As an Alaskan guide, I spend the majority of my time sharing my favorite river, the “Upper Kenai” with others. However, the best thing about Alaska in mid summer is that daylight extends beyond midnight. That means that on occasion, I can guide an entire day, take care of preparations for the next trip and still grab a few hours of fishing with a friend.
On one such summers evening, my friend Stacy Corbin and I were sight fishing to big trout in one of the Upper Kenai’s many eddies. We had spotted several trout over 20” moving around some sockeye carcasses lodged in a snag. I maneuvered the boat, while Stacy crouched low in the bow and cast carefully into the zone. His fly was intercepted immediately and Stacy hit the fish hard, not expecting the result.
Instead of a 24” rainbow straining for cover, a little 8” trout missile was flying straight at Stacy. For a moment, time was suspended. The tiny trout seemed to be swimming in air. Then, splat went the rainbow right in the crotch of his Simms waders. I had a brief moment to view the shocked look on Stacy’s face as he examined the slime spot. Then my eyes filled with tears of laughter as Stacy bent over and attempted to capture the hapless fish now flopping in the bottom of the drift boat. Even in Alaska, small fish happen.
After the tears dried and I could see again, we regrouped. Stacy and I each managed to land a couple nice fish from the eddy before moving on. We were targeting rainbows feeding on salmon flesh, something unfamiliar to many fly-fishers. We also surprised a young grizzly doing the same thing.
The Kenai River experiences an early influx of salmon flesh from the concentrated sockeye fishery adjacent to the Russian / Kenai River confluence. Many anglers from outside Alaska are surprised to learn that their standard trout flies are not often on the menu. A large rainbow is more likely to cruise around carcass piles and graze on a buffet of rich salmon protein then expend lots of energy chasing emerging caddis. While I occasionally enjoy delicately presenting dry flies to rising fish, there is something about throwing a chunky fly and having a big trout wallop it that gets me going.
Salmon flesh in the form of fins, guts, immature eggs and scraps of meat come from Russian River bound Sockeye Salmon. Sockeye carcasses would not normally be available until late fall after the spawning cycle, but the Upper Kenai experiences a unique circumstance. Thousands of sockeye salmon are caught at the Kenai/Russian River confluence. The byproduct (flesh) of their capture results in thousands of filleted sockeye salmon carcasses washing downstream. This creates a smorgasbord of protein that the trout immediately feast on.
Flesh is imitated in a variety of ways. One favorite local pattern uses one or two colors of yarn and some variegated chenille we call “peaches and cream”. Two colors of “Glo-Bug” yarn lashed above and below the hook shank, also create an effective pattern. Rabbit fur is used on the popular “Ginger Bunny Fly” as well as the “Battle Bunny”. The key ingredient, as in all trout fishing is to match the natural food source. One of my favorite flies is the basic “Flesh Bunny” fly with the addition of dumbbell eyes, creating the “Dumb Bunny”. The weight of the eyes allows me to fish tight to cover without using split shot. The eyes also provide a keel effect and keep the hook upright thereby decreasing the number of snags.
Catching rainbows on flesh flies is easy, but you can increase your catch by focusing on specific target areas. Simply put, the best water is where the most carcasses are. Look for logjams and sweepers that collect the carcasses like autumn leaves. Eddies and the top portion of converging seams will also hold carcasses. Trout will frequent these areas and are often spotted as they dart around after drifting bits or even tear chunks from trapped salmon. Dead drift your flesh imitations in these areas and you will be rewarded with some impressive catches. Do not be afraid to fish heavier than normal tippets. Pulling a large rainbow from a root ball is similar to pressuring a bass from heavy cover with the added dynamic of current to make things interesting.
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