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Jasons Assassin0276         Jasons Assassin0282

 

Something to acknowledge in this first sentence is that I am not a fisheries biologist. I do seem to have a fair grasp of sciences and so try to relate my observations to others. These ideas are taken from years in the field combined with my understanding of theory and known facts.

 

I grew up fishing the mountain streams of North Central Pennsylvania, not here in Alaska. In my area trout were to some degree migratory because during the 20′th Century that region of the Mid Atlantic had what I would call real winter conditions. In those conditions there were prolonged periods of cold and water levels dropped significantly beneath the ice that very often covered many of the freestone streams and also the rivers & lakes into which they flowed.  I was well into my 40′s before I understood and witnessed what ‘anchor ice’ was and the effects it had on some of my favorite fisheries. The brook trout which had been populating those waters since the Wisconsin Period Glaciation or Ice Age, (which had only ended some 11,000 years prior) had evolved into a species who knew when to move about the streams and thereby avoid being trapped in areas which would become solid with ice by January nearly every season.

 

So what exactly does all this have to do with what I may or may not understand about Alaska and its trout, char and graylings? To a certain extent I was conditioned to streams that became almost uninhabitable to the resident fishes long before moving to here. The differences are that these fish have been dealing with this harsh environment for way more than 11,000 years. It took me a while to adjust to the idea of trout in some watersheds traveling as much as 50 miles to winter over and in some cases all the way to Cook Inlet for the winter…………… At this point I am becoming a little too wordy and so I will provide some pictures and then try to break this post down to a quick point by point of what I think I know about the habits and migratory patterns of the trout and their friends. In short; other than very deep pools and lakes, we have no actual resident fish that you can count on season after season. The big rainbow that you caught by the logjam in June may or may not take up residence at the same spot next June.

 

By winter the rivers that I drive my jet boat on become the highways to the Interior and they look like the picture below.

Jasons Assassin0286

That crevasse to the right of the snowmachine is what is called ‘an open lead’ and in this case there is not much water there at all. I was doing some learning on my own when I took the picture and discovered that much of this very wide river had receded  into a few deep channels. This leaves much of the area under the ice either very shallow, or dry gravel bars.  Seeing this made it easy to understand what happens to the smaller waterways  and larger rivers alike as the nights become colder in September. For the fish these conditions dictate that they move or die.

The trout, and for all accounts the other fish we seek, char and grayling, are all wedded to the salmon. For the sake of writing I will refer to trout but it is assumed that we are talking about the three species from here on. Because of the extended cold which can last into June and return as early as September we have low to poor aquatic insect populations in the higher elevations. Of course that affects the entire food chain, therefore the salmon are ‘the’ source of nutrition for the large part of time that the waters are ice free. With those cold September nights the runoff from marshes and snow packs is stopped by freezing. The creeks and smaller rivers drop very quickly and this signals the trout who have returned from their deep water wintering hides with the salmon that it is time to leave. These fish come in beginning with the first kings to return, the trout will be following closely behind. As each successive specie of salmon comes so do the fishes who depend upon the food that the salmon supply.

In late fall the ice begins to extend over the river channels until they are covered. At this time or as the ice covers the rivers and creeks the fish are moving downstream or have moved to deep pools where they survive for six long months of ice locked winter. On the larger or main stem rivers like Susitna, the fish may either pool up or make the trip on toward the Inlet and winter in the brackish environment there, thus producing our ‘Rainbow / Steelhead Trout’ here in the Valley.

While the fish seek food and better oxygenated water the river slows beneath the ice. Depending on how fast the melt takes place in spring you may have a very small window of time to fish the places where rivers have confluence with one another, or they may become quickly soiled as seen in early June 2012 below.

Jasons Assassin0284             IMG_2762

When the ice goes out the streams transform quickly from narrow channels to roaring flows.

Jasons Assassin0285            Jasons Assassin0287

When that ice clears it is only a few short weeks before the trout and other species are gathered in the lower sections of most streams. Some will begin to migrate back up, the Rainbow and Grayling are both spring spawners themselves and by mid May they are busy with propagating another generation. Many of our streams are not open to trout fishing until June 14 or 15th in order to protect the trout. Grayling can be pursued during spring as well as Dolly Varden Char.

When the first salmon show up the trout have finished their breeding and radially follow the various species of salmon on up the streams to their ancestral breeding grounds.

 

A breeding king who is taking on color                                 Followed closely by Sockeye Salmon

Jasons Assassin0283     Jasons Assassin0278

Wherever those fish are active there will be trout waiting just behind the salmon to collect any stray eggs.

Small Stream Trout0202

This is when swinging streamer flies is such great sport and is the best time to catch a beautiful trout or char on a real fly!

Jasons Assassin0277

IMG_2825              Dolly Varden Char

By August the game changes as the silver salmon are arriving. While you may still be thinking Trout, it is very likely you can strike silver or…..red, once they change I call them Coho.

