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Salmon Parr and Smolt for Alaska Fly Fishing: Part 3

This is the third part of my salmon cycle outline for Alaska Fly fishing.  This is not an in depth how to, but rather a sampler to get anglers thinking about ways to approach Alaskan trout throughout the season.

Salmon Parr are available to trout and Dolly Varden somewhere on a year-round basis.  During their first year, the little salmon are called fry.  Those that remain in a river or lake for more than a year are called Parr.  Each salmon species has slightly different requirements.  Sockeye fry typically migrate to lakes and feed on plankton and develop into larger Parr.  Coincidentally, many rainbows and dollies migrate into the lakes for the winter months.  King Salmon typically spend their youth in the main-stem of their natal river.  This makes them a target for larger trout throughout the summer.  Silver salmon behave like Kings their first year, but then often move up smaller tributaries and back waters where they will spend from one to three more years in relative safety.

The most obvious physical trait of salmon Parr are the vertical bars they exhibit called Parr markings.  These markings are important to note when creating streamers meant to imitate them.

Note the wounded (white spots) Parr.  They won’t last long…chomp.

Every spring, an amazing transformation takes place within the juvenile salmon.  The process is called smoltification.  Its a good word to know when one of your buddy’s starts spouting off the Latin name of some stupid bug.

“You see those terns diving? I’m guessing smoltification is in full swing.  The way they are pounding those aggregations suggests I should tumble a cripple off that shelf.”

Smoltificaiton is the internal metabolic process which enables the juvenile parr to adapt from fresh to salt water.  There is some kind of kidney function reverse osmosis thing going on.  At the onset, they become less territorial and begin forming aggregations, grouping themselves by similar size. During smoltification they will lose the dark vertical bars on their sides (Parr marks or river camo) and develop their metallic sheen (open water camouflage).

Salmon SmoltOutgoing smolt migrations generally occur in spring and early summer.  The window tends to get later and more concentrated further north in the salmon’s range.  In large rivers, outgoing smolt can concentrate in balls similar to saltwater baitfish such as herring.  Birds and hungry trout will not miss this opportunity and finding a smolt ball can lead to some very exciting fishing.

While smolt may rest in slower waters, it is important to understand that in the main current, smolt are moving downstream.  A deep swing across the current with a smolt fly pattern (steelhead style) is not the best way to imitate the migration.  Casting up and across and stripping with a downstream angle will be more realistic.  In fast water, it is often best to just drift your pattern as these little fella’s are going with the flow.

Kenai River Alaska June Rainbow

Smoltified Rainbow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next Up:  When the Adult Salmon Return

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Spring is finally winning the battle in Montana.  Yesterday, I went out to help my friend Brian get familiar with his new boat.   I plan to help him get familiar with it as much as possible over the next month or so.

Now What.

No Oars? What do I do?

We bypassed three landings due to ice, before we hit one that was open.  The way the warm Chinook is howling today however, the lingering ice and snow will be sucked away very soon.  Due to increased daylight and warmth, I have been on the go (outside).  No blogging or writing this past week, so I am pulling out some notes I laid down in the middle of this cold winter (past?).  This is a trout fishing tip…

Use Your Imagination

To be successful getting bites, it helps to have an idea of where your line, leader and fly are within the water column.  Many inexperienced anglers just get their stuff out there and wait for or expect a bite.  Experienced anglers know there are many variables involved in the activity of fishing any given cast.  As a guide, I encourage anglers to imagine or picture in their mind what is actually happening under the surface.  Visualizing subsurface mysteries is a fundamental key setting great anglers apart from people who are just fishing.

Knowing when to mend to set up a dead drift or create the correct swing is important, but understanding what is happening to your fly is central to the process.  Currents are different from the surface to the bottom.  Changes in depth and structure create rivers within rivers.  Spend some time observing fish in clear moving water if you can.  Then try to target a specific fish if you can find one.  Pay close attention to your line, leader and fly throughout the drift.  Even if you can’t spot any fish, you can pick out a target and watch the drift of your fly.  Did the fly go where you expected?  Did it reach proper depth?   Watch what the current does to your fly as it drifts around rocks, over ledges and along the bank.  Build a mental file of these variables.  Now you have some background to imagine what is happening in stained water, deep water or larger rivers where you can’t see your target.

Fly tying and fly selection are both imaginative processes.  Fishing a fly should be as well.  When it comes to streamers, anglers will pick out a fly based on some criteria such as good looks or the fact that someone said it was a hot pattern.  Then they proceed to fish every fly the same way.  Flies have as many personalities as the tiers who build them. Pull each one through the water.  See what happens when the line goes slack.  Animate it with your rod.  Then cast it out there and sell it to the fish.

Winter Brown on a Streamer

I was sold out.

It was obvious I was in the middle of a fevered fish jones when I wrote this, but I think most people will either agree with these thoughts or be able to put some of these ideas into play.  Tight Lines!

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This is part 2 in a series on understanding Alaska Fly Fishing, starting with the Salmon Cycle.  Alevin are not hugely important for most anglers, but are part of the complete picture.  As Alevin transition to become fry, their likelihood of becoming fish food for predators increases.

