.

At the opposite end of successful flies was the old salmon stand-by, the starlight leech. In both black and purple, they proved as good at laker-getting that afternoon as they always are at salmon-getting. But, fly fisher that I am, I have to admit that the best fish takers of the afternoon were definitely deeply trolled lures.

Ice Fishing for Lake Trout

Lake Trout, along with northern pike and burbot, are species frequently targeted for winter fishing in the Great Lakes, in Canada, and also in Alaska. Lakers taken from under the ice can weigh up to twenty pounds. Prized for their tasty, pinkish flesh, these large fish are much sought after during the winter. Most ice-fishers that fish where lakers are present find that their day’s catch will almost always include a variety of species including a fat, tasty laker or two. Surprising to many, lakers tend to forage in shallow water under cover of the ice and often are taken in twenty-feet of water or less.

The preferred method for ice fishing for lake trout is by jigging brightly colored lures that are baited with fresh herring, whitefish, or smelt, all particular favorites in the lakers’ diet.  Spoons are the favorite lure and red, orange, fluorescent blue and green with silver or white are recommended colors.

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game sport Fish Division has an excellent pamphlet entitled “Winter Fishing” that is available from the ADF&G office at 1300 College Road Fairbanks, AK 99701.

Laker Hot Spots Around the State

The Richardson Highway in Interior Alaska also provides road access to several lakes that have earned a reputation for good laker fishing. They include Summit, Paxson, and Fielding Lakes. Crosswind, a fly-out lake nearby, is another hot spot. Paxson is well known as the lake from which the Alaska Department of Fish & Game took brood-stock to begin its lake trout stocking program in 1988.

Harding Lake, located about four miles southeast from the confluence of the Salcha and Tanana Rivers, lies about 45 miles south of Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway. Although currently experiencing dropping water levels (and a ban on pike fishing as a result) lake trout fishing continues to be good due to the now naturally reproducing fish that have been stocked there in years past. Monster fish are reported, and a 31 lb 13 oz fish was caught there in 1997.

The Delta Junction Chamber of Commerce web site lists good lake trout fishing on the North Slope of the Brooks Range in Shainin, Chandler, Kurupa, Elusive and Itkillik Lakes, and in Selby-Narvak, Wild, Helpmejack, Chandalar, Swuaw and Walker Lakes on the South Slope.

Of course, in the Bristol Bay area, we must list Grosvner and Kulik Lake, both famous lake trout producers, as well as the daunting but productive Lake Clark, which has given up a 33-lb fish.

In South Central Alaska lakes Louise, Stephan, Susitna and Tyone  are good producers. Both Hidden and Skilak Lake on the Kenai Peninsula have good stocks of lake trout as does Kenai lake. The turbidity of Kenai Lake makes it one of the more difficult to fish, however. Tustemena is another favorite lake on the Peninsula with catches of 20 lbs or more reported.

Clarence Lake, a fly-in lake northeast of Talkeetna in the Talkeetna Mountains, also ranks at the top of many lists, if for no other reason than because the Alaska record lake trout comes from there. That fish weighed 47 pounds and was caught in 1970 by then 12-year old Daniel Thorsness of Anchorage. Although not stocked for the past 8 or 9 years, Clarence still contains a good population of naturally re-producing lakers according to ADF&G. (The world record laker is a 72 pound fish caught in 1995 in Canada’s Northwest Territories’ Great Bear Lake.)

The longest lived of all of North America’s fresh water salmonids, growth rates of lakers vary from place to place depending on diet, water temperature, altitude, and genetics. Alaska lake trout are known to live longer than 40 years but the typical life-span is 20 years. Still, that longevity has earned lakers the nickname, “old man of the lakes.” The maximum size attained in some Alaskan populations probably exceeds 50 pounds, and 8- to 10-pound fish can be taken in many of the state’s fisheries.

Daily bag and possession limits on most Alaska lakes are kept to one or two fish, due to the lake trout’s low growth rates, which result from alternate year spawning, older age at maturity, and occasional scarcity of food in the large, deep, cold lakes that lake trout prefer. Because these same factors make lake trout susceptible to  overharvest by commercial and recreational fisheries, typically, just one or perhaps two fish per day can be retained. Occasionally a 24-inch slot limit is in effect, with release required of all fish below that size. It’s always wise to check ADF&G regs when fishing a specific spot for lakers.

Promise Yourself Some Spring Fishing

Lake trout are definitely not the most actively pursued of Alaska’s sport fish. In fact, they are pretty much ignored in many areas of the state. Especially in the spring, before the salmon arrive, and when many areas are closed to protect spawning rainbows, lake trout can provide some heart-stopping excitement for anglers anxious to get out on the water, however.

So, promise yourself that this spring you’re going to hitch up the boat, inflate the float tube, or load the canoe on the top of the car and head out for a spring camping and fishing week-end to re-introduce yourself to this great sport fish.  You just might get hooked all over again on a fish that you’ve been neglecting, “the old man of the lakes.”


