When kings are taken out of the equation, rainbows and Dollys save the day.
[By Rick Kustich]
For nearly an hour the single-engine plane whines over miles of green, brown, and orange vegetation intermittently divided by reflections off bogs, creeks, and small rivers. Save for a couple small Inuit villages strategically set along the water, we pass over an entirely undeveloped landscape and absorb Alaska’s vastness.
Nearing our destination, about 80 miles south of Bethel, a waterway comes into view, winding through the rugged terrain like a ribbon thrown haphazardly on its surface. The channel twists and turns into the horizon toward the barely visible Bering Sea. From the air the Kanektok River looks slow and docile, but we will find out quickly its forceful flow is bursting with life.
It’s late June and prime time on the river for fresh-run king salmon, chum salmon, Dolly Varden, and resident rainbows. On the ground, unfortunately, news confirms that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed fishing for king salmon this year to help manage returns and escapement objectives. While fishing for kings was the main purpose for a late-June trip, I always try to find the silver lining in an ever-changing world. And in this case more time would now be allocated toward chasing the river’s magnificent rainbow trout.
The trout are distributed throughout the river and can be found all summer, but this time of year, prior to salmon dropping a stream of protein-rich eggs into the ecosystem, the rainbows take up the role of predator, feasting on the prior year’s salmon offspring and other opportunistic meals. Mice that enter the river by mistake or on purpose become instant targets. Something swimming, struggling, and disturbing the surface catches the senses of a well-trained predator. Catching big trout on the surface is one of my favorite forms of fly fishing. Combine that with a large, easy-to-see fly while utilizing a swing approach, and I couldn’t wait to get started.
The rainbows willing to show for a mouse pattern are typically found in the margins. Soft cuts along grassy banks and near logs or branches prove to be prime lies, as are soft inside seams created by the contour of the river or by small islands. Side channels cutting off from the main river are also a favored area to discover aggressive trout.
Twitching the rod tip back and forth as the mouse pattern swings on the surface provides an extra disturbance and helps convey the message of swimming, struggling prey. The approach is very effective, as the mouse pattern pulls stout rainbows to the surface from a range of water types. Accuracy in casting pays dividends—landing the fly right next to the bank or a downed tree is most effective. A take of the fly often comes in the form of the surface erupting into spray as a fly disappears into the vortex. But some grabs are subtle, nothing more than the fish simply sucking the fly down with little or no visible disruption to the surface, much as a feeding brown trout might sip in a drifting mayfly. In some cases it appears that the trout is just trying to pull the mouse underwater.
The river’s rainbow trout are beautiful specimens. The heavy black spotting on their bodies earns them the moniker of leopard rainbow. The vibrant red stripe and olive back spots put the finishing touches on this natural work of art. Most of the ’bows taken on mouse patterns range between 18 and 20 inches, with a fair number stretching to 24 inches or more. A few exceptional fish may hit the 30-inch mark, but most of the truly large ’bows are caught subsurface on bait patterns.
Occasionally, a large, silver Dolly Varden grabs a mouse pattern off the surface, adding variety to the mousing game. The Dollys have their own style of chasing down the mouse pattern: a visible snout slicing through the surface is typically seen before the fly disappears in a mild disturbance. The Dolly Varden provides a different level of excitement since it runs larger, on average, than the trout. Don’t be too surprised if a 30-incher ends up in the net. The silver appearance of the fresh-run Dollys looks like a bolt of lightning when chasing the fly.
The stunning beauty of the river’s inhabitants complements the awesome power of the Alaskan wilderness. Spending time far away from home, in the wild, is the ultimate way to disconnect from a constant bombardment of daily information and reconnect to the forces of nature.
The sting of the king salmon closure hung heavy for the entire week, allowing us only to dream about what could have been. But being able to swing up a nearly endless supply of feisty chum salmon, along with working mouse patterns on the surface for trout and char, helped temper the disappointment. But, the general feeling of unfinished business was undeniable.
However, life is largely about opportunity, and being pushed deeper into the Alaskan wilderness to find prime trout water was exhilarating—an encounter that would not have occurred if the king fishing had worked out. From a “glass half full” perspective, this was a special experience that included the challenge of accurate casting to structure and the visible display from some of the most beautiful creatures in the wild.
Rick Kustich lives in western New York and has been in the fly fishing industry for over 30 years. He is the author of Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead and Hunting Musky with a Fly.