All through my guiding career clients have shared details of Alaskan fishing adventures and encouraged that I should never pass an opportunity to visit The Great Land. My chance finally came and I mentioned it last month in this column. Well, we went and it was nothing short of breathtaking. Loved the guys I went with, Piotr Weticki and Terry Hunsucker, but missed my boys with every cast. Jay Ray and Ryan would have loved the area we were fishing.
We were fortunate to fish in Sitka with Jamie Steinson, owner of Sitka Outfitters. Jamie is a great guide; a great advocate of catch and release and fly fishing. I know you’re thinking, “but Jay’s not a fly fisherman.” This is true and I had considered doing this entire article on my experiences in Alaska with my fly rod but have decided against it. I am going to use the photos of the trip instead and try not to spoil it for you. I am however very interested in becoming a better fly fisherman; could be something I can enjoy into my final years. Don’t carry that thought too far though, I have no plans to begin guiding fly fishermen.
My experience in Alaska was unbelievable and I am certain my fishing buddies would agree. Special thanks to my wife Renee’ for finding Jamie online and booking us with a terrific guide.
Now to talk about something I know a little more about. Our trout are still in full transition mode and the recent 20-plus inches of rain has not helped. We can still catch them but you have to work for them. Reds are saving the day with many oversized specimens being caught. The key to the redfish bite is working shallow grassbeds on shorelines and your best chance for catching trout is working deeper drop-offs, making sure the lure is running near bottom. The upper part of the water column is fresh but it’s still plenty salty down lower.
With our first real cold front due any day and with tons of water still in our bays, I will soon be focusing on fishing the drains that connect backwater areas with the bays – both on the backwater side and also where the drain empties into the bay. It requires a major front to kick this pattern into high gear but even milder passages get it started.
Planning to work the drains requires watching the weather and planning your trip during or right after a frontal passage. As always, safety comes first. If you don’t have the right boat for a rough bay crossing, my advice is to wait until the front subsides and then get on the water.
So what do I look for in formulating drain strategies? I look for drains that twist and turn their way toward the back lakes. Drains that have sharp bends are awesome and I believe the more twist and turns the better. This causes water draining from the backcountry to flow at vary speeds whether the result of natural tide action and/or north wind pushing water out of the bays.
We often find deep pools in sharp bends that effectively reduce current strength. Just up-current of these bends is where we often we find the best action. Think of drains as miniature rivers, so if you’re familiar with river fishing you probably already see the picture I am trying to paint. We will also see firmer bottom in the bends where moving water keeps the bottom clean.
Any amount of submerged grass within a drain constitutes prime fish-attracting structure and deserves investigation. We see more submerged grass on the tiny deltas that form where drains enter back lakes and also where they flow into the bay.
As always, the presence of bait activity is a given. When have you ever heard me talk about finding fish without first locating a good food source? Just for the record, there will be a lot of small finfish, shrimp and crabs that you will never see when studying a drain. What we have to trust is the knowledge that the approach of winter signals the inhabitants of coastal marshes to begin migrating to deeper more protected waters. The rapidly falling tides during frontal passages aid this migration, allowing the smaller fish and crustacean’s to simply move with the water.
For years, while cleaning fish I was amazed at what I would find inside the trout and reds taken during a day of drain fishing. Much of the stomach contents, believe it or not, were very small finfish along with tiny shrimp and crabs.
Positioning and reading the flow is critical in maximizing your catches in the drains. I make a practice of this with every frontal passage. The amount of water in the bay when the front arrives determines the force by which water will flow from the backcountry. I call it the “drift” and it is critical to cast up-current at an angle that will maximize the distance your lure can remain “in the drift” as you regulate the speed of your retrieve. Quite similar to the manner in which a fly fisherman “mends” his line to present a fly in river current. When you discover the cast angle and retrieve speed that produces a bite…stay with it!
Hurricane Harvey created many nuances in our drains and I am still learning more than a year after that horrific storm. Along with the nuances within major drains that we have fished for years, the storm also created many smaller “blowouts” that function and should be fished the same as drains when tides are high enough to produce flow through them. Yesterday I worked a small one on San Jose that has a very nice area of submerged grass out front. If you placed your cast beyond the grass and brought the lure through it, just tickling the top of the grass blades, you got a bite as the lure entered the drain. We stood in this one area and caught a dozen very solid trout.
I typically use a wide variety of colors and soft plastic sizes when fishing drain mouths. I will also throw suspending or floating/swimming plugs when conditions are right. For sure, soft plastics such as Bass Assassins, the MirrOlure 5-inch Provoker, and Lil John baits will produce well most days. If the forage is small I throw the Lil John. This bait has great action and is super tough, which holds up well when we are experiencing frequent bites. I credit the softer texture of the 5” Bass Assassins for creating realistic darting and diving action. Plum, root beer, black, and of course white are old standbys.
In the suspending plug club, I love the Custom Corky and the Custom Soft Dine colors. Gold-sided baits work well in off-colored water and many times due to wind and hard moving water our drains are slightly dirty.
Texas Custom’s New Double D series of swimming/floating baits by MirrOlure, which I tell everybody is short for high-quality, will also be in my small box of favorites. This bait is very versatile and looks and performs great. I have been field testing this bait along with several others and have found that it quickly earned a valued spot in my arsenal. These lures also come in all the Custom Corky color patterns which I love.
I had one of my best-ever trout days last year in a Matagorda Island drain on a cool November morning. There was a deep 90° bend just before the drain entered a back lake. Small mullet flipped nervously as we trudged through soft bottom along the edge of the drain.
Long casts with one of my favorite Custom Corkys, they call it Pearl Harbor, were repeatedly met with hard strikes from trout that averaged 5- to slightly more than 6-pounds. Lots of them! An extraordinary day in any speckled trout fishery.
Try the drain thing. I think you’ll find it can be very productive when the conditions are right.
May your fishing always be catching! -Guide Jay Watkins