Some Interesting Facts about Lake Trout

  • For more than half a century, lake trout comprised the most valuable commercial fishery in the Upper Great Lakes. Then overfishing and the onslaught of the sea lamprey from the late 1930s and into the 1950s effectively eliminated this fish from most of the lakes. With control of the lamprey, laker population levels are now rebounding well.
  • An unusual form of lake trout, called the cisowet, occurs in the deep waters of Michigan’s Lake Superior. This “fat trout” spawns at depths greater than 300 feet and is edible only when smoked. In Lake Superior individuals exist that cover the entire spectrum from this odd species to the familiar form of lake trout.
  • Lake trout are known to hybridize with brook trout where the range of the two species overlap. Hatcheries have successfully hybridized them by fertilizing lake trout eggs with brook trout sperm. The resulting hybrid is called the “splake.” Splake released in the Great Lakes and recaptured 5 or 6 years later have weighed up to 16 pounds.

(Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Fish Alaska magazine)

Starting Out in Fly Fishing

Starting out fly fishing

Did you know that probably 75-80% of people who take up fly fishing started out as folks who fished with conventional gear? Switching over to fly fishing means switching some gears. There’s lot to learn and some new skills to master, not to mention the equipment that you have to understand and acquire.  We’re going to go over some of that information for you, focusing on the wading angler.

What’s involved in starting to fly fish fits into two different categories, 1.) What you need to know to fish with a fly rod, and, 2.) What you need to have to fish with a fly rod; in other words, knowledge & skill, as well as gear and equipment.  

What you need to know

Keep in mind that you certainly won’t know everything you need to know about fly fishing within the first few months after you start fishing with a fly rod.  Don’t worry, your casts don’t have to be perfect for you to catch fish. Besides, that there’s always something new to learn in fly fishing. Nevertheless, you do need the following fundamental information. 

 Starting to fly fish requires that you have rudimentary knowledge of:

  • the basic differences between different fly rods, fly reels, and fly lines;
  • how to rig up the fly rod with the correct line and leader for different kinds of fish and for different fishing locations such as lakes or rivers;
  • how to cast a fly rod and how to cast both lighter rods for smaller fish and heavier rods for bigger fish, depending on the species of fish you’re after;
  • the four different types of flies, and how to select the right fly for the fish you’re after and the type of water you are fishing;
  • how to put that fly in the right place on the water and make it drift or move in the right way to interest your target fish;
  • how to set the hook and play a large or small fish on a fly rod (because it’s different from either a spinning rod or a bait/casting rod); and
  • how to release a fish correctly.

What you need to have

Just as your knowledge of fly fishing grows over time so, probably, will the amount of your fly fishing gear. Most people find that until they decide they want to fly fish for king salmon or saltwater fish they can do just fine with one or two fly rods.

Starting to fly fish requires that you have

  • someone who knows what they’re doing to teach you the basics;
  • a valid fishing license and/or other permits where required;
  • a fly rod, a fly reel, and a fly line that enable you to catch the fish you’re after;
  • various flies that are known to be successful with the type of fish that you’re targeting and a box to put them in;
  • neoprene or breathable chest-high waders, wading boots (not with felt soles as of 1/1/12), a wading belt, and a good rain coat to help you move around in the water and keep you dry, plus good wool socks to keep your feet warm;
  • Polarized sun glasses, made specifically for fishing (I recommend Habervision glasses in the copper-rose tint.) They protect your eyes and help you to see fish in the water. A baseball hat with a good brim and a warm, fleece or wool hat and gloves to put on when the weather turns nasty are other necessities;
  • A collapsible wading stick for safety and mobility in moving water. Some list this as optional equipment, but I believe it is absolutely essential, especially since felt-soled boots will soon be outlawed. (Folstaf is the best collapsible staff on the market. Be sure to order/buy the ¾ diameter staff combined with the best length for your height for Alaska waters. Go to and see the video. )  Once you drown, it will be a little late to say that you wish you had one.
  • A fishing vest or gear-pack in which you can carry your fly boxes, water bottle, extra leader, gloves, map, compass, flashlight, whistle, etc..

What do you need to know to fish with a fly rod?

Now that you’ve got the outline, let’s return to the aspects of what you need to know when starting to fly fish and discuss each part in a bit more depth.

1.    Fly Rods, Fly Lines, and Fly Reels The basic differences between one fly rod and another boils down to the combination of three things, its weight, its length, and its flex or action. The weight of the rod is determined by the diameter and strength of the fly line it will cast. We match the rod weight with the weight & size of the fish that you aim to catch. Lower weight rods (3-wt, 4-wt, 5-wt 6-wt) cast smaller & lighter lines and generally catch smaller fish such as trout, bass, grayling, bluegill, etc. Rod weights 7-wt, 8-wt and 9-wt are the larger rods and lines that can catch larger fish such as steelhead, pike, redfish, stripers, salmon (except for kings), etc. When it comes to fishing for king salmon, and saltwater fish, then the rod weight needs to be  10-wt or higher. The larger the fish the larger the line-weight of the rod needed to fish for it.

Fly rods come in different lengths just as they come in different weights. Shorter rods are typically used to fish in small, brushy streams. If you’re going to be fishing such a place, and fishing for larger fish, you’ll need a rod that is probably 7 ½ feet to 8 ½ feet long, that casts a  #7 or even a #8-wt line. For smaller fish, it will be a #5 or #6 line. For most other fly fishing, a 9-ft long rod is preferred because the length helps to make longer casts. So you should be buying a 9-ft 8-wt rod if you’re going to fish for salmon or steelhead. But, you’ll buy a 9-ft 5 or 6-wt rod to fish for trout or grayling.

