Gearing Up For Alaska Fly Fishing Conditions
Gear selections for a fly fishing excursion to Alaska can be a daunting task. There are probably few places on earth where fishermen could use rods ranging from a 3 wt. to a 12 wt. in the same general area on the same day...but in Alaska, it's a distinct possibility. Anglers contemplating terminal tackle requirements should gain as much information as possible about the sport fish they intend to pursue. If an angler has specific wants for any particular species, then timing and run charts in addition to reliable local information will be necessary. If a specific date is the determining factor, then again, run charts will illustrate what fish will be present at the time. Either way...the fish will largely determine equipment needs.
Flyrod weights seem to be the most common topic of equipment concerns...and rightly so. It's how we exert control over the fish and tire them to the point of submission. For the average angler, unfamiliar with landing very large fish, the concept of tiring the fish may be known, but not entirely realized without having experienced it. Alaskan salmon, rainbows, char and others use heavy currents to their advantage and can be incredibly resistant to the pressure applied by anglers, and tiring the fish is essential to landing them. The following rod recommendations are guidelines, but variables in the size of fish , water depth and speed will ultimately determine whether the rod is capable of doing the job. When in doubt...go up a weight.
3 to 5 wt. - Rods in this range will generally be used for Grayling, smaller Char and Rainbows. Excellent dry fly opportunities exist for those angler seeking a more pristine " off the beaten path " Alaskan experience for smaller, less pursued fish such as the Grayling or Dolly Varden Char. Countless lakes, beaver ponds and streams provide practically untouched fishing without the "shoulder to shoulder" environment that frequently plagues the more popular and accessible salmon streams.
6 to 8 wt. - Mid weight rods appear to be the most commonly used...probably because they're versatile enough to be used for many different species, rivers and lakes. The 6's and 7's are potent ammo for all but the biggest Rainbows and Char while still light enough to be pleasurable to cast, although they border on the light side for most salmon. (There may be many people who'd argue they've caught lot's of salmon on 5 or 6 weight rods...but in all fairness, we should attempt to land and release these fish quickly to reduce the stress associated with a prolonged battle ). 7's and 8's are generally adequate for most of the smaller salmon such as Pink, Silver, Chum and Sockeye, but the size of these fish can vary greatly from one watershed to another.
9 to 12 wt. - Certain fish in Alaska require the "Big Guns." They're generally tiring to cast hour after hour, but there's no getting around them. When the fish routinely run 30 to 60 pounds in moving water, like the Kings do, why would you want anything less. In smaller streams for older fish...Kings can be landed with relative ease using a 9 wt. In larger waters for fresher fish, a 10 wt. minimum and preferably an 11 or 12 wt. will allow the angler to apply the necessary pressure to land these true Kings of all salmon. Other big game fish that require stout rods include the Northern Pike and Sheefish... both of which are very large, and can expose seldom seen backing in a matter of seconds. Most rods in these larger weights have fighting butts which provides the angler more leverage while fighting the larger fish.
Reels selection, like rods will be dependent to a large degree on the type of fishing that will be done. If it's lightweight action for the smaller species, the reel type is probably a non-issue... but when the bigger fish are involved, a reel can mean the difference between pleasure and pain. Shortly after moving to Alaska, I found myself in the middle of a fabulous run of Chum salmon. Chums are large aggressive bulldogs that strike savagely and fight relentlessly. I was fishing an admittedly undersized Lamson that performed okay for a few days, but eventually had a drag failure. The drag would work momentarily, then release and spin freely. In an attempt to control the spool, my knuckles and fingers were getting battered by the handle of the reel, and by the end of the trip I could barely fish, and was almost discouraged to continue subjecting myself the punishment those Chum were inflicting upon me. It was then that I realized I needed a drag system built for fish that were intent on taking my fly back to the ocean, and had the horsepower to do it.
Failures aside... a superior drag system allows the angler to keep both hands on the rod while maintaining control of the fish during blistering runs and dogged battles. Several manufacturers are building high quality reels with standard and large arbor spools or anti-reverse actions that are ideally suited for the biggest of Alaska gamefish.
Fly lines allow us to present the fly to the fish. The water types, depth of the fish, flies being used and other element all influence line type choices. Generally speaking, there are floating lines, sinking lines and sink tips which have a floating body and a sinking tip section, all of which may be used in Alaska to get the fly to the fish. Floating lines are relatively common and work well in many situations. Fishing dry flies or emergers is a given, but even for the largest of salmon they can be employed if the conditions are such to allow the fly to be delivered at the depth of the fish. While fishing smaller rivers or streams for salmon, or the rainbows and char that follow them, floating lines with an indicator can often work successfully.
In larger waters for deeper fish... sink tips will usually be required. Interchangeable sinking tip sections which connect to a floating body allow an angler greater flexibility in varying conditions at a reduced cost compared to fixed sink tip lines. Full sink lines although less commonly used, may be required for saltwater, stillwater or extremely deep runs in larger rivers.
Leaders, like the rest of our tackle will need to be tailored to the type of fishing we plan on doing. If it's lightweight dry fly's, a 9' tapered down to a 5 or 6 X might be appropriate. But if it's salmon... that will obviously change. One nicety of the majority of Alaska fish is that they're not leader shy. What that means is that we can use shorter, heavier, leaders and tippets. For Kings that may end up being a straight 3' or 4' piece of 30 # abrasion resistant monofilament. For smaller salmon we can obviously go down in size relative to the fish. If there's much casting involved, a tapered leader will turn over heavy flies better than a flat piece of mono, but may otherwise be unnecessary. If we're after Rainbows they may or may not be affected by heavier leaders, but bear in mind, the heavier the leader the more restrictive it becomes to the independent movement of the fly. If the leader doesn't affect the inclination of the fish to take the fly, the unnatural movement of the fly connected to a stiff, heavy leader may. If it's Alaska steelhead we're after... they may be critically discerning, and overly long leaders tipped with flourocarbon tippets might be necessary. All in all, use as heavy a leader as is necessary, but go as light as possibly without being at a distinct disadvantage because of it.
Tight lines and good fishing!
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