Baby It's Cold Outside

Baby It's Cold Outside

Ice-out time in Alaska is your best bet for the rainbow of your life… or a trip to the emergency room.

Cook Fmt  

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Ice-out fishing in Alaska is not for the easily chilled. In fact, if you choose to chase rainbow trout during March and April (or even May and June), the weather will range between cold and evil cold. Even so, a group of us—four from Anchorage plus me—have been hitting Alaska early for many years, the reward being some massive “bow-bows” ranging from 25 inches to just short of prehistoric dimensions. Last year, however, just like 2010, the weather tested everyone’s commitment. In the mornings and evenings we were warmed by meals and blazing fires at our cabin, but the days belonged to the wind.

Our routine was to roll out in the mornings when the temperature was, if not reasonable, at least prudent. We’d hoped for 30-degree days but 18 to 25 degrees Fahrenheit is what the week served up, usually with some savage, ass-kicking wind-chill factor to go with it. How cold is savage, you ask. How’s eight degrees work for you when trying to execute a snap-T?

We rigged up quickly each day and then returned hands to pockets pre-heated with multiple shake-bags. Our weapons of choice were Spey and switch rods, my selection being the Sage Death Star, a 7126-4 TCX. We also threw a tribe of little fellers, such as the 6119-4 and the 8119-4 TCX. Those switch rods are really baby Spey rods that cast with ease and launch sick lengths of line, which is key during Alaska’s early season, because you need to cover lots of water, often with sink-tips and oversize, snake-like leech patterns.

Day one treated me well with 28 fish hooked, 25 landed, the best critter being a 31-inch rainbow. While I like catching fish as much as anybody, that, folks, is a lot of fish-handling in sub-freezing weather, and a death sentence to the hands. Needless to say, we conducted every landing as quickly as possible. Sub-25-inch rainbows were frowned at, and they exacted revenge by requiring us to dip our hands in that cold water, only to be greeted by colder air after release. No glove conceived by man, and appropriate to fish with, solves this problem. To avoid a complete bone-chilling soak, I removed gloves before dealing with these fish, but I still ground my teeth, grimaced, and squinted hard after every release. And the first day was the warmest of the trip.

Day two dawned clear and evil. Mother sunshine seemed sincere, but that brutal wind greeted us like a witch when we finally ventured out of the cabin at 1:00 p.m.—it was 25 degrees, but the wind chill dropped the temperature to eight. Lovely.

Still, I hooked up and lost a 30-inch fish right off the bat. My roommate, Steve Lambert—freshly converted to the Spey rod—worked a short and effective cast, and within 20 minutes had a 31-inch rainbow to the bank. “Get online and buy some Powerball tickets tonight,” I urged.

I went three-for-four that day, including a pretty little henfish that measured 26 inches. Another in our group, Mark Huber, hooked a 30-inch ’bow while lighting a cigar in the final run of a very cold day’s effort. By the time we made the boat launch my hands had truly had enough. I’d thought that two weeks of hunting whitetail deer in a tree stand that past November got me ready me for this sort of misery—but it wasn’t even close. Nope, not prepared.

Day three, the final chapter, and a charming eight degrees (there’s that number again) outside at 8:00 a.m. But, a miracle: no wind. “Yes,” we all agreed, “this could work.” And, with a noon start, that gave us four hours until we had to hitch a Pen Air flight out of Dodge and back to Anchorage.

Sometimes dedication pays off, because this proved to be an afternoon of legend—in those four hours three of us hooked nine rainbows exceeding 30-plus inches, and we managed four to hand. My tally for that day read like a dream list: 25 inches; 26 inches; 27 inches; 28 inches; 29 inches; and two registering at 31 inches. Overall I’d gone seven for 13.

Back in Anchorage, my hands still numb on three of those 10 fingers, I called an ER-doc buddy of mine and checked my fate. After inspection he said, “They’ll probably get better.” I managed to type these words, I can push the safety off my .300 magnum, and I can Spey-cast, so I’m good for another year. Boys, count me in.

And why count me in? What’s the appeal? Why would someone deal with misery “just” for a trout? To me, there are few—if any—better things to do outside than swinging up rainbows with Spey and switch rods. When doing so, I like to be in a theater where big-time critters can come along. In the places I fish during the early season (in the hinterlands to the west of Anchorage, then back to the Kenai Peninsula, where my girlfriend, Jen, caught a 34 ½-inch rainbow last year, and even up the Parks Highway north of Anchorage), the opportunity is there. Big rainbows, big deer and elk, big Chinook . . . . It doesn’t matter which species, one has to hunt when and where the studs are there, simple as that. Be sure, there’s a 35-inch rainbow out there with my name on it (or yours), and it’s probably going to get caught at ice-out, in Alaska.

George Cook represents several fly-fishing companies in the Northwest, including Redington, Sage and RIO. He is a Spey-casting guru and often the entertainment at fish camp. He also reps Sitka Gear and is a hunting fanatic.

Choose Your


Small Spey rods in 5- to 8-weight work well for Alaska’s rainbows.

My suggestions:

Sage’s 11' 9" TCX series with standard and short Skagit Spey lines. You’ll need an array of sink-tips. RIO MOW tips work great for me, in lengths ranging from 10 to 15 feet. Aside from the “secret society” flies residing in my boxes, I use commercially available patterns like as Solitude’s Willie Nelson and Al Green; Larimer’s Egg Sucking Loop Sculpin in black-and-white, olive-and-white and tan-and-white; and the Sheila Sculpin. Swing those at ice-out and hang on tight. —G.C.

photograph courtesy silent run driftboat guide service

Back in Anchorage, my hands still numb on three of 10 fingers, I called an ER-doc buddy of mine and checked my fate. He said, “They’ll probably get better.”