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By Ard Stetts for The Real Skinny

This column is called The Real Skinny. I suggested that name because I wanted to write about the way things are as opposed to what I might like them to be. The purpose of my writing here and elsewhere has always been to relate observations and findings rather than to tell a story about fishing. I’ll be first to admit that a good fishing story can be very entertaining and sometimes informative at once. As time goes on I will try to shift more toward a story now and them but for now, like old Sergeant Joe Friday used to say on the TV series Dragnet “Just the Facts”.

The rewards are always worth it.The title of this issues installment leaves me with a certain amount of latitude regarding topic and I intend to make use of that leeway. You know, I love to fish and the love of fishing has taken me away to wonderful places not only in body but in mind. Long ago I found that while I was on the water with rod and reel in hand everything else seemed to meld into a strange sort of non existent realm. I have had challenges that ruled my mind throughout a week that were seemingly beyond my ability to recall while I was casting my line. Fishing can do that for you and I’m sure a good number of my readers experience this same mind cleansing phenomenon when you fish. After the session upon the water has ended and your gear stowed it always seems to me that my thoughts are much more ordered. Life has slowed and a problem that seemed untenable often seems more manageable. Later in the text we will revisit this thesis regarding peace of mind and fishing.

A dark haired brown watches me from the opposite river bank.Along with a strong and enduring relationship with fly fishing I have had a comparable affair with fly tying. The two are for some inseparable and that was the case with me. I began tying with dry flies and nymphs but was soon to be whisked into an obsession of sorts that involved the really pretty flies. At various times I have heard them referred to as flies that catch fishermen as opposed to fish. From the Brook Fin wet fly to the Gray Ghost streamer and beyond I tied fancy beautiful flies. Fishing the fancies probably made me a better fisherman. When you are trying to get a fish to pursue and to grab something that holds little if any resemblance to its last meal you have your work cut out for you. Casting a well constructed Silver Doctor when you know a Whitlock Sculpin would be much better suited to the water and fish being sought takes certain tact. Presentation becomes tantamount to success. Many times I have found that to not allow the target fish or presumed holding spot of a fish to have a prolonged look at the fly is a key factor in inducing a strike. Moving the fly slowly to the target then quickly out of the window for inspection and again slowing the swing or drift to allow the fish to catch up with ease has been a good tactic for me. Line and fly control are perhaps the more important factors when presenting a fly whether it is an attractor or a tie that closely resembles a prey form. In short I have found that a fly such as the Canadian Killer when carefully put into the window of sight by utilizing line control and depth / speed control will produce more fish than a more natural looking fly that is not presented properly.

I have included in this issue a pair of my not so pretty salmon flies (see below) that are among my top producers on all species. Why they work so well I don’t know, perhaps they are more visible than some of my more classic style flies. The orange Bunny Fur Comet has quite a presence wet or dry. It is a big bushy bright glob of undulating fluff as it dead drifts and becomes rather streamlined as it goes into the swing. Most of the fish caught on the Bunny are taken while the fly is fished dead drift as you would a nymph. The fly has a pair of zinc eyes that provide plenty of weight to Nice silverthat took a Rainy Day Specialassist in getting to the fish and although the weights don’t do much for the beauty of the fly they sure help to make it a fish catching wonder. In many of the rivers and creeks I fish the water is swift and weight is an unpleasant part of the equation if you want to be successful. Many of the rivers and creeks in the interior where our cabin is located are fed by glaciers and they have silted flows. This creates a constant muddy water effect and the big high visibility flies are the only option that will give you a chance to hook up. Only when visiting a clear water streams do I use the more aesthetic patterns that I so love to tie.

I would like now to move on to another of the “It Isn’t Always Pretty” topics. As you may know salmon stocks all over North America are in trouble. Here in Alaska the king salmon fishery has been in decline for the past several years. The past two seasons almost all of the river systems in the Matanuska and Susitna drainage have been closed to king salmon fishing. This year ADF& G (Alaska Department of Fish and Game) closed the greater Yukon and Kuskowim to most substance and commercial fishing for king salmon. The runs have been far below the numbers needed to support fishing pressure. However in some other fisheries with other species the runs are still strong. The silver salmon runs are still maintaining themselves at levels so that closures have not occurred and sockeye numbers are holding their own also. I do not profess to be a fisheries expert and my statements here are resultant of what I learn from ADF&G postings and local closures.

