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Salmonfly.Net Salmon and Steelhead Fly Tying Guide  In Memory of Yuri Shumakov 

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A Simple Approach to Flies for Alaskan Salmon in August
John Glaspy

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With the propeller flies, double hook-ups are not uncommon.  My son was using a Pink Rotapixie, I used a Pink Rotabunny.  (Note that the Rotabunny fish is substantially larger.)Pacific salmon are andromedous fish who migrate vast distances in fulfilling a life cycle that absolutely depends for its successful completion on their returning to the same stream they departed years and thousands of miles earlier.  This life cycle obviously demands very precise and reliable ocean navigation under all weather conditions.  One important direction-finding strategy that has been shown to be used by migrating salmonids is solar location, which is challenging with frequently overcast skies and several feet of ocean between the sun and the fish’s eye.  These technical issues can be addressed by using the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum of sunlight, which penetrates clouds and water better than longer wave lengths of light.  Salmon eyes are adapted to detect and to polarize ultraviolet light; their ability to utilize polarization, which can be used to more precisely determine the directionality of light, provides further support for the hypothesis that UV contributes importantly to salmon navigation.  Based upon the theory that salmon returning from a long and remarkably accurate migration would be particularly attuned and sensitive to UV light, I began incorporating UV materials into my Pacific salmon flies and noticed an immediate improvement in their effectiveness for silvers, chums and pinks that has been very consistent and sustained for the last three years. (I have not had the opportunity to test this approach sufficiently on kings or sockeyes or to test these flies enough on any salmon outside Alaska.)  UV materials are now an integral part of my Pacific salmon flies.

Five years ago, when going through the fly rack at a store in Anchorage before flying out on a silver salmon trip, I bought a couple of egg sucking leeches that had a propeller on the front of the fly.  I bought them more as novelties than anything else.  On that particular trip the fishing was tough (sunny, hot, low water and poor run of fish) and more out of frustration than any hope of success I worked through the box and finally tied on one of the propeller flies.  I had a hook up on the second cast, my first in two days and caught some fish with those two flies over the next two days until they were both destroyed by use and fishing went back to being very slow for me.  When I got home, I worked out a way of tying salmon flies that had a propeller on the front, free to spin against a brass bead or cone that was firmly attached to rest of the fly so that it would not migrate forward and obstruct the prop (see Making Propeller Hooks, below).  I then began developing propeller flies for salmon that also incorporated UV materials, were not excessively difficult to cast, were relatively cheap and fast to tie, and worked well under a variety of water conditions (clarity, depth and current speed).  For the last two years, I have not been able to improve on the three basic patterns that have resulted from this evolution and don’t expect the flies I carry for salmon in Alaska in August to change much in the future.  They cast adequately with an eight weight rod throwing a weight forward or sink tip line and function well dead drifted or stripped with slow or fast retrieves.

Green RotabunnyThe Rotabunny pattern is my favorite.  When wet, it is slightly more difficult to cast than conventional salmon flies, but casts well enough for medium distances using an open loop or a Belgian cast. You get better with practice. This fly has great action in the water, whether drifting or being retrieved, and is incredibly durable.  The Pink Rotabunny now gets 80 percent of my silver salmon fishing time and takes the vast majority of my silver and chum salmon. I take several dozen of these on any August trip to Alaska.  I tie three other color variations of the Rotabunny for unique uses and conditions, but am not convinced that I really need them.  They do take fish and I take a few of each on every trip.

Pink RotapixieThe Rotapixie pattern is a little easier to cast than the Rotabunny and is flashier and has more UV reflection.  The Pink Rotapixie is my son, Padraic’s, favorite silver salmon fly and he does quite well with it.  For those who are offended by propellers, find propeller flies unpleasant to cast or don’t consider their use true fly fishing, the propeller and cone can be omitted from these flies to make the Pixie series, which are still my most effective non-propeller patterns (after all, they do still have the UV advantage). I tie and carry four color patterns of both Rotapixies and Pixies; again, pink is the best producer.  When I get tired of using heavy tackle and have caught a few fish on the Rotabunnies, I can switch to a six weight and comfortably throw Pixies with reasonable hope of success on lighter tackle.

RotaESLThe RotaESL (“Egg Sucking Leech”) fly is now an old standby that started my propeller fly collection and still takes fish. I carry only one color of this pattern (purple), although you might want to try others. I think the important aspect of this fly is that it has relatively little flash or UV and is dark and subtle.  In those rare instances where August salmon are too skittish to strike the gaudier Rotabunnies and Rotapixies, this fly comes into its own.  It is also an excellent Alaskan trout fly, so switching to the RotaESL when you want to catch fish but are beginning to lose hope that they will be salmon, makes sense.

These three patterns with their color variations as well as several Pixies will fit comfortably into one medium fly box, simplifying my gear substantially while arming me well for August in Alaska.  

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