By Daniel A. Ritz
Editor’s note: Orvis has joined Trout Unlimited in sponsoring Daniel Ritz’s attempt to complete the Western Native Trout Challenge in a single year. He’ll be checking in regularly from his travels. Watch this space for more.
Alaska could ruin you, for the better, forever
Alaska is one of those rare places where there are enough native and wild fish to not only challenge you, but also encourage you to experiment. I began thinking about this while fishing for sea-run Dolly Varden with Mark Hieronymus on a beach near Juneau. In addition to his role as a sportfish outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited Alaska, where he actively works to expand Alaska’s Anadromous Waters Catalog, Hieronymus is a world renowned angler, guide, and fly tier. I considered it an honor to fish with him and attempted to soak in every ounce of knowledge that I could.
While we strolled the silver-gray shoreline, watching whales spout in the background and seals mate near shore, I asked the lifelong angler a very simple question. “What still gets you excited about fishing?”
“I’m jaded, sure,” Hieronymus admitted. “I mean, specific to angling, I’ve been doing what people put on their bucket list almost every day for decades. But that’s the way I’ve oriented my life, ya know? Those are my priorities.”
A few minutes later, my question was obviously still on his mind as he explained that these days, he enjoys not just hooking or catching fish, but actually bending their behavior to his will. What I took that to mean was fishing in such a way that he makes his presentation, his fly, and his placement, so good, so appealing, so enticing that fish will take Hieronymus’ offer despite it being against their natural instinct.
“These days, I love skating dry-flies for steelhead,” he used as an example. “Another guy on the same run might catch five fish, and I’d be stoked to raise just one fish. But, I know that I did it. Intentionally.”
At first, I admit that these comments seemed at best off-base and at worst, egotistical. It was perplexing to hear Hieronymus, such a humble and mild-mannered character, speak with such a sense of dominance and control. But after thinking it over, I realized he wasn’t coming from a place for hubris or pride, at least not necessarily.
He was focused on intentionality. Hieronymus was making his own fun. Designing his own game.
In 2021, across the West—as we see increasing fishing pressure on a decreasing quantity of water and more gear to fish with for often fewer and fewer fish—we are always seeking and being advised to pursue alternative experiences.
“Try largemouth bass. They’re fun!” they say. “Have you caught a carp on the fly?”
As I traveled across the eastern half of Alaska with trout on the mind, I kept Hieronymus’s words close to the chest.
An alternative fishing experience could be as simple as a mental paradigm shift. Often, we find ourselves attempting to perfectly imitate. “Match the hatch.” The perfect drift. Never being seen. If we are not successful in perfectly imitating nature and taking advantage of the fish’s natural instincts, that is commonly seen as failure.
I’m not encouraging sloppy angling, and I’m not speaking only about fly selection. Fishing with creative intentionality, you don’t have to tie-on that perfect caddis to match the coming hatch. Sure, fish will more likely rise to that, but wouldn’t it be fun if they took [fill in the blank].
Maybe you don’t have the perfect color streamer? Can you sling such an enticing swing that you can pull those wild, native trout out from their hole to take a radically oversized, off-color articulated streamer? A size 6 Amy’s Ant dry-fly? I see you and raise you a size 4 Salmonfly. How about a 20-inch fish on a size 24 fly, just because. Want to catch a 30-inch Alaskan rainbow trout? Tie on a mammal. Now we’re fishing.
At the end of the day, my time in Alaska in pursuit of the Western Trout Challenge taught me to appreciate the beauty of and the playful nature of choice. In Alaska, there is time and space to experiment, to relieve yourself from the pressure of perfectly following the script.
These places reveal themselves when we, to steal a quote from Bob Marshall, “fight for the freedom of the wilderness.”
“I heard down there in Utah or wherever you’re from, y’all gotta’ wear your river camo and sneak up on the fish on your bellies,” a new friend poked across a smoky campfire one night after a day spent pursuing Alaskan lake trout in the hail and ice.
“Yea, I guess sometimes we do,” I responded, thinking all along of what Hieronymus said and the role that matching the metaphorical hatch plays in my fishing.
Maybe we held the keys to relieving ourselves of any fishing related anxiety, pressure or boredom, all along?
Let’s not ruin Alaska. Instead, I suggest you let it ruin you sometime soon.
Daniel Ritz is a writer, angler, and Communications Manager at Ted Trueblood Chapter of Trout Unlimited.