If you grew up anywhere in the Lower 48, there’s a high probability that your very first fish on a fly was a bluegill.
Their abundance and willingness to take the fly (even a poorly presented one) have made bluegill a favorite of beginning fly – and conventional – anglers for eons.
Of course, there are no bluegill in Alaska – but you do have Dolly Varden which are the perfect beginner fly fishing species.
Dollies in Alaska aren’t lavished with the reverence that the state’s rainbows receive. In fact, they are often considered a nuisance…gasp…even a “trash fish.” But let’s give these guys some credit here! Dollies are sporty little guys and exhibit some of the same attributes that make bluegill such popular fare down south. Most notably:
Where you find one, you usually find a bunch of ‘em — and they love to bite. Plus, they can grow to several pounds! What’s so wrong with that?
So, if you are yearning to give fluff chucking a try, these “bluegill of the North” are a great place to start. Their aggressiveness makes picking a fly pattern easy and you can get away with a dry (floating) line in just about any situation.
Okay let’s get you outfitted first. I like a 9-foot, 5-weight rod for dolly fishing, but you can go up to a No. 7 or 8 if you are fishing big water with larger fish.
Now, here’s the beauty of it: you don’t need a $700 rod and a reel that cost more than your first car to catch dollies. Something you found for $20 at a flea market is fine when you are just starting out.
Sure, fancy new materials make modern rods much lighter and give them crisper actions…but first things first! Go catch a few fish first and then, if you really get into the sport, consider upgrading your equipment.
As far as line goes, get a floating, weight-forward line that matches the weight of your rod. In other words, a 5-weight line is designed for a 5-weight rod. You can sometimes go up one weight of line to make a rod cast better, but let’s just keep things simple here and stick to the manufacturer’s suggestion ratings.
Next, you’ll need a leader attached to the end of your fly line. The easiest way to go is to purchase a knotless tapered leader. Nine foot is about right and you’ll notice fly leaders will have a tippet rating that has a number followed by X. It’s a bit confusing in the beginning because fly leaders are identified by their diameter in thousands of an inch, not breaking strength.
Remember that a smaller number means heavier line: 0X is 15-pound test while 8X is about 1.5-pound line. For general dolly fishing, something like a 4X (6-pound) or 3X (8-pound) will be fine.
Dolly Tips & Techniques
The easiest way to start hooking dolly varden on the long rod is to tie on a No. 2-8 purple Egg Sucking Leech and head for the water. This fly will catch dollies like crazy…rainbows, grayling, silvers, chums and kings will hit it too so be prepared!
Dollies migrate to stream mouths and lake outlets in the spring to pick off out-migrating salmon fry and that’s where you should try first. Cast slightly down and across the current, give the line an upstream mend (lift) and then start stripping the fly in with you non-rod hand.
Let the bug drift in an arc downstream until it’s immediately downstream of your position and then re-cast.
Strikes “on the swing” like this can be fierce so there won’t be much doubt as to what’s going on when a dolly smacks your offering.
Dolly varden are notorious for eating flies right out of the surface film, but if you feel like maybe you’re not quite getting down enough, try adding a splitshot to your leader 12 to 18 inches above the fly.
As summer salmon start pairing off and dropping eggs, it’s time to start fishing yarn bugs or beads under indicators (otherwise known as bobbers). When dollies get onto the eggs, you can really catch a bunch of them!
The basic rig goes like this: The indicator is set to about twice the water depth and then one or two pegged beads at the business end of the tippet.
The idea here is to try as best you can to match the size and color of the eggs the salmon are releasing. Dollies (and particularly rainbows) can get pretty dialed into a particular look of an egg and ignore anything that doesn’t fit the color and profile they are looking for.
The indicator rig is a bit more of a pain to cast, but it gets easier with time. Toss straight out or slightly upstream and then mend the line upriver by lifting it with the rod tip, to keep any bows out of it.
If you get one section of line that’s getting pushed by the current faster then the rest, it creates excess drag, pulling the entire rig downstream at an unnatural pace.
It takes some practice to get the whole “dead drift” thing down, but that’s the beauty of dollies…you bead could well off the bottom, swinging through the run at Mach 2 and you’re still going to get bit.
Later in the fall, when the salmon die off, flesh flies will be the ticket. Dollies fatten up for the upcoming winter by chowing down on chunks of dead salmon meat so your flies should be whiteish-tan in color to match the washed out meat.
You can fish flesh flies just as you would beads or on the swing.
Spend enough time on the water, and you’re gonna see some interesting stuff!
From the amazingly cool to the hilarious to totally the bizarre, I’ve seen it all. This time around, let’s take a look at some of the creepier stuff I’ve encountered while out on the creek.
A few years ago, I was rowing my drift boat down a riffle in the American River near Sacramento, CA when I spotted a very odd skull (above and below pix) in about a foot of water.
The current was just fast enough to keep me from rowing back up to it, but I was able to snap a quick pic as we drifted by…
As you can imagine, I stared at this photo for a long time that evening and couldn’t figure out what the heck I was looking at.
The next day, I drifted the same stretch and made a point of getting the anchor down early enough so that I could stop the boat in time to scoop the skull with my net.
