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Fall Steelheading in Alaska


By Mark Hieronymus

steelhead-245During October, as the coho run starts to wane, many anglers hang up their gear for the year or book expensive trips to exotic resorts to cast at fish with unpronounceable names. Many folks clean out their fly boxes and reminisce about the fun-filled fishing of summer, wondering when the first thaw of spring will allow them back on their rivers in pursuit of their piscine quarries once more.

Other anglers begin to get a little twitchy around these fall days, and some even mumble epithets at the cohos, wishing them gone or at least diminished so they can begin their fishing season. Who are these folks, these die-hard fishers that angle well into November and some cases even into December, you ask?

They are the fall steelhead addicts. They venture forth in the fall, clad head to toe in Gore-Tex and insulating layers, to chase the very highest star in the Alaska fly angling constellation. Content with counting a single hookup a day as a success, accepting of the fact that the hours of light are rapidly decreasing as the season goes on, able and willing to deal with iced-up guides, frozen digits and stiff fly lines, these folks are a breed apart, as are the fish they so avidly pursue.

Alaska's steelhead populations fall into two discrete categories, Fall run and Spring run. Both spawn in the spring then return to saltwater, with the fall fish overwintering in their natal streams. In some systems, the fall run begins as early as August, but the bulk of the return statewide occurs from late September to mid-November. In most of Alaska's two-run steelhead streams the fall run is the smaller of the two - lesser known, fewer fish, less fishing pressure. In some locations, however, the fall run is the dominant run and sometimes the only run of steelhead the stream receives.

Fall steelhead occur in many regions of the state, most notably on Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula, with some streams on the Kenai Peninsula and Southeast Alaska also hosting runs. Some of these streams are well-known or easily discovered, but many streams in these areas have small fall runs known only to a few select anglers. For many, this is the real joy of angling: the process of discovery and the finding of new water when everyone else is at home.

Unlike salmon, which die after spawning, most steelhead survive to return to the ocean after the spawn. One of the consequences of this trait is that they maintain a high level of wariness in freshwater, unlike the "spawn zombies" that most salmon species morph into. This wariness needs to be taken into account when angling for steelhead, as they can be extremely skittish and easily spooked. Take care not to wade too deep, try to blend into your background, and avoid excessive motion when casting to sighted fish and you will have a greater chance of success with these "fish of 10,000 casts".

For the purposes of brevity, all steelhead presentation methods can be broken down into two types: Swinging and Dead-Drifting. Within each of these two presentation philosophies there are a multitude of disciplines, and many different ways of going about each, but in the end, you are either swinging your offering through the holding water of choice or presenting it "dead" at the natural current speed.

Swinging flies for anadromous fish is a classic technique, and as the name implies, it involves "swinging" a fly through a section of holding water using sink-tip or full sinking lines to present the offering either above or in front of fish. The archetypal swing presentation starts at the head or top of a portion of holding water with the angler positioned about knee-deep in the current. The fly is cast across the pool and at a 30-50° angle downstream from the angler and allowed to swing through the water. The presentation is finished when the fly is directly downstream of the angler; upon reaching this point, line is retrieved, the angler takes a step downstream, and the process is repeated. Sounds simple, doesn't it?

As simple as it sounds, it can be a complex, nuanced dance with the changing currents and depths of the pool. In the ideal swinging situation, the current is slower to the inside or angler's side of the pool, and the pool is uniform in its depth gradient from midcurrent to shoreline. However, "ideal pools" are few and far between in Alaska, and to swing a fly in a less-than-ideal situation an angler needs to have a basic command of mending and line control to present the fly properly.

For neophytes, the most common trap in the swinging technique is rushing the presentation. When done patiently, an angler can "cut" the holding water with their fly into step-sized arcs, effectively covering the entire pool from top to bottom. Moving too far or too fast between casts can leave gaps in this coverage, leading to missed opportunities as the fly is presented too far ahead of or behind the fish. Another symptom of rushing the swing is picking up the fly before it completes its arc, coming to rest directly below the angler. Often, interested fish will follow the swinging fly all the way to the end of its arc before striking, and occasionally will hit after almost a minute of "hang-down" time. Let the fly fish all the way to the end of the swing, then pause for awhile before beginning the cycle over again - the results may surprise you.

Dead-drifting, also referred to as nymphing, is another popular technique for presenting a fly to holding fish. In this technique, the fly is cast straight across or slightly upstream of the angler and allowed to drift "dead" with the current, usually near the river bottom. Dead-drifting is usually performed with a floating line and a weighted fly meant to imitate either local insect nymph stages (hence, "Nymphing") or various other forms of organic matter found in riparian environments, such as salmon eggs or flesh. The ideal dead-drift keeps the fly on a parallel path in the current to maintain a life-like presentation of the offering.

One of the most common pitfalls of the dead-drifting technique is excessive movement of the fly. In some situations this cannot be helped, but in most fishing scenarios the "life-like" illusion can be destroyed by too much line drag, causing your offering to go zipping around all willy-nilly. As a general rule, salmon eggs and tiny insects don't swim fast or at all in the natural environment, and these motions might set up red flags for wary fish eyeing a potential meal. To combat line drag, mend upstream immediately after the cast, and then as needed to keep your offering moving at the same speed as the current.

