The following appears in the May issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
STORY AND PHOTOS BY CHRISTOPHER BATIN
When most anglers think of Alaska fishing, they envision huge runs of salmon migrating up crystal-clear gravel streams that shimmer enticingly at the bases of rough-hewn, snow-capped mountains.
Yet there are those of us who forsake such images.
We find our piscatorial treasures in mosquito-infested flats, meandering tannin-stained rivers, and marshy oxbow lakes. This is flat-line country, void of a jagged mountain contour that signals a geological heartbeat. Such country is neither for the petite of rod nor tenderness of skin. While some view it as a boreal hell on earth, I see it as a Tolkienian-themed destination for anglers searching for adventure.
The reason is obvious. But once you go, you’ll never be the same when you return.
For this be dragon country, my friend, and you confront them, one by one, not to slay them, but to do battle, to count coup, and release the fish in order to be victorious. While the quarry is formidable, the battlegrounds are just as challenging.
It’s a place of survival-scenario nightmares, and rightly so. Miles of black-muck swamps suck moose to their bellies and refuse to let go. A stranded angler can wander the surrounding swamps for weeks and never find civilization. Clouds of mosquitoes would suck him drier than a spouse’s bank account after a divorce. Any survivors would need to dodge the 4,000-plus lightning strikes that pummel the area during midsummer. Smoldering timber from weeks of forest fires create an abstract reality starved of vibrant shapes and colors. The sun becomes a dim flashlight bulb, an impotent orange orb that is neither warm nor bright. In this Land of the Midnight Sun, the forest-fire haze provides neither clues to day or night.
ONE FISHES ENDLESSLY, BASED on wakefulness to arise and to sleep when fatigued, because time has no meaning here.
Yet don’t expect to find the winged dragons of myth and legend. The quarry here is the water wolf, or big northern pike. Be not coerced into ambivalence: They are a frightening lot.
Big ones measure 45 inches, the beasts of legend stretching to 50-plus inches, tail not included. A mature pike uses its 700-plus sharp, snaggled teeth to impale, chomp and paralyze prey. They are always watching for an opportunity to quickly cripple and devour fish, ducks, muskrats and birds. To hook and land a fish this size, let alone several, is an angling event of a lifetime.
Water dragons are no pushovers. Mediocre anglers who engage this adversary will lose big. Water dragons exhibit no remorse in pounding the strongest angling combatant into a mincemeat of shame and defeat, an introverted head shaker who questions his angling skill sets.
I am confident in my quest – but humble in my approach – as we approach the pike oxbow, a wilderness sanctuary where nature and religion are one. All warriors – from the Knights Templar to King Arthur’s Knights – are introspective before battle, a purge of shortcomings, and a bolstering of actions that bring victory. I am no different when I battle big water dragons.
I vow to strike with precision and lightning speed. I dig deep within my psyche to ensure every cast is my best. Distractions are powerless against me as I focus on tying a perfect knot each time. My hand is a hair trigger, ready to unleash a cocked arm that will generate a 7-foot-pound hookset into one of the toughest, strongest jaws in freshwater sportfishing.
Confidence oozes from my arms like morning dew off barbed wire. I challenge the beast beneath the lily pads and taunt him to come forth to prove he is worthy of the name: water dragon.
I tie on a steel leader and rig my 10-weight fly rod for battle. I take a deep breath, focusing on the dragon’s lair. The cast lands perfectly in a pocket of water surrounded by horsetail reeds. The flashabou pattern flutters enticingly as I twitch it to taunt the dragon I know is holding there. A water drake’s weakness is a love for all that glitters, and I have arrived with a fly box full of temptations.
Then it happens; a maneuvering fin creates a ripple; a larger swirl follows. The brown tea-like water convulses – then swirls to a washtub-sized boil – as the dragon attacks. A bucket-wide toothy maw erupts from the gossamer pondweeds and engulfs a square foot of water that contains my glittery, sacrificial fly.
I strike hard and grit my teeth. This is no country for old men.
