ORVIS GUIDE TO ADVENTURE
Fly Fishing in Alaska: What Clothing and Gear to Pack
Alaska is a place so large and magnificent, that it does in fact take your breath away when you see it for the first time. All the photography and all the coffee table books in the world are never going to do it justice. You have to go there to understand it and you never will until you do.
There are myriad fly-fishing opportunities in Alaska, but the epicenter is generally the Bristol Bay Region of southwest Alaska. An area crisscrossed with complex river systems flowing into Bristol Bay, this region is home to the largest wild salmon migration in the world including five species of wild Pacific salmon: king, sockeye, chum, pink, and silver, plus rainbow trout, Arctic char, Dolly Varden, and Arctic grayling. As a result, there are a number of very famous lodges in the region as well as opportunities for multi-day river trips from source to mouth, where you can truly witness the entirety of the salmon journey to spawn, die, and feed this wilderness.
This handy packing list includes the requisites, but adjust it according to your own preferences and when you decide to go.
Alaska weather during fishing season can be cold and blustery in the 40s, to sunny and mild in the high 60s and precipitation is pretty prevalent and quick to appear and disappear. You need to be prepared for changing weather conditions, and that means layers.
Modern technical fabrics and performance clothing have completely changed the paradigm and you can be incredibly warm, dry, and comfortable without the heavy wools and cottons our forebears had to deal with. This is also beneficial in remembering that when you are in Alaska, often you will be flying and weight limits on all your gear are important. Where you’re going there are few if any roads, and in most of the lodges you’re getting on airplanes each day to get to the fish.
ALASKA FLY-FISHING APPAREL
Starting at the Top - Keep your head and neck warm and dry and that’s half the battle. Besides your favorite fishing baseball cap, you’re going to need a warm stocking cap and a buff. Running up the river in jet boats, sudden cold fronts and heavy squalls are going to require more than a baseball cap. The buff is great protection for your neck as that’s where the largest volume of blood runs closest to the surface. Keeping your head and neck warm is equivalent to an entire layer of clothing, it weighs nothing, and takes up no space. Tiny investment with big returns.
The Core – Merino wool is magical. It’s light, soft, feels like cashmere, and can be worn next to the skin with no itch whatsoever. Start with that in a long-sleeved quarter-zip or mock neck style. Working outward, add a layer of heavy-duty performance fabric like the heavyweight drirelease®, also a long-sleeve quarter-zip. The quarter-zip allows you to manually regulate temperature by zipping and unzipping the garment for ventilation around the neck.A long-sleeve quarter-zip. The quarter-zip allows you to manually regulate temperature by zipping and unzipping the garment for ventilation around the neck.
A packable vest and jacket are next, and there are so many great options from packable down and Primaloft®, to microfleece-lined softshell fabrics. These are light, but perform like heavyweights against cold and damp. Make sure you have both a vest and a jacket as there will be a need for both.
Fishing gloves are extremely important. Windproof fingerless gloves can absolutely make a rough day better. There are now multiple styles that have an over mitt that folds over your fingers when not fishing, but folds back out of the way to free up your fingers. Great accessory.Finally, the most important piece is your wading jacket, which not only serves as the ultimate weather shield, but tackle box, wind cutter, and all around best friend you will ever have. Don’t go cheap here. Buy the best and you won’t regret it. NOTE: Make sure your outer layers are sized properly to accommodate your inner layers, otherwise you’re going to feel like Ralphie when his mom dresses him to go outside in A Christmas Story.
The Bottom - Once again to the Merino wool. Alaska’s water is cold and chances are you’re going to be wearing a pair of breathable waders which are incredibly comfortable but don’t protect you from cold water. You certainly do not want to go back to neoprene waders. The best part of fishing in those things was the end of the day when you took them off. So start with a layer of soft Merino wool long underwear, then top that off with a pair of fleece underwader pants. These are designed to be worn like a pair of jeans, only they’re made of performance fleece.
For your feet, merino wool is once again the answer as it manages moisture and is truly one of nature’s finest achievements in performance fabrics. Take multiple pairs of merino wool socks on the trip.
The Waders – Breathable waders have come a long way and they are not only incredibly comfortable, but remarkably durable as well. Many have numerous features like fleece-lined handwarmer pockets, adjustability from chest to waist-high, and even models that zip all the way down with waterproof zippers for convenient on and off, not to mention other critically important unmentionable conveniences.
