Alaska Fly Selection: July (Part 2 of 3)
By Fly Out Ambassador Mark Rutherford
July Fly Patterns for Bristol Bay, Alaska
It is so much more complex to stock your Alaska fly box for July than for June or August! A great deal more total feed is available to resident fish in July than in June including fry of salmon, trout, char, and Grayling. There are Caddis, stone, & mayfly nymphs, plus salmon spawn and a bit of flesh late in July. While I have not seen stickleback in July, occasionally small Lamprey are present and Sculpin are pounced upon with enthusiasm. In July forage diversity is at the seasonal apex.
In mid July, adult sea run Dolly Varden Char begin to return to the rivers. In the last week of July a weather transition can begin bringing autumn storms. Finally you need Coho / Silver fly patterns in late July. All 5 Salmon can be present after Coho arrive yielding the Pacific salmon "Grand Slam".
Flies for 1 person for 1 week.
Here is a multi species list, with an emphasis on resident Rainbow Trout, Dolly Varden, Arctic Grayling, King and Sockeye Salmon plus patterns for Chum and Pink Salmon, early Coho / Silvers, Arctic Char, Lake Trout, and Northern Pike.
As anglers we are participating in an explosion in fly pattern creativity as fly tiers experiment with different materials and profiles. Simply stocking the July fly box with Leeches is a challenge. But with such a huge variety to choose from it's unreasonable and unnecessary to try to carry them all. Pick two or three leech patterns with varying amount of weight and differing profiles and articulation. Then fish them carefully and deep. The same is true for Sculpin patterns.
Trout, Char, and Grayling.
The Bristol Bay is the finest completely intact, functional, wild salmonids fishery in the world. The flies listed are proven for the Bristol Bay region but of course they are not the only patterns that work. When possible, tie or buy your patterns articulated or with stinger hooks for a significantly higher ratio of total fish landed (with less damage to fish mouthparts than traditional streamer hooks.) In the Bristol Bay region, please release all Rainbow Trout regardless of whether the Alaska Department of Fish and Game allows retention. It takes 7-10 years in cold Alaskan waters for a trophy trout to grow beyond 22 inches. Fresh Sockeye, Lake Trout, Dolly Varden, Arctic Char, and Grayling might be kept to provide your fine dining.
48+ Trout Flies
- Sculpin patterns. Choose among various Sculpin patterns keeping in mind some overlap exists with leeches: Sculpzilla, Cone head, Rag, Woolhead, Dali Lama, Exasperator, Loop, etc. Choose colors- olive and black and include some with contrasting red, green or purple accents. Size # 4-6-8. Bring 6+ total of two or three proven patterns.
- Leech patterns. There are outstanding leeches available commercially and infinite variations if you tie. Choose among: Loop, Articulated Bunny, Sleech, Lead Eye, S&B Super string, Intruder, Starlight, etc. Colors: solid purple, olive, black plus some with contrasting colors. Sizes #4-6-8. Bring 6+.
- Starlight leech. Color white for Lake Trout and Char and as flesh late in July. Consider them.
- Haymaker Leech size #1 black or blue. Consider them.
- Conehead Eggabou size #4. Bring 2.
- Signature Intruder, Moal Rhoid, or Al Green size #8. Bring 4.
- Dali Lama, Black & White, #6 Bring 2.
- S&B Super string leech, consider a selection of S&B Super string leeches. Bring 2+.
- Mice, Choose among Mr. Hanky, Loco, Preparation H Mouse, Moorish Mouse, Blair, Darth Skater. Bring 1 small bottle silicone floatant (not dry silica) for Mice and Caddis. Bring 4.
- Wooly bugger patterns in Olive, Black, Brown, size #4-6 bring 4.
- Trout beads. The Salmon spawn begins. 8mm for Chum, natural roe, glow, egg yolk, orange clear. Mottled beads in gold, mango, peachy etc with egg hooks. Bring a kit purchased for the precise species of salmon spawning in your week for your rivers, of the specific Alaskan region you'll visit. Consider sliding beads up the leader ahead of your Sculpin!
- Glo bugs. Truthfully they no longer belong in your Alaska kit. Beads are much more effective with a fraction of the mortality caused by Glo bugs. Trout all too often inhale Glo Bugs and similar roe deep in the throat before becoming hooked. Then they die.