The enraged dragonfish feels the sting of a solid hookset and quiet backwater becomes a tsunami of destruction. The waves obliterate a swath of horsetail reeds, which lie whiplashed and broken in the bubbly, boggy foam. Bottom muck bursts upward like angry underwater thunderheads, as a foot-wide tail churns in thunderous retaliation. My fly reel handle rakes my knuckles into numbing pain that nearly breaks the vice-like grip I have on the rod.
From its watery realm, 4 feet of water dragon twists and writhes violently, reaching for sky with gills flared in a rage that would send dainty, dry fly trout anglers running for cover. Blurred, violent headshaking atomizes the lake into a spray that floats like a million pieces of cottonwood fluff in the morning air. It’s real time, but I experience it in slow motion, frame-by-frame memory, hoping my endorphin-fueled resolve prevents the dragon from throwing the hook. My legs go numb, and I tighten my grip and pump the rod, a move that angers and awakens the beast. My 10-weight’s beefy spine whips, bounces and bends, like a puny blade of grass battered in a piscatorial typhoon.
THE ANCIENT NATIVE AMERICANS of the Pacific Northwest believed the fish gods know one’s heart. For over a century, the water dragon’s reputation has been undeservingly sullied by the bombastic legions of rainbow trout and salmon anglers who blaspheme pike as unworthy of their efforts. Perhaps what happened next is what a trophy water dragon demands in return for being caught.
I bow to the fish to ease tension on the leader. My act of fealty shows respect and honor to the dragon, as well as puts slack in the line. Hopefully, my action makes me worthy enough in body and spirit to win the battle.
After 14 minutes of a back-and-forth slugfest, where the hope of landing the fish was lost several times, I subdue the dragon onto its side and ease it to the boat. A sinister, primordially intelligent eye tracks my outreached hand.
I reciprocate the honor of this battlefield concession with a thought.
Religion aside, Darwinian-minded scientists say fossil records show ol’ Esox has remained virtually unchanged for over 60 million years. I had just battled over 4 feet of an evolutionary wonder, and soaked in the biological adaptations of this perfectly marvelous killing machine.
While I had won the battle, I would not kill this fish.
The 49-incher continues to eye me with precise calculation as I ease needle-nose pliers to release the barbless fly in the corner of its mouth, a harmless coup to show I won. The dragon jaws jerk up and snap tight as a bank vault on my gloved hand, and won’t open. The response makes my victory even more satisfying. This is no ordinary predator, but a fish with heart, one worthy of the quest as the Holy Grail of pike anglers the world over. Mean. Indefatigable. Proud.
After extricating my punctured glove and hand, I release a much-wiser water dragon to fight again another day, and doctor my hand with antiseptic salve so it can do the same.
Fishing for big northern pike is exciting, drag-down dirty fun, and one of my top three Alaska sportfish species to catch. On three separate trips to Alaska’s Innoko National Wildlife Refuge, I’ve caught pike over 45 inches. This claim is no big deal for some but a lifelong dream for others. On a week-long trip, friend Larry Suiter and I caught 247 pike in five days, with four reaching 47 inches, a 48-incher, 48.7-incher and 49-incher. That’s roughly 50 pike a day per boat. While I didn’t catch that elusive 55-incher the occasional – and lucky – angler catches, I’m not disappointed. I’ll be preparing to find and battle a record-breaking 59-inch pike on my next quest.
PIKE TRULY EPITOMIZE SURVIVAL of the fittest. Its temperament, build and traits make it the perfect predator that has embraced the Darwinian ethic of survival of the fittest.
Historically, Canada has been the hot spot for large northern pike in North America. That honor is now being bestowed on select pike stocks located in Alaska riversheds with prime habitat and salmon and forage fish populations. Some of the best include Minto Flats and the Innoko, Mulchatna and Nowitna Rivers.
In these food-rich waters of Western Alaska, northern pike grow far larger and more numerous than previously believed. Research conducted by fisheries biologist Brendan Scanlon with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game confirms that select western and interior rivers provide healthy pike fisheries that few people currently enjoy. I suspect biologists will keep discovering how large the river-based northern pike population is in Western Alaska. I recall my conversation with Scanlon when I first planned an expedition pike fishing trip to the region.
