George Krumm blog by Joe Jackson
Photos by George Krumm
George Krumm: Never the same fly twice
Lago Strobel, 2016.
A group of angling sports are gathered around a mahogany dinner table at the Jurassic Lake Lodge, drowning the sorrows of the last few days—incessant wind and mediocre catch rates—with a few bottles of Scotch, maybe wine. Soon the conversation steers toward the one angler among them who’s actually managed to catch the numbers as well as sizes of rainbow trout that the lake is renowned for, including 17- and 19-pound trout.
Once this has been established, the inevitable avalanche of questions follows.
“What were you doing different?” “How were you fishing?” “What were you using?”
George Krumm has kept a tight lid on his secret until now, but he’s cornered and knows it.
Begrudgingly, he removes something from his pocket, and all eyes fixate upon his hand as it opens to reveal the fly enclosed: a balanced leech from his own tying bench.
There may well have been the collective “oohs” and “aahs” of a stunned audience, but soon they subsided and the anglers’ faces turned grim.
“You’re going to let us borrow some of those, aren’t ya?”
Krumm cringes; not because he’s uncharitable, but because he only tied a handful of the things the night before the trip and there are still five days to go.
When I asked Fish Alaska & Hunt Alaska magazines’ editor George Krumm what his specialty behind the vice was, he gave me two.
“I rarely tie the same fly the same way twice, and I like stillwater.”
George Krumm’s stillwater forte was particularly intriguing, not just because he has racked up an impressive resume of big fish using nothing but his wits, his flies, and his float tube, but because I myself am still intimidated by stagnant water and thought I might learn something. The fact that Krumm has come to specialize in this sector of fly fishing isn’t surprising; much of his childhood—and, indeed, his adult life—was centered around lakes and ponds and the ecosystems playing out there.
His first fly, tied at the incipient age of seven, was a Grizzly Peacock. I don’t know if there’s a more nostalgic or enduring fly out there, but if there is I have yet to find it. Krumm’s family lived in Tacoma, Washington but spent much of their summers in Montana, where his fly-tying and fishing skills were tempered by the heart of American flyfishing country. Here is where George Krumm also developed a lifelong affinity for fish on the fly (“If there’s a way to catch them that way, I prefer it.”) as well as the gateway habit of skipping obligations (dentist appointments or school, for instance) for time on the water. By the time Krumm went off to college at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, he was doomed.
The Yakima River Valley around Ellensburg is littered with fishable lakes, and Krumm reckons he explored just about every one of them during this period of his life. Even though he was enrolled in Air Force ROTC, he figured out that, unlike in high school, nobody cared if you went to class or not (except for the ROTC classes; those he had to attend). He’d rather get excited about chironomid pupae.
Since this was prior to the launch of the Snow Cone (a universal chironomid pupa pattern developed by Kelly Davison in British Columbia), Krumm relied on one of the earliest chironomid imitations known as the Thompson’s Delectable Chironomid (TDC). Originated by Washington biologist Richard B. Thompson in the late ‘50s, this fly is debatably what started it all for chironomids and stillwater fishing—certainly for Krumm, who took the pattern and began to devise his own variations. It was around this time, too, that Krumm started to improve upon the infamous Woolly Bugger, but more on those developments later.
In the early ‘90s, Krumm was heading “north to Alaska”—as John Wayne and Stewart Granger would say—for his second tour of duty as an officer in the Air Force at Elmendorf (this was before its amalgamation with Fort Richardson to form Joint-Base Elmendorf Richardson in 2010). Predictably, one of his first angling forays was to the Kenai River. Here he learned that trout were keyed far less on the insects he’d spent so much time seining and striving to replicate in Washington, and far more on salmon eggs that could be reasonably copied with a single and recently-unveiled tool: the bead. Krumm takes no credit here; his lifelong freind Jerry Sisemore told him about the effectiveness of beads
Other methods included drifting flesh flies or swinging smolt and sculpins, but when compared to the menagerie of flies and tactics Krumm had employed in Washington, the Alaska game seemed monochromatic. His fly-tying efforts subsequently stalled, though he did spend a bit of time tweaking flesh flies and developing his trademark style of never tying the same fly twice.
Over the next couple of years, Krumm took a brief hiatus from the fly game and focused on gear fishing for salmon and halibut. If variety is the spice of life, he was certainly getting his fill in the Last Frontier. He didn’t stop flyfishing altogether; he simply traded some of his time for gear. However, salmon allocation issues, river conditions, and the long drives to the Kenai Peninsula eventually became unattractive.
