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My fly: Local fly fishermen share favorite creature-catchers

Posted: March 15, 2012 - 8:42am  |  Updated: April 13, 2012 - 1:08pm
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Kevin McGrath caught this king salmon on the first no-bait day of July 2011. "It was drift boat Monday and the fish weighed in at 70 pounds. You can’t beat fishing in Alaska," McGrath said.

The fly Mark Conway puts his money on more than any when heading out on the Kenai Peninsula's streams and lakes has a name perhaps more strange than the story of how he created it.

The NOCM -- as Conway, owner of Alaska Fly Fishing Adventures in Sterling calls it -- is not a very popular or well known fly, but every guide he's shared the pattern with has always come back with positive reviews.

It's a sparsely tied streamer fly that looks like a small baitfish, those that salmon are instinctively hard-wired to go after, he said.

"The way I came on that pattern was trying to figure out what the salmon were feeding on before they came in to fresh water and just catching fish, looking to see what was in their stomachs and seeing chartreuse," he said.

When salmon or even trout see the NOCM fished right they pounce, he said.

"So when they see that in the fresh water, they are not going for it because they are hungry, they are going for it out of habit," he said. "They just strike it out of reflex."

Back in the late 1980s, Conway met a guide fishing near Cooper Landing who was "just nailing the sockeye one right after another," he said.

"He showed me and it was a fly called a 'Crazy Charlie,' which had a really small hook and it is used for fishing for bonefish in saltwater down in Florida," he said. "It just had this sparkle on it and I thought, 'Hmm.'"

He sold the wet fly's design he created to brooksideflies.com and now sees similar designs in specialty shops.

"It is just killer on sockeye and even the rainbow take it, too," he said. "I can fish with the NOCM on the Kenai and not know if I am going to catch a sockeye, silver or a big rainbow in the same hole."

He fishes it along the bottom on a dead drift with a weight about 12 to 18 inches from the fly. It's good from June through September, he added.

"When I go out I'll make sure I have lot of flies, but I always make sure I have plenty of those because that's my go-to fly when nothing else is working," he said.

For local guide Paul Tornow, the leech is his go-to fly.

Tornow, who is co-owner of Alaska's Angling Addiction with fellow guide Lee Kuepper, said he like's the pattern's flexibility.

"The thing with the leech is that it can be tied so many different ways and fished quite a few different ways as well," he said.

In the spring, trout like it and in the fall, steelhead and silvers will pounce on it, especially when other fishermen are using egg patterns.

"Everyone is throwing those eggs, but when you throw a natural fly, that is going to be the first thing they hit," he said. "They'll crush it."
In particular, Tornow said he likes how aggressive fish are with the leech.

"The takes on it, especially when you are swinging that fly and you're not dead-drifting it, are unbelievable," he said. "That's one of the most fun things about it is when you are sitting there holding that fly and everything is fully extended and your line is tight and ... it is intruding into his territory, that fish comes up and hammers it."

In particular, one fish he caught on a black leech with a colored tip stands out, Tornow said. However, just where he caught that 34-inch steelhead is proprietary, he said with a laugh.

"I was like, 'Holy moly' and he was just ripping line and going back and forth and we got it up, pull it to the bank and look at it and lay a tape on it and everything and it was the biggest steelhead I had ever landed," he said. "It was a big 34-inch male on a homemade fly and everything. It was a pretty special fish and that one always stuck with me."

Dave Atcheson has a similar story about the fly and the fish that hooked him on his favorite -- the egg-sucking leech.

When Atcheson, author of "Fishing Alaska's Kenai Peninsula" and a fishing instructor at Kenai Peninsula College, was first getting into fly fishing he visited Upper Russian Lake and happened upon the pattern.

"I fished dry flies but I hadn't gotten super into fishing and there was a guy up there who was catching a lot of fish and he was using an egg-sucking leech," he said. "There were reds up in there because they were spawning ... and he was doing really well on it. That was the first time I really discovered it."

So, Atcheson tied one of his own.

"My friend was kind of surprised at how happy I was that I caught this fish," he said, recalling the first fish he caught on the egg-sucking leech. "It wasn't a super-huge fish, it was a nice rainbow, but I was really stoked that I caught a fish on a fly I tied."

During the next 20 years, Atcheson went on to fish the fly every way imaginable and caught every fish imaginable on it, he said.

"You can dead drift it, you can strip it in, it is really versatile and it would be really great if I could have that fly in a whole bunch of colors," he said. "Plus you've got the egg attractor -- it looks like something eating an egg."

The pattern moves nicely in the water and any color will work depending on the location and time of the year, he said.

"It works everywhere," he said.

Brian Smith can be reached at brian.smith@peninsulaclarion.com.

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