I get a few inquiries every year about rainbow trout fishing. Well, there are trout here but the kind of fishing people are thinking of exists primarily in remote Alaska. Places like the rivers flowing into Bristol Bay are a fine example of very high numbers of rainbow trout populations. There’s a price for that kind of fishing though and it starts around $6,000.00 for a 5 day 6 night stay. I’m not saying it isn’t worth it, that’s up to the individual to decide. Here where I fish the trout / steelhead trout aren’t as many and you better like to fish if you expect to catch some. I’ll take a person who wants to target trout fishing for $300.00 and spend the entire day with them searching for the fish. Yeah it’s a lot more affordable but you better like fishing. Some day’s I catch half a dozen or more, some days I get skunked, that’s the nature of fishing here. And honestly unless you are in a very special place catching half a dozen big trout in a day is fairly rare and I’m not talking brown trout on the spawning beds here, I mean fishing the river with your fly looking for players………… This story or lesson is about just one day fishing.
As far back as I can remember fly fishing I didn’t like it when there were other people around while I fished. The exception was when I had a fishing buddy for 24 years. Steve learned how to fly fish through our friendship but he didn’t always go with me thus I still fished alone a whole lot. From the early days in my teens hiking deep into the mountains extending to today I’m constantly making an effort to avoid other fishermen and suspect many of us are this way and we all have our reasons. I can break down my own reason for this desire easily, other than the guy who learned from his relationship with me I haven’t come across anyone who seems to have the same ethos that are the foundation of any day I spend fishing.
Looking back on life becomes easier with age I guess and even back in 1981 when I took my first real trip I had the solitude bug. That year I spent just shy of 6 weeks traveling on my motorcycle across America, 11,772 miles of America to be exact. I never forgot that number and had taken written note of the odometer the day I drove that GS 750 out of my driveway. Although I followed the sent so to say to the most famous rivers in the Western United States once I arrived I went about my normal behavior of trying to be alone. Back then I’d suspect it was easier than today but on streams like The Madison, Gibbon, Firehole and Gardiner you had to put some effort into being alone. I could no doubt bore with an extensive list of states and rivers I visited but no matter where I went I got away from people and sometimes those efforts got me far enough away from people that I found those bears that everyone is so concerned about. After a day spent deep in the mountains of Gallatin National Forrest where I was way closer to my first grizzly bear than you want to be I became a little more careful of how far I would go to avoid seeing another fisherman. I still avoided crowds but made a conscious effort to stay in areas where at least my remains might be discovered one day……………
Now here’s something that I don’t hear often discussed but I’ve found it to be true in many a case. Those crowded rivers and creeks are usually crowded with fishermen because that is where the fish are, Duh. The higher the number of trout or salmon the higher the density of anglers per acre of water is. I’m not saying that I wasn’t able to find my own little Valhalla to which I could slip away quietly and those places I guarded as if they were matters of National Security. And surprisingly many were hidden in plain view of the general public. I remember parking my trucks and motorcycles 3/4 of a mile away from one of my favorite haunts up a dirt road that led to nowhere in particular so that no one would ever add 2 & 2 figuring out that I was clad in camouflage creeping along the boulders and brush of a small stream which ran parallel with nearly half a mile of a very busy state route. The good news was that the highway in question led toward some of the most famous streams in my part of the state and drivers were either commuting for business purposes or speeding along there way to a really good place to fish. All of that happening at times a mere 40 feet away and up atop of the embankment that helped to conceal my presence while I caught many fish.
That and one other brook were the exceptions because usually in order to avoid competition I was relegated to fishing where there were fewer fish and so no other anglers. I traded 30 fish days for 1 or 2 and sometimes no fish days but in the process learned more about how and where to find one than I ever would have had I fished where there was one behind ever rock. Now this may not sound especially attractive to folks who want to catch fish but I believe that learning about fish and fishing technique is actually more important than how many you catch. But then people get into this pastime for different reasons. I would guess it could be said that I have experienced a complete evolution or metamorphosis within the sport. I’m at a point where when a fish is hooked my primary concern turns not to catching a fish but doing it in a way that will be the least traumatizing for that hooked fish. And yes I’m still trying desperately to have entire sections of river to myself. That part requires that I wait until the fair weather fisherman are long gone and it is then that I get serious about fishing. To spend a day on a river in my part of Alaska without one single boat running through ‘your’ water is an unusual event but I get to have a few every year so long that I never tell anyone where I’m fishing or how I’m doing at it.
