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Sculpin Fishing from Alaska to Chile

Posted on January 14 2011

Trevor, Trevor's dad, trout, sculpin.  Photo: Brian Niska
Trevor, Trevor's dad, trout, sculpin. Photo: Brian Niska

Trevor Covich is one of our senior guides in Alaska and Chile.  He loves tying and fishing sculpin patterns and he’s darned good at both.  He put together a great piece for us on sculpin fishing.

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?


When going after trout in the Kanektok and the Arolik, fishing with a sculpin is hands-down my favorite way to fish. I fish with 2 different mindsets, depending on what my anglers prefer.

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 2, Exhibit A.  Photo: Trevor Covich
Mindset 2, Exhibit A. Photo: Trevor Covich

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.

Southern Chile

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.

Chilean Sculpination.
Chilean Sculpination.

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.

Yum.  Photo: Chris Price
Yum. Photo: Chris Price

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.

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