This is why we fish a lot of large sculpin patterns for large rainbow trout at Alaska West.
Last week you got to soak up some Alaska mousing knowledge from JEB Hall, courtesy of our expert rig post on how he approaches mousing at Alaska West. Today, our JEB trout series continues, with The Goods on how JEB fishes sculpin patterns. Read on!
- Sage 690-4 One
- Sage 4250 Reel
- Scientific Anglers Textured GPX WF6F
- 150 yards of 20 pound Dacron backing attached to the spool with an arbor knot.
- Fly line tied to backing with two 7 turn nail knots coated in Aqua-seal.
- Leader is 6 ft. in length with a 30lb Maxima Chameleon butt section built out to 20lb. Seaguar Invis-X Fluorocarbon tied onto the fly line with a 7 turn nail knot and coated with UV Knot Sense.
- Fly of choice is Jeff Hickman’s Flesh Eating Sculpin attached to the leader with a no slip loop and a small bullet weight placed just ahead of the knot.
Day in and day out. Pre-spawn, during spawn, and post spawn. Sunny days and rainy days. Rainbows on the Kanektok and the Arolik love Sculpins.
Flies that imitate these little olive delicacies account for more rainbows than maybe any other pattern fished at Alaska West. Like the mouse, motion is key to sculpin fishing. Motion is added to the Sculpin in a variety of ways. The most pure way is to swing the fly down and across from gravel bars. This technique is best employed with a switch rod and can be quite effective when the fish move off the high banks and into the soft spots after the salmon enter the river.
Sculpin patterns can also be swung across spawning flats to entice rainbows that have wised up to the bead or are just in the mood for a more substantial meal.
More commonly, the sculpin is stripped. This occurs either from a moving boat, or as an angler works a small side channel. In the early season, drifting the high banks is an effective way to find fish. During this time following up a mouse angler with a sculpin is sure to create some excitement, as the sculpin seems to have a magical ability for finding fish that the mouse can’t.
The sculpin is also deadly during between periods. For example, after the main chum spawn has passed, but before the sockeye go into full tango mode, fish fall back off the spawning flats and avoid water where sockeye are becoming ripe and are aggressive to all living creatures that cross their path. Drifting and stripping sculpins through holding spots such as ledge drop offs and soft snag lines can put ‘bows on the board when the river seems to be taken over by ravenous sollies, aggressive sockeyes, and hordes of silvers.
- Small bullet weights are great for fishing sculpins. Make them even better by painting them with powder paint and baking them in an oven so they don’t chip. Good colors of powder paint for bullet weights are Watermelon, Hot Pink, Hot Orange, and Fluorescent Red.
- Contrary to popular belief, sculpin patterns don’t have to be large and heavily dressed. Sparsely tied Olive Wooly Buggers and Pine Squirrel Zonkers in sizes 4 to 8 will catch more fish than larger flies that look like Martians heading to prom.
- Fish a floating fly line. Flies get more action when stripped from above than they do when stripped level as with a sinking line.
More Trout Fishing Tips
Sculpin fishing is an extremely versatile way to fish, and oh by the way, a great way to select for bigger fish. Think maybe you should read Trevor’s writeup?
If they want lots of fish, I go with fun-size flies which are small to medium in length and weight, meant to stick as many trout as possible. Smaller flies are a great way for having those trout eat without thinking or examining the fly. Fun size means maybe 2-3 ½ inches long.
Mindset number 2 is also my favorite – the “big fly, big fish” approach. This is for the guys who want the biggest, meanest trout that swim the river. After 7 seasons of observing these trout in Alaska, I have stared at many trophy rainbows. While small trout try to avoid salmon, these large trout move for no fish! Silver salmon – which have an aggressive nature – will take a wide path around these holding ‘bows, because they want nothing to do “Bowbious maximus”. Large sculpins frequent lower sections of the rivers, so fishing a large sculpin 4-6 inches in length with heavy barbell eyes or heavy sink tip is proper.
This a diverse fishery as well, given the fact you can switch from giant dry flies to big leeches. When you’re looking to find a large fish, or just want to cast a heavier line with a more active approach, the sculpin is the ticket.
Even though no sculpins exist in the rivers we fish at Chile West, these fat browns and ‘bows will eat the pattern regularly. Those fish down there eat each other! On numerous occasions, guide and manager Chris Price has recalled his clients reeling in a small rainbow, only to have a giant brown come from the depths to try to engulf the smaller trout.
So banging the bank around those big logs is the way to go. Casting your dry line, long leader, and heavy fly has been most successful. It’s visual fishing – you will see the fish chasing the fly for 10 feet sometimes in the clear water. Have you ever been casting at a bunch of structure only to see what you think is a log come alive an charge your fly? It sends chills down my spine! In my boat we sing Jim Croce’s “Bad, bad Leroy Brown” frequently, in hopes of the fish of a lifetime.
What colors should you tie?
Remember that these small bottom-dwelling fish take on the color of the surrounding river bottom and have 2 to 3 black bars on the top of their backs. The first thing I do is look at the river bottom to determine what color to use.
I use 5 different colors, the main 3 being brown, olive, and black. The other 2 are a light tan color to mimic mud bottom, and a rusty color as well. Factor in black for murky water conditions. In Chile, I like brown and yellow to mimic that small helpless little brown trout.
Where should you fish?
Well…everywhere! My favorite spot is slow river bends that are littered with snags surrounded by sand or small gravel. However, high banks, drop-offs, seams, and spawning beds will all produce fish. Throwing a bead in front of your sculpin is recommended when fishing spawning beds, or as just an attractor.
When should you fish the sculpin?
This fly will work all season, but prime time in Alaska is June and July. August can be tough, because instead of getting to the trout you want, a silver salmon will take these on the regular. My client’s largest trout ever was caught in mid August – when it jumped we thought it was a dark silver. No – a big, beautiful, spotted slab of red stripe fell to the bottom of the net .
How should you fish it?
Every guide will have a different way of presenting this fly. Just like if you were matching the hatch for rising trout in Chile, matching the movement of a sculpin will bring success.
Sculpins lay on the bottom and while you’re walking through the river you might see objects darting away from you, eventually disappearing. They move quickly and stop to blend in to the surrounding river bottom. So I find that short jerky strips are the best – you are trying to make this thing look scared because it should be. Moving your sculpin will guarantee you the most aggressive take when it comes to fishing flies for trout.
Another affective method is to swing bank to bank – best with a trout spey rod. This will maximize your hook up ratio and allow you to get maximum depth and cover the entire river A lot of times stripping your fly will result in short strikes or not feeling the takes between strips.
When my anglers swing flies, all I tell them is to watch the section of line between your rod tip and the surface of the water – you’ll know the exact moment when a trout eats your sculpin because the line will go from sagging to tight. Other times, just like when you’re swinging for kings or steelhead, a strong pull followed by an acrobatic display will leave you shaking for minutes after the battle is over – and give memories for a lifetime.