With our summer visitors long gone, and school well underway, the restlessness that accompanies the long days of an Alaskan summer has begun to fade. With most of the chores done and the garden having fallen fallow, there is once again time for reflection.
Whether kicking up freshly fallen leaves along a portage trail or soaking up the last vestiges of warm sunshine, for many of us autumn provides a brief and welcome respite, an important transition from the frenzy of summer into the slower, more contemplative days when lakes begin to freeze and snow blankets the ground.
Though it is by far the shortest of our four seasons, for many, especially Alaskan fishermen, autumn is our favorite. While many of our fellow anglers have been lured afield with shotgun or rifle, their departure only serves to further relieve the pressure on our most likely fishing holes — and at a time when trout and Dolly Varden have become greedy, desperate for the sustenance that will see them through the long winter.
And though time is quickly drawing to a close we still have a couple weeks left for coho, the last of our seasonal salmon quarry and for many an angler our favorite. Their size and propensity to chase large lures and flies make them a darling among both fly and spin casters, and heavily targeted on both fresh and saltwater.
As if that weren’t enough, autumn also means our opportunity to tackle a fish long celebrated in angling history and lore. Whether due to their small runs or fierce reputation, the steelhead is perhaps the most sought after and coveted of all sportfish.
Our only dilemma: with so little time and so many opportunities, where do we spend the waning days of autumn?
There is certainly very little good to say about climate change and the likely effect it will ultimately have on our fisheries. However, making the best of a bad situation, I have noticed a slight extension in fall fishing. This is especially true for our lakes, which in recent years have been freezing up a little later than usual. Last year I actually canoed into the Swanson Lakes the first weekend of November, a time when in the past many lakes would have been frozen solid. Currently they are still open and fishing will likely remain hot, even as the temperatures cool.
There can be a steep learning curve fishing Alaska, but what’s great about fishing Alaska lakes, especially for newcomers, is it’s not much different than fishing lakes anywhere else. Start by prospecting around islands, shoals and drop-offs. Look for weed beds, wet a line at inlets and outlets. There’s often a smorgasbord of food items for fish this time of year, usually in the form of insects, as well as plenty of small fish on the move. Fly fishers will want to have a variety of Woolly Buggers, lake leeches, and nymphs — from damsel nymphs to the tiny chronomid. It’s also always a good idea to carry a variety of dry flies, from the ubiquitous mosquito to the smallest midge pattern.
Along with classic lures such as the Super Duper, Triple Teaser, Kastmaster, and the Meps Syclops, spin casters might also try some of the above mentioned flies. By simply attaching a bobber on the line there will be enough weight to cast a light fly. Retrieved slowly, especially above weed beds, these patterns will often produce large numbers of trout and char.
Fall on Alaska’s streams means large, hungry trout. Trout fishermen wanting to capitalize on spawning silver salmon typically opt for dead drifting egg patterns behind them. This time of year is also a good time to try a variety of flesh flies. While trout and Dolly Varden will occasionally become selective, honing in on a particular colored egg pattern, as the season grows short they are often more opportunistic and likely to take large flies swung with a sinking line into deep pools. While this method typically produces fewer fish, a large weighted leech will often elicit a response from one of the big boys that tend to hang out in the depths of the river.
Then, of course, there are silver salmon. Because of their aggressiveness, anglers employ a wide variety of methods to catch them, from backtrolling in powerboats to simply casting bait suspended below a bobber and allowing it to drift. Because silvers tend to hold in deep pockets and even slack water, casting spinners and spoons is also very popular. The Vibrax spinner may be the most popular lure used for silvers.
Fly fishers typically employ any variety of flash flies and brightly colored bunny leeches. In shallow water, or on bright, clear days, anglers may want to go with a less conspicuous pattern, such as a big purple or black Woolly Bugger. Silvers have also been known to strike the surface, occasionally going after a mouse pattern or a Pink Pollywog, a gaudy concoction tied with spun deer hair.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that steelhead, our large sea-run rainbow trout, tend to spark the imagination and often infiltrate the very soul of fishers throughout the world. They have been described as wily, elusive, and fierce. They are most often pursued with fly gear, the most common approach being dead drifting large egg patterns or polar shrimp, or swinging a variety of leech patterns.
Oh, the myriad of autumn options, it leaves many of us scratching our heads in indecision — and that’s without even touching upon saltwater.
One thing, however, is for certain: whether light or heavy gear, bait casting or fly rod, lakes, rivers, or saltwater, we cannot let autumn slip away.
Sure, you might have to add a few layers of clothing, but with all these options there’s absolutely no reason to even consider putting the fishing gear away. Autumn in Alaska truly is a fisherman’s dream.
Dave Atcheson is the author of the guidebook “Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula,” and National Geographic’s “Hidden Alaska, Bristol Bay and Beyond.” His latest book, “Dead Reckoning, Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on its High Seas” is now available in hardcover, online, and as an audiobook. Visit www.daveatcheson.com.