Fishing and gear tips from an Alaskan native fly fishing angler
By Tessa Shetter
Growing up in Alaska, it is not uncommon to know how to fish by the age of 3, the very age I caught my first silver salmon. Alaska is the state of all things big and beautiful… mountains, rivers, fish, animals – everything. Winters are rough and long, but when summer comes, the sky’s the limit and so is the sunlight! With nightfall somewhere around 3 a.m., it is possible to have literally all day to accomplish your goals, which in my case is an extreme advantage when it comes to fishing.
Now, even though I’ve been fishing much of my life, I find this little hobby of mine is still a daily learning experience that I have by no means mastered yet. However, I’ve picked up a few hints and tips along my journey so far that I can share. So from me to you, happy fishing, and may the fish gods be with you!
During the Seasons
Early summer, around May to June is in my opinion, the best time to hit the lakes. The fishing regulations in Alaska revolve around the spawning of salmon and trout, so from certain dates you cannot fish some of the creeks or rivers – allowing the fish time to do their business. During that time, we put our raft to use on the lakes and get to testing out all the flies we tied during the winter (which is a lot since fly tying is our cabin fever cure).
Lake fishing is perfect for beginners to practice fly fishing, especially since it is calm and slow moving. I recommend practicing out of a boat or raft, but definitely not a wobbly canoe. Do I have stories!
When it comes time to fish creeks and rivers midsummer, we still use our flies, but also begin transitioning into the use of painted beads. You can find pre-painted beads in any outdoors shop, but (since we have plenty of time in the winter) we go the extra mile and paint a topcoat of different colors over our store-bought beads. OPI nail polish is my paint of choice, and seems to be the fish’s too.
It’s important to note when the salmon are laying their eggs in the rivers and streams, those wily trout and char like to sit behind them and eat the eggs as they float down. It can be tricky using beads because the fish will notice the slightest change of color in them. However, once you get a bead that catches their eye, you will be in business! It really comes down to trial and error, but keep at it and the trout will let you know when you’ve come up with the right bead because they will grace you with their presence on the end of your line with every cast.
But when is the BEST time to go? Well, here in Alaska and in my experience, the best trout fishing is from early to mid-August. If you really want to get the most bang for your buck, that’s when to hit the river.
You’ve got to be ready because it’s incredible how fast-paced the fishing gets during late season! If you can cast more than five times and don’t get a hit, it’s freak out time and on goes a new bead. Then you get back in action and start getting those fish on the line. They are there and they are hungry, you just have to be on your ‘A’ game and ready to adjust. As soon as you do, they will reward you in kind.
What to Look For
Whatever time of the year you fish, and whether you are wading in the water or floating in a raft, it is important to know what to look for in water movement. I tend to aim for the areas of the water where trees have fallen over, and if there are no trees, I like to cast close to the banks. No matter what river or state you are fishing, fish enjoy the shade and security trees and banks offer.
In smaller and shallower waters, I like to put two small weights about 6 to 8 inches above my hook. You have to be careful though; one wrong move and you can snag on a stick and lose your fly. Wherever I intend to cast, I always start by letting out line that will be a couple feet short from where I actually want my fly to be. That way I can slowly and safely keep adding more line in the direction I want it to go.
The fast, rapid waters are where food particles get kicked up for fish to eat. I like to call these feeding lanes, and it’s one of my favorite kinds of waters to float my line through. If you are wading in the water, you practically have an unlimited amount of casts you can throw in it. But, when floating in a raft or boat, there’s only a certain amount of time until it floats right past that spot. Try to look ahead at what is coming up in the creek or river, and be sure to cast at the beginning of each rapid.
Now on the contrary, deep and flat-water areas can be rewarding as well. A lot of times, the big and heavy fish like to sit at the very bottom of these waters. Casting near the middle of the water is usually where it’s deepest, which means a lot of line needs to be let out in order for it to sink to the bottom.
Instead of using my normal two small-sized weights, I like to put on one bigger weight along with a small weight so it will sink better. However, these fish can be lazy or just not hungry, so sometimes the waters may seem completely empty. But if you’re lucky, these deep waters will land you a hog!
When people ask me what kind of gear they should use, most of the time I tell them to use whatever is most comfortable to them. Between my 4wt fly rod and my 7wt fly rod, 99 percent of the time I use my 4wt. I personally prefer to use smaller rods when fishing smaller water systems. That way I have a better sense of feel to what my setup is doing in the water, especially if I’m only fishing for trout. Fly fishing for big Kenai rainbows, salmon and steelhead is a completely different story. That’s when I like to whip out the 7wt for those bigger, more aggressive fish.
For my fishing setup, I use my 4wt Temple Fork Outfitters rod with a Sage reel. We also have a 4wt rod made by Rugged Creek, which is an awesome rod that runs stiff so it can also be used for salmon as well.
I wear women’s Simms waders that have Gore-Tex, so they are extremely reliable and comfortable. I also suggest wearing polarized glasses. It is a huge advantage when fly fishing as it allows you to see clearer into the water so you know where you should and should not cast. Nobody likes a snag!
Everyone experiences fishing in different ways, but I hope that you enjoyed it from my perspective. Tight lines!
Tessa Shetter is an Alaskan native college student studying at the University of Alaska Anchorage, co-owner of KorVisuals, a photo and video company, and a fly fishing angler currently sponsored by H&H Outfitters, Stanley Thermos and Postflybox. She is the cover girl of this issue. Check out her full bio on page 6.