“Low fishing pressure, abundant food supply and ample and various types of water systems found in the tributaries of the Yukon River contribute to growing the large size and numbers of pike,” he says. “On average, a 40-inch pike is about 20 years old.”
For instance, his research has shown Innoko River pike can appear anywhere at any time, their migratory habits perhaps a key to their continued growth and proliferation.
“Pike will move out of the main rivers and spawn, and perhaps move a few miles to spend the summer feeding in a slough or lake,” Scanlon adds. “Others decide to head elsewhere.”
Elsewhere can be a long swim. One 30-inch fish traveled over 243 miles in eight months. A 42-inch fish moved 34 miles in one month, overwintered in the Yukon River and was found in the original tagging location the following spring, a distance of over 90 miles.
The vast interconnectivity of Yukon River oxbows, lakes and sloughs allows these migrations to take place and, in effect, grow large, healthy populations of pike that have been little studied – or fished – until now.
I’m convinced pike in the Yukon-Kuskokwim drainages are more numerous and larger than elsewhere in North America.
WHILE FISHING FOR THESE monsters from moose camps to float trips, there is water here that has received little if any fishing pressure. Indeed, some remote waters have never been fished because of sheer number and difficulty of access. Lodges that specialize in pike boast that their clients catch and release from 500 to 1,000 or more pike a week, which is about right, as during our trip, we caught about 250 pike over 36 inches, which is saying a lot.
In such areas, wildlife is abundant and relatively unafraid of people. During our journeys into these remote sloughs, black bears ignored us as they tried to fish for pike in the shallows. Moose remained and fed in lakes at our approach, requiring us to change course to prevent a possible aggressive charge.
The problem with exploring new waters is that sometimes a big-fish location turns up dry. One day we spent an entire morning catching hammer-handle fish, pike less than 20 inches.
I remember one trip, where we motored and push-poled our way up the channel to the remote tundra lake. It was wilderness like I’ve experienced in the Amazon or Southeast Asia. No planes flew over, no other boats or signs of people were in sight. Baitfish scurried across the surface, indicating a feeding frenzy was taking place. A moose remained in the lake and was intent on chewing water plants. Mosquitoes blackened the back of our jackets and covered our waders as densely as chocolate sprinkles on an ice cream sundae.
After my fishing partner Larry released a mammoth pike of 45 inches, we couldn’t keep the smaller 20- to 30-inchers off our flies and lures. We pulled anchor and continued downriver, where we had no big pike action. We decided to change our tactics.
Catching dragonfish on topwaters is exceptional fun and worthy of another feature, but even this action paled in comparison to the sheefish we found ambushing migrating salmon fry at a river mouth. Big sheefish to 30 pounds hammered our lures and flies on nearly every cast. There were no wakes telegraphing an impending strike. The fish often jumped completely out of the water, grabbing the lure or fly on the way down. It was a gift from the water dragons and a suitable way to end this particular quest.
I OFTEN END A week of pike fishing with fly boxes depleted, leaders chewed to shreds and hands red and callused from the nonstop action. It takes me weeks to block out the pike fishing anthem I play over and over again in the MP3 player of my mind while fighting these fish: The legendary John Mellencamp, the everyman’s philosopher, might be referring to pike fishing, as well as relationships, when he sings, “Come on baby, make it hurt so good.”
Nothing else needs to be said.
Fishing for water dragons in Alaska’s no-man’s-land – of swamp, mosquitoes and forest fire smoke that often blocks out sunlight to twilight levels – is as close to fishing “the dark ages” as you can get. But with trophy pike action like this, please leave me in the dark indefinitely. Just be sure to stockpile enough flies, plugs and wire leaders for me until the lights come back on. ASJ
Editor’s note: Chris Batin is editor of The Alaska Angler, and author of numerous award-winning books on Alaska fishing and hunting, including Advanced Alaska Fly Fishing, and The Alaska Hatch DVD, which shows step-by-step instructions on tying five of Alaska’s most-effective fly patterns and details on how to fish them for salmon, trout and pike. Alaska Sporting Journal readers can receive free shipping when ordering any DVD or book by ordering online at AlaskaAngler.com, with promo code ASJ57.