Steelhead are a highly sought-after and, at times, a relatively elusive fish that can be found throughout streams of the Pacific Northwest, including Southeast and Southcentral Alaska. In essence, steelhead are an anadromous, or sea run, rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) that return to freshwater to spawn after years of foraging and fattening in the ocean. The Anchor River, often associated with the annual Memorial Day weekend buzz that surrounds the opening day of king salmon season, is actually a fairly decent and quiet steelhead fishery each September and October. This past Fall I had the opportunity to fish it alongside local guide, Grant Anderson, to gather some insider information. I wanted to find out what flies, gear and special tricks the locals use to land the feisty steelhead that swim up the Anchor River.
It was the first week in October, and there were reports of early dustings of snow on the Kenai Peninsula. I called up Grant one evening to confirm that the roads were clear and that we were still on to fish. He gave the green light, so I departed from Anchorage around 4:30 a.m. to get to the town of Anchor Point around first light. The roads were clear, and as the sun came up on the Peninsula the car windows began to fog. It was cold, and the crisp fall weather combined with the golden-brown landscape was the perfect setting for our outing.
Grant and I met up at his shop, the Fly Box, in Anchor Point to gather some supplies, including special flies, beads and a couple of rods and reels he wanted me to try. We hopped into a truck and drove a couple of minutes to the Anchor River, crossing the Old Sterling Highway bridge on the way. We parked nearby and headed upstream on foot, following a makeshift trail that led to a few nice fishing spots. Grant had heard of a couple 30-inchers hooked in the last few days, and we were eager to see what was lying in wait. We fished a few cut banks with flat deep water on our way upstream, casting and mending our lines. We were quiet and cautious, being careful not to risk wading out into view and spooking any steelhead lurking in the deeper water.
We reached a section of stream containing some large boulders and a fallen log that helped to form slower pools of water and started getting bites. Grant began fishing an olive-colored bunny hair fly that was weighted for the conditions of the river. Apparently, the olive bunny-hair fly is like candy for Anchor River steelhead, and Grant almost always starts off fishing with it. It’s hard to say exactly what this fly mimics, but it probably resembles one of the three species of lamprey that have been documented around the Kenai Peninsula – the Arctic lamprey (Lampetra japonica), the Pacific lamprey (L. tridentata) or the brook lamprey (L. alaskense). Lamprey are small, anadromous hagfish that often get mistaken for eels. While little data is available to adequately describe the presence of these fish in the streams around Anchor Point, Grant has observed what looked to be little olive-to-black colored eel-like critters wash up on the beaches around the mouth of the Anchor River after high tide. So, match the hatch, right?
The bunny hair fly gives the same action as the lamprey in the water. Both the action and the weight of the fly are important. The flies are weighted to three levels that will allow it to drift high, mid-level or low in the stream. Grant uses a brass bead-headed fly to give it that extra bit of weight, along with a small split shot or two to get it down. It’s helpful to have the differently weighted flies handy to address instances in which high water or low water conditions are present. If it is a cloudy day, or if the water is particularly muddy, a bright pink or chartreuse color might be better for inducing an instinct strike, as the fish won’t see the olive color in more turbid or dirtier water. In perfect water conditions, Grant will always start with the olive bunny hair fly, but after that he has a mixture of colors to choose from: bright blue, maroon/purple and black tend to work. He might also use a tarantula-type fly from time to time; glow bugs, black and olive wooly buggers, black leeches or egg-sucking leeches also work well.
All Geared Up
Flies probably work a little better than beads on the Anchor, although beads can be very successful. The bead should match the color and size of the eggs of Anchor River Coho (silver) salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) that push through in August, a bright pink or peach size 8 to 12 – and a blood dot doesn’t hurt. At times a crushed dead egg color can also work. I took Grant’s suggestion to use a size 12 pink bead, and being a bit bigger than the 8, it was slightly more visible and sank faster. I actually found myself preferring it over the pink bunny fly that Grant was using (the previous day’s rain made the water fairly dirty, and his olive bunny hair just wasn’t being seen).