My Fish0161                My Fish0162

I guess what I have tried to say without being too technical is that fishing trout and all other species here revolves around the salmon. The salmon are the primary source of food for all species. Trout eat the fry and fingerling salmon when they can. They eat as many salmon eggs as they can catch floating down the creeks. After the salmon begin to die off by early August the trout eat the decaying flesh from the salmon and will continue to be sustained on this well into the winter. I should also note that along with the spring thaw, many salmon carcasses which have been conveniently locked in the ice & snow since October & November, are set free. Just one more way that the trout and other game fish are linked to the salmon. It is the silvers who provide this early ice out bounty because many of the late run fish are still in the head waters when the winter comes.

It is this bond between the trout and the salmon which makes this the most challenging trout fishing I have ever done. it is truly a game of hunting for them and of course knowing where best to look. This area where I am is not the Kenai or Russian Rivers, we do have trout but we must work for them. One thing I don’t have to deal with here are ‘Combat Fishing’ conditions.

 

  1. December 5, 2013
    Chris (PA and NJ)

    Very well done, Ard. Great explanation of the cycle and relationship between the salmonids in your area.

  2. December 5, 2013
    Jason

    Ard, this was a fascinating read on how significant salmon are to Alaska. Not only as table fare for residents and visitors, but to the other species of fish that anglers target. Thanks for another superb read.

    Jason

  3. December 5, 2013
    Eddie

    Fascinating read Ard. So much more interesting than a fish biologist :) )

  4. December 6, 2013
    Ard Stetts

    You guys are very kind,

    I worry that in a rush to produce some content for this page I am getting sloppy with the presentation. I’ll get over the excitement of having readers and buckle down for more postings. If you want to find more lengthly articles that I’ve produced in the past please visit Steve Burks Salmonfly.net on line magazine to find them and many other good submissions from others as well;

    http://www.salmonfly.net/articles.html

    That link will put on the articles archives and from there you can explore his very informative pages. Steve is a wonderful fellow from Washington State who has put a lot into this sport.

    Ard

  5. December 11, 2013
    Larry

    Ard
    That was an enjoyable read, very well explained!

  6. December 13, 2013
    Dewayne

    Informative and entertaining. I know little about migratory fish and this was a good place to start.

  7. January 8, 2014
    John

    Since becoming a Fisherman (not just a guy that fishes) I have always looked to the salmon as one of the purest examples of sheer beauty and power of the Cycle of Life. It is the purest example, filled with mystery, the will to live, necessity.

    I also think it is an easy example to use to show people the importance of one single species when they want to disregard something because it’s just one fish, a vicious predator, just a tree, in order to justify a destructive greed.

    OK, I’ll stop now. Don’t want to offend anyone…you know how I get.

    One real question: Since all of the rainbows move long distances, and most likely to large bodies of water for part of every season, to my knowledge this would make them anadromous fish. Though I am not certain of what exactly classifies this. So what make one a rainbow trout and the other a steelhead? I’ve understood that steelhead are migratory rainbows, but there must be more.
    Thanks Ard, John

  8. January 9, 2014
    Ard Stetts

    Hi John,

    I have not looked this up and so will do as always and fire from the hip, based on what I ‘think’ I know.

    The Alaska Department of Fish & Game refers to certain populations of trout here as Rainbow / Steelhead trout, while others are simply Rainbow trout. I will find out exactly what is at the root of these determinations but have suspicions.

    True steelhead trout are I believe a sub species all their own while those trout which may share the same migratory habits do not travel great distances into salt waters. I will speak with my regional biologist to attempt to answer this point more clearly.

  9. May 27, 2014
    Randy

    Ard,
    I’ve been fishing here for about 13 years but just started fly fishing about three years ago and have a lot to learn. I’ve had success in the spring using light colored flesh patterns, thinking as you stated that salmon carcasses frozen over the winter are releasing bits of flesh into the flow. However, I’ve observed many rainbows letting flesh flies pass on by. I’ve suspected that they’re feeding on fry, which you confirmed in this article. I need to learn how to tie some patterns that effectively mimic this food source. My skills at this point aren’t up to the patterns I’ve seen in your pictures, but there’s only one way to improve! Thanks for the article and the motivation!

    • June 7, 2014
      Ard Stetts

      Hi Randy,
      I’ve been away for a couple weeks working at the cabin and doing some fishing. For the rainbow trout any type of Sculpin pattern is good. If you make any streamers go for food colors like gray & brown in the body and hackles. Funny thing though, I caught a nice rainbow today while swinging a big blue & green Intruder with an orange hackle collar…… Go figure. I had 3 rods rigged, 1 with an AK. Assassin tube fly – 1 with the blue & green Intruder mentioned and 1 with a black and olive green Nine Three on a tube. I was fishing them in the order I’ve listed them through each run I worked. I did hook a small king today but it came undone from the hook. If you live in Anchorage or near it, go to Mossy’s Fly Shop and ask about tying classes, they offer them but I don’t know if they do it during summer. If you call me using the contact number here I can try to help you to fast track your tying also.

      Ard

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