AN ABSOLUTE FLY TYING TRUTH

Earlier this morning I decided to tie a few spent trico spinner imitations. I probably have enough in my fly box now because the fishing is tough this time of year, so odds are I won’t lose many of them at least to the trout. I guess I just like tying them. But anyway, after I knocked out half a dozen size 22 spent spinners I started thinking that I’m going to have to begin looking for a replacement for the wing material I currently use. I've just about depleted my supply of Saap Wing Fiber and I recently found out that it’s not available anymore.

I can’t say without a doubt that this particular wing material catches more trout than some other synthetic wing material, but I can say my level of confidence in it verges on being superstitious. I like its flashiness and the relative straightness of the fibers. I know I’ll get over it, but this isn't the first time a fly tying material I like has become unavailable. It’s almost always a synthetic material, too.

This all reminds me of something Mike Lawson said many years at a fly tying demonstration. “If you find a fly tying material you like you better buy a life time supply of it because you can be sure it will be unavailable sooner or later.”

            It’s an absolute fly tying truth.  

HOME

It had to end sometime. But that doesn’t mean I wanted it to. Anyway, I got back to Colorado early on Sunday morning.  By then I’d pretty much recovered from the shock of seeing lots and lots of people. I’d been waiting around for my flights in both big and small airports for the past 15 hours. Combine that with a jam packed red-eye flight from Anchorage to Denver and my re-entry to civilization, if you want to call it that, was well underway.    

The inevitable post trip depression set in a day or so later. But enough. You know what I mean. I was back plain and simple.

Just a few more photos.........

 JON & PATTY KENT

JON & PATTY KENT


YELLOW-ORANGE LIPSTICK & WHITE FINS

AUGUST 29

Jon and I are out of the home drainage again today. The leopard rainbows have been elusive this trip so the plan for today is to fish the same remote stream we fished last week(see August 23 post), but this time we’ll  go downstream from where Jon lands the plane. There’s some perfect rainbow habitat down there that gave up a bunch of rainbows a few years ago and we’re hoping it will again this year. There’s also a large cut bank that held very large char. So, let’s just say we’re hoping for ‘bows, but aren’t opposed to gargantuan char.

We’ll be fishing mouse patterns on top again today just because it’s so cool to see the “take.” Of course, there will be the “average 20-inch long” char problems meaning we’ll struggle to keep those average-sized char from taking the mouse pattern. These average-size char fight hard and if you landed every one you hooked you’d be a tired puppy by the end of the day. In the past few weeks both Jon and I have gotten pretty proficient at shaking off the smaller char by throwing them slack line right after the hook-up which allows them to throw the barbless hook.

Things go according to plan for the first 15 or 20 minutes. We’re hooking and shaking char off with regularity to “save” ourselves for the “big boys” and hopefully a few ‘bows in attack mode. The char tend to fool around with the fly more than a trout so you almost always know when they’re chasing the mouse pattern. And if that behavior doesn’t clue you in the dead giveaway is when you see these yellowish, orange lips snapping at the mouse pattern. It’s almost like they have lipstick on. If you miss the lipstick figure you’ll see the white on the bottom of their fins---just like a brook trout.

Anyway my contemplative dreaminess is broken when Jon sings out, “I want to see this one!” and lands big buck char that’s easily more than two feet long. “This when you stop talking about them in terms of inches and instead go to feet,” he says.

It’s all good and we manage a few more very nice char, but the rainbows remain elusive. This is a mystery since we’re covering all the deep drop-offs, brushy holes and grassy undercut banks they lurk in. Oh well, we figure. We’ll just have to settle for gargantuan char and fish our way down to the cut bank. But, there’s a surprise awaiting us there, too. The creek has changed its course, cut another channel and erased the beautiful deep, deep holes that once held the gargantuan char.

This might be disappointment to some fly fishers, but this is Alaska and it’s wild, always changing, and we have this entire creek to ourselves. How can that be disappointing?

And besides, I’ve always been a sucker for yellow-orange lipstick. Oh, baby.

BRUISED AND BATTERED KNUCKLES

Over the past week or so Jon, Patty and I have fished for silver salmon at The Falling in Place (see August 18 post) three times. It’s still early in the run and we’ve seen more fish on each day. I like witnessing the river filling up with bright, chrome salmon. A lot of the fish we catch still have sea lice on them and are full of fight. The salmon are so thick that we quit swinging bunny flies early on during our first day’s visit. It’s been 100 percent surface fishing with Peters Poppers (see August 24 post)  since then. We’re at the point now where you pretty much get a strike or a follow every time you cast the popper. We figure we’d have a fish on every cast if we were swinging and that would be too much.

