Posts Tagged ‘Rainbow Trout’

Very few people understand a Steelheader’s mentality and if you think about it who could blame them. To sit and reason as to why a person would fish Alaska in October in the first place and secondly how that person would be happy after not catching anything is futile at best. Sure it would have been nice if the one grab of the day was accompanied later by the beast brought to hand but it wasn’t meant to be. The big buck simply was not in the fighting mood and with a big shake of its head spit out my articulated fly like it was a mere pebble.

Rounding out the twosome for the day was good friend and long-time Alaskan Steelheader J who fished the same waters since the 80’s. His fish stories from year’s past told of much greater returns in which 10-15-20 fish days were more common than not. It was great to see someone so connected to a river. Even though the channels and holes have changed drastically since the last three decades and even from year-to-year, it is nice to know that for veterans and relative newbies alike the excitement never wanes.

Steelhead trout are Rainbows on roids. Commonly known as Metalheads for good reason, their mouths are built more like Permit and are nearly as hard as the rocks they tend to hide behind. Rarely will polarization help in spotting one. With the typical low-light conditions and a penchant for camouflage, Steelhead are as elusive before the catch as they are during a fight. The catch to grab ratio in the 25% range is a target with anything higher being a very good day on the water.

The starting temp was a chilly 17 degrees. We were met by an expanding sheet of ice on the banks and flowing slush in all but the main channels. Couple that with low water and pending blue bird skies and we knew we were in for a tough day. Ice build-up in all the guides, momentarily frozen-stuck reels and even iced-up line, leader and flies were a constant.

But for all of the day’s difficulties we were still out there chasing Steelhead. Besides, who knew that iced lines loaded a rod so perfectly?

First Light

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Alaskan winters are an ultimate test of endurance for fly fishers. The snow consistently arrives in October and lingers until May. With each start of spring there is a sense of rebirth and a blank slate. The cleansing quality of melting snow encompasses nearly every aspect of nature. The intermittent cold gusts of wind are in constant competition with warmer more stagnant pockets and tickle exposed faces and hands.  

In the early spring, before the heavy melt-off begins, creeks and rivers run colder and clearer than they will all season. Wildlife re-emerge from their dens and arrive in from far-off migrations. In an instant new signs of life are everywhere.

Of all of the things that you would think would remain the same are the rivers which change just as readily as everything else. Places where you crossed easily the year prior are now uncrossable with the shifting of channels. There is a comfort that comes with the changes along with a deep respect of the power and forces at work.

Each year when I wade out in my favorite river for the first time I stop, take a deep breath and admire the beauty that goes beyond aesthetics. There is a balance that one can only experience for themselves firsthand. The eagles in the tallest trees, the trumpeter swans in the open pools and me wading downstream towards the head of the next run.

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February is coming to a close and the temps outside read a balmy 31 degrees. This winter has been mild with the big rivers south of town staying relatively open. Even the local small creeks are showing their welcome ripples.

A gathering is in the works for yet another fly tying, beer sipping session. Yes, it is almost here… another season of fly fishing in Alaska. The year is feeling reminiscent of 2007 when we had spring temps in the 50’s and even low 60’s.

The plan for this year is to simplify. Gear has been refined to provide quality, all around functionality. The sealed drag reels are shelved for the old clickers in an ode to the past where fly line burns and handle bruises will be a welcome experience.

As another year goes by so does the allure of numbers. With each passing year the quality of the entire experience trends upwards as the frantic numbers game of yesterday steadily drops.

I read a post awhile back that compared fly fishing to a religion. For me, fly fishing is a spiritual experience that only gets better with age. Here’s to another great year!

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Our annual July float trip is in the books and it was grins all around. We ate like kings, swung spey and switch rods for 2 days and enjoyed stretching out in B’s new camper. The fishing was tough with abnormally high water from glacier melt-off. Fortunately, the dollies made up for the absence of trout.