- Fry. Smolt patterns are not as important as in June when those baby salmon (true smolt) were out-migrating each evening and holding in deeper water by day. However you will see increasing numbers of salmon, trout, and Grayling fry that rear in the log jams and sloughs feeding on "drift" as the weeks pass. Our tendency is to cast leeches & sculpin into the woody debris and overlook fry patterns, but there are days when if you are not dead drifting a fry pattern you are simply not catching fish! Fry need to be part of your July searching process. Choose the Stinger Clouser, Strung out Thunder Creek, Neil Creek Dart, Neil Creek Slider. They can be fished as dropper, streamer, or dead drifted under an indicator! Green & gold. Bring 4+.
- Nymphs, Size 12-16 Copper Johns, Bead Head Pheasant Tail, etc. Bring a mixed one half dozen. Fished as dropper behind a leech (where legal) while searching for fish or under an indicator. You probably won't get lots of use of your nymphs. However if you are fishing the few "known" rivers with dependable aquatic insect hatches like the Copper or Agulukpak bring 3 dozen nymphs. Years go by when my nymph box doesn't come out in July unless it's cold and I'm desperate for Grayling.
- Dries, Royal Wulff, Parachute Adams, Elk Hair Caddis, PMD Parachute, X-Caddis, Stimulator sizes 12-14. Bring a mixed one half dozen in a box shared with nymphs unless you are fishing the few "known" rivers with highly dependable hatches like the Copper or Agulukpak then bring 3 dozen dries. High floating, high visibility. Colors tan, brown, black, olive. As with nymphs in Alaska you may never even take these out of your gear duffle.
Total flies 48.
My presumption is that King and Sockeye salmon are going to be targeted as well as Rainbow, Grayling, & Char. This list "Over Weights" flies for Kings because in North America there is nothing that even comes close to the power and strength of a King except perhaps a sturgeon. Certainly no fish porpoises across a small cold wilderness river like a Chinook.
In most river systems salmon began entering the lower river in late June and by mid July are in enough numbers and beginning to occupy holding water in the middle reaches of the rivers. The first Chum Salmon pair up on spawning beds in mid July while the Kings will mainly be in deep runs & holding water. By mid July, with Sockeye "bunched up" in pods in the mid river, or staged at creek mouths and lake outlets, those "Reds" are definitely worth trying to get to eat a fly.
For King or Chinook Salmon, the articulated "Hareball", "Intruder", "Stinger Prawn", "String", "Critter", and "Turbo" style leeches are replacing traditional (non articulated) leeches, due in part to their increased hooking and holding power plus overall attractiveness. Bring various Pink, Orange, Chartreuse, Purple, Black and contrasting combinations in size #2- 2/0.
Unlike relatively scarce but more aggressive King Salmon, the super abundant, extremely acrobatic Sockeye or Red Salmon can be tough to entice to take leeches or streamers. You may see hundreds of sea bright Sockeye migrating along shore but they can be frustratingly lock-jawed, when they are moving or migrating. You'll need a selection of very sparsely tied traditional wet flies specifically for Sockeye. Since fresh Sockeye sets a very high standard for a shore lunch or riverside dinner you'll want to factor that in!
If Kings are a primary Salmon focus, select a palette of colors and patterns while matching the sink rates of your sink tip line with the style/profile of the fly. Leaders for Kings should be in the 12-20# class. A #7 weight single-handed rod is "okay" for Sockeye & incidental small Kings but for a steady diet of Chinook consider a single handed #8-9 weight or step it up to a switch or spey rod. When a King is incidentally taken on a #5-6-7 weight rod, if you'll be patient for the first 5-10 minutes, and then use all the side pressure you can wield (angled from across current or downstream), you'll get the fish to hand before it becomes depleted and anaerobic.
Catch and carefully release Kings! King or Chinook Salmon are a treasured Alaskan fishery resource like leopard spotted Rainbow Trout. If you are going to kill a salmon that has entered a Bristol Bay river, choose a Sockeye, a smaller 7-10 lb. King, or especially a "jack" King. Release the larger mature King unharmed to spawn. In spite of what you might hear Kings are never abundant like Sockeye, Pink, or Chum Salmon. After accounting for the incidental catch of the high seas commercial trawl fleet and Bristol Bay Sockeye gill net fishery each King that returns to spawn is precious. Enjoy their savage power and release them to spawn.