Our standard procedure is two of us fish and the third person nets the silvers. It’s madness to try to release these brutes without a net. The netter tries to stand about a rod-length downstream from the angler who is fighting the fish. When the salmon tires and you’re able to get it in close you lift its head and try to lead it head first into the net. This doesn’t always go as planned and the fish rockets off at warp speed and makes a few more runs before you can bring it back to the net. These unexpected runs are the ones where the spinning reel handle is most likely to batter your knuckles. All three of us thought we were skilled enough at landing larger fish to be past the bruised and battered knuckle stage and all three of us found out we were wrong.  I can assure you that the knuckle buster still hurts as much as ever.

Today it’s just Jon and me fishing so we’re trading off the rod and the net. You catch and silver, then you net a silver, then you catch a silver and so on. We’ve decided that the larger hens fight the most determinedly, but the big bucks are no slouchers, either. We’ve had a few attack the popper by jumping out of the water and coming down on top of it. 

There is a more practical reason for our visits to the Falling in Place, too. We try to keep four salmon each trip for the lodge freezer. The criteria for those that we take are pretty stringent. We want bright, chromy bucks. These first-of-the-run chromers are the best to eat. We make a point to thank those salmon that will feed us for that privilege. Then comes the feast.



FISHING SMALL FLIES - ALASKA STYLE

SUNDAY AFTERNOON.

By now we’ve pretty much established that you can catch one Arctic Char after another by fishing an orange Wonder fly on the surface or swinging a similar fly pattern below the surface, so today Jon and I are heading to the Moose Hole to attempt to catch rising char on size 16 Irresistibles with white calf tail wings. As it turns out, there is a sparse hatch of a white moth-like insect and the char do rise to the hatch.

The Moose Hole is a perfect place to fish the hatch. It’s a long, glassy pool full of char.  Now and then you’ll see one of them rise and take one of the “moths” from the surface. The trick is to cast your Irresistible across and upstream to attain a drag-free drift. If you are persistent a char will eventually rise to the fly and take it. And for reasons I can’t explain that is an absolute hoot. Here we are in the land of large, gaudy pink flies fished to silver or king salmon and other concoctions called Flesh flies and egg patterns and we are catching 20-inch plus Arctic char on “tiny” size 16 dry flies that come close to matching the hatch.

I tried to catch a sample of the “moth-like” insect to photograph and offer up as further evidence, but they proved elusive. You have to be here I guess. We can’t stop hooting and hollering every time we get a strike. I have to believe that this joy we’re experiencing catching char on a size 16 dry flies ultimately has to do with the incredible abundance of fish on this little creek. We feel absolutely comfortable making the fishing a little more difficult because we know we can catch all the fish we want using more traditional Alaska fly patterns. You have to wonder how often that happens anywhere else.




SILVERS ON TOP

 Spun Deer Hair Popper (left), Cork Body Popper (middle), Peters Popper (right)

Spun Deer Hair Popper (left), Cork Body Popper (middle), Peters Popper (right)

The idea that you could catch silver salmon on the surface was already in the wind when the guides and some guests at Painter Creek Lodge began experimenting with different types of surface poppers and waking style spun deer fly patterns.  The silvers on the surface idea picked up momentum when word got around that guides in other parts of Alaska were catching silvers with a fly pattern called the “wog” which is short for pollywog. The wog was a flattened oval-shaped fly made of spun pink dyed deer hair.

Guides at Painter Creek Lodge were introduced to a similar spun deer hair pattern when a writer showed up at the lodge with spun pink dyed deer hair patterns that had been trimmed into a popper shape that was very similar to a bass popper. The pink popper was a success when it came to catching silvers on top, but it quickly got waterlogged and was pretty useless after you caught a fish or two.

That first popper style fly led to several incarnations that were more resistant. The first was a standard slotted cork popper body glued to a hook and then painted hot pink. A pink marabou or feather tail with some Krystal Flash was added for good measure. This popper was an improvement, but it still only lasted for a few fish before it was destroyed when attacked by the salmon or when the salmon was being played. Eventually the cork body was replaced by a slotted hard Styrofoam body that was glued to the hook and painted pink. This variation held up better, but still eventually broke apart.

Meanwhile another problem with the poppers surfaced. The silvers attacked it voraciously and in the process sucked it down into their gills which killed them. Bob Peters, a regular guest at Painter Creek Lodge, solved this problem plus the problem of the popper bodies not holding up well when he came up with a tube fly style popper. He simply heated a needle and punched a hole through the hard foam popper body and came up with a pink marabou fly.

 The Peters Popper--The hard foam body freely slides up and down the leader.

The Peters Popper--The hard foam body freely slides up and down the leader.