2000 saw him picking up the fly rods again. His initial homecoming ventures took him back to the Kenai (where instead of beads he fished his nondescript flesh creations), the Susitna (where sculpin patterns in the late season knocked ‘em dead), and the lakes that Bob Andres had briefly introduced him to in the Valley. This period is where his stillwater expertise and fly repertoire really took off. After only a few outings, Krumm discovered that there were some large trout—even by Alaskan and the nearby Kenai’s standards—skulking around in many of the lakes within an hour’s drive of Anchorage. Talk about hidden in plain sight.
The Windbreak Cafe, a Wasilla lodging and dining staple also known as The Trout House, sits within striking distance of many of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley’s best-kept secrets. Owner Bob Andres—or “Bob Trout” to those that know him well—has spent decades uncovering these secrets and then sharing them with others. A newspaper article from 2009, in fact, claimed that Andres was “a man on a mission to promote lake fishing.” These secrets, of course, are the stillwater gems within driving distance of Wasilla and Palmer.
Krumm met Andres sometime in 2006. The two stillwater nuts hit it off well, spurring Krumm to rediscover some of the lakes on Elmendorf and explore many in the Mat-Su Valley. Not only were these lakes rarely fished, but they’d certainly never seen pressure with the chironomid flies that Krumm came to use. Krumm and Andres fished together many times between 2006 and 2017.
It was more of an enigma to catch these fish than, say, a September ‘bow in a salmon stream, but through a dense log of hours spent fishing, exploring, and observing (many of them with Bob Andres), Krumm was able to establish patterns of fish movement and behavior. As a result, his fly boxes proliferated with scuds, chironomids, various nymphs and his own versions of improved Woolly Buggers.
Some of the leeches Krumm saw in his home waters were brown with a slight burgundy tinge, resulting in several trips to the fly shop to find marabou to match. The leeches also had an extremely low profile that was both translucent and exhibited tantalizing undulations whenever they moved. Krumm’s solution was to make the bodies of his leech flies using dubbing loops of Angora goat, Ice Dub, and Hare-Tron in place of chenille and hackle. Not only did this tweak ensure that the fly maintained a leech-like translucency, but it simulated the slim, pulsating profile of an annelid.
Simultaneous to all of Krumm’s explorations, a key development in stillwater fishing was taking off: the balanced leech. Initially credited to Washingtonian Jerry McBride in 2005, the balanced leech is to stillwater what the Intruder is to steelheading. The problem with traditional leech flies is that they orient vertically in the water column, requiring some form of retrieve (which is not always the best method of presentation). Balanced leeches on the other hand, tied by lashing a bead on a pin to the hook and altering the fly’s center of gravity, could be suspended horizontally under an indicator and fished much more naturally. Renowned stillwater angler Phil Rowley took the concept and ran with it, and within a matter of years the balanced leech had hundreds of variations throughout the country.
Krumm hopped on the balanced-bandwagon soon enough and devised his own spins for Alaskan waters. Krumm discovered that smaller was better, and that balanced leeches fished far better on windy days when the action of the waves would make the fly’s materials flutter. It was during this period that he took his first trip to Pyramid Lake, now a Mecca for giant Lahontan cutthroats, and Lago Strobel—better known as Jurassic Lake—in windswept Argentina. Prior to the Jurassic trip, Krumm tied up a handful of balanced leeches based on a tip from friend—Reno angler, Joe Winchester—in colors ranging from olive to black. And we know how that story goes.
Other important cogs in stillwater ecosystems are the dragonfly and damselfly. Both of these monstrous bugs putter around lake beds trying to grow large enough to transform into adults, and given their size and relative slowness, they are the equivalent of trout potato chips. Krumm learned a variety of techniques and patterns for adequately imitating these drab rogues, including fishing them at a glacial pace right along the bottom, using burnt monofilament line for the eyes, and modifying the famous Randall Kaufmann’s Lake Dragon and Floating Dragon patterns to match the size, color, and depth of Alaskan insects. Bob Andres even showed him how to fish a floating dragonfly nymph on a sinking line, one of a number of tactics developed in what is considered the stillwater capital of the world: the Kamloops region of British Columbia. One of Krumm’s largest Alaskan trout came as a result of this technique, a 30-incher from a pothole I won’t name. It was somewhere past the Windbreak Cafe, though.
As Krumm tumbled farther and farther into the stillwater obsession, Spey tactics and sinking lines were developing right alongside. In 2008, Krumm built his first two-handed rod, which he used to great effect on the Kenai. Soon the flies associated with Spey gear drew him in with their huge sizes and often absurd recipes; patterns like articulated leeches, sculpins, and composite-loop Intruders. Tom Larimer’s Loop Leech was particularly intriguing with its use use of the Waddington shank (the same advent which made the Intruder possible) to articulate a leech imitation. This pattern, in fact, was one of the first in a wave of “string leeches” which are still being doted upon today. Krumm, in 2010, took various concepts from the Loop Leech (and other emerging string leeches) and ran with them.
