Thursday, November 15, 2012

The last two trips before the water got hard. The Chatanika for white fish and the Kenai for rainbows and char.

In September in interior Alaska pretty much everything comes to a screeching halt so everyone can take some time off for moose hunting. Mike and I still had some moose meat from previous hunts and didn't feel an overwhelming need to shoot one, but we did need some more time out on the river. We planned to float a section of the lower Chatanika River just north of Fairbanks. We decided to do a three day float from the Elliot highway bridge to the landing at Murphy Dome Rd. The Chatanika River has a good population of grayling and white fish. My idea was to add the later to my tally and shoot a couple of ducks to give my Chessie/ Lab mix puppy of seven months some work on ducks from a boat. Mike would bring one of his hunting pistols, a Remington XP100 in 350 Rem. magnum, just in case a cooperative moose presented himself on the bank and we just couldn't pass him up. We did, however, agree that the best way to ruin this perfectly good float trip would be to shoot a moose on it.

The weatherman promised three days of balmy, sunny weather before the first big storm that would start winter in interior Alaska, with that in mind, we launched the boat on a partly cloudy day with the sun trying to shine through in places.

Bessie my seven month old Chessie/Lab mix learning about boats.

The Chatanika in fall colors. The weather started out pretty good on the first day but deteriorated fast, we didn't get the weather we were promised. It got cold and windy and we had to fight a two day head wind, fortunately we had a small outboard to help with it.

Bessie styling in her new Browning float coat.

The haul-out at Murphy Dome road. I wasn't able to add any new species to my tally, the water was high and murky, a condition that makes it hard to locate and fish white fish. I did catch some grayling on Moths and Egg Butt Scuds. I shot some ducks for Bessie to work on, at first the cold, turbulent water startled her, but she did very well on her water retrieves after she got used to it. We didn't see a moose to shoot, and we were not unhappy about it. The journey was kind of arduous as it was without adding a moose to the mix. I will have to wait for next year to try again for white fish, and probably do the float in four days instead of three.

The Kenai for rainbows
On October 18th I was headed down to Kenai to an NRA banquet where I was donating two of my 1911 knives (I am a custom knife maker) for their fundraiser. I was thinking it would have been a shame to make a trip down to the Kenai without spending at least a little bit of time with my butt in a boat. It was very near the end of the fish guiding season, but we were able to find a guide with an opening on Saturday morning.
We met our guide Jason Westmiester (that's his drift boat to the left) at the lower Skilak landing to drift the middle section of the Kenai for rainbows and char. The temperature was right at freezing, but it was supposed to be a sunny day. Come on sun.

Ever-present eagles. We drifted with bead-egg imitations under strike indicators and got bites from time to time. We caught some small char, but the rainbows were cagey. Finally Mike hooked into something that looked really good.

Jason and Mike with his 28 1/2 inch steelhead, a very nice fish for our guides second to last fishing day on the Kenai this fall, and Mikes first steelhead.

Jason releasing the nice steely. It was the only one we caught, but it made the trip worth it.

Spawned-out salmon in the headwaters of the Kenai waiting to die and add nutrients back to the land and water.

Flesh from spawned-out salmon in the upper river. Flesh flies are effective for trout and char in the mid to late season. It's important to know what it looks like in order to be able to tie good imitations.

Some very large brown bear tracks along the creek where fish are dieing. As I am writing this in mid November, we are hearing news of two trappers on the Kenai that were just mauled by a brown bear while setting for coyotes. Bears are late getting into the den when food is plentiful.

The sun sets on another beautiful day on the Kenai, our last one for the season. I can't wait to get back. Over the winter I will work on some soft, weighted egg imitations. My idea is to make egg imitations that drift naturally and remove the strike indicator and the split shots from the set-up so that my line will go straight from my rod tip to the fly. Hopefully, I'll be able to sense a strike and react before the fish realizes he has a fake in his mouth. I'll show some of what I'm developing in a future post. I will also work on some flesh fly and flesh fly/egg pattern combinations.

Stay tuned for fly tying through the winter. I will be testing some patterns through the ice this winter, but will not add any fish caught to my tally because I will not be able to use traditional fly fishing methods.

Thanks for looking. Mark

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Salmon Fork 2012

Ah, the the big trip of the summer. Mike and I have been anticipating this trip since we got back last year. A week with no phones, no noise and nothing to worry about. Silence and solitude would be ours for seven days.