My river, my favorite river isn’t recognized as a good trout river and it is most notably not recognized as having any steelhead in the system at all. So why would a guy who loves, actually truly loves to fish for trout & steelhead fish there? You guessed it, I’m alone. And you might also guess that I don’t fish there because there are no fish, there’s not as many as the famous and crowded places but I enjoy the hunt as much as the feel of one grabbing at the fly. Every year I learn a new spot where the conditions of depth, current, and available cover / holding spots spells out the 2 words I’m wanting to hear the voice in my head whisper, Trout and Steelhead. Once you get it in your head that you know something that no one else knows that’s when the work starts. You think about those places while drifting off to sleep at least I do. I’m not trying to tell you about an obsession, rather I find that in those scant moments while I wait for sleep to come I prefer to run thoughts across the screen behind my eyes and I run those places, I try to decide where to go the next time out.
The next time out is always a mystery, I spend a lot of time working on things that seem to need done although I never really seem to get everything caught up. In truth I could go whenever I want but as time goes on the want has faded. I need to be in the mood to go hunting fish and that’s what this amounts to, hunting them. First you need to find the water that possesses all the right earmarks for there to be one there. Once you find the next ‘spot’ then there’s rigging up a rod and choosing the fly. Almost there, now all you need to do is cover that area as thoroughly as you possibly can with that fly. I use everything I’ve ever learned about getting a fly in all the right places every time I fish a good holding spot. You work slow and patiently because if the fish of your life is there the last thing you want is to have missed the chance because you got impatient is it?
I’ll stop with all the dialog and show you where I went a couple days ago.
I came into the area slow and chugged into about ten inches of water then killed the motor and walked the anchor upstream and pulled the boat into a good resting place’
With the anchor set I climbed back in and rigged a rod up and had a beer while Boss ate from his stash of beef jerky I keep stowed in the bow space. I like to watch, watching helps me to calm down, to get in tune with things again because it’s been a few weeks since I’ve been up there.
Boss is 14 years and 4 months old now and he has difficulty getting in and out of the boat due to age but he absolutely loves going fishing. So we sit, I watch the river and he watches me, we’re a good team when it comes to watching.
Even in pictures you can see why I like this spot can’t you? I start by walking / wading all the way to the top of the run which is about as far as you can see upstream in the pictures. There is a deep troth that runs against the bank on the left as you are looking up and it is the right side as you are working it downstream.
As the flow comes down closer to where the boat is parked there are several deep drops and a few back eddy’s formed that all scream fish but I always go all the way up to begin fishing.
The sweepers and the cut banks, the current speed with the dead draft zones mixed in are all signs for you to recognize and the river has miles and miles of this kind of habitat for you to explore. This is a good place to explain why I always go above the most likely spots to begin fishing. When I was young I would identify the best looking area on a creek and then make a bee line to it and begin thrashing away with casts. Sometimes I caught fish, sometimes I didn’t. On more than one occasion when I started my day with a cast into the very best looking spot of water within eyesight something unexpected happened. The unexpected was almost never good, it varied from casting way across and snagging in a bush or tree if I was on a small creek to creating a leader knot like I couldn’t tie even if I tried. Other times the hurried (greedy) cast would line a really nice fish I had not seen even though when it bolted I would realize it was very close to me and my line had landed right over its head. Lessons learned right?
Just like sitting and acclimating myself helps with overall mood, the act of beginning far above the prime spots allows time to get in sync with the casting. Getting the current speeds figured out, the mending techniques that are needed to produce slow deliberate drifts and swings are all points you want to address before you move into the target area. And many times I find a fish while I ply the water for a couple hundred yards too.
Streamer fishing is different than dry fly fishing in so many ways and you know this is true. Have you taken time to think on some of the distinct differences? Unlike when fish are feeding on dries fish sitting static in deep currents remain unseen. When a fish strikes at or comes up and refuses a dry fly presentation we usually get to see the activity. When you are swinging that streamer you have no idea if you had a look, a refusal, the only time you know you got it right is when you feel a tap on the line. You may be swinging over them, behind them or they may be there but with no interest whatever in some strange looking thing passing in the current. That is why you really need to be calm, patient and focused if you want results. Remember, I’m not fishing where there are so many fish that I can make mistakes and regardless of where you fish maybe thinking on some of these things I’m saying could be useful.
