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by Brad Hanson

Fly Patterns to Carry


Trout Strategies During Salmon Spawning

Fly-fishing Alaska is unique in many ways and can be intimidating to the most experienced anglers who might be new to the Alaskan scene. Many of the flies are as far from a natural imitation as could be imagined and techniques range from the standard to completely unconventional. Numerous flies may be considered "streamer-like" but the fact they're tied with glow-in-the-dark, fluorescent, flash, and sparkle materials leaves some dedicated fly fishers squeamish. However, foreign as Alaska can seem, there are many overlooked parallels to traditional fly-fishing that get overlooked in the fervor of these overwhelming oddities.

It was while fishing a gin clear Alaskan stream that I made a connection that has broadened my approach for Rainbows and Char. King Salmon were present and digging -- diligently working to prepare the redds for spawning. The 'bows and Char were clearly visible, holding downstream exactly where they should be, rhythmically drifting to the side, then returning, while flashing white when they opened their large mouths. These were feeding fish; obviously intercepting stray eggs that were filtering from the freshly dug redds.

As perfect as the scenario seemed to be, surprisingly few fish showed interest in my egg patterns, and refusals seemed to be the norm. Most fish completely ignored my focused drifts and several moved away from those ideal nose bumping presentations that should take any self respecting fish looking for an easy meal. Somewhat frustrated and a bit puzzled, I stopped to take another look over the remainder of my egg collection when a lightbulb came on. The idea seemed profound, yet so completely obvious that I was almost ashamed at my narrow-minded determination to catch these fish on eggs. I changed flies and was on my way to what would become one of those incredible days astream.

In New Mexico the San Juan River is a high desert tailwater that drains the border reservoir Navajo Dam. Waters leave the 400' high earthen dam at near ideal temperatures, and optimal flows provide a superior environment for trout, making it consistent with other quality tailwater fisheries. Not only do the controlled elements favor the fish, but just as importantly support massive quantities of aquatic insects, which in turn sustain large numbers of resident trout.

Many times, while wading the San Juan, or Utah's Green River, and other tailwaters, I've noticed a small congregation of trout may have gathered immediately downstream from my feet while I was standing stationary. I was at first perplexed, but a brief observation revealed these fish to be actively feeding on objects dislodged from the riverbed as a result of my wading and the swirling currents around my feet. What had first appeared to be a bunch of "stupid fish" were in fact simply trout displaying the opportunistic feeding behavior they're known to possess.

Because of the sheer abundance of aquatics AND anglers on the San Juan, both fish and fishermen have been known to capitalize on the interesting feeding behavior common to such a rich environment. The fish feed... and some fishermen perform the questionable and unlawful act that has come to be known as the "San Juan Shuffle." The name represents the act of shuffling back and forth across a likely section of stream with the result being a large congregation of feeding fish within easy casting range that readily take imitations of the streambed's natural inhabitants. Like many methods of chumming, it can be highly effective, but because of streambed destruction it is also prohibited on this particular tailwater.

The King salmon on that beautiful Alaska stream were doing the "Salmon Shuffle" moving large and small rocks, gravel and sand, digging deep into the substrate; but more importantly, they were dislodging a multitude of aquatic insects, setting them adrift to their fate downstream. Because of the abundant diversity of the offering, the feeding predators below these kings were taking practically anything resembling nymphs, pupa, and larva while refusing egg imitations for the lack of natural eggs which are yet to come in the spawning process.

Like the rainbows of the San Juan....Alaska fish are opportunistic feeders that thrive on the opportunities afforded them by nature, and we, as fly fishers need to be on the lookout for these same opportunities and recognize them when they're presented to us. Fly anglers fortunate enough to experience Alaska's "Salmon Shuffle" may never again view dead drift nymphing the same.

Tight lines and good fishing!

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