I wanted to try out some new fly patterns, add a couple of species to add to my list and maybe catch a big pike on a fly.

We were dropped off close to the normal spot above Pink Bluff and soon after the drone of the Cessna 170 faded away over the hills on the first shuttle I settled into a different rhythm, a slower pace with nothing on my mind but whatever I wanted to do, nothing urgent to take care of, when we got hungry, we ate, when we got tired we slept. I decided to fish and caught this grayling on a Spruce Bud Worm Moth.

Most of the Salmon Fork is fishable water, before our second and third shuttle with the float plane I had caught several grayling in the hole that the plane landed in. This is the first fish caught on this pattern, a woven mylar tube minnow I dubbed the Pink Bluff Chub. The pattern would prove to be very productive in the next week for grayling, sheefish and pike. Watch for a recipe for the Pink Bluff Chub in a future post.

Here's our rig for the next week, everything we will need to be fairly comfortable, whatever the conditions.

I had three fly rods with me, a 9 weight with fast sinking line for getting into the deep pools for sheefish and pike, a 5/6 weight set up for surface fishing and a six weight for shallow water under the surface.

Red salmon from the trip to Kenai.

Shore lunch.

This is one of the spots that had pike, sheefish and grayling all in the same hole, it's usually not easy to find places like that but the Salmon Fork has a few. These fish were all hitting on the same fly, the Salmon Fork Smolt, another new pattern. It was tied with these holes in mind, it resembles a salmon smolt, small grayling or rainbow trout. It was really a hit on this river and should be productive anywhere that small spotted fish are a predominant prey species. I will tie a Salmon Fork Smolt for you in a future post.

Sheefish on the smolt.

A grayling on the Salmon Fork Smolt, the biggest grayling we measured on the trip was 16 1/2 inches long, really nice fish.

Here's the biggest of the pike I caught this week, it was 32 inches long.

We weren't able to get down to the lower river where we have caught pike up to 45 inches long due to a two day head wind, so the bigger fish will have to wait for another trip.

This is a different variation of the Salmon Fork Smolt, I tied some with barred-feathers instead of spots, some weighted ones and some articulated ones. They all did well, but the best ones had spots.

I can never get enough of the sunrises and sunsets.

My tally to date;
GRAYLING on... Spruce Worm Bud Moth, Egg Butt and Egg Head Scud, Egg Butt and Egg Head Nymph, Pink Bluff Chub and Salmon Fork Smolt.
RAINBOW on Egg Head Scud
SOCKEYE  No name red salmon pattern I will call Noname (pronounced "No nah me")
NORTHERN PIKE Pink Bluff Chub and Salmon Fork Smolt
SHEEFISH Salmon Fork Smolt

Next time, tying some of these patterns and maybe some silver salmon, char, and rainbow fishing.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Sockeye fishing on the Kenai

After three attempts at reds, Mike and I finally got some. Our first try was in the Kenai when we were down to Homer for a halibut fishing trip. We were able to catch halibut on deep sea gear but we were between runs of sockeye. Our second attempt was on the Gulkana where I had fowl hooked two, I wasn't able to catch any in the mouth and had to give myself an incomplete.

Finally toward the end of the second Kenai run of reds we were able to catch some. I decided to hire a guide to run the boat so that I could concentrate on fishing and learn something about the river. We worked till 6:00 on Tuesday the 7th. and drove through the night to meet the boat by 4:00 in the morning at Sterling. We were at our fishing spot by 5:00. Mike caught our first fish which also turned out to be our biggest one.

Fighting my first red, it's important to keep your hand off of the reel while the fish runs to allow the drag to work. It's easy to loose these fish because they are tenacious fighters. The fights can be explosive with line stripping runs, and surface acrobatics.

Here's our fish guide Alex netting one of the many fish we caught that day, we fished with Drifters Lodge of Coopers Landing, the accommodations are great, the guides are outstanding and the fishing was exciting. I highly recommend Drifters Lodge for anyone wanting to fish the Kenai.

These reds were in great shape, fresh from the sea, they still had sea lice on them.
It's not necessary to have a pretty fly to catch reds, in fact anything will do but a pretty fly makes a pretty picture, and who wants to tie an ugly fly. These reds are tough on flies, a good coat of head cement over the body will help hold the fly together through the toothy fight.

Here's our ten, two short of a limit, plenty of really nice fish for the winter.