The reason I was in this spot was that I felt and then lost a big fish there in August. I was sure it had hooked itself because it was taking line and bending my 14 foot eight weight rod. As the reel turned I took hold of the line and lifter the rod tip and sure as could be I was into a good one. Then in a matter of seconds I saw the flank and knew this was no salmon and then it and the tension on my line were both gone. I like to give them plenty of time to forgive and forget me and my pointy little flies so I was back after 5 weeks resting the spot. I worked that water from all the way at the top to the bend elow where I was parked without a touch, nada, zip…………. But hey, this is what builds character right? What kind of Girlyman would pull the anchor and leave, not me, nope it was time to climb back into the boat and have another beer whilst I thought on my short comings.
I had fished that with a Dee Monkey tied on a tube with weight, a fly that pretty well can look like a leach and I thought I did it right. Obviously not, so I sat there and looked at my water and then reached for my little boat luggage full of fly boxes. Having such a selection is a luxury of boat travel and I reached for something I haven’t used in years, The Dolly Lama.
If you are reading this and saying to yourself, ‘What the hell is a Dee Monkey and a Dolly Lama’? here’s a look at the subtle differences between the Monkey (right) and the DL.
Yeah I’m still packing Sculpins and shiny new Dolly Lama’s just in case I can’t get it done with my exotics. So you tie on the Dolly and wade all the way back up there to the top and you do it again. This will take a few hours out of your day but with proper focus you might enjoy reworking the same water more than moving on. Me? I’m never willing to look at a place like this and say “there isn’t anything here”. So here we go, I got all the way back down by the boat and finally felt a fish at the fly. When you’ve worked this hard and diligently just to feel one nipping you must have your reflexes in total control. Know what I do when I feel that tapping? Nothing, nothing at all except think or sometimes say aloud, ‘there you are’. Was it the big one I had for a few seconds 5 weeks past? only to know is to get it right, finally it pulled hard and I clamped the line and lifted the rod and yes this one seemed hooked well enough.
I was elated to have been rewarded for my efforts but no it was not the monster I’ve been chasing for 15 years up here. It was an interesting looking male rainbow of about 16 inches but in the current he felt a bit heavier and longer………….
Undaunted as always I waded downstream to the bend below the boat where the river runs deep and pans out into beautiful current riffkes before cutting against another bank for a left turn. I’ve never stopped to fish this spot as it’s a series of sharp turns in the river with shallow areas with large cobble just below the surface between the deep spots. I call these the Drive ‘By’s’ because everyone navigates this river the same way and slowing down in this stretch will result in crashing the bottom of a jet boat into the cobble and probably getting stuck there. Drive By’s are just another example of finding the spots where no one fishes and as time went on I’ve began fishing as many as possible each fall.
Just at the tail out where the river rises and widens to flow over the shallow I had another fish tapping away but it didn’t hook up. So I walked back upstream and came right back through the deep water, got the second one.
Very much like the first and without undue fanfare I unhooked him and allowed the fish to slip back to his home.
After that I fished a little more through the area to see if I could raise another but had spent several hours there and decided it best to try a different day. So, down the river we went scooting fast through the shallow areas wher the river widens and there are no truly good channels to use so you hit the gas and the ATEC jumps up – flattens out on the water and allows you to skim over cobble just a couple inches under the surface. We made it back through the shallows without hearing the bottom against the hull at all making it a good scoot.
I stopped and hit another favorite run but had no results at all other than some good casts so I opted to drift downriver to a spot I caught a decent rainbow last trip there………. There are a lot of Silvers actively spawning in this stretch of river, maybe 30 of them or more but I think 30 is fair. They are extremely aggressive at this time in life so you have to do your best to avoid them with your drift and swing otherwise you’re going to end up battling 8 to 12 pound fish more than you will enjoy. Another negative aspect of getting mixed up with the spawners are those teeth. All of the salmon go through an accelerated morphological change as they turn from the bright ocean fish to the fully matured spawning versions and their jaws and teeth are a problem. They will grab anything that gets close and will pursue for a great distance so you must watch for them or you’ll be into what I consider a waste of time trying to get your fly back. Some people target these fish however I feel that to target them at this stage is a perverted practice at best. When a Pacific Silver Salmon turns they are a deep red with a dark head. In all but the worse conditions you can see them from 50 yards away and given their aggressive nature defending both the hens and the beds there is no skill or sport involved in catching them. If you want skill & sport try the runs when the fish first appear bright as a minted dime and you’ll get all the challenge you need. I said that because I’ve witnessed people actively torturing these animals for fun, dragging them in striking heroic poses during the fight and I find it distasteful.