For some the catching of a fish takes precedence over all other aspects of this wonderful sport. I have no remedy for the pattern that I see forming with fly fishermen here in Alaska and I can only guess that perhaps you have witnessed some less than sporting behavior yourselves. My observations are troubling enough that I want to use this opportunity to at least remind our readers to do everything you can to teach newcomers to salmon fishing a good ethical approach to our beloved sport. Now if you will bear with me, I will digress into the subject matter to which I am making reference. I travel from the upper Yetna rivers as far as Kodiak Island in pursuit of good fishing. You may be familiar with the phrase ‘Combat Fishing’, this refers to areas where heavy returns of salmon in combination with high numbers of fishermen results in some less than palatable tactics. I am noticing a disturbing trend on creeks and rivers from my home area, Wasilla Alaska, all the way to Kodiak. These are not streams or rivers where the combat circumstances and crowding are really prevalent. What I have learned is that it does not take an army of fishermen to put an inordinate amount of stress and pressure on the fish returning to a river. I am encountering more and more fishermen who are often equipped with the state of the art fly fishing rods and reels that are using a fishing technique I find conducive with that of a person who is attempting to snag salmon.My Hardy Cascapedia and Bamboo Rod Well hello! Did I just wake up to the fact that there are people dressed like a sporting gentlemen who are not? Of course not, I have known about snagging ever since I learned about fishing for salmon. What I find most discouraging is that these people choose to disguise themselves as fly fishermen. They come with one intent and that is to hook as many fish as possible and in many cases having total disregard for any other fishermen on the river.

The tackle in question is a set up as follows; a fly rod of 9’ with a leader of about seven feet attached to the line, to the end of the leader is tied a hook dressed with some very highly visible material like chartreuse green Ice Chenille. About three foot from the fly is a large weight or series of weights and this unit is used in a flogging fashion with a hard overhand swing of the rod. The resounding noise when this weight hits the water is unmistakable and I will spare you my attempt at describing it in writing. Now as I said, I understand how to snag, line, or lift a salmon whatever you would choose to call it. I will quickly outline the process for the benefit of the uninitiated in the readership. The object is to spot a fish either holding in the current or swimming up stream. After the target is acquired you flog your weight down upstream of the target, the object being that the weight land on your side of the fish and the hook land on the far side of the fish. Having accomplished this, the person controlling the rod makes a swift lateral sweeping motion with the rod in an effort to quickly drag the hook into the fish. Someone who is having a good day at this may even hook the fish in the head or the far side of the jaw. When this occurs it appears to any observer that the fish was induced to take the fly and is thus a legal catch. My opinion, nothing could be farther from the truth. No account of sport fishing for salmon with a fly rod and a salmon fly that I have ever read even remotely resembles what I have outlined here. So maybe in an effort to avoid a controversy we could say, ‘what the heck his style is simply not conventional’ that would be an option were it not for the number of foul hooked fish involved in this reprehensible practice.

Have you seen fishermen take up a watch position, wait until they spot fish enter the channel and only then begin to fish? In theory I would call this a smart fisherman. Why spend endless hours casting over empty water? The problem begins with what happens next. Most often the person will commence to pursue the fish up the river channel. In this chase the fishermen endeavors to stay just Fly Rod and Reelahead of the fish all the while keeping the aforementioned flogging action going at a crescendo pitch. Sometimes these people are almost comical to watch as they stumble through the rocks and other obstacles on shore or in the water. Watching this scenario unfold could be humorous, the desperate stumbling fool thrashing madly at the water while stumbling like a drunk on the slick rocks and gravel; if only the fish were not the hapless foil of these outlaws. They quickly become aware of this new threat that they face and begin hurrying up the river. It is simply a fact of my own observations that a great majority of the salmon are often foul hooked in the belly of some other part of the body. Hey, so what’s the big deal if the person knows you’re watching he will probably release the fish that was gut hooked right? Perhaps I am a sissy at heart but I don’t find any justification for making the final stage of such an incredible animal’s life any more arduous or painful than need be. I admire the Pacific salmon species’ more every time I catch one. When I intend to harvest a fish I dispatch it immediately using a thrust through the brain from my Gerber knife, somehow that doesn’t sound like a sissy in action to me. When these people appear, and as I state they are showing up everywhere these days, they get the fish so stressed out by means of this chasing to which I refer that you have hardly a chance if these people are down stream of you. So is that what all this is about Ard, you’re angry because someone is impacting your personal odds for success? Perhaps in part, who would not object to some one else diminishing your chances of having a good days fishing? I do strongly oppose the needless and cruel action of knowingly foul hooking salmon or practicing a style of fishing that will lead to far more foul hooks than legitimate takers.

Neither you nor I can stop a person from chasing fish. I have had to warn several fishermen away from me when they encroached to the point where my chances of being hooked were darn near as high as the salmon they were targeting. I did in several instances remark that it looked like they were trying to snag fish right in front of me. The responses to my comments have been less than positive. I have been threatened, insulted, and otherwise disrespected. I would not advise any interaction with this type of poacher.