Here's some shots of spawning sockeye's that Mike took.

The whole area is full of picturesque scenes like these.

We can't wait to get back again but we will have to do it again next year, we leave for our next big adventure in a couple of days, a week long float trip on the Salmon Fork of the Black for grayling, sheefish pike and maybe whitefish and burbot.

My tally to date;
Grayling on three original patterns, the Spruce Bud Worm Moth and the Egg Head and Egg Butt Scud.
Rainbow on one, the egg head scud.
Sockeye on two original sockeye patterns.

I have had some thoughts on my original species list and will need to amend it. In my list of the 25 species of my quest, I listed three species of white fish as well as grayling and sheefish which are also white fish, at the same time only listing rock fish once, of which there are thirty species. It seems inconsistent to cover the white fish so thoroughly and give the rock fish such poor respect. I wouldn't want to say that white fish are lower in fish hierarchy than the rock fish but, rock fish are really cool and deserve at least as much respect. I have decided to list grayling and sheefish because they are major white fish species, all the rest of the lesser white fish as one and all of the rock fish as one, then give myself extra credit for each of the lesser white fish and rock fish species that I catch.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Floating the Gulkana

The whole state of Alaska had a very poor king salmon run this year, all of the drainages were limited to catch and release and some on drainages you were not even allowed to target them, so my salmon fishing for the summer has been for reds. I will concentrate on other species next summer.

Mike and I had been invited to Homer for a halibut fishing trip on June 12 this year, we brought our salmon gear with us in the hopes that we could catch some reds in the Kenai while we were down there. As it turns out, we got there between the runs. We fished but were not able to hook anything, we didn't even see any fish caught, though there were a few people trying.

So here's the thing about salmon fishing, timing is everything. With most other species, persistence can pay off. If you work at it hard enough and long enough you can get something to bite. With salmon, if you're there at the wrong time you are just not going to catch a fish.

With good reports coming from the Gulkana of decent returns of red salmon and hopes of catching some rainbows, Mike and I planned a quick trip. We left Fairbanks at 2:00 PM on July 7 and were on the river at  8:00 that evening. We floated for a couple of hours before pitching the tent for the night.

Gearing-up at the Sourdough boat launch with high hopes. I had a 9 weight with sinking line set up for reds, and two 5/6 weights, one set up for dry flies and the other with wet flies.

We woke at six to this beautiful misty morning, it had frosted over night.

We floated and fished hard for half the day, stopping at promising looking pools. I finally caught my first red, unfortunately, it was not hooked in the mouth. In Alaska, any fish hooked in any place other than the mouth has to be let go, so of course we did.

Soon I hooked another one, it was a real good fight with the swift current....

and I had hooked this one by the back too. Had to let it go.

We fished a total of seventeen hours on the river and never hooked another red salmon, but the grayling were always willing participants. They were hitting the egg head and egg butt scuds all the way down the river. It is very hard to run the boat and fly fish at the same time, I will need to fish with someone else running the boat a little.

With my polarized lenses I should have seen salmon if there were any in the river, I didn't see any but we did see a cow and calf moose....

a black bear that didn't really know how to handle us and a grizzly bear that we didn't get a picture of. I didn't catch any rainbows or incidental king salmon, the season was closed on both of them due to low numbers and I didn't catch a red that I could keep but it was a nice trip. I haven't given up for the season yet though, tonight Mike and I leave for a guided trip on the upper Kenai for rainbows, char and red salmon.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Rainbow fishing with the Egg Butt Scud

Early this Thursday it started to look like it was going to be a pretty day and a great evening to be on a lake. Mike and I decided to try Birch lake, a lake I have never fished in the summer, but have had very good luck in the winter fishing for stocked rainbows, char and silvers through the ice. Rainbows in these lakes have always been a challenge to catch in the summer.

I remember a trip earlier this summer to Quartz lake when the rainbows were trying to spawn on the sandy beach of the lake. I was up at 5:00 in the morning, at the beach alone and the fish were spawning in very shallow water with dorsal fins cutting the surface. Eagles were wading around in the shallow water catching and eating fish. I threw every fly I had at the rainbows with no luck. I tried my own patterns and standard  patterns. I tried dry flies and wet flies, they would bite at nothing. I didn't have any egg patterns with me. The evening before, the fish were not visible but they were there, off shore, staging for the spawn. People were having some success fishing from shore with salmon row.

