Here’s a little look behind the curtain at what goes on when I’m guiding salmon trips in Alaska…when we’re not fishing.
Fly Fishing for Dolly Varden, the “Bluegill of Alaska”
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.
Best time to fish Alaska?
When is the best time to go fishing in AK. I want to fly into Anchorage and make my way to Homer.
Well, that’s a bit of a broad question….depends on what type of fishing you want to do. Driving down from Anchorage, there’s not a ton of stuff to do off the bank (unless you count combat fisheries like Bird and Ship creeks) until you get down to Cooper Landing down on the Kenai River. Of course, you have Soldotna just past that.
In that area you are in the epicenter of the Kenai’s giant king salmon fishing (May-July), though you’ll need to get on a guide boat to have much of a chance. Also, the reds come in thick in the Kenai and Russian rivers in July and then there are the jumbo rainbows, dollies, silvers, chums and humpies (mainly on even years).
Heading towards Homer, you will encounter the Kasilof River, where you can catch some kings below the Crooked Creek Hatchery off the bank or try Deep Creek, Ninilchik River and Anchor River, which have a mix of salmon and trout.
Homer, of course, is the self-proclaimed “Halibut Capitol of the World” and you can find countless charters down on the Spit that will take you out into Kachemak Bay for flatties. There’s also a fish pond on the spit that salmon return to, though it’s not really the nicest place to fish…
Where do I fish in Juneau?
JD, I am heading to Juneau, AK at the end of June and looking for a place to fish but I am not interested in the fly or party boat
I am a simple man with wants and thought I would look around
for (A) true person that has some experience in the area and
see what I could read, this brings me here.
From my experienceit is easy to get advise from people
selling a service but my experience with those trips and information is considered tainted at best.
If you know a place to fish, a local hole or just a stream,
lake scant of people to drop a line in please know that
I would think kind thought of you and send positive vibes
in your direction.
— Bill A.
Bill, I’ll take all the positive vibes you can send! Here are some of the spots in the Juneau road system you can hit with a rental car. Good luck!
Close to town and it’s got a nice variety of species, from dollies to cutthroats to most of the salmon.
You can hike into the mouth of the creek via the paved Mendenhall Glacier trail or fish up or downstream of the bridge off Back Loop Road. You can also hit the upper reaches by following Montana Creek Road until it dead-ends in a cul-de-sac. There’s a trailhead at the end of the road that will lead you to the creek.
Peterson is located at Mile 24.5 on the Glacier Highway and can be accessed near the highway bridge. From the salt to the first falls, there’s about 2 ½ miles of stream to explore, and it harbors a decent steelhead run.
Windfall Creek (a bit past Mile 27 on the highway) is a small stream that gives anglers a rare shot in local waters to catch sockeye salmon. The stream has a large run of reds but is subject to tight regulations to ensure the fishery remains viable.
There are a couple of holes were the sockeye stack up by the thousands and you can walk right up to them…just check the regs first.
Fish Creek’s a beautiful rushing stream on Douglas Island off North Douglas Highway that gives anglers a shot at king salmon in fresh water. Cutthroat and dollies also venture into Fish Creek and it gets loaded with chums and pinks mid-summer.
ALASKA FLOAT TRIP, EPISODE III
Here’s the final installment in the JD & Khev’s Epic Alaskan Float Trip Video collection. In this one, we pick up the action on Day 5…
Click here to read more…