Dead-drifting can be accomplished with or without the use of a strike indicator, a small float placed on the leader and intended to aid in the detection of subtle takes. Recently, the trend has been to abandon all pretense of "indicator" and treat the device as a bobber to maintain presentation depth. To achieve a dead-drift with this type of setup, the angler need only to mend line to the indicator to prevent it from dragging in the current. Useful in many situations, the "bobber-cator" can also be a hindrance, occasionally spooking skittish fish in shallow, clear water.

Selecting a rod for steelhead can be a confusing process, so let's cut to the chase and come out with the bad news - there isn't "just one rod" that is capable of handling all of the different fishing situations one may encounter in Alaska. Having said that, let's break down rods into 3 basic categories and examine them a little closer.

Single-handrods for steelhead are typically 9 to 10 feet long, for 7 or 8 weight line, and are designed to be overhead cast with one hand. These rods are ideal for dead-drift presentations and indicator fishing, and are easily toted along the brushy stream banks of Alaska. Swinging can also be accomplished on small streams with a single hander, but space is needed for back casts. As the water gets bigger, the casting distance also grows, and the single-hander is limited in its ability to get large flies long distances in any fishing situations encountered.

Spey rods, also called two-handed or two-handers, are designed to be cast with...wait for it...two hands. Typically 12 to 15 feet in length, these rods have a grain-weight rating system to match the line to the rod. Two-handed casting is accomplished by loading the rod with the line on the water, resulting in a more compact cast window and the need for less space behind the caster. Spey rods are the prototypical swinging rods, and their ability to cast long distances with a single motion lends itself well to the art of the swung fly. Their length makes them a poor choice for some of the smaller flows in Alaska, and it would be a chore to get a 15 foot rod through the stream side brush, but they come into their own on the larger rivers of the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island.

Switchrods are a relatively new innovation, and they are designed to be cast in either single-hand overhead, two-hand overhead, or two-hand Spey styles. Typically 10 1/2 to 11 1/2 feet long for 7 or 8 weight line, the switch rod is the closest thing to an all-around steelhead rod that the Alaskan angler can get. Dead-drifters get enhanced control at distance with a longer rod, swingers get the ability to deliver large flies with Spey-style casts, they are fairly easy to tote through the brushy stream corridors of Southeast Alaska, and they handle large water fairly well. On the down side, they are slightly harder to single-hand overhead cast than a true single-hand rod, and they won't cast as far as a true Spey rod. Switch rods are fast becoming the tool of choice for steelhead anglers in the know, so check one out soon.

The ideal Reel for steelhead angling should be able to hold a full line and at least 150 yards of 30 lb. backing. The spool should be of the large arbor type to give the angler the ability to pick up large amounts of line in a hurry, as steelhead are capable of blistering runs both to and away from an angler. A good sealed drag system is a must, and an exposed spool rim is a plus when the need arises to apply extra pressure to big fish . One of the most common misconceptions about drag systems is the notion that the drag on a steelhead reel needs to be able to stop a truck. The best drags ( in our humble opinion) should be measured both by low start-up inertia, or the amount of force required to initiate movement, as well as smoothness of operation. Some drag systems with high start-up inertia tend to surge, leading to lost fish, and herky-jerky motions imparted by rough drags can also result in heartbreak.
There are Lines for all types of specialized applications in steehead fishing, but luckily there are some all-around lines as well. For dead-drifting, a full-floating line is the best choice as it gives the angler the most direct line control. For swinging applications a full-sinking line is occasionally used, but in more common usage are interchangeable sink-tips of various lengths and densities. Multi-tip line systems are rapidly gaining favor among steelheaders for their all-in-one versatility. With these systems, the angler gets a running line integrated to a weight-forward floating section that ends in a loop, as well as up to 5 looped tips in various densities from full-float to full-fast sink. Two-handed rods have their own line classes, with lines being selected by grain weight and rod length. Many of these lines are also multi-tip systems, and with new sinking line products on the market an angler can make their own sink-tips to match up to any fishing situation.

There are as many different types of steelhead Flies as there are anglers that fish for them. Over the years steelhead have been caught on a wide range and variety of patterns, from the simple yarn glo-bug to the astoundingly complex Jock Scott, originally designed for Atlantic salmon. The moral of this story is...have a wide selection. A few things to consider when selecting flies for steelheading in Alaska:

- When in doubt, throw pink. Probably responsible for more steelhead hookups than any other single color.
- Have a wide range of profiles handy, from the long skinny look of the MOAL leech down to the compact roundness of the glo-bug.
- As with profiles, have a range of sizes as well. Overcast or high water conditions dictate the use of larger flies, and low clear water means the use of the smallest stuff in the box.
- Don't be afraid of the dark colors. Black and purple are responsible for many steelhead hookups as well.

It might be cruddy weather, the sun might not shine quite as much as it did in May, and there might be slightly fewer fish...but they are steelhead. Fall steelhead, the silver bullets that round out the sport fishing year in Alaska. Fresh from the ocean, still willing to take a properly presented fly, they represent both the beginning and the end - The end of the angling year, the last of the wonderful opportunities that Alaska has to offer as well as the beginnings of an angling obsession, the quest to bring one of these rare and exquisite game fish to hand.

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