For Alaska’s rainbow trout anglers, who enjoy the luxury of fishing for a species that’s actually interested in eating, the task is to figure out what the prevalent food source is for the area and time of year and then to imitate that food as closely as possible. Anglers should generally choose a fly that closely mimics the size, shape, movement and color of the prey, in that order. Trout flies are especially abundant, however, and the Alaska neophyte could easily become lost in the maze of choices. To make fly selection for fishing the state’s fall rainbows a tad easier, it’s best to keep things simple and concentrate first on the most abundant food source in the water at this time of year.
As autumn matures, days get shorter and termination dust settles atop the mountains, another change occurs as well, this one beneath the surface of the state’s many productive trout streams. On the banks and in the water of these once busy rivers the decaying remnants of thousands of salmon carcasses breathes new life into the food chain. Flesh from these rotting carcasses will provide high calorie nutrition for insects, birds and plant life. Trout will start to feed heavily on decaying flesh and washed-out eggs as they float by. At this time of fall, the rainbows are particularly vulnerable to a well-presented flesh fly. Normal fishing will dictate that the early fly colors be oranges and reds, which resemble newer flesh. Pinks, tans, and whites should be used later in the season, as washed-out or bleached flesh is quite common when the tissue becomes thoroughly oxidized. These latter colors are normally fished from late September until freeze-up.
Flesh flies tied in sizes 2 to 6 on streamer-style, un-weighted hooks are the most popular, though many anglers prefer larger, articulated flies. Anglers can also use a few standard streamers to imitate salmon flesh, most notably the white Woolly Bugger, a Zonker or Zuddler, and the Battle Creek. Patterns in the mold of the Babine Special that combine both flesh and egg characteristics can also be effective at times, although they’re nowhere near as widely used as the most ubiquitous Alaska trout pattern, the single egg.
Although flesh is readily available as a food form in late autumn, it is not unusual for rainbows to eat other parts of the salmon as well. Seeing big rainbows ingest a large pectoral fin from a decaying salmon can change one’s thinking on fly design. Using a salmon-fin fly probably borders on the sacrilegious, but having a varied assortment of trout patterns to compliment the variety of flesh flies can pay dividends during the late fall.
It’s also wise to remember that just because the egg blitz has ended that doesn’t mean an egg-imitation won’t still work. These trout are gorging themselves, with winter right around the corner, and there usually are still a few odd eggs drifting downstream well into October. Put a bead or other imitation in front of a fish and it will almost certainly eat it.
Even in fall, the entirety of rainbow trout angling in the Last Frontier doesn’t revolve around the Pacific salmon, though. There are a number of large streamer-style patterns that anglers will find great success with in the fall, most of them at least loosely mimicking sculpins or leeches.
One all-time favorite is Don Gapen’s original masterpiece, the Muddler Minnow, which features a clipped deer-hair head that resembles the domes of the widely distributed sculpin. Sculpins can comprise a large portion of the trout’s diet, and they range in length from three-quarters of an inch to over four inches; their coloration will vary, often closely matching a river’s bottom. Greens, blacks, browns and combinations thereof are the most frequently used colors by fly tiers. Spun ram’s wool or deer hair is typically utilized to construct the sculpin’s most prominent feature, the large head. Some other popular and effective sculpin patterns for Alaska are the black Marabou Muddler, the Woolhead Sculpin, the Zoo Cougar and Whitlock’s Sculpin, which is designed to swim hook-point up to eliminate hang-ups when fished directly on the bottom, where the majority of sculpins will be found.
Another trout food form in Alaska waters are the freshwater eels predominantly found in the bigger lake systems. For instance, the rainbows of both the Naknek and Iliamna systems feed heavily on the eels in the spring, early summer and late fall time periods. Articulated leeches in larger sizes, even up to 10 inches, work quite well in these environs.
Without a doubt, though, many effective fly patterns really don’t imitate anything in nature. The Woolly Bugger in all its forms can loosely represent many things, but it’s meant to look nothing like any specific forage. And then there’s the Egg-sucking Leech, an autumn favorite and probably the most identifiable and productive fly across Alaska’s fly-fishing spectrum. It’s really not an accurate leech imitation, though like the Woolly Bugger, the slim profile could conceivably fool a trout into thinking it’s a minnow. The salmon-colored egg at the head certainly doesn’t hinder its effectiveness for fall anglers, either. In the end, the sheer adaptability of the pattern and its many triggers—profile, wiggly marabou tail, and the fact that it might look like some type of critter eating salmon spawn—makes it irresistible to a number of Alaska fish, including rainbow trout.
Last, potential travelers planning a fall trip to Alaska should be aware of the sometimes-overwhelming size of some of the state’s better trophy trout locations. While many of the prolific rainbow destinations are classic freestone streams with the standard riffle-run-pool structure, many others are simply mammoth waters. Rivers like the Naknek, Kvichak, Kenai or Nushagak can be daunting and seem impossible to read. Fly fishers must break down this type of big water into more manageable quadrants and then dissect it thoroughly. Even then, covering all the prime-looking lies will be tough, particularly when we’re talking about casting the large weighted patterns of fall. For this reason, two-handed or Spey rods have become much more popular with Alaska trout anglers. Two-handed rods can be used to cast large flesh flies, sculpins, leeches and other bulky creations into zones normally reserved for all-tackle anglers. On the Naknek and Kvichak especially, anglers have combined the use of the longer, more powerful trout rods with powerboats, making quartering casts downstream from either side of the craft while anchored or under power but moving slower than the current. In this manner, immeasurably more water can be covered, which will eventually lead to more trout being caught.
In addition to the general information above, here are a few more specific patterns for Alaska’s fall trout, these recommended from Fish Alaska contributor and Idylwilde signature tier Jeff Hickman:
1) Hickman’s Egg Stealing Super Sculpin.This is a big fly for big fish.
2) Silvey’s Tandem Tube – Black Egg Sucker. Black leeches work anywhere trout swim, and especially in the early season and again during fall. The tandem tube has super movement in the water.
3) Hickman’s Bite-Sized Flesh. We like the Bite-Sized Flesh because you can fish it in all types of water—skinny, deep, side channels, main river, spawning beds and more. This is a versatile pattern you need to have along just in case conditions change from one bend to the next.
4) Fox’s Sleech – Fresh Flesh. A massive pattern perfect for trophy trout in the late fall; you’re going to want to drag a big flesh fly around snags and drop-offs if you’re looking for lunkers, and this is the pattern to get it done.