I suspect I’m not the only angler on Kodiak who’s sick of winter!
I’ve exorcized my frustration by cleaning, repairing and replacing tackle, but there’s only so much you can do. Inevitably, you have to start a search for fishing opportunities.
The long spate of cold weather has kept the lakes sealed with ice. I’m no ice fisherman, so that strikes one possibility from my list. If you’re a judge of safe ice and inclined to try it, I hear reports of good ice fishing in the stocked lakes around Kodiak.
I need to see open water in front of me before I can start my fishing adventures.
Sure, long stretches of the rivers are clear, but for the most part the Dolly Varden are still in their winter lakes. The Buskin River should host steelhead spawning in the next few weeks, but those are protected. Even if they weren’t, the run is so small it would be a terrible shame to disturb their spawning.
But there is a very good reason to start looking for the steelhead as they start to spawn. Because once you learn to spot them and recognize them from other fish, something else happens as the steelhead spawn.
A few Dolly Varden, especially the larger ones, follow the steelhead out of the lakes to feast on eggs spilled before they can be buried.
Once you spot steelhead, move a little further downstream and watch for outsized Dollies lurking to snack on steelhead eggs. The Dollies are so scattered that you really need to spot them first, rather than blind casting in the hopes of connecting.
But here’s another tip. Don’t make any casts near or upstream from the steelhead. They’re incredibly protective of their nests, and they’re prone to striking just about anything within reach. If you happen to hook one inadvertently, break it off right away rather than stressing it by landing it to recover your lure or fly.
It should be plain that the best prospect for Dollies downstream from the steelhead are egg offerings. I don’t fish beads and can’t help you there, but friends report terrific results. I’m happy using Glo Bug or Iliamna Pinkie flies, so I’ve never bothered to try the beads.
But don’t zero in exclusively on beads or egg flies. In the process of digging their nests steelhead dig up last fall’s salmon nests, dislodging recently hatched and barely formed salmon fry, popularly called alevin.
Alevin have to spend a long time in the gravel after hatching before they’re developed and strong enough to swim up from the gravel. When dislodged early by steelhead or storm currents, they provide a special treat for hungry Dollies.
In my experience, Dollies are especially fond of the alevin during breaks in the steelhead spawning action. If you spot resting steelhead, try an alevin fly on the Dollies you can spot downstream from them.
Spawning steelhead aren’t the only possibility for finding Dollies. If you walk up local rivers, you may find deeper holes full of overwintering Dollies.
In my experience, they hug the bottom in the deepest holes and their dark backs are hard to see. But periodically you will see a silver flash as they roll on their sides. My best guess is that they are trying to dislodge food from the bottom with their tails.
I’ve spent many a frustrating hour trying to catch them, and slowly but surely I’ve learned some tricks. By all indications they are feeding on tiny fly larvae, the precursors to the nasty white sox biting flies that hatch and annoy us so much each summer.
I’ve head the best luck with tiny, dark flies. How small? The smaller the better. They don’t really show much interest until you get down to No. 16, and my catch goes up correspondingly the further I drop below that.
But there’s one more trick to add to your arsenal. You’ll catch a Dolly now and then on a fly drifting dead along the bottom, but you’ll draw quick strikes if you twitch it slightly just as it reaches the fish. You can’t see the tiny fly against the dark bottom, but if you guess right with your twitch you’ll get an immediate strike.
Sooner or later the weather has to warm and the ice will retreat from lakes. It will happen quickest after a prolonged period of warm rain, and of course, the lower the elevation of the lake, the sooner it will clear.
You would be jumping the gun to go out now, but it’s a good habit to stop and check lakes each time you venture out the road.
A fair number of small lakes on the road system are stocked each year with rainbow trout fry. These may start out small, but over the span of several years they can grow quite large on natural foods.
In a healthy lake, I expect to catch mostly last year’s trout in the 6- to 8-inch range, and a lesser number of older trout in the 12-inch to 18-inch range. But rest assured that a few individuals in each lake grow a lot larger.
And not coincidentally, the first week or two after the ice retreats are the best for catching these really large fish. Look for them in the warmer shallows where food is concentrated, especially morning and evening. But be careful as you move along the shoreline and cast well ahead of your movement to avoid spooking them.
I have the best luck at this game when using flies rather than spinners or spoons simply because I can get them in the water without a splash, a distinct advantage with spooky fish. My top choice is a No. 4 to No. 10 Woolly Bugger in olive, brown or black.
Later in the day, I have better luck in deeper water away from shore, whether with spoons and spinners, flies or bait. It varies from day to day, but I try to fish both up near the surface and down close to the bottom to learn what the fish prefer at the moment.
And of course, with warmer weather we can expect more comfortable conditions offshore on calm days. With all due caution, there will be more and more opportunities to head offshore as spring progresses.
Initially I expect halibut to be found deeper than I really care to fish for them. I don’t expect to find them with any regularity in water shallower than 50 fathoms or 300 feet till sometime in May. If you don’t mind really heavy weights and long retrieves from the depths, I bet you can find them.
I’m more inclined to search shallower waters for other fish, whether cod, rockfish or flounder. They’re a tug on the line and terrific eating after a winter of freezer fish.
And of course there’s the opportunity for the dedicated troller to find king salmon. While I don’t particularly care to use downriggers, they’re certainly called for with such early fishing.
As long as we’re looking ahead to spring fishing opportunities, don’t overlook the prospect of flying out to remote lakes for large Arctic char. I’ve caught really large ones in several remote Kodiak lakes as they congregated in the mouths of inlet rivers once the ice retreated.
There’s no way to forecast which lakes will clear of ice first, so it’s a good idea to check in with your favorite air charter, and ask them to let you know when the lakes open. You’ll be really glad you did.
Good fishing is right around the corner on Kodiak, but we still have to get around the corner before it becomes easy.
In the meantime, it’s high time to start looking for opportunities to cut the corner a little bit!