Flex, or action, is the third important factor in a rod. That simply describes how the rod will bend when it has a fish on. A rod that will be fighting larger fish has to have plenty of stiffness in the butt of the rod to land such a fish, while a rod that is used for trout requires less stiffness in the butt. A rod that combines a stiff butt section with a more delicate tip so that the rod casts easily is usually referred to as a medium-fast action rod. Rods used for smaller fish are generally referred to as medium action or medium flex rods as they have less stiffness in the butt. Put simply, if a rod bends more than one-fourth to one-third of the way down from the tip, it will have a difficult time landing large fish.

Fly Lines  As you can see from the above discussion, fly rods and fly lines need to be matched up for the whole rig to cast properly eg. 7-wt rod = #7 line. Most people buy a weight-forward floating fly line to start with since it is the type of line that you will use on most rivers and streams. If you fish large, deep rivers, or lakes, then you will probably need a sinking-tip fly line. The store will help you select the best one for where you will be fishing.

Fly reels  must also match-up with the rod and the line because they have to be the correct size to hold the line that the rod is casting. They also must be a certain size in order to balance the rod when you are casting. Reel manufacturers tell you on the box which size of rod & line that particular reel works best with. Less expensive reels usually have less drag (the function of the reel that helps slow down the revolutions of the spool when you have a fish on). So, since we have large, feisty fish in Alaska, I recommend buying a reel with a good drag. The salesperson at the store will demonstrate the strength and power of different reels for you. I also recommend that you buy a reel that has what is called an “exposed rim.” Those are reels designed to enable you to put pressure underneath the spool to help slow it down to keep your fish under control. Be absolutely sure that you know how to take the spool on and off the reel-base before leavingt he store. O.K. that’s your basic set-up. Now, let’s get to rigging up.

2.    Rigging the fly rod and reel When you buy your rod, reel, and fly line, the store will put the line on the reel for you. All you need to do is decide whether you want to wind it with your left or your right hand. If you don’t know at first, the store will set you up with a left-hand wind, which can be switched over to right-hand later, if you change your mind. (Be sure to buy a reel that can be used with either hand so you can do this.)

Now, you’re going to need to have a length of monofilament on the end of your fly line to tie your fly to. That’s called your “leader.” Leaders come pre-made, or you can learn to tie your own. Unless you are taking a class that teaches you how to tie leaders, you’ll have to buy them. The store (or your instructor) will explain what length and strength of leader (pound-test) you will need for different sizes of fish and different fishing situations. They  will show you how to attach the leader to the little loop pre-made on the end of your fly line. You can use the knot that you always use to tie on a lure to also tie on a fly. If you don’t know any knot like that, then have the store or your instructor show you one.

3.    Casting the fly rod is the heart and soul of fly fishing.  In fly fishing the caster needs to get the line out on the water because there is no heavy metal lure or chunk of bait on the end of the line to pull it out.  A novice fly angler needs to know three basic casts to get on the water. The beautiful, back and forth cast so familiar to everyone who has seen “A River Runs Through It” is called the basic, overhead cast. There, the caster learns to grip the rod with the thumb up on the handle and then to move the rod back and forth between two distinct stopping places (one at the end of the brim on a baseball cap, and the other behind the caster’s ear) with a certain rhythm in order to help the tip of the rod fling the line out. (Some people refer to it as moving the rod tip back & forth between 11:00 and 1:00 o’clock to make the cast.) It’s the cast most-used in fly fishing.

The other two basic casts are the roll cast and the side-arm cast. Roll casting is done where there is no room for a back cast or where some obstruction behind the caster prevents the line from going out in the back. When roll casting, the caster lays twelve or fifteen feet of line on the water and then slowly pulls their thumb and the rod up to his shoulder and tips the rod slightly out to the side. After a brief pause to let the line settle, the thumb and the rod are poked about six inches straight up, followed quickly by a flick of the wrist. That enables the rod tip to send line out in the front and escape the perils of a back-cast.

The side arm cast is used when the cast must be made into the wind or underneath a branch or other obstruction. It simply involves doing the basic overhead cast turned on its side. Instead of the stops of the rod being made beside the caster’s head, they are made perpendicular to the ground. The caster is looking down at the flat face of the fly reel as the rod moves back and forth.

4.    Selecting the fly  The flies for fly fishing fall into four different categories and selecting the right one for where you are fishing means selecting from these categories.

Four Categories of Flies for Fly Fishing

Categories of FliesWhere fly is typically usedType/species of fish these flies are used for
Dry flies – small (usually) wispy bits of fur & feathers that imitate bugs floating on the surface of the water. Fish’s favorite bugs are caddis flies, mayflies, and stoneflies


Used in moving fresh water where fish would be feeding on insects.  Only caddis flies and mayflies are found in still water.All types of trout, all types of pan fish and warm water fish, char, grayling, steelhead, pike in various sizes
Nymphs –small flies that imitate immature bugs and other small creatures living beneath the surface of the water—also known as “wet flies.”


Used in both moving and still fresh water where fish would be feeding on insects under the surface of the waterAll types of trout, all types of pan fish and warm water fish, char, grayling, steelhead, pike
Streamers – larger flies (also referred to as “attractors”) that imitate things like leeches and small bait fish, living under the surface of the water—also known as “wet flies.”


