Mousing Around in Alaska

Mousing Around in Alaska

Big trout eat big mouse patterns.

  • By: Greg Thomas

It was late at night in Denver during the annual fly-fishing trade show and I was crumpled in a chair at the ritzy Oxford Hotel trying to work out a tackle test with a new fly-fishing company. That the marketing director was asleep on the bed made no difference; he left the liquor safe unlocked and that clearly was part of their public-relations campaign. Also present, and noticeably extricating an airline-size bottle from the liquor safe, was a new acquaintance, Andrew Bennett, who runs several fly-fishing lodges, scattered across the world, including a camp near the banks of the Bering Sea called Alaska West. Bennett grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, went to an Ivy League college and made a nest egg in software before exiting high-tech for his passion. He’s the kind of guy who appears to have the dream life but, with a wife, two young kids and four lodges to control, he’s probably a lot more like us than we care to believe.

Still, he gets to fish Alaska, British Columbia, the Bahamas and Chile whenever he pleases. So I’ll hold the sympathy for those days when Bennett’s hard-drive crashes, or the Web site goes down or in a pinch he has to bail on a boy’s night out because some mini-crisis means he’s on duty with the kids. Bennett was familiar with my writing resume and understood the possibilities. “So, Greg,” he said. “If you’d like to chase bonefish or salmon just give me a call and we’ll set it up.” You’d be surprised how often those invitations arrive and you’d be sick to know how many proposals I have to turn down. Sometimes it’s about being away from my wife and my two young girls. Often it’s about what some shined up marketing maniac wants from the deal as if there will be the hand of god directing from above and the fishing with be “once in a lifetime” but rarely is. “Andrew, I really appreciate the chance, but right now I couldn’t tell you where a story might appear, if one appears at all. The New York Times? Outside? Fly Rod & Reel? I’d love to fish Alaska again, but I don’t know.”

Bennett took a sip of bourbon, wiped lips with the back of a hand and said, “OK, so when do you want to go?” That was the answer I was looking for. Eight months later I was landing in a native village called Kwinhagak, which rests on the banks of the Kanektok River, an old college buddy, Jim Nave, in tow. On the first day of the trip, in the dining tent, Bennett dropped a bone on our plates. “Hey, Greg,” he said. “Do you and Jim want to take a day away from the Kanektok and kings to fish the Arolik for rainbows? We’ll be the first people this year to cast to those fish. Oh yea,” Bennett added. “We’ll probably catch most of them on mouse patterns.”

The following morning we were placing gear in two flat-bottom johnboats, which were idling in a backchannel slough off the Arolik. Moments later Bennett, Nave, another client, two guides and me were hauling up the river. As mousing opportunities go, Alaska provides some of the best action in the world and the popularity of that type of topwater fishing has grown dramatically over the past 30 years. In a state known for subsurface flesh flies, trout beads, fry imitations and Egg-sucking Leeches, mousing provides a dry-fly experience on steroids. Unforgettable is the way anglers describe a good day of mousin’ when big rainbows rise to the surface, often in a splashy, all or nothing style; these fish aren’t just trying to sip in a mouse, like a Montana rainbow might lip-kiss a PMD, they’re trying to kill it. They have to react that way because Alaska provides some of the harshest winter conditions in the world and those fish need every ounce of protein they can get. It’s a matter of survival. Some of Alaska’s best mouse-throwing options are located southwest of Anchorage where the Aniak, Kulik, American, Goodnews and Alagnak rivers boot out a bunch of 25- to 30-plus inch bows. Those waters can provide great fishing, but the competitive nature between fly-out lodges and landbased operations on the banks of those streams is often intense. Crowding can be an issue.

The Arolik offers a different scenario, being as private as an Alaska stream gets. Bennett owns the only commercial concession on the river, an agreement he forged with Yu’pik elders and the Qanirtuug native corporation. Bennett’s Alaska West camp sits on the Kanektok. Anglers choosing to fish the Arolik get on a school bus at Kwinhagak and ride 20 minutes to the Arolik where two boats are anchored to the bank. On any given day during the entire fishing season, no more than four anglers fish the 70-mile long river, a mutual agreement between Bennett and the Yu’pik.

During an entire season, Bennett guesses that only 90 percent of his clients ever cast to those fish. That pact makes the Arolik, at once, one of the most fertile and underfished trout and salmon rivers in the state and affords a unique level of solitude; there are no trails along the Arolik, no airstrips, no cabins, no lodges, no homes. Cell service? Forget about it. You don’t have to fish with Bennett to throw mice on the Arolik. Afterall, the water is public. But the banks aren’t. At least, that’s the way the state of Alaska sees it. The Federal A good all-around mouse pattern that you can throw to Alaska trout, or to fish in your home waters.