Each year, as Kenai River guides Bo Ansel and Monte Roberts conducted a class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai Fishing Academy, I would scramble for a pen and begin to frantically take notes. That’s because as these seasoned veterans of the Kenai River began their lesson, they would always divulge at least one or two new tricks as they discussed the latest innovations in tackle. With each season bringing some new invention, some new fish-catching trickery, it can be difficult for the average angler to keep up.
Guides, unlike the rest of us, have the benefit of being on the water every day. On the Kenai or Kasilof rivers, they often have four clients fishing four different lures, and Bo confided that at least one of those lures had some element of the experimental in it. We are always searching for something new, he’d say, to keep us ahead of the competition.
He also assured me there was no need to worry if I was one of those clients fishing the new rig. Often as not, he’d proclaim, it was those experimental rigs that ended up producing the best results — the biggest king salmon or the most silvers. That’s because those experimental rigs are at least based on something they’d had success with in the past, not just some wacky concoction put together purely on a hunch. They are lures with a different paint job or an extra blade, and often the product of a long evolutionary process in equipment, something that worked in the past teamed with something new that they think might work.
“We are always tinkering with design to find out what works best,” says Tony Davis, owner of Kodiak Custom Tackle. “We have a number of guides and a diehard customer fan base who are field testing every new design and supplying feedback.”
Every new idea, he says, is put through its paces before it goes on the market, and designed based on the species it is meant to target.
“Are particular fish biting out of aggression or are they feeding? Also, what conditions do we have to take into account, where do they live? And then throw in the durability factor, especially when it comes to saltwater fishing. We want something that catches fish, but also holds up,” he explains. “When designing lures we want to think like a fish but also like a tough guy.”
Many new ideas come from customers who have an idea or occasionally from special orders from remote lodges, which are then tweaked and tested.
“Cook Inlet and the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers are the perfect place for research and development,” says Davis. “But we won’t put anything on the market that hasn’t had a thorough trial and we are completely confident will produce results.”
It’s not just the hard tackle and bait crowd that is seeking the latest and greatest. Fly fishers and fly-tyers are some of the most innovative anglers around.
“I’m always on the lookout for new materials,” says Brendyn Shiflea, owner of Pretty Fly for a White Guy, a company that produces custom made Alaskan flies.
“You’d be surprised what might work,” he says, describing a friend’s concoction, a large black sculpin pattern, partially made out of something he couldn’t identify. Turns out it was a black garbage bag cut into strips.
“But it looked great,” he adds, “and more importantly, it worked.”
One of the coolest innovations in the last couple of years, says Shiflea, is the testing tank. Initially tyers used a fish tank and aerator, but now these tanks are being produced specifically to test flies, to see the dynamics of how they look and how they behave in the water.
The first step, however, is seeing what food items you want to mimic when you hit the tying vise. To help accomplish this, Paul Tornow, a guide with Alaska’s Angling Addiction, keeps a detailed log whenever he’s out on the water, including notes on the insects he sees, where he’s fishing, and what time of year it is.
“That’s because,” he says, “so many of the flies you use are season- or place-specific.”
He goes so far as to include photos and video, both above and below the surface. This allows him to not only see the color of food in the water, such as the various shades of salmon flesh that trout love, but also how it moves, so he might better reproduce that at the vise.
So, how does the average angler keep track of all these changes and take advantage of the many innovations in flies and tackle? One way is to meet with others who enjoy fishing, join an organization like Trout Unlimited or Alaska Flyfishers and talk to and befriend likeminded anglers. Davis and Shiflea both advise getting online. There are numerous blogs, websites and chat rooms designed solely with the fisher in mind, places where people swap ideas, not just on what to fish with, but where to go and when.
Also, think about occasionally going fishing with a guide, even on water you know well. You’ll see what they are currently using, and most guides are pretty forthcoming with information, especially one you’ve hired before and have established a rapport with.
Finally, all these professionals agree, nothing beats getting out there and simply trying new things. It can be difficult to experiment, especially if you are with friends or taking a relative out. That’s because we all, no matter how humble, aspire to be master fish catching machines. But if you have to, go alone, and don’t immediately jump to the tried and true. Instead, go with that hunch, tie on a new creation, and search out that new fish-catching marvel. A little experimentation is fun, more often than not it’s effective, and occasionally it is even downright deadly, putting you light-years ahead of your fellow anglers.
Here’s just a sampling of websites with more information:
— Alaska Department of Fish and Game Sportfish: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=fishingSport.main
— Kenai Peninsula Trout Unlimited: http://kenaipeninsula.tu.org/
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. www.daveatcheson.com.
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Tight Lines publishes on the third Thursday of the month from September through April, and weekly from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Have a fish story, a photo or favorite recipe to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fishy Goings On:
— Kenai Peninsula Trout Unlimited Meeting, Jan. 22, Odie’s Deli in Soldotna, 6:30 p.m. with a presentation by Bruce King called “Welcome to Oz — Fishing Kamchatka.”
— Beginning Fly Fishing Class: Kenai Peninsula College offers a one-credit, six-week-long Beginning Fly Fishing Class, starting March 19. Seats are limited and registration is now open. For more information: www.kpc.alaska.edu, or call: 907-262-0346
— Ice Fishpalooza: Ice fishing with Kenai Peninsula Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Feb. 15. Still being planned, check: http://kenaipeninsula.tu.org/ for details.