I was never a die hard fly fisherman until my first year up in Alaska. My first year guiding for Great Alaska Adventure Camp in Sterling was quite the eye-opener. One of the senior guides asked me if I wanted to head in to Soldotna and start buying some gear for the season. We walked into Fred Meyers and he went straight to the nail polish section. Being new to this fishery, you could have imagined the puzzled look on my face. Man, was I ever in for a surprise.
One of the trout’s and dolly’s main food sources in the summer and fall is the eggs that the salmon lay when they spawn. You can catch trout in the spring time and although they may have length to them they are still pretty skinny. If you catch the same fish in the Fall, after they have been eating salmon eggs all summer, they swell up in size. One of the main types of trout fishing most people do on the Kenai River is bead fishing. This consists of a little plastic bead that’s pegged two inches above the hook with a toothpick or a similar material. This mimics a single salmon egg floating down the river. It can either be fished with an indicator, or just free-drifting.
Having the right amount of split shot on is important as well. Most hook ups will come from the bead bouncing along the bottom as close to natural as to how a salmon egg would be drifting along in the water. So the trick with the nail polish is this: fresh out of the package the beads do resemble a single salmon egg out of the water.
The problem is when salmon eggs are underwater they have a certain sheen to them. Painting the bead with a light coat of some sort of cream or pearlescent nail polish gives the proper presentation to an egg underwater.
Certain colors definitely work better then others but it’s all the same general concept. The beads you start off with comes in a few different sizes and a bunch of colors. Depending on what salmon is spawning at the time will tell you what size and color to start off with before the polish goes on.
If the trout are feeding off a king salmon spawn, then rule of thumb is to run a larger bead, such as a 10mm or 12mm. Everybody has their own special colors they use and some people are pretty secretive about it. One particular color I found out my first year up here that out fished everything else got discontinued in both brands that made it. Thank God I freaked out and bought 100 bottles off of Filipino Ebay! Never in my life did I ever think I would own more nail polish then the average teenage girl. Lol.
Once you start catching fish like this, it becomes a never-ending experiment on new color combinations and sizes which usually always reverts back to the favorites on the river.
Another type of fly that is used is called a leech. Most of the leeches that are tied are made from either marabou fur or bunny fur in dyed in different colors. The color you use is all dependent on the food source that’s in the river. An off-color white is the typical color go-to after the salmon are spawning. When salmon spawn and die, their flesh deteriorates in the water and breaks apart in small chunks. Most it is all an off-white color. This is one of the other main food sources for the trout and dolly varden and it occurs naturally, so that is why it’s one of the main go-to colors for fly fishing.
A lot of residents have either cleaning stations over the water or fillet their fish on the river. Fresh fish flesh that doesn’t occur naturally will have a spectrum of shades of pinks. If I’m fishing in an area with cleaning stations nearby I will always switch to a more pinkish colored leech. The other go-to color in the spring and late fall is black. Black leeches mimic other food sources in the water, such as bait fish and bugs and insects. Sometimes fishing a certain type of fly that consists of the main fly and the hook, which is located on an additional piece of fur with the hook, connected to the first part with a “joint”. This is called an “articulated” fly. It gives a presentation of a larger food source floating down the river.
Paying attention to what salmon are spawning at the time and what time of year it is makes a huge difference on the Kenai. Different sizes and different colors can make or break a day. It pays to change out and experiment sometimes. The kinda underlying Holy Grail for a trout size on the Kenai River is 30 inches.
Some of the only true native 30-inch-plus rainbows are only in Alaska and the Kenai is notorious for them in the fall. Even if you are new to fly fishing, the Kenai is almost instantly rewarding for people of all skill levels. Most of the larger fish I’ve seen caught on my boat have been by people completely new to fly fishing; sometimes even children.
The trout fishery on the Kenai is almost incomparable to anywhere else in the world except for maybe other parts of Alaska.