You rig the Peters Popper by threading the pink popper body on your tippet before you tie the fly on. When you tie the fly on the popper body freely slides up and down the leader, but when you’re retrieving the popper it seats right up against the fly portion of the rig. When silver attacks the popper it’s hooked by the fly and the popper body is pushed up the leader and out of the way so it doesn’t get mauled by the strike or when the fish is played. The sliding popper body also allows for quicker, more positive hook ups that rarely results in the salmon taking the fly deep enough to cause death.

I like casting the popper across-and-down and then waking it a bit on a slow swing. When the fly gets toward the end of the swing I retrieve it by popping it back upstream. It’s the most exciting way I know to catch a silver salmon.  


LEOPARD RAINBOWS

We’re flying out of our home drainage today to a smaller creek, at least if you measure it by Alaskan standards. It’s remote and only a handful of fly fishers mess with it. It’s known among those few for large and insanely abundant arctic char, lots of bears and what the locals call leopard rainbow trout.

The leopard rainbows are not plentiful, but we’ll fish mouse patterns all day long in hopes of enticing just one or two of them to take the fly on the surface. . There is no way we’ll get skunked in terms of our overall fishing because the char will not allow it. But the rainbows are the prize.

It’s a perfect clear day and after Jon lands his Cessna 180 near the creek we suit up and hike more or less in an upstream direction for a mile or so over flat, open country. We’ll cut back through the willows to the water once we get to where we want to start fishing our way back downstream to the plane. This makes for considerably easier walking and lessens the chance we’ll surprise a snoozing grizzly. I’ve fished this creek before and I know fishing back to the plane will take most of the day.

There’s bear tracks everywhere and we do manage to get the attention of a young boar when we cross through the willows. It takes him a bit to figure out what we are, but after hollering “Hey, Bear… Hey, Bear…..” he decides he doesn’t want anything to do with us. He was about 20 yards away which is close enough for me.

Anyway, we work our way down to the creek and start fishing. We immediately catch “warm-up” char with our first casts. These are tough fish and the larger hens in particular take a while to land. Each of us takes a break now and then just to rest our arms.

The good news is that the rainbows occupy different habitat than the char. The char tend to be most plentiful at the tails of the pools and runs. The rainbows prefer the deep, dark holes or the dark water of undercut banks.

A friend of mine once said that he didn’t have to go to Alaska to catch rainbows because he could catch them at home in Colorado. To put it delicately he’s obviously never caught a leopard rainbow trout. The leopard rainbows are 100 percent native and indigenous to this drainage. They have nothing to do with the “synthetic” rainbow trout that are grown in hatcheries and stocked in streams and rivers around the world. Believe me, these fish are pure predators. A char may snap, bobble, and follow the mouse pattern at which time it either takes the fly or not. The leopard rainbow attacks the mouse pattern and as Jon says, “The rainbows don’t miss the fly.” They are a whole different fish than the rainbows back home even if those rainbows naturally reproduce and are “wild.” They don’t even look like our rainbow trout.

I managed to catch on leopard rainbow today. Length and weight don’t really matter. It was a large fish, but the quality of the take and the fight was what counted.

So why do the locals call it a leopard rainbow trout? Look at the snout of trout and the large dark spots that cover it all the way to the tip. That’s a leopard. And they’ll make you a believer when you hook up.



GUIDE SHACK MYSTERY

The guide shack is where the fishing guides stay. It’s usually not as posh as the guests’ rooms in the lodge, but it makes up for it because it’s alive with the memories of all the guides who’ve inhabited it over the years.

I’m staying at the guide shack at Painter Creek Lodge mostly because the lodge is closed right now, but that’s due to change in about a week when the first guests arrive. It’s taken the better part of two years to repair and restore the lodge after the bears tore it up a few winters ago and everything looks great now. But in my case there’s even more to it than bears and repairs. My friend and lodge owner, Jon Kent, figured that I’d probably just be happier in the shack and he’s right.

The Painter Creek guide shack has actually served two purposes over the years. The first is to house the guides during the fishing season. The second is to house the lodge caretaker over the winter months. There’s a board nailed to the door that some of the guides and caretakers have signed over the years. Most of the guides just signed their names and the years they guided here. The caretakers names are followed by long rows of cross-hatched day counts where they kept track of how long they’d been here and how long they had to go until the plane came back to get them. All of this real history making the guide shack the living, breathing entity that it is.

But I digress. Here is the promised mystery and I know other people who’ve spent time here and in other backcountry cabins, shacks, and sheep herder wagons who’ve also  pondered it. So, here we go.