Used in both moving and still fresh water where fish are feeding under the surface of the water. Also used in salt water in larger sizes and/or for larger fishAll types of trout, all types of pan fish and warm water fish, char, steelhead, and grayling in various sizes. Also used for pike and musky in fresh water in larger sizes and for most saltwater species usually also in larger sizes
Salmon flesh & egg imitation flies – flies that imitate chunks of rotting salmon flesh and salmon eggs under the surface of the water Used mostly in moving fresh water where salmon are present. Sometimes used in still fresh water.All types of trout, char, grayling, whitefish, steelhead

Now, here are the names of three of the most commonly used flies in each category and the typical size or sizes and color(s) to buy. (Just so you know, flies are sized according to the following formula: “the larger the number, the smaller the hook.” A #8 fly is larger than a #12 fly.

Most Commonly Used Flies

CategoriesNamesSizes & color(s)
 Dry fliesElk-hair caddis

Parachute Adams

Royal Wulff

12-14   tan -olive

   “        gray

   “        standard

NymphsGold-ribbed hare’s ear

Pheasant tail

Prince Nymph

12-16    tan or olive

   “        standard

   “        standard

StreamersWoolly Bugger

Muddler Minnow

Egg-Sucking Leech

2-10      black, olive, brown,


2-10      standard gold or silver

2-6        purple/ hot pink


Salmon fleshGinger bunny

Bunny fly

Egg-sucking bunny

2-8        ginger

2-8        grayish/off-white

2-8        ginger or off- white with

             pink or orange egg


Iliamna pinkie

plastic bead

6-10      salmon-pink/pale orange

8-10      salmon pink/pale orange

6-8        various colors to match


5.    Presenting and drifting the fly -How the angler presents the fly to the fish and then controls the action of fly once it is in/on the water are the two most important aspects of catching fish. The fly must land just up-river of a spot where the angler actually sees a fish or expects fish to be. That skill involves learning where different types of fish hold. Trout, for instance prefer well-oxygenated water along the edges of currents, and salmon are typically in slower water near the banks. Bass and other warm water fish like slow water with lots of cover.

Dry flies must light gently on the water, much as a real bug would, and then drift down with the current “drag-free”. That means that the angler must not just slap the line and fly on the water, and that both the line and leader must land and drift behind the fly for it to look natural to the fish. Nymphs must be fished along the bottom of the river, where the bugs live, and the line and leader must not just drag the fly along but rather help it to bounce and tumble along naturally. Streamers are usually cast a little downstream and across the river from the angler. Then they are moved either across the current or along the bottom and made to act like a small bait fish or a swimming leech.

6. Playing and landing a fish are, of course, the highlight of the fly fishing experience. Setting the hook with a fly rod involves tightening your fingers over the line and the rod handle and lifting the rod tip quickly. Then, rather than just dragging the fish in, the angler eases up a bit on the tight line to let the fish “play” while slowly bring it closer and closer. The most important difference in playing a fish on a fly rod is that the angler must not hold tightly to the wind-knob on the reel but must learn to only wind when the fish is not pulling.

7.    Releasing a fish correctly involves holding it gently in the water with its nose turned into the current until is re-gains enough strength to thrust itself out of your hand. Do not move the fish back and forth. Remember, it’s the fish that decides when it is ready & able to swim away, not the angler.  (See my article on catch & release in the October, 2008 issue of Fish Alaska Magazine.) 

What do you need to have? A couple more tips

As part of the discussion of what you need to know to fish with a fly rod, we’ve pretty much covered the fly rod, reel & line and the basic flies that you must understand and acquire. So, now let’s quickly add a few words to the discussion of the gear you need to have.

Buying your fishing license each year until you qualify for the State of Alaska Lifetime license for senior citizens is a must, and finding someone who knows what they are doing to teach you how to fly fish isn’t really hard.

The Alaska Fly Fishers club in Anchorage offers an inexpensive beginner’s seminar each spring right after the Great Alaska Sportsman Show in April. You can get the exact dates at It includes equipment, casting, knot tying, and finding places to fish along with a great introductory book produced by the club. 

The fly fishing shops in Anchorage and around the state can also be a good place to locate beginning fly casting lessons, and several guides advertise that they include some instruction in their guided fishing days.

The well-known Kenai River Fishing Academy also does one of its two annual sessions on fly fishing.

 The remainder of the items to have that are listed above are pretty self-explanatory. Now then, with a good book (try my “River Girls: Fly Fishing for Young Women”) or two, you should be on your way to becoming a reel “flyfisher.” 


(Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Fish Alaska magazine

Switzerland of the North: Lake Clark & Lake Clark National Park

fishing in lake clark alaska

“The movie today will be Lake Clark Pass,” Glen Alsworth or Glen Jr. announce as you board your Lake Cark Air flight at Anchorage’s Merrill Field heading for Lake Clark National Park. It’s a great trip. Along the way everyone sits absolutely enchanted by the views of Mt. Redoubt and Iliamna, the Park’s two volcanoes, both over 10,000 feet tall. And then, suddenly, there it is, right out in front of Lake Clark Air’s Piper Navajo, the entrance to the splendid and notorious Lake Clark Pass.

Miles and miles of bluish glaciers, glacial rivers, ice fields, waterfalls, jagged mountain peaks, and sheer rock walls absolutely dwarf the plane. Too magnificent for mere words, they all seem almost touchable as you navigate through this narrow, twisty, and extraordinarily scenic corridor toward the majesty of Lake Clark and its surrounding National Park. It’s not called the “Switzerland of Alaska” for nothing!