The fishing felt like fall steelheading. Hundreds of casts, steps, picking through flyboxes then repeating every fishy run 3 or 4 times. The first day saw B hooking up with 3 dollies to my 1. The second day was more of the same with both of us getting a couple to grab. July trips are typically tough fishing. The massive egg and flesh feeding free-for-all arrives in August and lasts through October. Many fly fishers spend this slow time at home preparing for the fall trout bonanza.

After 20 plus years on the river, our once frenzied approach to catching has shifted into a more ‘step back and enjoy it’ mentality. Camping and fishing with B’s kids helped us appreciate the other aspects often overlooked. The comforts of a good campsite, warm fire and great food made for much more than just the typical hold-us-over until fall trip.  

Happy camper… 




B's famous breakfast burritos with a side of flies

B's famous breakfast burritos with a side of flies


B swinging the seam sm

Father & son…

Father and son fishing

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The re-opener was an epic display of old-time Alaska. Thousands of black-gray backs of schooled salmon in packs of 30 to 50 as far as the next bend. Fortunately, there were still trout to be had via the properly waked dry in-between the intermittent upstream rushes of first run sockeye.

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The salmon run is the earliest and by far the biggest in my 20+ years on the river. The run’s strength was revealed during our trouting below the falls. At our favorite hole normally filled with hungry rainbow was a wall of sockeye. The holes were filled with fins. Even the swift water was packed with salmon raising their heads to get a view of the strange gore-tex-clad visitors. 


As the day neared noon, D and I looked at each other from across the river as we simultaneously said ‘let’s get our limit’. Fred already made the switch 30 minutes sooner and was quickly on salmon after salmon. With 3 being the magic number, our plan was to quickly catch, clean and pack the fish then re-focus our sights to trout (easier said than done). This year’s sockeye are also much bigger in size than normal. Couple that with trout rods and you have a recipe for split graphite disaster.

The catching was the easy part. One cast = one fish. Landing them was another story altogether. On the 3rd and final sock, an unexpected last run and tangled-rod-to-tree nearly ended my day prematurely. Fortunately, the rod was intact. With the sounds of my buddies’ stream-muffled laughter reaching my ears as I kneeled looking at the securely tailed salmon, I knew I was lucky. Just one more second and that rod was broke.

The harvest

The harvest

The trip was as close to the old days as one could imagine. Seeing that many salmon in one small stream during a time when we are facing a threat of open pit mining in an area with an exponentially larger annual run of wild salmon puts everything in perspective. There is something much more to be had in a continuously healthy river than in a gold chain.

Trees from trees

Trees growing from trees

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Early Spring Spey.

Here is a re-post from last spring to get us in the swing of things…

The dreaming days are nearly over. The long grip of winter is showing signs of breaking. Rivers are starting to see light. Drop by drop, the ice and snow melt to provide more room for trout and later the returning salmon. The trout are holding in lakes and deep river pools that have provided protection and food throughout the quiet winter.

The first trip is mapped out. Flies have been tied at home, late at night when it’s 10 below and at friends’ bachelor pads over fish stories and beers. The first trip of the year always makes a lasting impression. Spring fishing is quickly becoming my favorite time of year on the water. The beauty and solitude of the snow covered peaks, swinging leeches and monster grabs from voraciously hungry trout have that effect on a person.

More to follow after this weekend’s trip…

New Season Cont’d:

The first trip of the year has come and gone. This year’s annual spring migration was the earliest to date. The day began with the beeping alarm at 2:20 am. The rest of the 50 minutes were a blur as I tricked my body into thinking that 2 hours of restless sleep was enough for the day’s 2.5 hour drive, 5+ mile hike in and 8 hours on the river. I arrived at D’s house just past 3 am. The rest of the crew arrived shortly after and we made yet another drive seem short. The day’s potential for hungry spring rainbows fueled our trout-starved brains. Was a 30″ trophy in store for one or all of us?

The drive went by quickly as the talk centered around fishing. Soon we found ourselves parked, sorting and packing the essentials behind the glow of headlamps. The dark hike in showcased Mother Nature’s creativity as numerous melt and freeze cycles turned the trail into an ice rink. The crew struggled as we experienced first-hand that felt and glare ice do not mix.