During the winter, the salmon eggs that survive are mixed within the gravel.  As time goes by, the eggs develop and hatch.  Alevin are the first stage.  Alevin are incomplete little fry still emerging from their egg sack.  In fact, some people refer to them as sac fry.  They are carrying their food supply (egg sac of yolk) attached to their bellies.  They generally do not leave the protection of the gravel until the yolk is absorbed.  However, trout sure seem to recognize alevin fly patterns, so a few must get washed around the stream bed from time to time.

While salmon alevin are primarily available to trout in late winter, the pattern can be effective well into June.  Beyond salmon, trout (which are basically resident salmon) have their own alevin stage.  I have found alevin patterns to work for both brown trout and rainbows on Montana waters in the spring.

An alevin is basically a pair of eyeballs with a yolk sack and slender body.  They are relative in size to the egg they are forming from.  They are capable of wriggling, but not able to swim quickly.  They are somewhat similar to nymphs in their ability to move.  As such, they are best imitated by dead drifting with either an indicator set up or sink tip.  Fish will also take them on a tight line after a good drift and on a moderate swing.

Kenai River Alaska Rainbow Trout

I eat salmon.

As spring unfolds, the alevin absorb their egg sac and begin to resemble a small fish.  They have now entered the fry stage.  With the exception of Pinks and Chums who migrate directly to the ocean as fry, the other salmon typically spend one or more years developing in fresh water.  This means that they are always available to trout and other predators in a variety of sizes.

When fry first emerge from the gravel, they seek the surface for a gulp of air to fill their swim bladders.  For this brief time, they are vulnerable just like emerging nymphs.  Because they are not yet strong swimmers, they stay to the edges and calmer waters.  Fry can often be seen in small clouds like baitfish in the ocean.  They are easy targets for trout and birds.  Fry patterns can be fished on floating lines and sink tips.  Drifting is best in moderate currents and strip retrieves along the edges of seams and even in slack water areas can be effective.  A simple productive fry pattern is the good old thunder creek.

On the next series post, we will be looking at salmon parr and smolts.  These larger morsels get serious attention from trout and dolly varden.

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Since this is firstly a blog titled Alaska Fly Fishing, I am going to run a series of posts about Alaska fly fishing, focusing on some tips for the uninitiated.   When fishing the waters where big wild trout exist, salmon play a key role in their habits.  The salmon supply the bulk of the food and impact the location and migration patterns of trout throughout the year.   So first we are going to look at the life cycle of the salmon, so we can better understand how the trout are eating.

Spawning Sockeye Salmon

Spawning Sockeye Salmon

Which comes first, the salmon or the egg?

Without getting into an impossible debate, let’s just say the egg comes first, because for anglers, this represents the most important ingredient to prime time trout fishing in Alaska.  When salmon spawn, rainbow trout and Dolly Varden are never far away.  How close depends on the volume of eggs.  Early and late in the spawn, chances are they will be nosing right up to spawning pairs.  When eggs are plentiful, they will search out prime feeding locations where there is less concern about salmon harassment.  There is no free lunch in the fish world.  Aggressive spawning salmon will chase and attack other fish (trout/dollies) around their territory.  You can tell which trout are feeding right in the thick of things, because they will often have tattered fins, missing scales and even some serious bloody wounds.

What makes this trauma worth the price when eating eggs?  Eggs are packed with protein and they can’t swim away.  Trout are hardwired to eat them.  It’s in their DNA.  While individual fish show variables in feeding preferences, eggs are the big show in Alaska.  Salmon eggs are the premier Alaska hatch or the hatch before the hatching (all the following salmon lifecycle stages).

When it comes to matching the salmon egg hatch, it’s really no different than matching bugs.  Focus on color and size and dead drift your offering where the fish are eating.  Eggs can be matched with glo-bug (yarn) flies, chenille eggs, glue gun eggs and even claymation (baked clay) eggs.  Without question, plastic beads have become the norm and are arguably the best choice for most anglers.  They can be purchased in suitable sizes and colors and be doctored with various coatings to look very much like the natural eggs.

What do the real eggs look like?

Sockeye Salmon Eggs

Sockeye Salmon Eggs

Eyed Salmon Eggs

Eyed Salmon Eggs

Each salmon species has a somewhat unique egg in terms of size and color.  It is important to know which salmon you are fishing through, in order to match the naturals.  When eggs are first dropped, we call them freshies.  They are fairly bright in color and translucent.  In the water, they gradually become more opaque and milky pale in coloration.  Once fertilized and developing, they again brighten and become translucent, with the eyes of the developing salmon visible within.  While some anglers have literally hundreds of colors in a variety of sizes, most anglers will do fine with a few freshies and few opaque options in the suitable sizes.  Sockeye eggs are typically close to 6mm, Silvers, Chums and Pinks, close to 8mm and King Salmon eggs, closer to 10mm in size.  These are the three sizing choices most commonly used and available.

On a later posting, I will focus more specifically on imitation.  This will be the first in a series starting with the life cycle of salmon and I’m just going to have to see where it take me.  On the next post, we will look at Alevins.

Pick the correct salmon related food item and you just might hook a trout like this.

Egg Eating Alaska Rainbow Trout

Egg Eating Alaska Rainbow Trout

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