24 King Salmon flies:
- Articulated Hareball size 1/0-2/0, purple, black, pink, orange bring 6.
- Intruder in combinations of Black, pink, purple, orange size 1 - 2/0, bring 6.
- Fish these or similar King patterns on the swing when searching holding water for fish. Kings like a slow, slow, slow presentation. However if you are sight fishing to a pod, dead drift the fly directly to the mouth of the target fish. Repeat presentations will jade them while sight fishing, so your best chance is the first or second cast. Consider red/black combinations if Kings are finicky or have been in fresh water awhile.
- Spey flies, Tube flies, Prowler, Kilowatt, Critter, Conehead Popsicle, Sleech, Moal, Haymaker all have the attracting qualities needed for Kings. Substitute among patterns size 1- 2/0 for the style(s) you enjoy fishing at depths of 4-10 feet. Bing 12.
12 Sockeye Flies:
- Copper Swan #6 red, chartreuse, silver. Bring 4.
- Sockeye Orange or Sockeye Special #4, #6 in orange and black Bring 2.
- Montana Brassie #4 also effective on Dollies & Rainbow Bring 2.
- Sockeye Lightning #6 in pink and green. Bring 4.
- Red hot #6 consider it.
- Bring a dozen Sockeye flies with red, chartreuse, orange, green, silver and pink among the colors. Dead drift these with an indicator set at the exact depth that you see fish holding or migrating. The take is very subtle. Sockeye are macro-plankton (krill &shrimp) feeders at sea and don't have the alpha strike/chase response of Kings, Coho, or Chum.
- When Sockeye are grouped in pods in holding water, as opposed to migrating past, it is worth casting size #6 articulated leeches ahead of the front fish in the pod. See if you can't get an alpha fish to peel off and be aggressive.
- Once hooked, it can get wild but If they seem "lock-jawed" keep changing patterns and add split shot to get the presentation correct. If flossing or snagging begins to seem like the only option, then move on and find a fresh pod.
4 Chum Salmon Flies:
- Popperwog. Chartreuse surface popper #2. Cut back your leader into the butt section toward #15-20 test. Fish poppers as a waking fly or "chug" it. Bring 2+. This is fun!
- Hareball leeches Chartreuse #1/0. Bring 2.
- Chums will hammer most large salmon attractor patterns and especially the color green so you don't necessarily have to bring special patterns other than the Popperwog. Chums destroy a disproportionate number of graphite fly rods. They are brutes. They also tear up your hands. Use pliers to unhook them or you'll be lacerated after a couple fish and need to duct tape your fingers.
- Pink Salmon Flies
- Pink Salmon in the lower river or estuary, where they are chrome, can be fantastic sport and will aggressively take Chartreuse, purple, and pink leeches and popper Wogs. Your selection of trout and salmon leech patterns might already contain some pink. If not close that color gap because one must also have the color pink for June, July, and August trout, char, and salmon!
8 Coho / Silver Salmon Flies:
July 25, give or take a few days, mark the arrival of the vanguard of Coho / Silvers in the lower portions of Bristol Bay rivers. In the tidally influenced estuary they are going to hammer chartreuse and white Clousers. In the soft holding water upstream of the tidal zone throw articulated Bunny Leeches, Flash Flies, Sparkle Shrimp, and perhaps if the constellations are aligned, then first thing in the morning they'll hammer floating Wog patterns.
There is considerable overlap between Rainbow, King, and Coho Salmon patterns. Coho will be toward the end of your trip and so in reality you'll throw whatever you have left.
Coho Leech patterns. As with Rainbow leech patterns there are so many outstanding leeches available commercially for Coho / Silvers and infinite variations if you tie. Choose 2-3 patterns in various colors, sizes, and weights. You'll generally fish them deep with your sink tip. You'll want the colors, purple, pink, chartreuse, orange and black. Choose among:
- Loop & other leeches, Articulated Bunny, Sleech, Conehead Eggabou, size #2-4. Bring 2+.
- Clouser, chartreuse and white size #2. Bring at least 1.
- Flash fly, red hackle. Bring 2.
- Prawn patterns colors orange and pink. Bring 2+.
- Wogs color pink. Bring 1+.
Total Salmon flies 48.