Even though I’ve flown through it many times, I still find my heart pounding and my nerves somewhat on edge every time we approach the entrance to this intimidating legend of small plane air transport in Alaska. Some years the weather is simply too bad for planes to traverse the Pass, and we fly over it instead. I am always terribly disappointed when that happens.

Port Alsworth

The tiny settlement of Port Alsworth, (population about 120) tucked into Hardenberg Bay, right on the shores of the lake, is our destination. Tanalian Point, just below the end of the runway, was utilized for generations by Native Alaska people practicing their subsistence lifestyle and was a bustling hub for trappers, prospectors, and travelers during the first 50 years of the 20th century. Settled by Babe Alsworth, a legendary bush pilot in Alaska who founded Lake Clark Air and The Farm lodge, the budding community took his name and got its first post office in 1950. It seems to consist mostly of two airstrips, one of which is owned by the National Park Service, lots of summer homes, a number of local Alaska Native families, a few other fishing lodges, and the Park Headquarters. The airplane fuel dock is the busiest place in town.

The Farm Lodge is the headquarters for our trip. The fishing commences just as soon as we get assigned to our cabins, dump the bags, don the waders, rig the rods, grab the sack lunches that are waiting for us, and take off for the river nearby. The mouth of the clear water Tanalian River is about a mile hike from the lodge, and the grayling are waiting for us there. Our first afternoon is always spent connecting with them, one after the other with nymphs or dry flies. Like grayling everywhere, they hit #12 elk-hair caddis with abandon. Occasionally, if our timing is good, we can also entice them with various smolt patterns farther out in the lake. By the time we head back to the lodge for one of their absolutely scrumptious dinners, everyone is ready for more adventure.

Lake Fishing Possibilities-grayling, lake trout, and pike

The lake is an absolute paradise just waiting to be explored, and we always spend a day having the lodge’s boat take us to some of the small tributaries that always hold grayling. Depending on the water levels and temperature, we often also encounter lake trout patrolling the creek mouths looking for salmon smolt or a tasty grayling for their taking.

One very special place on Lake Clark is a shallow, weedy back bay that holds a treasure-trove of pike anxious to attack our large black, brown, yellow or white bunny streamers. One trip, three of the gals had three pike on the line over and over again all afternoon. The “triples” were keeping me and Jeff, our boat driver, busy with pictures, releases, and leader repair.

Although many people rig their pike flies with wire leaders, I prefer to attach a two-foot “bite tippet” of 40lb test monofilament to a twelve or fifteen pound leader. It seems to me that pike are less wary of that set up than they are of the wire leaders. The monofilament tippet gives the fly a more natural action when stripped through the water. I tell the group that it is important to check their tippet after every fish to see if the pike teeth have frayed it, and, if so, we either cut off the frayed portion, or replace the entire bite tippet.

On one trip, Leigh had initially not been setting her hook hard enough, and several of her fish had quickly done a long-distance-release. “I’m getting practice feeling them take the fly,” she reported as she worked away. “I’m afraid to lose a lot of flies while I’m practicing,” she wailed, and I told her not to worry. We had plenty of flies.

Suddenly, she was calling for help, as her 8-wt bent nearly double with the weight of a huge pike. “He’s going to break my rod,” she yelled. And, he almost did, because she was palming her reel so hard that he couldn’t run. “Ease up on the palming to let him play,” I told her. Luckily, she was able to do it just in time.

Once he could run, the fish took advantage of it and headed for the middle of the bay like a runaway freight train. Then the real work began. Pump and reel, pump and reel, and pump and reel finally brought him in. He was every bit the monster that we guessed he was. Nearly forty-inches in length, he had a massive head and teeth to match. Definitely, the catch of the day.

More Grayling

Another of our destinations on the trip is typically the breathtaking Tanalian Falls. About a two and one-half mile hike from Port Alsworth provides sweeping views of the lake and it surrounding mountains. The roar of the falls becomes noticeable when we are about three-fourths of the way along. Shortly afterwards, the trail turns suddenly into the trees, and ends on a fairly steep, narrow incline down to the river. Using our wading sticks as hiking sticks always makes the trip a lot easier. A hike to the overlook for the falls lets everyone can get a look at the maelstrom from that viewpoint. It’s pretty awesome.

Once down to the water we usually can see rising grayling all along the edge of the seething and frothy current that is boiling down out of the rocky plunge pool below a thirty- foot lava cliff. The mist feels like a soft rain, and we have to almost holler to hear each other. If we’re lucky the big stone flies are hatching and the fish are after large, black nymphs and the adult flies that are well imitated by size 8 stimulators. Like stones everywhere, they are maddeningly unpredictable.

“How come the fish have stopped biting?” Ella asked one afternoon as the fish had absolutely turned off. I told her that I thought that it was because the large stoneflies that had been flying around our heads just a half-an-hour earlier had suddenly disappeared. “The hatch is over right now,” I said, “So it might be smart to switch to nymphs for a while.” They shortened their leaders and tied on small, bead-head prince or hare’s ear nymphs accompanied by a tiny split-shot about a foot above the fly and went right back to work.

The fishing here can be challenging because of the rocky bottom of the river at that point and the possibility of losing your footing while playing a fish. It’s usually wise to back up into very shallow water to release fish, and we help each other with releases when necessary. If the water is high, as it was this year, the fishable area can be very narrow and slippery. I often hold on to a person’s wading belt as they cast.

