When some fishing buddies heard I was headed to a particular Western Alaska stream, they said to be sure I had a good supply of mouse patterns — that’s right, giant foam or deer-hair dry flies that mimic various voles and shrews, and designed to entice the biggest, baddest trout from their lairs.
Now, I’ve fished Western Alaska, which means the storied Bristol Bay Basin, extensively, and I know how absolutely ridiculous the fishing can be. It is not an exaggeration to say that no other destination on the entire planet sustains a fisheries resource quite as astounding as this. It’s a place where millions upon millions of salmon, often dressed to the hilt in their spawning colors, literally clog the entire system, from the smallest creek to the fastest flowing river, nurturing an enormous supporting cast of grayling, Dolly Varden, and of course, rainbow trout — those really big, world renowned, sometimes crazy, monster ’bows.
I was also not a novice to the practice of “mousing.” On previous trips, including one to the Goodnews River, which is known for its superb rainbow fishing and to a lesser extent for its excellent mousing, I’d given it a go. On the Goodnews, for instance, after days of arm-wrenching excitement catching bright coho on streamers, massive sea-run Dollies on egg-patterns, grayling on dry flies, and even some big ’bows on flesh imitations, I was ready to try something different. That’s when I first tied on a mouse pattern, vowing to stay with it for the entire day. Casting to every deep hole and cut-bank I skittered this hairy teaser across the surface at an angle, in a “V,” this massive fly trailing a large wake, as if from an outboard. It was an activity, I have to admit, that involved a lot more casting than catching. But when a trout would rise out of the depths it was with a single mindedness, a purpose, I’d rarely witnessed from any fish, a scaly torpedo on a direct collision course, finally striking my bristly offering with a vengeance, exploding to the surface — and if I hadn’t quite been paying attention, nearly catapulting me out of my seat.
Over the course of the day I likely landed a dozen fish with this method, and maybe missed as many, either from being lulled into complacency after numerous casts and not paying attention or the opposite, the almost unbearable anticipation of seeing a strike coming from so far off that I jumped the gun, in my excitement setting the hook before the fish even hit.
The river we were headed to now, however, was truly renowned for its fabulous mousing. I’d even been sent a picture taken by Fish and Game that showed a trout’s stomach contents: 13 partially digested shrews and voles, taken from a single fish. Still, after my previous experience, I figured three or four mouse patterns would suffice.
When we arrived, with the water low and clear, we could see handfuls of spawning kings spread throughout the system and behind them armies of Dollies and rainbow trout waiting in anticipation to suck up the eggs that would soon follow. These were fish that would fall victim to any number of streamers swung in their direction or especially dead-drifted egg-patterns, and it wouldn’t be long before I was satiated, arms tired and mind reeling as I contemplated these amazing numbers of fish, and how truly lucky we were to have this magnificent place completely to ourselves.
It was maybe our second evening, after a day or two of success with these other methods that I finally decided to switch up and see what a mouse could do. Fully expecting what I’d encountered in the past — a lot of work for only a few, albeit the biggest craziest fish — I steeled myself for a long wait, planning to systematically target a few deep holes along the far bank. However, I would soon discover that all I had heard about this place was true.
On only my second cast, the large unwieldy fly slightly overshot its target, landing amidst the scrub on the far bank. As more of an attempt to free my fly than a method of presenting it, I gave the rod just the slightest flick, hoping that it would free my offering, dropping it onto the nearly still water just below. Then, all at once, as if it had been looking up waiting for a mouse to jump, a trout of enormous proportions immediately rose out of the darkness, scales merging into a thick mosaic of black dots and a swirl of pink as it exploded with the vehemence of fireworks upon the surface, startling me.
And this was just the beginning. Not only were we experiencing superior weather, and an extremely uncharacteristic lack of mosquitos and black flies, but for the rest of the trip it was pure MOUSEANITY! And this feeding frenzy was no anomaly, the mouse no occasional morsel. The way these fish were behaving it had to be a major and beloved food source.
The only trouble was that my short supply of mouse patterns was soon tattered and literally torn to pieces. Luckily one of my fishing partners, Bruce King — one of those warning me to come well stocked — had come prepared. And thankfully, even after I hadn’t heeded his advice, he was gracious enough to lend me as many flies as I required. It was crazy, nearly nonstop action, and thanks to Bruce I was able to stay with a mouse for the rest of our trip.
Having fished my home waters of the Kenai for a quarter century now, I have to admit, I just don’t get as excited as I once did. I was even accused recently by one young fisher of being jaded. But I have to say, I have been dreaming lately, literally dreaming, about mousing, and during my waking hours longing to return to this river, which, for the sake of keeping it to myself, shall remain unnamed. I continue to picture all those fish I missed, the sheer excitement of plying the surface with such a large dry fly, and that sincerely incredible take. But it’s tough logistically to plan a trip, to cajole buddies into dropping their commitments and joining me, and it can be a bit expensive.
So, at the same time I’ve also been asking myself — what about the Kenai River? We have a good rodent population around here — will this work on the Kenai? Back in the day, when you could keep any rainbow trout, I once injured one backtrolling for silvers, and because it had swallowed the hook and was bleeding I decided to keep it. What did that big ’bow have in its stomach? No, it wasn’t a mouse, but a pinecone. And I’ve thought of that often. What else could that fish have thought that pinecone was but a mouse?
Next year, probably around dusk, I might just have to tie one on. Perhaps mouseanity is not as far away as we think.
Dave Atcheson is the author of the guidebook “Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula,” and National Geographic’s “Hidden Alaska, Bristol Bay and Beyond.” His latest book, “Dead Reckoning, Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on its High Seas” is now available in hardcover, online, and as an audiobook.