The Giant Pike of the Last Frontier
My wife Mary and I started seriously chasing big pike about 25 years ago. In the course of this pursuit, our travels have taken us across the northern tier of states and into 5 Canadian provinces. During these travels, we've caught a lot of big pike and had our share of adventures. But, it was Alaska, The Final Frontier, that provided us with sights and sounds that far surpassed what we'd experienced anywhere else. We've made several trips to Alaska now and the memories we made there will last a lifetime.
When we first started discussing the possibility of an Alaskan trip, we decided we didn't want to go on a vacation like most tourists take there. No cruise ships for us. Nor did we want to do the lodge type set up with a dozen or more other people in camp. We wanted to see what the others don't see. To get right into the vast wilderness that we'd heard so much about. And to find where the big pike dwell, and catch them.
So, over a period of several years, we journeyed north to Alaska and fished nearly every good stream or river within an 500 mile stretch of the mighty Yukon River, from the mouth of the Tanana to Kaltag. The Yukon River itself is unfishable, due to massive amounts of glacial silt in the water. The water is the color of dirty milk. You can wash your hands in it and feel the pumice. It is said that fish can neither see nor smell in Yukon and I certainly can see why. Fishing takes place in the many rivers and streams running into the Yukon. It was simply a matter of finding a river, heading up it, checking different spots, and fishing at the mouth of smaller streams. It was a strange sight where these rivers flowed into the Yukon. The incoming river would be relatively clear with a very distinct line between the churning waters of the Yukon and the clearer rivers flowing into it. Lots of times big pike would be found right at this line, waiting for the next meal to swim into the clean water.
Once, while boating down the Yukon with a native guide, we were taken to a most unique place. We had been seeing the fish wheels turning and racks of bright red salmon fillets drying out in the sun. Upon asking our guide about it, he said he had relatives down river and we'd stop and see them. This turned out to be a full blown salmon smoking operation run by a large family. They had fish wheels in the river for several miles on both sides of their camp. These wheels are an engineering marvel, originally invented by the Chinese centuries ago. They turn with the current and scoop the fish up with boxes on the end of the paddles, then transfer them to a larger holding box on the side of the structure. The paddles are set to run eight inches off the bottom and the salmon, not being able to see in the Yukon's riled water, run right into them.
This camp was situated about smack dab in the middle of nowhere. There were about 30 tents though we only saw about a dozen people there. Around the perimeter of the camp, there were dogs tied to trees about every 30 feet and in the center of the camp was the biggest, meanest looking cur I've ever seen. He had a big logchain around his neck with a padlock (no collar). Whenever one of the sentry dogs barked at approaching bears, they unlocked the big dog. As I was looking over this monster dog, the elder of the camp, wearing a bright yellow rain slicker covered in blood, asked me if I liked dogs. "Sure, love 'em!" Then he says, "Well, he's real friendly. Just don't try to pet him!" I assured him I wouldn't. I'm pretty fond of my hands being attached right where they are.
Two tents located at the lower end of the camp were used as the cleaning stations and had several drying racks around them full of salmon strips. Further up the hill sat the smokehouse operation. Two buildings made of poles and corrugated metal were three stories tall and the insides were without floors, but had racks all the way to the ceiling. The aroma inside these smokehouses was indescribable. I love smoked salmon and it smelled close to Heaven in there! The whole process takes about a week from the wheel to the table. These natives dry the salmon in the sun for 3 or 4 days, then smoke them for 3 days. The finished product came in strips about 2 inches wide and were near 4 feet long. While we were there, they were processing king salmon, but of course they smoke all the salmon species. This salmon is then used by the native communities only, so this was a rare treat for us. We took a large sack with us for the rest of the trip. This was the best smoked salmon I've ever tasted.
Over the course of several years, we fished the Tanana, Nowitna and Koyukuk rivers as well as countless sloughs and streams and a very special area known as the Kiyu Flats. The flats is a labyrinth of connecting streams and small lakes. None of us had ever seen a land abounding with such an array and abundance of wildlife. From mink to moose, and wolves to owls. And bears. Just about any critter that resides in Alaska can be found in the Kiyu Flats. It was moose calving season when we were there, and these young moose draw in the predators. Once, we were boating down a narrow stream and as we rounded a bend, there stood a yearling moose in the middle of the stream and it refused to move. There wasn't enough room to go around, and it took some prodding before it finally gave way. It was then we saw why the moose didn't want to get out of the water. One hind leg was chewed horribly and this guy was limping badly. Our native guide said to watch the bushes for wolves, but we didn't spot any. I must admit feeling sorry for this poor fella. He was hurt and in a bad neighborhood, but such is nature.
Night of the Grizzly
On the eve of July 3, 1999, Mary and I and a couple of friends, had an experience that had a profound effect on our lives. Looking back, we like to refer to it as "the night of the grizzly".
We had a great day of fishing and everyone had caught trophy pike and some whopper sheefish. I landed a 48" pike that afternoon and we all were feeling in the celebratory mood. After a great dinner of grilled Iowa chops and a few beers, Mary and Ben Matteson decided to go back out and try to top my big pike for the day while Dave Matteson and I opted to stay at camp for a bit of music and a few more of those cold libations. The year before, in a different area, we found some big bear tracks on the bank not far from where we camped and this year, Mary and I decided to take some protection. Mary is a three time Iowa State women's free pistol champion and knows her way around a handgun. And me, well, I taught and coached her. Some of the experts I've read about called this foolish,but it gave us a sense of security, foolish or not. And so, a pair of Smith and Wesson .44 Magnums traveled with us and I'm glad we had them.