Often we stop by to visit the Park Service headquarters building on our way back to the lodge. Everyone loves to see the reproduction of the sailing boats that commercially fished for salmon in the early days of Bristol Bay, and we all have to have a turn trying on the bear-gloves that everyone wants to buy, but which are not for sale. A relief map of the area is another one of the highlights of the tiny building. I could stay entranced with that for hours, but, of course, I don’t want to miss dinner. The food at the lodge is just too incredible!

Fly Out Possibilities-sockeye

Women fishing in AlaskaThe fly-out fishing possibilities in the Park are almost endless. On the fly-out day that our trip includes, the group nearly always votes to have it be a day to go sockeye fishing. This gives us the opportunity to fly out over Lake Iliamna and the village of Egegik, Alaska¸ to the world-famous Kvichak River that hosts one of Alaska’s most prolific run of sockeye (red) salmon.

“Is this the way you do it?” asked Carolyn as she flipped her fly upstream into the slower current right beside the river bank right in a spot I’d shown her, made a quick upstream mend, and began to follow the line with her rod tip. She had hardly gotten the words out of her mouth before her line came tight and a glistening sockeye with a hot pink fish candy fly in its jaw leapt out of the water and splashed back down right in front of her. “Yep,” I said, “That’s the way you do it.”

“I didn’t even feel him take the fly,” she reported while managing his repeated runs. “Sockeye seldom grab,” I told her. “Be sure to keep your eye on your line to help get some indication that a fish has the fly in its mouth. If your line hesitates or stops, set the hook, immediately.”

She kept that fish to take home, and Jeff promised her that the lodge would fillet, vacuum seal, and freeze it for her to do just that. She headed right back to the water and joined the others in getting a limit of fish in one of the lodge’s favorite spots on the river.

When the salmon run is strong, everyone limits-out, usually before noon. So, after eating our lunch on the beach right beside the plane, we take off and head for one of the other lakes in the area. It’s a great chance to do some flight-seeing in this magnificent region. Kontrashibuna or Kijik Lakes are two of our favorites for the afternoon’s fishing.

Kijik Lake is a National Historic Landmark and an Archeological District, one of only three areas in Alaska with both designations. Kijik is also a documented cultural landscape. Its waters support runs of sockeye salmon, traditionally harvested by Alaska Native people in the region, and wonderful Arctic grayling fishing. Two small tributaries to the lake, just a couple hundred feet apart, always make for fun fishing right off the bank.

It was here that my photographer friend, Mike DeYoung, and I did some great photographing for new my book, “Fly Fishing for Alaska’s Arctic Grayling: Sailfish of the North.” We couldn’t miss. The reflection of the mountains, the water displaying several shades of green, and the orange, yellow, and gray rocks and gravel on the bottom of the nearly invisible, cellophane-clear river made for some awesome images.

The entire area is one fantastic photo opportunity after the other. Turquoise lake

is a particularly scenic lake nearby on everyone’s must-see list, but one where the weather had other ideas for Mike and I. Many visitors come to the park just to visit Dick Proenneke’s cabin at Twin Lakes, immortalized in both print (“One Man’s Wilderness”) and film, “Alone in the Wilderness.” Hikers come from all over the world to see Telequana Lake and to tackle the famous Telequana Trail, an historic Dena’ina Athabascan route from Telequana Lake to Kijik Village on Lake Clark. The Park Service’s web site says,” Continuously inhabited since early prehistoric times, the Lake Clark region nevertheless remains sparsely populated by humans.” It is just that characteristic that seems to draw us there.

We always schedule a very late afternoon flight back to Anchorage from this trip so that we can keep our flies in the water just as long as humanly possible. There’s so much to explore in Lake Clark, and never enough time to do it. It is, what one writer called, “the most under-appreciated of all the National Parks in Alaska.” WelI, I certainly can say that I appreciate it, and that I’m always ready to go back.

(Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Fish Alaska magazine

Getting Down There Tying Flies with Beads, Cones and Eyeballs

Tying Flies with Beads, Cones and Eyeballs

One of the newest trends in fly tying is the use of beads, cones, and eyeballs to add enough weight to the fly to reduce or eliminate the need for split shot on the leader. For many years most of us have encouraged our flies to sink by wrapping soft lead of various weights around the shank of the hook before constructing the pattern. Together with that trick, we’ve now learned the value of adding additional weight to the front end of the fly by making a bright and shiny add-on an integral part of the finished product.

Beads, cones and eyeballs can all be used to achieve additional weight while at the same time giving our flies a very realistic look and differing sink rates. Beads and cones slide right onto the hook, while eyeballs are tied on top of the hook. For that reason, I’m going to discuss then separately.

Beads & Cones

Beads or cones can be gold, silver, brass, tungsten, plastic, glass, aluminum, or baked-on enamel, sized to fit different hooks. All of them come with holes drilled into them so that they slide onto the hook. To prepare the hook, however, the barb must be flattened to make insert easier.

There are two major considerations when using beads or cones. First, the holes must be drilled specifically for fly tying so that the bead or cone slides easily around the bend of the hook. It’s important for tiers that are just starting out with beads to understand which way the bead or cone fits onto the hook. A close look at the bead will reveal that one of the holes in it is smaller than the other. Typically the point of the hook will be inserted into the smaller of the two holes. Inserting the hook-point into the larger hole will result in the bead or cone sliding down over the hook-eye when it is shoved forward.