Our 2 plus hour ordeal of the hike was forgotten upon seeing a glimpse of the river. Its normal beauty accentuated by the fresh thaw from a 5 month slumber. We were met by 4 trumpeter swans floating on the far bank and eagles in every one of the tall cottonwoods as far as the eye could see. A spawned-out silver was taking its last gasps in a deep pool as a pair of bald eagles sat on the bank patiently awaiting their meal of the day to expire.

We were eager to get our flies wet and made our way along the bank to our planned starting point. Months worth of fishless winter forgotten and eroding like the sheets of ice along the river bank. 

We waded out into the frigid water and quickly discovered that adrenaline lasts just 30 minutes when met with 33 degree water. The slow flow, ice in the guides and numbing pain made for a challenging day of spey casting. The rest of the day provided us with many extremes. Hands, feet and legs were overcome with cold. Every half hour one or all of us would shiver out of the water and jog on the banks to get blood flowing again through our numb extremities.

Why do we subject ourselves to this apparent torture? Any sane person wouldn’t get up at 2 am for a few hour drive, hike 5 miles on glare ice, fall numerous times on your arse, then stand in a frozen river for 8 hours all in the hopes of catching just one fish. The answer is that the ‘one tug’ makes you forget all the pain and sacrifice of a long day on the river. The entire experience; the prep, the anticipation, the pull, the strength of the trout and eventually easing it in by your side is worth its weight in gold. A connection is made between the fly fisher, the fish and the setting. For a moment, you are living in the Alaska of 100 years back.

Here are a few photos to help further support the ‘why’…  


32″ Spring Buck, 2008 | Photo by J. Kim


First Trout of ’08| Photo by J. Kim

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Town Hall Meetings

From RRC’s website: Hear Ye, Hear Ye! The Renewable Resources Coalition wants to hear your thoughts on how we can protect Bristol Bay and the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery. We’re holding open town hall meetings in Anchorage with more to follow soon. You’ll have the chance to share ideas and talk with your neighbors. Shannyn Moore and Anders Gustafson will host the discussion. We want your ideas! Spread the word – because protecting Bristol Bay is good business.

March 17th, 2009
University of Alaska, Anchorage
Rasmussen Hall, Room 110
TIME: 6:00 – 8:00 p.m.

March 19th, 2009
Tanglewood Chalet
11801 Brayton Dr., South Anchorage
TIME: 6:00 – 9:00 p.m.

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Lucky long-time friend RP has teamed up with Felt Soul Media to produce an epic fly fishing film shot exclusively in Kamchatka. Check-out the preview which recently won The Drake’s 5 min FF Film Contest:


Fall fishing in Alaska….

Alaskan Autumn





Nice place. A bit crowded.



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Spring Leopard | Photo by J. Hasegawa

My first trout on the fly is a cherished memory. I was 12 years old. It was caught with a polar shrimp fly that I had found on the bank earlier that day. After eagerly casting my Dad’s 9 weight fly rod out into the blue-gray waters of the Kenai, I watched as it disappeared from my sight. The take was unexpected and sharp. For the first time, I felt the difference between fly-fishing for trout and fishing for salmon. A huge rush pulsed through me with each fresh run and jump of the trout. I was laughing out loud looking for my Dad. As I gained control and brought her in I took a glance around… no one, not a soul. The salmon fishing crowds were 100 yards downstream, packed shoulder-to-shoulder as far as the eye could see.

Time stopped for those few minutes as I carefully reeled in the beautiful rainbow. This one fish changed my fishing life. I remember holding it, looking at the beautiful coloration. The river sounded different from then on, more vivid and clear. It was and still is a great memory.

I first used my Dad’s heavy salmon fly rods for trout and then later saved up enough allowance for a real trout rod and reel. At 14, I bought my first fly rod; a 4 weight Sage with a Ross Cimarron reel. It was my most cherished possession. I would tag along on every one of my Dad’s, friend’s or relative’s fishing trips. Rarely fishing for salmon, I would trek off on my own to the upper Russian or to various parts of the Kenai away from the crowds.

