Alaska fly fishing for Rainbow Trout is unique in many ways. Ask any five Alaska Fly Fishing Guides what their favorite fly is, and you will likely get five different answers.
The flies that make this list are proven, time tested, and effective on the Kenai River in Soldotna where this Alaska trout guide spends most of his time fishing with clients every summer.
What is a “good” guide fly?
First, let’s consider what makes a good “Guide Fly”.
A guide fly basically has to be effective under a variety of situations, easy to tie in a short amount of time with easily obtainable materials, and provide you the opportunity to be successful on the water.
Guide flies are not necessarily secrets…although, as you will see here, everyone has their own twist and favorite options. However, they are the kind of flies that you want to have in your fly box.
At the end of the day, after fishing for 8-10 hours, cleaning and organizing gear for the next day, grabbing a bite to eat and perhaps a cold beer, a guide can sit down at the bench and tie a handful of flies that worked well that day. They can also throw in a slight variation based on anticipated conditions for the next day of fishing, all in a half hour or less.
That is what makes a good guide fly.
Alaska Guide Fly #1 – The String Leech
Love those leeches! I would venture to say that you can find a leech pattern in every Alaska fly fisherman’s fly box.
Because they produce.
Why do they produce?
Because the leech can be tied to imitate a variety of prey items found in Alaska waters, including leeches, sculpin, eels, and even flesh flies.
Kenai River fly fishing often involves dead drifting or swinging big flies.
For anadromous fish like salmon, many times the flies are attractor patterns.
For Alaska rainbow trout, dolly varden trout, and grayling, there are a variety of common patterns tied to imitate their natural food items.
A leech can and has successfully done all of the above, and then some.
I will attempt to describe its versatility and variability in construction and fishing methods.
I will explain why I consider it one of my favorite Alaska guide flies, and why you may just want to sit down and fill your fly box with a variety of String Leeches during your next fly tying session.
The String Leech is simple to tie.
The String Leech is a simple to tie fly, and accommodating of a variety of material substitutions.
You can use bunny strips, squirrel strips, or about any other zonker style strip for the tail and body. The collar and hackle can be any regular wet fly hackle, marabou, or your choice of a variety of other feathers wrapped hackle style near the eye of the hook.
The hackle can be wrapped right up to the eye of the hook, or you can dub in a bigger head/collar.
If you are an experienced fly tier, experiment with composite dubbing loops here.
String Leeches are versatile.
Additionally, String Leeches can be tied up with bead heads, coneheads, or dumbell eyes to vary the weight according to the specific fishing conditions you will be using it in.
As you may be thinking about at this point, there are any number of variations you can employ to construct this simple, effective fly. Let’s explore a couple of the most popular variations I use for trout and salmon fishing on Alaska’s coastal rivers and streams each summer.
A “Basic Black” String Leech is my go-to fly in spring, early summer, and again after the egg game has been played out and I’m looking for something different to throw besides bead and flesh patterns to trout in late fall.
The black leech is a great pattern on bright days with clear water, which is very likely during the shoulder seasons.
I generally use less weight at those times but fish this fly deep.
It resembles sculpin which are often darting from beneath rocks on the bottom of the stream feeding on salmon eggs or decomposing carcasses. On medium to heavy MOW tips I often clip my tippet at 18”.
Fly Tying Instructions for the “Basic Black” String Leech
1. Start with a straight eye streamer hook, or waddington shank and Big Fly black thread.
For the stinger hook, use an “up eye” Octopus style hook of your choice and dacron or gel-spun backing line, spectra, or 20-30# braided line.
2. Poke the stinger hook through a black rabbit fur zonker strip approximately ¼” back from the end.
This will place the stinger hook at the back of your fly which is important in the event of a short strike on a swinging fly.
3. Secure the dacron line of the stinger hook by laying it flat on top of the streamer hook and wrapping with tying thread the length of the shank.