Wading Boots – No felt soles in fresh water in Alaska. Don’t bring them. The good news is there have been great advances in rubber technology and wading boots with rubber soles now perform admirably. NOTE: Many rubber soles accept studs for extra traction. The issue in Alaska is wearing those studs in river boats, rafts, and on airplanes is damaging to the floors of these craft. Nobody wants their boat or airplane scratched up with studs, not to mention what it will do to a raft. If you feel the need to wear studs, there are portable traction cleats that you can pull on and off your boots, once you’re in the water.
Alaska Fly-Fishing Gear
Depending on the time of season, you will be fly fishing for different types of salmon, as some come up into the river earlier than others. Kings and sockeye come first in June and the pinks and silvers come late in July and into August. But it’s what’s underneath them that’s the prize: big, fat, powerful, voracious rainbows that for the short season live off the flesh and the eggs of the spawning salmon. These are not insect-eating rainbows, but meat eaters, and when they get hooked up, it is a piscatorial thrill ride, with fly line ripping through water like a buzz saw. While the salmon are big and powerful and the grayling are beautiful, it’s the rainbows that are the prize. Of the salmon, the best fly rod species are the silvers, who will actively chase a fly and provide some of the best streamer fishing you could ask for. Alaska during silver season is primetime.
Rods, Reels, and Lines – At the height of the season, most of the action will be for silver salmon mixed with good numbers of 2 ½ to 5-lb. rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, with the odd grayling thrown in for variety. For salmon, 8-weight rods are easier on the fish and the angler. For trout and grayling, 4- to 6-weight rods are good, but essentially these fish are feeding on eggs and flesh and the flies are heavy, often fished with sinkers to get the egg patterns down, so a sturdier trout rod such as a 6-weight is perfect for the job. You can in certain times of the year fish dry flies particularly for grayling, so having a lighter rod along for that can be fun.
Large arbor reels are a big help here for their retrieval rate which helps land salmon, rainbows, and Dolly Varden faster and is better for the fish. A light trout reel for the dry fly rod works well as grayling are not going to run far. You should have a reel with a spool for each of the larger rods with a floating line and a sink-tip line. The dry fly reel is obviously rigged with a floating trout line.
Flies – Inevitably your guide is going to rig up what is working, but going on a fishing trip without flies is heresy. It’s like showing up to the prom with no corsage. Flashy streamer patterns such as the egg sucking leach, a purple and pink marabou concoction locally called a popsicle, fuchsia bunny flies, woolly buggers, flesh flies, salmon egg patterns, and just plain glow bug yarn are all effective. Other patterns commonly used are muddlers in various shades of black and brown, woolly worms, Mickey Finns, but probably 90%-plus of the silver salmon are caught on egg sucking leeches and popsicles.
Grayling can be caught readily on dry flies. The Adams is probably the best pattern. Black gnats, mosquito, royal coachman, and other common patterns also work. For those wanting to try some specialized angling, fishing with deer hair mouse patterns and a floating fly line in the low light of evening can be a very exciting way to take rainbows on topwater, no less.
Packs – Fly-fishing packs are the best way to carry what you need for a day in the Alaskan wilderness. Waterproof packs are even better. Essentially you want a larger pack to carry extra layers and then a fishing pack such as a sling pack or a hip pack to carry flies, leaders, and other accessories. This can actually be transported to the river inside the larger pack and you are not going to need every accessory and every box of flies you own. Your guide will tell you what you need and generally you will be fishing the same species during the course of the day. Take what you need in the smaller pack, and pack what you think you need in the larger pack, which can stay on the shore, in the boat, or on the plane.
Accessories – Once again this is not about needing everything under the sun: good forceps with scissors, a good nipper on a zinger, leader material from 4X up through 0X, indicators, and non-toxic split shot (it is doubtful you’ll be fishing alone and without a guide who will have all of the terminal tackle rigged and ready, but it doesn’t hurt to have some backup). If you want to carry a lightweight net, then carry one. Chances are the guide will land the fish. A wading staff is excellent if you’re going to be out of the boat.
Sunglasses – As in every other style of fishing, sunglasses are critical. Take three pair; a backup for your backup. Wear croakies to keep them from falling off and floating down river. Make sure your main pair are superior polarized lenses to cut the glare and allow you to see the bottom as well as the fish. Your backups can be lesser and there are some great less expensive fishing glasses out there.
Alaska Packing List Parting Tips
The truth is you can carry all the fly-fishing gear known to man, but just remember weight costs money when flying commercially and creates issues when flying in floatplanes to and from the lodge. If you’re going for a week, you don’t need seven of everything. If you’re at a lodge, they can wash some things periodically for you, and if you’re out on a wilderness trip, who cares? The most important thing you can do when preparing for a fishing trip to Alaska is have a conversation with your guide and contact up there. They can tell you exactly what you’ll need and what you won’t. If you pack smart, you’ll automatically pack light.
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