So where was I? Oh yes fishing, I chose a good spot to park the boat again and dam near fell into the river getting out while it was still drifting at a brisk rate of speed. Jumping from a moving boat into a foot or more of water gets harder with age and even harder when your left foot gets caught inside the gunwale when you make your move. I struggled to keep from dipping water into the back of my waders and regained my footing. After saying a few choice words to mark my performance I set the anchor and started wading upriver…………. All the way back to the boat and nothing! I slipped past the boat as it hung in the current and continued down when; tap tap tap, followed by a good firm pull as I held my breath.
I lifted the rod and had some decent weight and a fish protesting deep, I couldn’t see it and wondered aloud, “Is this a salmon?” Then I saw a flash and it wasn’t a red side so I clamped my line and pulled back on my rod, firm but slow. Trying to set a hook too hard has proven (to me) to be a mistake more often than not. If a fish is meant to be caught it will be hooked when it grabs that fly and turns away with it, trying to cement the deal with a hard line set can tear a lightly embedded hook right out pronto so slow and firm.
The fight? I don’t really like that word used to describe what happens after I manage to hook a fish. I prefer ‘play’ because I play them, my goal is to keep a hooked fish as calm as possible and steadily reel it in to where I choose for landing it. Fish that are high sticked and pressured tend to jump and while many marvel at this part of the experience I’ve lost way too many big trout and steelhead because they jumped high in response to the pressure I had put to them. So, I play the same way I set that hook, slow but firmly because until I actually get a fish in the net I haven’t a clue what I might have.
It did jump and it did run but not too high and not too hard. I waded down to some very soft current where I could kneel in only a few inches of water on a fine gravel bottom, custom made spot for a guy with stiff knees I might add………… After a few attempts I was able to guide the fish over my submerged net and it was done. I looked at it and said, “Not the biggest I’ve ever caught but the biggest so far this year, nice fish”.
The hook came out easy once the fish was in the net but I allowed it to stay until I got the only thing I wanted to take with me. No bleeding, no exhaustion, it was as clean a catch as I could ever hope for and it reinforced my knowledge that the fish go to sea from this river. That and it was good to see a good size fish because that will keep me probing throughout the fall until the ice comes again.
I got my couple pictures and spent a minute admiring this fish before allowing it to slip back to the safety of the river.
Incidentally, that rod and reel? Those are are not what I started the day with. I was using my 11 foot 6 inch Swift with the Hardy Perfect Taupo seen here when I fished upriver.
Just upstream of this run where I caught the steelhead? The main spring in my Taupo broke affording no drag at all just a spinning spool…………… So change to the Sage X and the trusty old Cascapedia you can see on the gravel bar.
Oh, I did catch 2 of those salmon accidentally, one came off as I was dragging him in and the other? Well the other was a problem, all I want is my fly back and those teeth make it real hard to get to your hook. Right about time I had the hook the fish went all corkscrew on me and the hook ended up stuck in my hand.
The hook was on the outside of the fishes head at this point and my line was strung through tissue in the jaw, Not Good! If he bolts again he’s gonna tear me up good so I quickly cut the line and he was gone. I didn’t lost the fly because it was embedded in my hand. The blood on my ring finger was a teeth wound while I was fumbling to get the line from his jaw…………
That isn’t the exact fish but on the quick it’s the best I can do to show you what their current state of change is and a look at the jaws. Once you get a fly stuck in there it can get messy trying to get it back.
I’ve got the Mokai on the trailer and am headed to the upper river tomorrow, there’s no place to launch the big boat there and the Mokai is a good way to sneak into spots.
I didn’t plan the color scheme for either but they are in fact yellow……….. A Mokai is an 11 1/2 foot long Kayak with a 36 inch beam and a 7.3 Horse Power jet prop so you can drift down into spots then drive back upstream.
That’s all for now,
I’m adding a little more text.
There are places I could go here that have a whole bunch of steelhead but there’s a problem. Yakutat, many may have heard of this place, in part that’s the problem. The little river there, and I do mean little, gets the largest steelhead run on the west coast and gets crowded. How would I know if I’ve never went down there? I’ve talked to too many people who do, there are many guides, lodges and raft rental companies operating there. That tells me volumes about the place, I’ve seen videos and it’s a little stream where people sight fish using beads. I’d rather gut it out here working for my fish all alone, it almost seems like I’m in Alaska when I’m out there all day and don’t see another person. Yakutat is only one place, there are many more, I’ve been pushed out of many of the famous steelhead creeks and rivers here already, anyone who wants to crowd me where I fish has to know how even to drive a boat on this river else they will break the boat.
I’m just happier alone here and I figure I’ll get a big one yet this year