***It is important to note here that you have the option of poking the stinger hook dacron through the eye of the streamer hook and doubling it back on the streamer shank. ***
Additionally, many fly tiers will add another layer of security by gluing the stinger hook line with liquid thread or some other type of quick drying super glue. This is not wasted effort when you do finally hook that 15# Rainbow Trout of a lifetime.
4. Next, pull the rabbit strip forward and secure with 3-5 wraps at the end of the streamer shank.
5. Take the remaining rabbit strip and palmer it forward around the streamer shank forming a rabbit fur body, much the same way you might tie any variety of bunny flesh flies.
Stop about ¼” from the hook eye leaving room for a collar and/or dubbing head.
Normally, I will finish this fly with a few wraps of black Schlappen hackle and then spin up a head of black ice dubbing. However, the collar and head of the String Leech can be finished in a variety of ways and color patterns.
I often tie in a guinea feather here, hackle style, providing an attractive variation, imitating some of the natural striations or mottling seen on sculpin heads and fins.
Another option is to palmer in a marabou feather providing an “Intruder”-like front profile to the fly.
As mentioned earlier in this article, I will also keep a variety of bead head, conehead, and dumbbell eye variations in my fly box. Some popular Alaska fly fishing color patterns to be sure and try are black and blue, black and white, and black and peach/cream.
Fishing the String Leech
Fishing this fly can be varied in as many ways as you can tie it.
I will often start out having clients on the Alaska fly fishing tour dead drift this fly under an indicator, much the same as when fishing a flesh fly or egg pattern.
Dead drifting a leech will often produce strikes, as long as the fly is down, on or within several inches of the bottom of the stream where the Alaskan trout are.
In fact, the depth at which your fly sinks to may be just as or more important than the specific color or pattern. Keep this fly down in the zone and it should produce.
If necessary, add split shot to your leader approximately 18” up from the fly. If you are consistently dragging the bottom, remove a split shot.
Finding that “sweet spot” for the specific river conditions of the day is extremely important and worth spending some time figuring out.
As often happens whether fishing from a boat or wading, a “dead drift” will sometimes become a “swing” or maybe even turn into “boondoggling” at times…
Swinging a String Leech or dragging it downstream behind the boat can and will produce fish.
Every local Soldotna fly fishing guide has experienced this.
Your clients may not be as concerned about watching their indicator, they may be on the phone, or eating a sandwich, and the line starts swinging when the indicator is violently pulled to the depths out of site by a fish on the line.
Or, as you move out of a deep run and float over a shallow section of river, dragging your set up across an underwater gravel bar, you suddenly hook up.
Of course, there is a lot more to being consistently successful, but the String Leech can give you that opportunity.
Swinging leeches on one or two-handed fly fishing rods with medium to heavy MOW tips are also effective.
Alaska Guide Fly #2 – The Flesh Fly
Perhaps one of the most popular flies in Alaska for both salmon and giant rainbow trout would have to be some variation of a Flesh Fly.
Kenai River fly fishing for Rainbow Trout is no exception. Alaska fly fishermen know, although it might not seem a logical first choice, a flesh fly can produce at all times of the summer.
Fly fishing is often described as a game of “match the hatch”. Some trout fishermen in the lower 48 states are as familiar with the Latin names of common insects and their various life stages as entomologists are.
Many Alaskan fly fishermen are the same.
However, if you have the opportunity to fish the waters of the 49th state, you too will soon discover that the life cycle of salmon are in large part responsible for the bounty and success of many other species including both fresh and saltwater fishes.
Alaska Rainbow Trout key in on the salmon migration each summer.
In the Kenai River, the first run of salmon is an early run of King Salmon beginning in late May. These May and June King Salmon will eventually make their way up the Kenai River and enter one of its many tributaries to spawn.
Although there is not an overabundance of salmon flesh floating down the Kenai River in June, Rainbow Trout can be caught on Flesh Flies.