26″ Local Dolly | Photo by J.Kim

The day after passing my driver’s test I drove to the Russian for a weekend of fly fishing with my longtime fishing buddy RP (The Big Pull). Dozens upon dozens of trips followed. During Summers we would go on a trip every week. During school, we would skip a Friday here or a Monday there to extend the weekend on the river. At 16 we became obsessed with floating the Kenai. At 17 we would hike into bear-infested streams on the Kenai Peninsula or off the Alaska Highway. On one memorable trip, we had a train drop us off near a stream in the heart of Alaska for a week of  heaven, dry-flying for rainbows and trophy grayling that had never before seen a fly. On another trip, we hiked 10 miles through knee high soupy tundra to fish the northernmost point of wild rainbow trout in North America.

Speyground, April 2007

Our need for fishing more remote streams and catching never before caught trout expanded our sights to Southwestern Alaska. My first trip to Lake Illiamna and the Newhalen River signaled the beginning of my obsession for 30 inch trophies. The Newhalen is a beautiful river with picturesque gorges and deep holes stacked with fish. Its power comes from being nearly the same width as the Kenai while holding twice the volume of water.

A friend and I arrived in October and stayed at Illiamna Lake Resort. The picturesque resort was closed for the season. The caretaker, a family friend, gave us free reign on the leftover food, truck and jet boat. We fished for a week under lightly falling snow and sub-freezing temperatures. The constant ice in our guides, the numbness of our hands and legs are a distant memory to the rainbows, dollies and lake trout we had all to ourselves. The trout were girthy beyond recognition from all of the salmon eggs and flesh in the river. The fish of the trip was a 31 inch dolly so gorged with eggs it weighed in at close to 20 pounds. Sadly, it is this very water that will bear the brunt of irreversible toxic pollution if Northern Dynasty Minerals gains approval to build the world’s largest open pit mine and the world’s largest earthen dams to hold the toxic waste rock.

Worth Preserving | Photo courtesy of R. Peterson

After being lucky enough to fish the Illiamna drainages, I jumped at the chance to meet up with RP who was now a guide on the river N and other famed southwest Alaska waters. With rainbows larger than anywhere in the world, the N is THE river. Big water, big flies, and big trout. A testing ground for hardcore fly fishers.

Our first trip to the N was in late October. With winds and sleet greeting me as I exited the airport, R.P. was outside leaned up against our clunker rental, a pre 90’s Ford Escort. He was rolling up a cig with a big grin on his face. “Yo Tuber, ready to hit it?”. We headed straight for the jet boat. That afternoon at our first stop on the river, we each hooked into 27 inchers. At the next hole, R.P. hooked his first plus 30, a 31 inch buck. Just 15 minutes later on the same hole, I landed my dream fish, a 30 inch hen. The next 2 days, we caught a few more rainbows each but none bigger than 27.


First 31" Buck.

First 31" Buck.

During the last run before my flight out, I hooked into a rainbow that I still daydream about to this day. The take nearly ripped my 8 weight out of my frozen hands. In just seconds, I was into my backing. I started maneuvering my way downstream through the chest-deep water. I knew if I could hold him at the slow corner hole 150 yards below, I may have a chance. R.P. shouted from 100 yards upriver, “hold him” as he made his way towards me. I remember everything about that 5 minute battle along with it’s abrupt end. The screetching drag, the afterburn of flyline vs skin, the chill of freezing water spilling over my waders as I hopped downriver. The rainbow felt like a mid 30 incher, a monster hog, pushing near 20 pounds. The one and only jump out of water shortly before breaking off my tippet only confirmed my guess. It was truly a thing of beauty.

Two hours later packed and ready to head off back to Anchorage. I paid RP my half of the car rental and gas for the boat wearing the same big grin that he had on his face when I arrived. I’ve been going back almost every October since.

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