For starters, he knew he needed something heavy but balanced to swing deep for big rainbows. He wasn’t going so much for a killer leech imitation or a killer sculpin imitation, but rather a general attractor that could resemble both. Arctic fox, a bunny strip, cactus chenille, and Ice Dub made up the first iteration, though by the second attempt Krumm was trying different things. He tried adding a tuft of white fur on the chin to make it look like a sculpin carrying away salmon flesh, or incorporated a Glo Bug head; he added synthetic Flashabou, used a twisted hitch to attach the hook (similar to Jerry French’s Dirty Hoh), and he removed the dumbbell eyes and resolved, instead, to fish it with a carefully selected sink-tip. He doesn’t use the twisted hitch today, opting instead to use wire, or to thread braided loop material up-down-up-down through the rabbit hide. Today, Krumm calls his pattern a “Leechy-Sculpiny Thing,” (LST) and as you’d expect, no two versions of it are the same.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also include Krumm’s history as our fearless editor of Fish Alaska. Funnily enough, the relationship with Fish Alaska didn’t come as a result of Krumm’s interest in flyfishing, but in ice fishing. At the same time that he was deciphering the stillwater riddles of summer, he was a corporate trainer for GCI. Out of sheer boredom, Krumm would sometimes insert photos of the fish he’d caught into his training slides. Admirable, if I do say so myself. These photos soon caught the eye of a fellow named Gary Bartelson, an ice fishing guru who invited Krumm out to fish for burbot and Arctic char on Big Lake. It only took a few outings before Krumm was hooked. In the serendipitous way that these things often go, Krumm became more invested in ice fishing to the point that he thought he could share some of his knowledge with others. There was no better outlet, he realized, than Fish Alaska.
As he began to write more and more for the magazine, and even began to do seminars at Alaskan outdoors shows, Krumm wandered through a few different career paths. He left GCI, sold commercial real estate for a while, and worked as a healthcare investigator for Alaska Medicaid. Then one day he got an email: Fish Alaska was hiring for sales. After zipping off an application, he was offered the job and spent the next several years learning how to sell advertisements. He also got the chance to start a stillwater column in the magazine, where the years of effort he had put in and the patterns and the tactics he employed were selflessly shared with readers for nine years. It’s not a surprise that he was offered the role of editor not long after.
The Leechy-Sculpiny Thing is at version 10.0, or somewhere around there. It’s brown, black, and coppery, and George Krumm is swinging it on the Naknek River with a two-handed rod. This is a river he knows well; a result of multiple trips and hundreds of hours of observation not unlike those he spent cracking the lakes of the Mat-Su Valley. He knows that in mid-October, there will be less pressure and, theoretically, more fish, and that a large, dark fly fished with a robust sink-tip will be the ticket.
I could proceed to tell you what George told me about the Naknek—that its rainbows put on exceptional growth to the point that it’s considered the best trophy rainbow river in the world or that the fish exhibit an allacustrine migratory pattern (biologist-speak meaning they winter in the river and summer in Naknek Lake)—but we’ll jump to the Leechy-Sculpiny Thing’s crowning achievement.
There Krumm is, swinging the pattern deep when something nips the fly. It does so a second time. With a patience that I myself have not mastered, Krumm lets the fish run and set the hook on its own, by which time he realizes he’s into an exceptionally heavy trout. Heavier than anything he’s ever caught on the Kenai. Heavier, even, than the 30-inch monster he dredged out of his stillwater heaven. In the net, the fish measures 33½ inches, a behemoth that an angler could search the world over for and still never catch. Yet there it is, four-and-a-half inches of Leechy-Sculpiny glory hanging out of its maw. It’s not the same fly George Krumm fished the last time he was here, probably not even the same fly he fished the day before, and if that’s not a solid case to keep tweaking and trying different things, I don’t know what is.
Our conversation drifts from that point, but I can’t help realizing that the next time George Krumm heads to his beloved Naknek, or Jurassic Lake, or even back to his Mat-Su lakes of yesteryear, he’ll be fishing a different place. And I can just about guarantee that he’ll have a handful of flies, never the same one twice, that he’s willing to share.
Joe Jackson is a fly nerd who wishes to thank each and every subject of “Behind the Vice” for indulging his curiosity. Joe has written for Fish Alaska, The Flyfish Journal, The Drake, and American Fly Fishing, and his favorite fly to tie is the glorious Klinkhammer.
George Krumm is Editor of Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska magazines.