- 8 Northern Pike Flies if large lakes with shallow bays are part of the plan:
- Barry's Pike Fly White & Red size #2 bring 2.
- Mercers Lemming or spun deer hair mouse bring. 2 Other surface flies, Dancing Frog consider it. When Pike want surface flies, you won't want to fish subsurface.
- Moal size #2 in combinations of Black, red, white, yellow, orange. You'll use them for trout and salmon as well. Bring 4.
Your fly lines will determine to some extent how heavily weighted your flies should be. Cover your bases by bringing both a floating line and a sink tip. A full-sink line will be needed for Kings and possibly Coho if you are specifically targeting them in the lower river and tidally influenced estuary. Ask experts who know your chosen river what lines / spools to bring.
In July we generally experience the lowest river water levels of the summer. The spring / June runoff is complete and the storms of August have (hopefully) not commenced. Use your floating line in the headwaters and for "searching" as you work down river until water depths in the channels, along the outside bends regularly exceed 3 feet and then, perhaps, switch to the sink tip. As you move down river you'll be pitching flies using the floating line with a weighted fly and perhaps an indicator. You are targeting root wad structure, deep green channels, and sweepers. When the quarry is Rainbow Trout one loses a lot of flies using this method, but, until mid July when the very earliest Chum and Sockeye spawn, structure /and cover is where the Rainbow are.
I prefer aggressive weight forward "chuck & duck" fly lines like RIO Clouser which help turn over weighted flies and indicators. Whatever line you choose to launch the heavier, bulkier flies; I recommend that you employ a strong haul generating lots of line speed and a more or less open loop. The 3"- 6" i.p.s. sink tip is very effective on Bristol Bay Rivers not just because it carries the fly deeper but because the mass of the tip dampens the oscillations of the cast caused by the weighted flies. If you have enough experience you'll fish the sink tip both when drifting as well as wading and reap the rewards. If you don't have enough experience to mend and retrieve the sink tip at the correct rate you'll lose lots of flies while drifting from a moving boat. In that case rig a second rod with a floating line as an indicator rig for drifting in the boat and you'll do very well. For smaller rivers I cut the 3-6 ips tips back to nine feet or shorter.
Misconceptions about indicators? Do you fancy yourself an expert streamer angler? Perhaps you feel disdain for the guides and clients casting indicator rigs. Think again if you want to present the leech or Sculpin in woody cover versus in the riffles. In June and July rainbow can be in the heavy wood and root wad cover so you want to have control over your fly as it drifts among snags. It is hugely helpful to be able to fish the dead drift and not just swinging the fly down and across. Accomplished Alaska Rainbow Trout anglers use the indicator to control the fly in the "wood" and from the angling log of the last decade data show that leeches, Sculpin, and fry dead drifted under an indicator out fish other methods.
If you are targeting Rainbows in known trout habitat, and not catching any, yet you are catching fair numbers of Grayling, then your fly is too high in the water column. Grayling will reliably feed all the way to the surface while the rainbows remain deep. Add more weight to get down to the Rainbows.
Mice: When the wind dies by all means throw mice in "woody" portions of the rivers. Mice rarely produce big numbers of fish but they produce more smiles than all the other patterns when they work. Every year some of the largest trout of the year will be taken on mice. If you are having "trouble" hooking too many Dollies, Chum, or Pink Salmon skate a mouse over them to find trout.
As mentioned, the diversity and abundance of natural food availability ramps up in July so you'll experiment with several patterns per hour until you find "money". Today it might be fry patterns and nothing else. Tomorrow it might be Sculpin and everything else. Makes it a challenge. From time to time run a size #12, 14, or 16 Copper John, Pheasant tail, or bead head Prince Nymph down through the run.
Beads: When Chum Salmon are seen paired up in mid-late July it is time to drift 8mm beads in colors gold, glo, mottled mango, peachy etc through the redds or sight cast beads to trout and char visible off to the side. It pays to use high quality hooks with beads like "Owner". Some anglers "turn up their nose" at fishing beads. Still when the salmon spawn is "turned on" beads are not only intoxicating but they can be the only offering that consistently works.
Your rod choices: A #7 weight fly rod does it all. Some anglers bring two #7 weights and never 'look back'. A #4 is a fine rod for Arctic Grayling and trout under "ideal" (but somewhat rare windless) July conditions. The #5 weight & #6 weight make all purpose Trout/Char/Grayling nymph & egg rods but when you start fishing the weighted cone head Sculpin, Leeches, and indicator rigs the #7 weight can not be beat.