So what should one use when fishing Fall steelhead – a bead or a fly? Grant typically fishes flies 60% of the time and beads 40%. Beads can help in locating fish, but flies are better when the fishing is tough. The fisherman’s position on the river also matters. When working on the lower parts of the river near the mouth, any steelhead will just be coming into the river and won’t be seeing many eggs, so an olive or black/purple bunny hair fly (lamprey mimic) is the best bet. For fish that have been in the river a while, beads can be a bit more familiar and attractive; using a bead further upstream is more logical. Fishing success with flies versus beads can also sometimes switch from day to day.
The peak steelhead season usually occurs from mid-September through the first week in October, but the fish will be present throughout both months. Fishing on lower stretches of the river is best in early and mid-September, and the push of the tide has a lot to do with this early part of the steelhead run. As the season progresses, however, the fishing is better upriver where the tide is less of a factor.
Other recommendations for steelhead on the Anchor include fishing at first light or later in the afternoon, and when the water temperature turns in the Fall and becomes a bit cooler. This seems to make the fish a little more active. Fishing can also turn on after a fresh rain. Sight fishing is common when water conditions are clear, allowing anglers to work a particular fish before spooking the fish back under cover. Working ripples, breaks, bank undercuts, pools and areas below larger boulders is recommended, always mending the line to adjust the position and presentation of the fly. The typical size of steelhead in the Anchor is 24 – 26”, but 30 – 32” fish are not uncommon between the mouth and the bridge. Grant’s largest steelhead was a 36-incher.
While the majority of my conversation with Grant was clearly centered on the optimal steelhead fly, we also had a chance to discuss some different gear options for the Anchor River between casts. Grant had us using a couple of different setups: a 9-foot Powell 8 wt. with an American Classic “Alaskan” fly anti-reverse reel, and a 9-foot Powell 6 wt. with an Okuma 7/8 fly reel. Both were rigged with a 9-10 foot custom hand tied tapered fluorocarbon leader (17 lb, 15 lb, 12 lb to 10 lb, and sometimes an 8 lb tippet). Grant was fond of the American Classic because it is an anti-reverse reel with a normal drag, and the Powell 8 wt. for its nice stiff backbone and soft sensitive tip. The Powell 6 wt. was fine for the average size steelhead. However, I took to the Okuma reel. It was inexpensive and had excellent drag with enough tension to land a big fish of 30” plus. It would have also been terrific for larger salmon because of the nice drag.
The Local Knowledge
The Anchor River is easily one of my favorite Fall steelhead locations along the road system in Southcentral Alaska, but it’s great for other seasons and species, too. Resident Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma), which are sea run char, come in during July and spawn in August or September. They stay in the river until spring when they head to the marine environment to forage. The Anchor also has resident rainbow trout, normally found up-river where the food supply consists of mainly king salmon (O. tshawytscha) eggs and flesh from earlier in the year. As kings get seven to eight miles upriver to spawn, these resident rainbows follow the impending feast. However, smaller rainbows can also be found in the lower river.
The typical king salmon opening is in late May, but the kings come in from the last week in April, all the way through May, and up through the third week in June. Some of the best king fishing on the Anchor River is actually the first or second week in June because the kings will often poke their noses in the freshwater and then go back out. Then, they will come back in so that there are collectively more fish present in the river at that time. The Coho enter in strong numbers around the first and middle of August, and the fishing really heats up. Add to this the fact that pink salmon (O. gorbuscha) are also present in the middle of August in good numbers every other year.
While a guide isn’t a requirement for success on the Anchor River, it doesn’t hurt to pick up some local knowledge of the stream and the fish that inhabit it. If you think four or six hours of guided fishing on the river would help, Grant’s rates are very reasonable and range from $85 to $145 per person (check out http://www.alaskaflybox.com and http://www.alaskaflyfishingtours.com; 907-252-2782). From May through October, Grant finds himself busy guiding on the Anchor River and several other Peninsula streams. He has been guiding on the Kenai Peninsula and in Western Alaska for ten years, and his Anchor Point fly shop, The Fly Box, is now in its 4th season.
It’s no secret that, from an ecological perspective, steelhead across the Pacific Northwest have taken a hit in the last decade. In Washington state, for example, several steelhead fisheries closed early this year to protect the wild runs. Even in Alaska, numbers are down, but hopefully fisheries managers, ecologists, and the Board of Fish will be able to make progress in protecting and preserving these wonderful sport fish. If that can happen, the Anchor River will continue to remain a great prospect for tight lines on a tight budget.
Story by Kalb Stevenson
Categories: Outdoors & Recreation