It was the craziest looking thing…horns and huge fangs. We were perplexed as to the origin until I flipped it over and saw this on the bottom:
“Made in China.”
My clients and I got a good laugh out of that one — and had even more fun showing it to other boats that we passed that day.
One Early November, a buddy and I were hiking the West Fork Carson River, chasing late season trout. The terrain was pretty steep and we were having to do some serious booney-crashing to get to the next hole.
To keep from stumbling over the rocks and brush, I spent most of my time looking down at my feet and, at one point looked up just in time to come face to face with this…
Let’s just say I may or may not have made a sound similar to that of a 12-year-old girl at a Justin Bieber concert…
Halloween gag…or way to scare people away from the best fishing hole…or???? Who knows…but I can tell ya it took about 20 minutes for my heart rate to come back down to normal…and about the same time for my fishing pal to stop laughing.
I had a boat load of clients boonedoggin’ roe for king salmon on the Sacramento River several years back when one of the guys reeled this up…
You can see our hook and glob of eggs on the right side of the “meat.” There was no way I was gonna touch the thing, so I cut the line and let it go…but not before snapping the pic.
As you can imagine, this unusual catch led to lots of speculation the rest of the day. Who or what was it? Who chucked in to the river and why? And perhaps most creepy, why was the bone sawed off?
I’m sure there’s a perfectly logical answer to all of these questions…right? Right?
I launched my boat on a gravel bar on a remote river one morning and then, in the afternoon, came back to find this creepy-ass doll head and some unidentifiable fluids under my truck…
Im not a big fan of weird stuff like clowns and dolls and this one looked particularly evil. How it got there or why remains a mystery.
Nobody messed with my truck and there were no signs of other weirdness…just a creepy baby’s head and some odd fluids where there hadn’t been before. Hmmmmm….
As my buddy Reilly and I walked down a small creek deep in the in the Alaskan bush, casting for silver salmon, we noticed this humpy carcass on the bank…it was notable because it wasn’t a pink salmon year (they run every other year).
About 5 minutes later, we reached an impassible section of the creek and turned around and headed back upstream. The humpy was still there…only this time he was sporting grizzly bear bites — and was missing his very tasty brain.
Apparently, we just missed crossing paths with Mr. Brown…who may have thought a couple of slow two-footed critters may have been a breed meal.
ABANDONED FISH CAMP
In remote Southwest Alaska, there’s an old abandoned fishing camp that’s largely intact.
The structures are all still there and there are still half-empty cans of soda and unwashed dishes on the tables.
While it looks as if the camp’s visitors were suddenly overtaken by a zombie apocalypse…it was really a lease issue between the lodge owner and the land owner that couldn’t be resolved that resulted in the facility being abandoned.
It’s a really eerie place to visit…especially if you don’t know the whole story!
Speaking of zombies, take a look at my finger here. This is what happens when a little line cut (you can see the vertical slit running horizontally in the middle of all that gross purpleness) gets infected with salmon slime.
I woke up to it being very stiff and I kinda just ignored it. The next day, I had red veins running up my arm…a sure sign of “salmon poisoning,” which is really a bad infection that, if left for too long can result in loss of limbs or even life!
A bunch of antibiotics later, I was ok!
In the winter of 2017, we had record rainfall in California and because of that, I got a gig ferrying engineers out to a TV tower that was on a flooded island in the Delta.
I’d tie the boat off to the tower while the guys worked on the platform above. My job was to simply be a taxi driver — and to repel unwanted borders like snakes!
Let me clarify something: I don’t do snakes in any way — they creep me out and I stay as far away from them as I can.
So, when this guy and a few of his buddies who were displaced by the floods decided that my boat looked like a nice place to hang out, I had to take action.
It still makes my skin crawl thinking about the sight of these slithery devils trying to climb the sides of my boat. Luckily, I had a long pole onboard with which I was able to keep the serpents at bay. I was hoping for a nice relaxing day napping on the boat but the thought of snakes out there kept me wide awake!
One morning I was walking the beach, fishing for surf perch in Humboldt County when I spotted something about 40 yards off that looked like strawberry-blonde hair sticking up from the sand…
I really didn’t want to walk over and discover a body, but I decided it was the right thing to do. I got a chill as I got closer because I was certain I could see a hair braid (bottom right corner of the photo). That could only mean one thing: it was a corpse buried in the sand.
Only a few feet away, it still looked all the world like a head of hair…but I was relieved to see that it was just be a ball of twine or sea veg. Pheeeeew!
So just what is it about steelhead trout that makes people nutty…and do crazy things?
I was once doing a phone interview with a writer from a big East Coast magazine. From his cozy office in New York City, he asked me that very question.
It was hard for me to answer. I mean, with steelhead…you either get it or you don’t.
There are so many deep-seeded feelings and emotions for me that are tied to these fish that it’s almost impossible to articulate in a way that somebody on the outside can understand.
So, I spat out the first thing to come to mind:
“I fish for steelhead so I can see them up close…”
And then, I just got on a roll and rattled off a total unabated stream of consciousness…
I fish for steelhead because I want to get as close to them as I can. I feel that they are like fine art, each one to be viewed quietly, taken in and remembered.