The Development of the Egg Butt Scud and cousins
The memory that morning at Quartz lake stays in my mind. I thought if I'd had a wet fly egg pattern I might have been able to get some rainbows to bite. There is a very popular Alaska dry fly pattern called the Salcha Pink, its very good for grayling on the surface. In my mind, I needed to put eggs under the water. There is also the very popular egg sucking leach, it's very effective for many species of Alaskan Salmonids. Our waters don't have any leaches to speak of except the egg sucking variety.

Scuds and nymphs are a very important food source for stocked rainbow, char and silvers in interior lakes, so I thought that a pattern that combines an important year-round food and salmon eggs might be effective. Scuds are fresh water shrimp, the ones in our lakes are black. The Egg Butt Scud may be just the thing to spark a bite from an otherwise inactive fish. Before Mike and I left for the lake I tied a few Egg Butt Scuds, Egg Head Scuds, some Egg Head Nymphs and Egg Butt Nymphs.

Some Egg Butt Scuds and shirt sleeve relatives ready for Birch lake.

When Mike and I got to the lake there were two boats leaving, they had both fished all day and between them caught two small char. Some people were fishing from the dock but they had also not caught anything. The outlook was bleak but we had two things going for us, we were arriving in the evening and the fishing should be better than during the heat of the day. We also had the Egg Butt Scud.

I didn't know how to fish the lake so I spent the first couple of hours rowing around trying to find some fish-able water. The lake bottom is almost pancake flat with shallows stretching out to quite a distance from shore. After a while we found a reasonable weed line with what seemed to be a good drop off. We anchored casting distance from the weed line and casted toward it. The fishing was not hot but when I did get a strike, it was explosive. The rainbow hit the fly from below, at almost the instant it hit the water. The fish cleared the water with the first hit and did it again several times during the fight. It was a pretty good tussle that I thoroughly enjoyed.
The first rainbow with the Egg Head Scud, the fight almost over.

A chunky fish, just over 19 inches and just under three pounds. You can tell this is a hatchery fish by the missing pectoral fins.

The holographic dubbing really sparkles blue when it's wet.

I am pretty pleased that I was able to catch a fish in a lake I had never fished when no-one else was catching fish.

Tying The Egg Head Scud


Hook No. 10 curved pupa hook
Thread      70 denier
Tail           died mallard, wood duck or Guinea fowl chest feather
Body        black rabbit
Rib           copper or black wire
Back        scud back film, mottled black
Legs         mallard wood duck or Guinea fowl chest feather and holographic dubbing
Egg          med. to small dark red chenille

The hook is dressed around the curve and four or five feather fibers are tied in for the tail.

A four inch piece of copper wire and the scud back film is tied in.

Next, spin on some black rabbit dubbing fur. Scud colors change from area to area so change your materials to match.

wrap the dubbing leaving about 1/3 of the hook shank free.

Turn the hook up-side-down, tie in the legs, in two places under the belly of the scud. I mixed the feather fibers and the holographic dubbing. It gives the scud an iridescent blue color.

Turn the scud back over, pull the scud back film over to cover the top of the body, tie it down at the end of the dubbing.

Wrap the copper wire around the body of the scud to form even segments. Use a dubbing needle to free leg fibers and dubbing from the wire as you wrap it. Tie it off and clip it.

Tie in the red chenille.

Form the egg with two wraps of the chenille, tie it down and clip it.

Whip finish the fly and cement the head.

Close cousin to the Egg Head Scud, the Egg Butt Scud is tied the same way as the egg headed relative, except the egg is tied in before the body. The nymphs are done the same way, just add an egg to your favorite nymph pattern, I tied some eggs in at the head and some at the butt.

Some Egg Heads and some Egg Butts with a penny for scale.

Mike and I are leaving on a float trip of the lower Gulkana in a couple of days, I plan to really give the Egg Butts and Egg Heads a work out on rainbows and grayling. I also tied some flies for reds and kings.
Red salmon flies.

King salmon flies.

We've been making our own fly boxes with old VCR tape cases and weather stripping, they work really well.

The really interesting thing about these interior Alaska lakes is how much these fresh water snails are used for food by large rainbows. The last two I kept both had stomachs and digestive tracts full of them. This is about one third of the snails I found in one trout. It may sound a little funny, but I think I will try a fly pattern that imitates this food source.

Stay tuned for news from the Gulkana and some Red salmon fly recipes.