Mouse Eaters, Alaska!
Dry fly fishing is certainly a firm favorite when it comes to fly fishing. Matching the hatch and tricking the fish into eating your dry fly is just about as good as it gets. However, I recently found that matching the hatch does not always mean fishing 5x leaders with a size 16 fly to match what is coming off. Sometimes, it means throwing big mouse patterns for trout that would not look twice at blue-winged olive dapping down on the surface, momentarily fluttering before a trout sips it under the surface. These wild trout sit understructure, waiting for that big eat. Something big enough that it may take one or two strikes to injure what they are chasing before they can fully engulf. This technique right here is called mousing. Fishing with mouse flies is a natural progression for dry fly anglers, where it becomes more about hunting trout than it does about fishing for trout. Finding the right structure and accurately presenting a well, yet challenging, cast to trick that trout out of its cover to eat your mouse. When you see that fish come out and turn, your heart inevitably begins to race, and your mind races on the right way to continue presenting that fly. Whether you are swinging the fly or stripping the fly, you need to keep that wake, wakin’. Of course, many other variables lead to a successful mousing experience.
In my past experiences with mousing, I always have come home defeated, with trout chasing my mouse, then turning off and sneaking back to their lie after a failed attempt to entice them to eat my mouse. Occasionally, I had brown trout blow up on my mouse, but I quickly ruined that eat by setting the hook far too early. One of the things I admire most about fly fishing is that rejection only fuels the fire in me more. Failure keeps most fly anglers coming back for more, whether it is losing the largest fish of your life, not being able to hone in a skill, or a multitude of other aspects of fly fishing, failure, and rejection fuels the pursuit of our finned friends.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to shoot photos and gather content for an outfitter on the Kanektok River in Southwest Alaska. The outfitter is Dave Duncan and Sons, and I was invited to attend, fish, and shoot photos at their Upper Camp, a mere 40 miles upstream from the mouth of the Kanektok River nestled in the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. The Duncans run a float trip and a camp on the lower stretches of the river as well. The mouth of the Kanektok River flows past the village of Quinhagak, which was a total of 4 flights from Central Oregon. The Kanektok River (K-Tok) is about a 75-mile long river that is chocked full of leopard trout, a variety of salmon species, arctic char, and grayling. The river, especially the upper river, is famed for its mousing. Anglers from all around the world have attended the Upper Camp for decades to fish and throw mouse flies at eager trout. My chance finally came at the end of August 2019, when our plane touched down in Quinhagak, Alaska. I was fortunate to be traveling with the owner of Fly and Field Outfitters, Scott Cook, who I have been lucky enough to fish with a fair amount over the past few years. The day of traveling was a bit brutal, and we arrived at camp around 5 pm, so we unpacked our bags, set up rods, mingled with the other guests, and sipped strong whiskey after a hearty meal. We were about to embark on six days of fishing the stretches of the Upper Kanektok River, with jet sleds to bring us up and downstream, with a new guide each day. 10-hour fishing days, meant plenty of opportunities to pursue all species or shape your day into what you wanted.
Scott and I chatted quite a bit about our goals for fishing on the K-tok. Mousing first, colored up arctic char second, and coho salmon lastly. We were not opposed to grayling, really did not want to spend our time doing that when we could be hucking mice for aggressive leopard trout. We loaded our boxes with a few dozen mouse flies, including master splinter mice, Fulling Mill mini mcmouseface, mouse rat, and the white-bellied mouse flies. The K-Tok only allows for one single barbless hook, so fishing articulated flies with multiple hooks is a no-go. We were well rigged and adequately prepared for the mousing that would commence over the next six days. We spent most of our time out of the boat, hiking through the braids and side channels, some taking up to 8 hours to hump the entirety. Just put yourself there, roughly 60 miles upstream from the ocean, ankle to knee-deep in a gin-clear river, dodging spawning salmon, and walking past fish that you do not have the time to target. I don’t think it gets much better than that! Surprisingly, we only saw one bear but certainly saw fresh signs of bear and would get a whiff of a recognizable scent that a grizzly is near.
On the days we hiked in the braids and side channel, we frequently stopped to fish “root wads,” which is an ideal structure for these trout. Sometimes the fish would be pushed tight to the bank, with their dorsal fin jutting out of the water. Pretty amazing to see! A trout sitting in the upper sections of the water column, waiting to pounce on flesh, eggs, or, more importantly, our mouse flies that were skating in front of their face. The same goes for when we were fishing out of the boat; the river offers a good gradient and relatively shallow depths throughout the fishery. Guides will hop out and hold the boat in place, while you hit the right structure or root wad. If you prefer fishing from the boat, no need to fear here, you will still have ample opportunity to throw mouse flies for these beautiful leopard trout.
The beauty of the leopard trout on the K-Tok River is unbelievable; each one looked different than the other and unique in their way. They are strong, aggressive, and eager to chase your fly. Whether it is the black spots on their fins or the brilliant red band that streaks the flank of their bodies, these trout are extraordinary. A bucket list trout that should be on every trout anglers list to pursue in their lifetime. I hope you enjoy the images below, showcasing the remarkable trout.
Learn how to tie the Mousey McMousefaceThe best pattern for targeting these amazing Leopard Trout!