Back at camp, Dave and I started a small campfire and settled in for some celebrating. During a lull in the conversation, I heard a twig snap in the timber and mentioned that maybe we ought to move closer to the weapons. We strained our ears, trying to pick up any more sounds, but after not hearing anything for awhile, we went back to what we had been doing. After a couple of hours, Mary and Ben boated up. They had caught some good fish, but no monsters. Here's where this gets interesting. I'll never forget this as long as I live. We were sitting around the fire, swaping stories and talking about our great fishing that day. We had a small portable CD player and were enjoying some Allman Brothers, when right at the stroke of midnight, (although it looks like noon) I heard Dave say, "There's a big bear right there!" There was tall "bear grass" all around camp and he had walked right in on us. I saw Mary rise with her .44 about the same time as I saw the bear rise. For a few seconds, we were all frozen in place. Mary and I both had our guns trained on the still standing bear and he's staring us down. Ole' Griz then made a warning sound that made my hair tingle. A cross between a hiss and a growl. He lunged forward in a false charge, then turned and went back down the path he followed into camp. We all breathed a sigh of relief, but it was premature at best. Ben then yelled that the bear was back by the latrine and headed our way. This time it looked like he was intent on doing some business. We put two rounds into the dirt, right in front of him at about 25 yards and luckily it turned him. He headed over the bank and down the shore line, stopping to check out our boats, but another shot into the water next to the boat, finally sent him packing. When we last saw him, he was running hard into an alder thicket about a half mile away. After all was said and done, I went and stepped off the distance between where the bear stood up and the stump I was sitting on. It measured out at an amazing seven yards! Amazing that I'm still here to tell this story! None of us had ever seen a magnificent beast like this, let alone from that distance. This bear had a forehead about 30 inches wide and stood taller than I can reach. The claws were longer than my fingers. Needless to say that tensions were running at an all time high that night and none of us got much sleep. The bear returned the very next night, but didn't make an appearance in camp. We found his muddy tracks in our boats the next morning and we vacated his premises that day.
Trophy Pike and Arctic Sheefish
Fishing pike in Alaska is a bit different than about anywhere else I've been. Normally I'm looking for structure like weedbeds or rocky points but it's a different ball game up there. In the bigger rivers we found fishing to be similiar, with the occasional sparse weedbed or a blow down on the bank or widened spots in the river where the current slowed and we caught some good fish there. But alot of our time was spent exploring smaller rivers and streams. Sometimes we got shallow enough that we had to break out the paddles to continue but what we found usually made it worth it. Not all these streams led to pike "shangri la" but in some of them the pike would be stacked against the banks for miles. Most times the bank was within easy casting distance from either side of the boat. And huge pike would be holding so shallow you'd swear you ought to be able to see their backs sticking out of the water, but we never did. One of the best presentations we found was to cast up onto the mud banks and try to jiggle the bait loose and have it enter right at the edge of the water. They'd hammer it in a huge swirl. The biggest problem with this technique was that mud. The baits would get stuck like crazy and it could be tough to dislodge them without them flying halfway back to the boat. We found that a skip cast slowed the spoons down enough that they didn't get hung up as bad. Once in awhile we would run into log jams or beaver dams and these always seemed to hold big pike and usually numbers of them. One slough held the biggest pike I've ever seen. A monster I estimate at 55 inches. I've been back to that slough three times now and have seen the fish twice. Had her on once but just briefly. I have nightmares about this fish and will be going back after her. Mary says I'm becoming obsessed with this fish. She may have a point.
As usual, spoons accounted for the biggest and the most fish, but we caught them on spinnerbaits, cranks, and jerkbaits too. Retrieves weren't complicated as casts were short. I used a small Teddie and had the best luck just letting it sit for awhile then pulling it about a foot and letting it rest again. The strikes were explosive. We use weedless spoons alot in Canada and while there weren't alot of weeds to be found, they worked well in Alaska too. One very interesting thing we discovered was that whenever fishing slowed, the addition of a strip of the skin off a piece of smoked salmon worked wonders. The pike jumped all over it. In fact, this strip of skin accounted for the biggest pike on two Alaskan trips. This trick has since worked well for us wherever we are fishing for pike in trout waters.
There was another species living in these backwaters that we caught too. The arctic sheefish, also called "the tarpon of the north". These fish look like a giant shiner minnow with a mouth like a tarpon and an attitude to match. At times, we would be casting to pike up against the bank and if you didn't get bit within the first few feet of the cast, a sheefish would nail the bait when it got to the middle of the stream. We caught a ton of them this way up to around 20 pounds. In the evenings, you could see them rising to and rolling on the surface by the hundreds but they wouldn't hit anything then. My guess is that a flyrod may have worked on them but one was not available. They wouldn't take any surface baits I offered though. These sheefish were fun to catch and put up a bit of a struggle but given a choice, I'd opt for the pike. The Natives love to eat them, too, but I wasn't that nuts about it. Personally, it reminded me of kids making mud pies as that was the dominate flavor.
Fishing for pike in Alaska is very good and rates among the best we've seen. And while camping in a tent in the interior of Alaska isn't for the everyone, those with a flair for adventure will find that nowhere else can compare. Casting for giant pike with a bull moose standing in the water no more than 50 feet away. Slowly putting down a stream and having a black wolf flush from behind a laydown, run to the top of the bank and stand broadside watching you chug by. Giant white Snowy Owls following you down a river. All on the same day! It's no wonder that this land is referred to as the Final Frontier.