The second consideration with using beads has to do with different types or sizes of wire, and different hook-eyes. The smart fly tier takes the hook she or he wants to use for the fly into the store with them when they buy the beads or cones. That way they can try out different sizes of beads or cones to make sure that the ones they buy will slide around the bend of the hook they plan to use for the fly. Remember, when using an up-eye or bend-back hook, the hole in the bead will also have to be wide enough to slide over the double wire just before the hook-eye. Many up-eye or bend-back hooks now have tapered wire next to the eye to help facilitate the use of beads and cones. One brand that I like is made by Daiichi.

Beads and cones are of variable weight, so it’s important to consider how much weight you want to add to the fly before selecting one or the other. Generally, the plastic and brass beads and cones provide a nice “look” to the fly, but weigh very little. These add-ons will provide a slow sink-rate for the fly. Lead or tungsten cones and beads provide much more weight for a faster sink.

Tying with Beads and Cones

Here’s a few general tips to help you get started. Always be sure to place the bead or cone on the hook, and then begin to tie the fly. If you’re also going to wrap lead on the hook shank, be sure to put the bead or cone on first. Often, the bead or cone slides around up at the hook-eye while the tier works. If this becomes a problem, just position the hook in the vice with a bit of a down angle to make the bead or cone stay up against the eye.

As the fly is tied, work the body material up into the space under the cone or eyeball as far as possible to help fill up the gap that will exist there and help stop the cone or bead from sliding around. Generally, cones present more of this problem than beads do. Depending on the design of the fly, consider finishing the fly by adding a hackle collar or a maribou wing to help disguise the “gap” that appears between the finished fly and the edges of the cone or bead. Instructions for adding a hackle collar are included with the pattern for the Starlight Leech below.

A Cone-Head Woolly Bugger

Hook: Daiichi #2441 #2 or #1

Tail: Maribou feather (white, black, brown, purple, white, olive, etc.)

Crystal Flash: a few strands of pearl or multi-color Flashabou;

Hackle: Webby white saddle hackle feather

Body: White Chenille

Wing: A few strands of pearl or multi-color Flashabou or a tuft of maribou (optional)

  • Insert the point of the hook into the cone and shove the cone up against the hook-eye. Lead the hook (optional);
  • Select a fluffy white maribou feather and tie it in behind the lead to form a tail that is no longer than the shank of the hook;
  • Tie in the Flashabou at the tail;
  • Prepare a webby, white saddle hackle feather by stroking down a few of the fibers on the tip of the feather and then tying it in by the tip right in front of the maribou tail with the right side of the feather facing the tier (The right side of the feather is the side where the spine of the feather is least prominent. )
  • Tie in the white chenille and move the thread up to the front of the hook;
  • Wrap the chenille up to the front of the hook and tie off right behind the cone;
  • Palmer the saddle hackle up to the front of the hook and tie off right behind the cone being careful not to let it twist as you wrap;
  • Add the wing of Flashabou or maribou if you wish.


Eyeballs may be bead-chain, lead, tungsten, plastic or aluminum to add both weight and visual simulation to the fly. There are, of course, also paste-on eyes that are used primarily in salt-water fly tying, but we’ll leave that discussion for another time. Besides providing more weight, many tiers also believe that eyeballs also add more realism to the fly and prefer to use them for that reason.

The original eyeballs that most tiers learned to use were the bead-chain variety. While they did indeed add lifelikeness to various patterns, they provided minimal weight. More recently, the lead eyes of different styles have become available to give more weight to the fly. Lead eyes have another advantage in that they are made with a greater distance between the two eyeballs providing extra space that enables the tier to add a chenille egg-head to the fly with those kinds of eyes. (See below.) With the wide variety of eyeballs now on the market, the tier can select one or the other based on both the amount of weight and the “look” that he or she wants on the finished fly.

Tying with Eyeballs

Beads and cones just slide onto the hook. But, because they are placed on top of the hook, eyeballs must be tied on.  Many people report that they can never get their eyeballs tied on securely and say that the eyeballs always seems to rotate around the hook. So, here are some tips to help you master this essential skill.

  1. Use eyeballs that are in proportion to the hook.
  2. Be aware that the heavier and larger the eyeballs are, the longer it will take to tie them in securely.
  3. Tie on the eyeballs before tying any other part of the fly so that you can position them just where you want them instead of trying to leave the right amount of space and tie them in later as you finish the fly.

Now, here are the instructions for tying on eyeballs:

  • Lay down a thread base for the eyeballs up close to the hook-eye and position them on the hook. (If using an up-eye or bend-back hook, lay the thread base on top of the double wire.)
  • Holding the eyeball which is farthest away from you as it lays on the hook shank in the fingernails of your non-dominant thumb & index finger, make ten or twelve thread wraps only over the eyeball that is closest to you and under the hook, binding down that eyeball.
  • Then, hold the eyeball closest to you in the fingernails of your non-dominant thumb & index finger and wrap thread over the eyeball farthest away from you and under the hook ten or twelve times to get it bound down as well.
  • Once the eyeballs are set, begin to make figure-eight wraps over one eyeball and back under the hook and then over the other eyeball and back under the hook.
  • Make about fifteen or twenty figure-eight wraps. Then make several wraps over each individual eyeball again.
  • Now make six or eight wraps in front of the pair of eyeballs and six or eight wraps in back of the pair of eyeballs. (This helps take care of the eyeballs’ tendency to move back and forth sideways as well as around the hook.)
  • Continue to intersperse the figure-eight wraps and the wraps over the individual eyeballs and those in front and back of them until the eyeballs do not slide around on the hook.
  • Whip finish behind the eyeballs to secure them while the rest of the fly is tied.