Notes on Leaders, Indicators, Hemostat, line nipper, pliers, soft release net, and non-slip loop knot.
Leaders: The 9 foot tapered RIO #10 pound tippet "Steelhead & Atlantic Salmon" leader is my favorite all purpose trout, char, grayling, incidental salmon leader. Bring 4 leaders per week. For Coho & Kings the RIO Steelhead & Atlantic salmon leader, 9 Foot 12# or 16# leader is what you want. Bring 3 per week for salmon. Bring a spool of RIO #10 pound and #15 pound "Max", "Powerflex", or Maxima tippet for rebuilding leaders. Maxima is the standard against which all other tippet for AK is compared.
There are some other good leaders besides Rio & Maxima including "Big Game Fluorocarbon" leaders but be certain they are built for Salmon or salt water species. The point is to bring leaders, which are made of stiffer, thicker diameter monofilament to TURN OVER LARGE FLIES IN THE WIND and which have 100% knot strength when tied in a "non-slip loop knot". Your leader is arguably more important than your fly or rod!
Indicators: Most of us have switched to "Thingamabobber" Indicators 1-inch size for larger flies, ¾ inch size for beads and smolt- bring 3-6. Yarn style with floatant is fine. Twist on indicators don't work with the big weighted flies. Pinch on putty doesn't work either. I am not unaware of the weird "aesthetics" of casting Thingamabobbers. They just work so well.
Split shot: Size BB, 1 & 4, get the most use. The split shot brand I use is "Dinsmore" You crimp it on with a hemostat or pliers. I think it stays on longer than split shot with "wings".
Line Nipper: On a retractor.
Hemostat: on a retractor.
Pliers: on your wading belt.
Leave lanyard and chest pack at home. Just bring an efficient wading jacket with minimal stuff dangling to get caught in brush.
Soft release net: 24-30 inch handle and 20+ inch wide mouth. Big fish!
Knots: You need 1 knot for all the leech & streamer fishing in the Bristol Bay. Learn to tie the "non-slip loop knot". It breaks at 100% and will serve you well for Largemouth bass, Redfish, Tarpon, Taimen or anywhere that losing the fish of a lifetime might make you cry. The Improved Clinch is adequate only for beads and droppers for trout. Use a "Riffle hitch" or "Turle" knot for mousing & "wogging".
Spare flies Organized in zip locks in your duffle bag along with anything else that doesn't live in your jacket pockets.
Windproof Lighter in jacket.
Deet bug dope. 1 small plastic spray bottle/week per person in Jacket pocket.
Over the years I've visit most of Alaska's fly shops. I've shopped many of the big lower '48 "full spectrum" fly shops, and some mega-Outdoor stores. Most of them don't have the selection or expertise to get all the flies you need for a Bristol Bay trip from a single vendor. The best all around shop that I've found for flies and Alaska tying materials is an on-line shop located in Juneau, Alaska called "Alaska Fly fishing Goods" http://www.alaskaflyfishinggoods.com. They are extremely good at what they do. Brad Elfers is the owner. (907) 586-1550 It's really informative to tell him the weeks(s) you'll be fishing and on what rivers and then ask for recommendations!
To produce this July Fly selection list for Bristol Bay I relied heavily on my 35 years of experience in Alaska exploring with a fly rod and from thousands of riverbank discussions with other guides and Alaskan residents. You should know for planning purposes that June is early spring. July is summer. August is autumn. September is late autumn.
This list assumes that your partner will lend you what you run out of or what you did not bring! You should strive to organize in one jacket pocket all the large leeches and salmon flies needed for the day. In the other large pocket one small kit / box for Eggs, and 1 small box for Smolt, and a few dries.
Remember; don't leave home without these 5 items in your carry on luggage.
1. Your best Polaroid glasses.
2. Your Rx medications.
3. Your favorite waterproof/breathable wading or fully waterproof rain jacket with retractors for hemostat and line nipper and 2 large pockets for fly boxes.
4. Waders you completely trust.
5. Wading boots that fit. Felt soles were outlawed in AK in 2012. No "studded" boots in rafts or cabins.
For more information go to www.wildriverfish.com