I told him that I have never felt more alive and in touch with the world – and myself – as when I’m standing in a misty canyon, with a ribbon of emerald flowing in front of me.
Steelhead haunt my dreams and run through my veins.
They have taken me to the top of the mountain and they have broken my heart. I’ve bled for them; I’ve frozen for them and I’ve driven, flown, hiked and floated thousands and thousands of miles for them…and there’s not a single day of the year that I don’t think about them.
Steelhead make me straight up crazy. Even on dry land, I can close my eyes and literally feel what that moment of first contact is like, that initial tight line surge. And I can make my heart rate jump by simply imagining a float going under or a plug rod going off. Oh man…the plug takedown of a steelhead…wow…if that doesn’t get your juices flowing, you’d better check your pulse because you’re probably dead.
Steelhead make me want to follow every single anadramous river from the mouth to the source – and then float back down them again. They make me think irrational thoughts like maybe I should just sell the house and get a toy hauler that fits a drift boat and hit the open road…and never come back!
They drive me to drink; they drive me to the limits –mentally, physically, emotionally. Steelhead make me wear the numbers off my credit cards and sometimes pull the hairs off my head.
They give me this insatiable desire to fix all the damage that has been done to the rivers they call home. They drive me to pick up trash, fight for flows, plant trees and dump spawning gravel by the truckload into the water.
Steelhead are the fish I’d miss Christmas for and the reason I got married during the offseason. They give me sweaty palms and weak knees. Though I’ve probably shaved at least a year off my life expectancy due to all the junk food consumed on steelie road trips, I also believe that every day you fish for steelhead is one you get to tack onto the end.
And speaking of the end, if I had a choice, I’d go steelhead fishing on my last day on the planet. I’ve informed my family what to do when my time is about up: Take me to the top of some whitewater gorge with a drift boat and a couple rods. No need for a life jacket or a shuttle…it will be my last ride. Hopefully, there will be a couple biters along the way!
Steelhead are responsible for all the drift and float and plug and fly and center pin rods…the jigs and stacks of Pip’s and boxes of plugs; the BC Steels and the spinner boxes; the Slinkies and pink worms; the two deflated pontoon boats; the Fish Pills all over the floor; the nets and waders and boots and pink stained fridge – that all make my garage useless to terrestrial vehicles.
They’ve also ruined many a potentially productive day in the office…all it takes is a photo or a text from somebody on the river and I’m worthless the rest of the afternoon.
Steelhead are why my favorite color is green — because it reminds me of the perfect hue of a river just coming into shape and the giant redwoods that stand on its banks. And because of the dorsal color of one of those awesome looking bucks that’s transitioning from ocean chrome to river camo – olive back and a faint pink cheek and stripe peeking out from silver flanks.
In short, steelhead are epic, nearly indescribable critters that make me tick and dream and feel alive. I’m not at all sure the interviewer ever really got the message but I bet you all do…
Cursed you, North Wind…you howling, cold, harbinger of poor fishing! Go away you foul scoundrel and take with you your red faces, bad attitudes, skunk days and white-capped water!
There’s just nothing good about a north wind. It blows stuff all over my yard, it makes people nuts and…even worse…fish don’t like to bite in it.
And why do the fish care? I mean, after all, they’re underwater. Why do they give a rat’s furry behind if it’s windy if they are more than a couple feet below the surface?
To be honest, not all wind is bad. In fact, it can be really good for fishing. It gets baitfish moving around and pushes them up against structure where the predators can easily find ’em. Wind also ruffles up the surface of the water, which keeps the light from penetrating so deep. Predatory fish like to hunt when there is less light so their prey can’t see them coming.
And along the Pacific coast, NW wind generates upwelling, which brings nutrient-rich waters up from the depths…which is critical for the food chain.
Yes wind can be a good thing.
But at least inland, it has to be the right wind!
And as far as I’m concerned, just about any wind is the right wind…as long as it’s not coming from the North!
So, just what is it about the North Wind that makes fish not want to bite? Well, it’s just straight up evil that’s what! Okay, sorry…I was getting a little fired up there.
Actually, I think the only logical explanation has to do with the fact that North Wind, in my area at least, often signals a dramatic change in the barometric pressure – usually a
strong high is moving in with it. Fish bite great in high-pressure periods, but that transition zone beforehand can be a bit of a bugger. I guess there’s just something that the fish just don’t care for about that.
As a kid I remember an old timer from Oregon telling me his little wind mantra that went like this:
Wind from the West is Best, Wind from the East, Fishing is Least and Wind from the North, Go Forth.
Go where? When the wind is blowing from the north, I’m thinking about “going forth” to lunch and a movie…not to the lake! Heck, I’d rather go to the dentist, build some IKEA furniture or do my taxes. That’s how much I dislike the North Wind!
Now, that’s not to say I haven’t caught my share of fish on days when the wind was howling down from up north, but the crappy days far out-number the good ones.
I’m thinking I need to take up kite flying, windmill building, sailing…something to make me better appreciate the North Wind because as it stands now it just irritates the heck out of me.
How about you?