Arolik Rainbows at Alaska West

Mousing Around in Western Alaska

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 get my gear-whore foot in the door 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 marketing 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 nestegg 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 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 two young girls. Often it’s about what some shined up marketing maniac wants from the deal.

“Andrew, I really appreciate the chance, but right now I couldn’t tell you where a story might appear, if one appears at all,” I answered. “The New York Times? Outside? Fly Rod & Reel? I’d love to fish Alaska again, and I hear great things about Alaska West, 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 River 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—Charleton Heston’s son, Frazier—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 provide great fishing, but the competitive nature between fly-out lodges and land-based 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 anglers 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 Government and the natives don’t consider it a fully navigable river, which would make it illegal to even drop an anchor, let alone set up camp above or below the high water mark. With such questionable laws, if I floated the river on my own I’d worry each night about being awakened by a Yu’pik saying, “You have to pack up and move.”

“To where,” I might query, only to hear, “There is nowhere.” So now what?

In addition, during low-water periods you’ll drag a raft full of camping gear and food for the first two days of the trip.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, that would have masqueraded as a lot of fun. However, when I hit 40 staying in a WeatherPORT tent with a wood floor and a comfortable bed started sounding a lot better than sleeping on wet ground, in a wet tent, with grizzlies about, probably on private property, in the middle of nowhere. Call it soft if you want, but my Dad’s words are more pertinent each day; years ago, when I chided him for not sleeping on a frozen lake with a couple friends and me, he said, “You’re supposed to get smarter with age.”

While making its run from the Ahklun Mountains to the sea, the Arolik winds and braids through mostly flat tundra, carving between stands of willow, alder and shrub. Occasionally, caribou, moose and coastal grizzly bears are seen near the river, but I wouldn’t call it a wildlife viewer’s paradise. The country surrounding the Arolik is beautiful in subtle ways, but it doesn’t provide the freakish towering mountains you find while touring other Alaska fisheries, such as those located on the Kenai Peninsula or in Southeast. It’s the fish and solitude that hold appeal here.

The Arolik’s rainbows are real granddads. Biologists say that many of those fish are 10 years old or older, which is one reason why, by Bennett’s and the native’s directive, it’s fly-fishing only and catch-and-release on Alaska West’s boats. The Arolik rainbows aren’t the largest trout in Alaska (those fish are located to the south in the Bristol Bay drainage), but they are as pretty as any you’ll find, representative of the classic leopard rainbow moniker. In one photo I snapped on the Arolik I counted 65 black spots on the side of a rainbow’s head; I counted 62 spots on one side of its dorsal; that fish may have harbored a thousands spots…and it was only 18 inches long.

Eighteen inches is a solid length for Arolik rainbows, but they do stretch to 30 inches and they eat rodents like candy. We discovered that not long after heading upstream when I tied on a mouse pattern and dropped that morsel next to the banks.

As our guide, Cam, turned off the jet-drive engine and began negotiating narrow channels and braids with the oars, Bennett and I hit the likely looking spots—small backeddies, debris piles and massive beaver lodges. Good fishing exists throughout the river, but the largest fish, it’s widely believed, are found in the lower river along massive cutbanks and pools. And sometimes they’re found in odd places. Bennett told me that the Arolik’s rainbows often languish in the middle of the river near little structure.

“Maybe what we think of as traditional trout lies are actually prime trout lies on rivers that have a lot of traffic,” Bennett noted. “Maybe anglers and boats push trout into seams and around snags and dropoffs. We fish those places on the Arolik, too, but we also fish places where there’s no cover and we consistently take big rainbows. The river fishes so differently that, if you fish it often, you start thinking about trout fishing in a different way.”

I started thinking about how I could do more mouse fishing in Alaska after the first good take. That’s when a solid rainbow tore out from a brush pile, grabbed a mouse imitation, gave it a yank and then let go. By the time I reacted that rainbow was already gone and I had to endure a three-inch long mouse flying at my face. A couple times that day Bennett and I hooked rainbows on mice at the same time and we missed lots of fish too, each time exclaiming things like, “Oh, did you see that? He hit it with his nose.” Several times I pulled a mouse right out from in front of a fish’s mouth and watched, my mouth agape, as those rainbows bit the water where the mouse had been. Lots of laughing.

You don’t need to know the details about how some of those fish followed a mouse downstream for eight or 10 feet before eating the fly or turning away; I won’t try to describe an amazingly spotted 25-inch leopard rainbow that broke me off in a beaver lodge; or the 19-incher that launched out of the water to come down directly on the back of a mouse, a clear attempt to maim.

Instead, I think I can sum up how exciting and valuable the mouse fishing was by saying that I stuck with a mouse pattern even when Bennett changed to an Egg-Sucking Leech (that fly whore!) and started hammering fish off the back of the boat. Our guide, Cam, said, “Greg, you’re going to catch more fish if you switch to a leech.”
And he was right. But I get to fish the Rockies all year and I catch scads of trout on small dry flies, nymphs and even streamers. The Arolik, to me, wasn’t about numbers and leeches, beads or flesh flies. It was about watching ancient, amazingly spotted trout rising to mouse imitations in gin clear flow and the shear spectacle of those visuals, whether you hooked a fish or not. To say that the spectacle, without a hookup, wasn’t worth the effort is as preposterous as saying it wouldn’t have been memorable to be in the stands the night Douglas beat down Tyson or when Kirk Gibson of the L.A. Dodgers hit that walk-off in the 1988 World Series against the A’s. Fishing for rainbows on the Arolik is a top spectator sport.

After fishing the Arolik and subsequent days spent throwing two-hand Spey rods for the Kanektok’s massive king salmon (the Kanektok also is one of Alaska’s best mouse fishing opportunities) it was clear that my home waters of Montana would fish a little paler in comparison that summer. At the end of the trip, on a Sunday flight from Bethel to Anchorage, Nave summed it up best, an acknowledgment of how fishing treasured water at Alaska West—for big rainbows on mice imitations no less—spoils the common angler. Peering dejectedly out the window at the massive Alaska tundra, he said, “I can’t say that I’m really pumped up to fish the Blackfoot next weekend with a strike indicator, three split shot and a couple size-16 nymphs. It’s starting to sound tame to me.”

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