With perfect weather and great company on a recent fly fishing trip on the Upper Kenai River, it was hard to complain about the lack of fish. Like Meat Loaf crooned, two out of three ain’t bad.
Heading out from the Upper Skilak Lake campground, Mike Tuhy, owner and operator of The Tower Rock Lodge, and lodge guide Brant Koetting didn’t expect a dud of a fishing day, but you never really do. They were hoping for a steady stream of fishing to teach this rookie fly angler about the number one tool of the trade during salmon spawning season — the bead.
“Our trout all revolve around the salmon,” Koetting explained. “From the salmon eggs to the dying carcasses that are getting ripped apart in the rivers, they are focused on the salmon. We do have some insect hatches, but they don’t really key in on them.”
Tuhy added the protein gain from salmon is much higher for the trout than any insect hatches.
A lot of people use rabbit to imitate salmon skin floating along the river, but this time of year — early to mid-October — is all about the egg, Koetting added.
“This time of year, they are really keying in on the egg,” Tuhy said. “They want to see the one perfect size egg that is the perfect color.”
Cue a rattle familiar to most Alaskan fly fishermen as Koetting reveals a box full of beads of different sizes and different colors — although to the untrained eye each color could just be called orange. But the colors have names and they matter, as do the size.
“This river gets 1.4 million reds and that’s a lot of eggs,” Tuhy said. “So the beads have to be exact. If it’s off at all and the fish is totally dialed in, it will not bite.”
So as we waded through the Upper Kenai River, Koetting pointed to different redds — or spawning grounds — that he spotted to get an idea of the size and shape.
“A lot of times, too, the fish are gorging themselves and gearing up for the winter,” Koetting explained. “You’ll catch one and they’ll be spewing up eggs. That’s a great guide to see what they’re eating.”
The first key to successful bead fishing is to be prepared. The more your tacklebox rattles, the better chance you have of matching the colors and sizes.
If the fish are eating fresh eggs, you’ll need a more translucent red or orange colored bead.
The sun plays an important role, too, since over time its rays start to whiten eggs, lightening their color from a dark red to a “cotton candy” or “apricot” color.
“Dark roe is a good choice, though, a go-to no matter when you’re fishing,” Koetting said.
The sun was bright and shining and Skilak Lake and the river were calm enough for Koetting and Tuhy to thread stories of days when neither was true.
“I’ve seen the lake with six- to seven-foot waves,” Koetting said. “With water thrashing at the sides of the boat.”
Tuhy’s story took us off the river and into his quarters at a lodge, from before he owned The Tower Rock Lodge and before beads were ubiquitous to Alaska fly fishermen.
“Back then, we were only tying glo bug flies,” Tuhy said. “And those were a pain. You would have to make them so exact out of the yarn. You’d be tying egg yarn for hours, and not even catching anything because the egg didn’t match up perfectly.”
The glo bug is the traditional egg imitation, but according to Tuhy, it didn’t do it’s job very well.
“So, I’m at this lodge that is the newbies on the block and we can’t get the fish with the glo bugs,” he said. “The big, more established lodge down the river had more experienced guides and they’re getting a few, but it’s not red hot fishing.”
The river was full of fish but, according to Tuhy, no one could figure out how to get a consistent bite until the musings of a fisherman in his bunk before bed were interrupted by an idea.
“It’s the middle of the night and I go ‘I got it!’,” Tuhy said. “All my bunkmates go ‘Tuhy, shut up man, we’re trying to sleep,’ but, no, I had figured it out.”
So Tuhy runs to his tacklebox and finds a selection of beads that were used as separators between the hook and the blade on spinners.
“I know this is it, this is the perfect egg. It has the buoyancy, it has all the characterisitics we want. It has the shape, the color, it’s perfectly oval,” Tuhy said. “It’s perfect.”
The next morning, he tied one of the beads onto his line — a sliding bead and a hook — and the rest is fly fishing history.
“I’m fishing the upper river, Jim’s Landing area, two trips a day and we’re absolutely smoking. We’re just pounding them,” Tuhy said.
Unfortunately, the bead isn’t always a recipe for success. There is no color bead that will attract a fish that isn’t there.
That day, they had better luck at teaching than angling, with Koetting and Tuhy teaching me the intricacies of maneuvering the fly rod and reel in between casts of their own. I caught a Dolly Varden and a rainbow trout, but don’t ask me what size or color the bead was.
“With this fly fishing stuff, you can take it to any level you want,” Tuhy said. “It can be as complex or simple as you want it to be. You can learn the ecology and play with all that information or just fish.”
After catching and releasing a few fish of their own, we soaked up the last of the sunlight and scenery as the boat glided over Skilak Lake and speculated about where the trout had gone.
“I think this is it for the season,” Koetting said, placing some blame on flooding in late September caused by a glacier-dammed lake outburst in the Snow River. “If they weren’t in the upper river today, they won’t be again this year.”