A remote creek.This past season I took my grievance to the ADF&G office on Kodiak Island. There I was told that there was nothing illegal in the actions that I have outlined to you here. I was told that although this is not very sporting and that it may in fact interfere with other people’s quality of experience; as long as foul hooked fish are released “No law has been broken”. I was troubled with this response and have consulted the Alaska state fishing regulations booklet. In the booklet the state puts forth, that to harass or to molest salmon is illegal; at least I think that is what it states. I found this listed in the Regulations under ‘Fresh Water Sport Fishing’. “It is unlawful to intentionally snag or attempt to snag any fish in fresh water. ‘Snag’ means to hook a fish elsewhere than in its mouth. A fish unintentionally hooked elsewhere than in the mouth must be released immediately”. Further on in the ‘Regulations’ an attempt to clarify the meaning of molesting reads as follows. “Molesting means the harassing, disturbing, or interfering with fish by any means, including the use of any missile or object not established as legal gear, molesting includes dragging, kicking, throwing, striking, or otherwise abusing a fish which is intended to be released”. Well that seems to make sense.

I would assume that your state regulations have a similar statement in them. Where I am lost in all of this is that the regulation seems to clearly cover the type of fishing that I am writing about here. The description of handling a fish intended for release seems adequate but allows for any treatment of a fish not intended for release? Too bad for them I guess. Now I know I have ran a bit long on this issue but I actually believe that if we all began employing the fishing technique that I have discussed at length in this article we would have a very negative impact on our home fisheries. I have used my imagination on this question and still I’m coming up short. I admit this is a conundrum and a really good one especially if your mind works like mine. With no regulatory control I see no reason why more people will not seek to emulate the actions of the type fishermen I have described. My observations are that these people hook almost every fish they target, to be fair I will say 80% are hooked. The down side for most of us is that most of the fish are hooked ‘other than in the mouth’. For some that is not a problem. It seems that people crave to feel the power of a hooked salmon on their line and therein lies the lure to bring fresh converts into this practice.

Alaska Bald EagleThis is Alaska ‘The Last Frontier’ and as has been the case with all frontier regions outlaws run roughshod over the area until the population demands law and order. For the readers in states and provinces other than Alaska this trend may not be a growing threat. Or perhaps you have already established order on your waters. I have struggled with this issue, I felt that it needed to see the light of day so to speak. It has been difficult to try to write on this subject without being overtly cynical or to cast aspersions upon my states regulatory system. I see salmon as a whole as a resource that are already in a losing battle against numerous environmental and commercial pressures and changes. In order to sustain their numbers we all most become advocates for the fisheries.

Other than surrendering the river to combative, rude and sometimes threatening individuals what are we as sportsmen to do. I am only one man, the incidents to which I refer are growing in their frequency here in Alaska. This is my personal observation and the incidents I am witnessing are not only associated with crowded combat fishing zones. The most threatening individual I have encountered treated me to his verbal assault (when I mentioned that his style looked like snagging) some 52 miles from the nearest town and the isolation of the area only served to heighten my concerns. Believe me it was pretty scary, and enough to send me back to my camp.

As sportsmen and women who love salmon fishing with traditional fly rod and reel tackle we can only hope to be responsible for our own actions. We are at this time the majority but I urge you to do all you can to discourage young and old alike from falling prey to the desire to hook a fish at any cost. I have taught people how to fish and I have done so in a manner that created respect for the quarry, the other fishermen on the water and at the end of the day, oneself. This is a harsh world in which we live. This is true today perhaps more or less than other times past. There seems a growing disregard for sportsmanship and fair chase. A ready attitude for rudeness and a smash mouth approach to any and all vestiges of traditional values are the norm for some people. I have always relied on fishing to cleanse my mind and to create a feeling of inner peace both while I am engaged on the water and afterward. I’m sure many readers share in this common bond. Casting the fly while taking in the sounds and sights of the riparian environment is an almost spiritual ritual for so many, and like other things of value we must find a way to protect this treasure we so lightly refer to as salmon fishing.

Ard Stetts

My "Not So Pretty Flies"

Orange Bunny Fur CometRainy Day Special

Other Favorite Flies (Original Creations)

The Bush Doctor The Cross Fitch

Other Favorite Flies

  The Doctor MummyCanadian Killer


Ard Stetts

The Real Skinny, is a regular feature of informative articles written by Ard Stetts for Salmonfly.Net about fly fishing for salmon and steelhead.  Ard Stetts was born in north central Pennsylvania and now resides in Alaska with his wife Nancy.  He has been tying classic Salmon, Landlocked Salmon and Featherwing Trout Streamers for 35 years and has learned from some of the best.  Also see The Flies of Ard Stetts.

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