Perhaps they bite out of anticipation or reflex, but variations of Flesh Flies will produce, resulting in a successful Alaskan fishing trip.
Choosing Your Flesh Fly Color
Flesh Flies come in many colors.
Alaska guides will have their favorite color or pattern depending on the conditions of the river and the timing of the salmon run. One of my favorite Flesh Fly patterns is to simply tie up a String Leech with the flesh colored bunny strips and marabou.
A good choice during the early season on the Kenai River will be a pale, or even tan Flesh Fly. Think “match the hatch” here.
In early summer, the river will rise as the snow and glaciers melt in the headwaters. As the river flow increases and the water level rises hire up its banks, old dead salmon carcasses will be washed downriver.
These will be salmon that died the previous summer and were washed up on shore and stranded on the beaches as the waters slowly receded into winter.
The flesh of these freeze-dried carcasses will no longer resemble the bright flesh of a fresh salmon, but an old stale, pale white or tan color.
Later in the summer, when the late-run King Salmon and Sockeye Salmon arrive in greater numbers, and local Alaskan fishermen begin cleaning and disposing of filleted out carcasses in the river, guess what color Flesh Fly will work?
And, as the Pink Salmon (in even numbered years on the Kenai River) and Silver Salmon arrive on scene in late July and August, Flesh Flies will continue to provide the Kenai River Rainbow Trout fisherman the opportunity to be successful.
Alaska Guide Fly #3 – The Bead
I know, in reality, the bead is not a fly at all.
However, as summer progresses on the Kenai River, salmon will begin spawning in its tributaries and the main river itself.
The egg game comes into play as Rainbow Trout begin tailing spawning salmon and unabashedly begin gorging on salmon eggs as they are released by the love-struck pairs.
Alaska fly fishing seldom sees anything more exciting than this late summer and early fall foray into the world of “beading” for trout.
The purists will scoff at this method of fly fishing, and some will not even consider it a part of their beloved sport.
However, you will be hard-pressed to find an Alaska Guide or Alaska Fly Shop that does not have hundreds of beads in as many colors and sizes all designed with the same tomfoolery in mind as the most carefully imitated callibaetis.
In reality, the bead is not a fly at all.
However, Alaska fly fishing guides will design methods and guard the creation of their secret recipes for the perfect bead from all but their most trusted friends.
Beads of a particular color pattern will be given special names hinting at their general color but with a spectacular second name like “Tangerine Dream”, or “Red Zinger”.
Fly fishing beads for Alaskan Rainbow Trout is perhaps a different sport altogether.
Let Your Creativity Flow
Like the previously mentioned choices of Alaska Guide Flies, you too can create your own versions of fishing beads through a variety of painting methods.
It is common to paint beads with fingernail polish, a variety of lacquers, and even spray paint.
Want to know what colors are working?
Go into Fred Meyer’s in Soldotna next August or September and ask the clerk who works in the cosmetic’s aisle what fingernail polish the bearded guys in waders have been buying.
How to Paint Your Fly Fishing Beads
One way to paint beads is to place the bead on the end of a toothpick while painting, then, stick the toothpick in a piece of styrofoam or an egg carton to hold it up while it dries.
In general, a splotchy paint job mixing a shade or two of different colors is common. Several layers may be appropriate to create that sought after luster.
Salmon eggs vary in color depending on their stage in the life cycle. Dead eggs will be very pale and almost white.
On the other hand, a half dead egg may be half white and half orange…or a variety of shades in between.
I like to fish cool flies and will often find myself creating and designing a fly that may take 20-30 minutes to tie.
However, during the peak of the Alaska fishing season, the guide flies described here can be constructed in a minimal amount of time with average skills and common materials.
The String Leech, Flesh Fly, and a variety of beads will give you the opportunity to be successful in Kenai River fishing and Alaska fly fishing in general.
Have fun creating your own versions, or shop around in Alaska fly shops to see the variety of patterns that are available.