People often ask if a fly with eyeballs will ride with the eyeballs on the underside of the hook instead of the top of the hook when the fly is fished. Generally that will not occur unless the fly is fished dead drift. Most of the time stripping the fly in the water takes care of the problem and keeps the eyes on top of the fly. You’ll notice that for the flies where the tier wants the hook to ride up instead of down, the eyes are actually tied on the hook with the point turned up instead of  turned down.

Tying the fly onto a hook that already has eyeballs attached is not difficult. Just plan to work the materials of the fly up as close behind the eyeballs as possible to help avoid the “gap” that often appears there just as it does when tying with beads and cones.  If you want to also lead the hook shank, you can do that before or after tying on the eyeballs. Adding a hackle collar or a maribou wing will also help to give the fly a more “finished” look and will help fill up the “gap,” as will wrapping chenille or other material around the eyes as I do on the fly below.

Always finish a fly that has eyeballs behind the eyeballs rather in front of them. Generally there will not be sufficient room to finish ahead of the eyes. Even when there seems to be, doing so will often cover up the hook-eye preventing you from later inserting the leader.

Now, here’s a fly to illustrate tying with eyeballs.

The Starlight Leech

Hook: Mustad 36890- #4-1/0—or Daiichi 2441 #2 or #1  (leaded shank is optional)

Eyes: Lead eyes set back from the hook-eye (bead chain eyes aren’t large enough to give

this fly the correct look, and they don’t have enough distance between the eyeballs to  tie in the chenille head)

Head: Red, orange, fuscia or chartreuse chenille

Tail: Tip of a black of purple bunny strip

Body: Black or purple Cactus Chenille

Wing: Remainder of bunny strip folded forward

Collar: Black or purple saddle hackle

  • Lead the hook and tie in the eyes. (Set the eyes on the hook just at the end of the bend-back rather than on top of it to leave room for the wrapped chenille head);
  • Tie in the chenille right behind the eyeballs. Then wrap it around the eyes several times and tie off behind the eyes. Move the thread to the back of the hook behind the lead.
  • Tie in the tip of a bunny strip to create a one-inch tail and cut off the remainder of the strip;
  • Tie in the Cactus Chenille at just the same spot where you tied in the tail. Wrap the thread up to behind the eyeballs. Now wrap the Cactus Chenille forward to right up behind the eyeballs. Be careful to pull the spikes of the material back each time you wrap to avoid flattening them with the subsequent wrap;
  • Make a hackle collar by selecting a wide, webby saddle hackle feather. Strip off the fuzz and tie it in from the butt right behind the eyeballs with the right side of the feather facing the tier. Make three or four side-by-side wraps of the feather right up behind the eyeballs, stroking the fibers back with each wrap so that they sweep back along the hook shank.
  • Tie off and whip finish behind the eyeballs.

Casting Flies with Beads, Cones and Eyeballs

Besides varying the sink rate, heavier or lighter cones, beads, or eyeballs will also affect the way that the fly casts. The general rule is that the heavier the bead or cone or eyeball, the harder the fly will be to cast. Casting heavy flies requires a somewhat slower casting rhythm and a more open loop. (Getting hit in the back of the head with one of these leaded eyeball flies is not fun.) Since the extra weight on the fly can also un-balance the casting stroke, it’s also important to make firm, deliberate stops on both the front and back casts when casting large, weighted flies. A time-honored recommendation when casting flies with beads, cones, or eyeballs (or with the split shot you may have been using to get your fly down) is to “wait for the bounce” before beginning each forward or back cast.


There you have it. You’ll quickly learn that tying with beads, cones, and eyeballs adds a completely different dimension to your flies and to your fishing. Just the chance to eliminate the use of split shot on the leader makes them worth trying.


(Originally published in August / September 2007 issue of Fish Alaska Magazine)

Spring Fling for Women

Alaska Airlines Center
3550 Providence Drive

Saturday, April 21, 2018 | 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.

(11 a.m. start for the General Public due to the Alaska Heart Run-Open at 10:00 a.m. for Heart Run Participants-Special Door Prizes(Massages, Drinks etc.) and Offerings for Heart Run Participants)

Sunday, April 22 | 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

FREE Public Admission

Lots of FREE Parking

Bristol Bay Hearings

Dear Bristol Bay supporter,
The backers of the proposed Pebble Mine have applied for a key permit to mine, and that means Bristol Bay needs our help once again! 
Please join us at one of the upcoming public hearings to make your voice heard. 
What: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is hosting meetings to discuss the proposed Pebble Mine and the impacts of its extensive infrastructure (current plans include a massive mining pit, port, natural gas pipeline below Cook Inlet, nearly 100 miles of private road crossing over 200 streams, and more). Why: It’s important that people who value or one day hope to experience Bristol Bay attend these meetings and express our concerns about Pebble’s impacts to the region. The Corps of Engineers will take these comments and concerns into account as they draft the Environmental Impact Statement, the linchpin of Pebble’s permit application.

There will be a rally in advance of the hearing to display public opposition.  
Don’t live in the area or can’t attend a hearing?  Click here to submit your comment today!
Thank you,
Eric Booton