How is it that you can close the doors and windows and then systematically swat all the house flies that buzz around on the windows until you know for a fact that there’s no more left in the cabin then within a few hours they start appearing on the windows again?

Or then again is it more about having too much time on your hands?


THE BIG BOYS

DSC_0038.jpg

The number of Arctic Char we’re seeing in this creek is difficult to convey. We’re heading upstream to the headwaters to fish a stretch of water that is legendary for some of the largest char in this drainage. The plan is to fish there, eat lunch and then hit a few other spots on the way back downstream. But right now hundreds of char are scooting away from the jet boat as we’re motoring upstream. In terms of numbers all I can think of is how many stars can you see on a clear night? On a more practical level you have to wonder how am I going get through all the 16-inch to 20-inch fish so I can have a shot at the larger 25-inch plus char. It’s a problem I don’t mind contemplating.

If there was some kind of scale to rate water’s clarity, let’s say one similar to the one used to evaluate diamonds,  this place where we’ve stopped and are rigging up our fly rods would rate as being absolute, perfect clarity.  The char spread bank to bank for pretty much the entire length of this 80-yard long flat. The water is deeper where the main channel comes in at the top after which it spreads and flattens for the rest of its length. 

Jon decides to go with a small Morrish Mouse pattern. I’m going to stick to the orange wooly bugger type pattern that worked so well a few days ago. The bugger is tied and rigged to be fished on the surface so you can swing and then “wake” it back to you after making a downstream and across presentation. If that sound technical, believe me, it isn’t. My first char of the day attacks the fly as soon as it hits the water.  My second char is a 24-incher.  Meanwhile Jon is getting follows and strikes on the mouse pattern and his wife, Patty, is a little further upstream giggling because she has a fish on most of the time. In fact all three of us are giggling most of the time.

We tend to get a little more serious when any of us hook up one of the larger bucks that dominate the deeper water at the head of the run. They are colored up and take your breath away. We’re in the land of the big boys, the sun is warm on our backs, the scenery is astounding and we haven’t seen another angler anywhere since I arrived four days ago.

We take a late lunch break mostly because we’d forgotten to eat and then decide we better head back downstream if we want to fish new water. When we stop it’s the same story---too many char to count, big ones, giggles and astonishment. We name one spot the Mouse Place because the char can’t get enough of Ken Morrish’s mouse pattern.

At some point we just stop and find ourselves wandering on a gravel bar looking at the stones. I wouldn’t say we were exhausted—only that we were done fishing for the day by mutual consent.

Later on Patty says, “The sky is clear. We’ll be able to see the stars tonight,”

THE FALLING IN PLACE

“The Falling in Place” is about a 50-minute long jet boat ride downstream from the lodge.  I like this kind place name because you know there is always a story behind them. I like this particular place name even more because you won’t find this name on any map. The only place where it has any geographical meaning is within the oral history of a few  Painter Creek Lodge fishing  guides, a couple of sports who like to record where they caught a particularly nice fish, writers and the three  women who fell in the river there several  years ago. It wasn’t a deadly or sad kind of falling in at all. They were Painter Creek Lodge employees down there for an afternoon of fishing with lodge owner, Jon Kent, and over the course of that afternoon each one fell in the river. That’s all there is to it, but it’s the way of lot places get named in remote areas. Places like Bear Creek, Crazy Woman Creek, or if you want to switch to guide speak, the Tree Hole or the Family Pool or the Willow Bend Pool.

Today Jon and Patty Kent and I are heading downriver to the Falling in Place to see if the silver salmon have arrived there yet. Jon figures the first of pulse of silvers should be there, but it’s early and it’s always good to know where the fish are for sure..

Once there it doesn’t take us long to rig up—two 8-weight rods with floating lines and 7-foot long leaders which are nothing more than a 4-foot long butt section of 20-pound test Maxima with a 3-foot long section of 15-pound test blood-knotted to it. Nothing fancy. Jon’s rigging a weighted pink bunny to his tippet, so I knot an unweighted pink bunny to mine just to make sure we cover the water column.

When Jon drops his bunny into the water at his feet to strip some line out for his first cast a silver immediately takes it. Jon calmly says,” I guess they’re here.” He then quickly switches to a pink popper. The strikes on the poppers come less frequently, but they always do and it’s worth the wait to see the take.

Jon and Patty are switching off on one of the rods---He catches a salmon, releases it and then hands the rod over to Patty and vice versa. None of us are catching one fish after another, but the silvers are indeed here and in the coming weeks this this calm water will be filled with them.

Toward the bottom of the Fall in Place there is deeper, slower moving water that’s a perfect rest stop for the salmon heading upriver. We catch the brightest, strongest and heaviest fish of the day here.

“It’s only going to get better,” says Jon.