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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.
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.
When the ice goes out the streams transform quickly from narrow channels to roaring flows.
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
Wherever those fish are active there will be trout waiting just behind the salmon to collect any stray eggs.
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!
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.
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.