It was close to midnight on the Fourth of July, and the sun was drawing its curtain for the day. Head guide Brian Malchoff and I sat in satisfied silence with plastic cups of wine in hand, watching Alaska’s Kanektok River tumble by. It’s funny — we grew up less than 50 miles from each other back East but had to travel 3,500 miles to meet.
A veteran guide, Brian was used to a different sort of pandemonium on the nation’s birthday, one far away from the barbecues, fireworks and patriotic attire that define Independence Day for so many people. This was my first time away from that traditional clamor, and our gravel bar provided a temporary home to watch the natural fireworks erupting around us. Sockeye moved aggressively through the shallows, pushing water into the air, where the drops caught the rays of the setting sun. Glimmers of light bounced off the shiny chrome backs of the migration.
Few in our group remained awake after a long day hunting and casting to fish over the 15 miles of river we floated. The constant flow of the Kanektok reminded us where we had come from — we’d drifted more than 100 miles in the last six days. This was my first season guiding full time in Alaska, and I had no desire to be anywhere else.
Five days earlier Luanne Burke’s face reflected sheer excitement as her line came tight and she set the hook on her first-ever leopard rainbow trout. We were just two on the raft, coming through the swift headwaters of the river in late morning. This was the first time Burke, a 53-year-old Colorado native and a sculptor, had traveled to Alaska. She was diagnosed with a degenerative vision condition in her late teens but never let it affect her active lifestyle.
“How do you feel about your first Alaskan float trip?” I asked as we moved with the rhythm of the Kanektok, a world-class trout and salmon river that runs through the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge in coastal Alaska.
“So much of my typical day is on foot,” she answered. “I live my life at 3.2 mph, but when you go to a place that fits that pace, I feel like I fit into this world.”
I smiled, appreciating her understanding of a float trip’s natural pace. What Burke lacks in vision she more than makes up for in fearlessness and spatial awareness. As her fish danced around the raft, I maneuvered to keep the line tight. She reacted instinctively to the movements of the trout and made my job easy. I rowed the raft to the near bank, where we were able to safely net her catch — an absolutely radiant specimen with a rosy red lateral line and big black spots from tip to tail.
One of our other boats descended upon us, cameras unholstered. I was about to lift the fish broadside to the “paparazzi” when I heard Burke’s gentle voice.
“Can I touch the fish?” she asked.
Embarrassed by a selfish attempt at a grip-and-grin photograph, I held the fish in front of her as she painted a mental picture, her fingertips lightly grazing the rainbow. I realized at that moment how Burke was able to appreciate the natural beauty of this fish in a way most cannot. She might be blind, but she saw more in that moment than many do in a lifetime.
Gateway to the wild
For as long as I can remember, I had dreamed of venturing to Alaska. It seemed a paradise, a giant playground full of natural beauty. I was raised to cherish nature, and by the time I was a teenager I had forged an unbreakable bond with the outdoors. Fishing began to consume my every thought, and Alaska became a special place. I remember gazing at the pages of fishing magazines, eyes widening at the sight of these incredible creatures. My fate was all but sealed.
The catalyst that solidified my bond with Alaska was Mark Rutherford, founder of Wild River Guides (wildriverfish.com). It took only a day under Mark’s watch to realize I had found a home here. He was the role model I was searching for, someone who bundled his love for fly-fishing with wilderness travel, prudently planning for the worst while hoping for the best coastal Alaska has to offer. Mark has a calm yet calculating manner, even in stressful situations, the mark of an earlier career as a wilderness firefighter. At 61, and after half a lifetime guiding in Alaska, he takes nothing for granted. I am certain he has forgotten more about the Alaskan bush than I will ever learn, but we are drawn here for similar reasons.
We were between trips at our home base in Dillingham on an August evening last year, finishing final preparations for a trip I would help guide the next morning.
“What draws you to fishing?” I asked.
“Fishing was my gateway drug to the outdoors,” Rutherford said. “And when I let fishing do its magic, it transports me.”
In that shared moment, it was clear how much he loved this place he calls home. His only intention seems to be protecting that home and sharing it with kindred spirits.
Alaska is one of the last true wild places in the United States, accessible to almost anyone willing to heed its call. Oregon native Noel Hanlon, who traveled to Alaska for the first time last summer, has that sensibility. She listens and connects to the world around her. A farmer and poet, she knows how the earth responds to human influences, and she expresses it in her work and in her words.
Hanlon developed a love for wilderness while planting trees for the U.S. Forest Service in Montana 30 years ago, which is also when she first met Rutherford. Three decades later, Hanlon and her family are fly-fishing, for the first time, with Rutherford on the Goodnews River. It was early August, when the fishing on the Goodnews is especially good because char and coho are thick.
Hanlon was less interested in fishing than taking in the vast landscape, but after watching her family whoop and holler over some nice fish, she thought about it again.
“I feel like I have to give this a go, but I am really nervous about this hook flying around,” she said to me. We decided that fishing a fly without a hook would be the best way for Hanlon to learn, which she did for two days until her comfort level improved.
Peter Jacks has a laid-back guiding style that was perfect for helping Hanlon transition to the “real thing.” Before we stopped for lunch that day, Jacks had Hanlon throwing a streamer with a hook while drifting along a deep-water bluff. As they neared the end of the drift, Hanlon’s line came tight, and a beautiful hen coho erupted skyward — the first coho caught by any of Rutherford’s guests last season.
“The fish had so much fight in it and felt so alive on the end of the line,” she said. “I got it in that moment why people fish.”
A few days later, Hanlon was back in Jacks’ boat. Her husband and daughter were in my boat when we saw a few large fish flash as we came through a stretch. I radioed Jacks, but before I could take my finger off the call button, Hanlon was hooked up to a silver bullet that instantly rocketed through the surface. She played the fish until Jacks saw a chance to haul off on a bar, where we stood as spectators.
Hanlon dug in for battle, trying not to give the fish an inch. Her husband, daughter and son-in-law cheered, in awe of the skills she’d learned just days earlier. She brought the fish almost to within reach of the net, but it took one last run and spit the hook as it went.
It was a gorgeous coho, a trophy by any standard. Funny thing is, no one seemed to care about the fish. They were in the moment, happy to see Hanlon discover the joys of fly-fishing.
“Were you disappointed about losing that fish?” I asked that night.
“No,” she said. “It wasn’t about holding that fish up for a picture; it was more about the play and following directions. That was my first time really understanding how to play a fish, and that was the best part.”
Mouse flies and rainbows
Some people think they know what they’ll get out of these fishing trips, but almost all return home surprised by what living in the wild for a week does for them. I have seen the therapeutic power of nature, and few things compare with its ability to soothe the tattered and heal the broken. Mark works tirelessly to accommodate anyone who is willing to join us — so long as they are willing to sleep on gravel every night.
For the last few years, Wild River Guides has led a trip for anglers with disabilities while also partnering with Colorado-based Veterans Expeditions. Last season, we hosted a paraplegic, an amputee, a blind person and veterans from the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. “This is what we were fighting for,” said one vet. That single sentence seemed to bring us all closer together.
I’m not exactly sure what I was looking for during my first time in Alaska, but what I found was an unrivaled fishing experience that enabled me to escape the bathtub-warm temperatures and boat traffic of my Connecticut home waters in summer. I now take my compass heading from the birds and migrate north to the bosom of Togiak National Wildlife Refuge.
Most people come here for the opportunity to catch a particular kind of fish. Francie Ashforth was one of the most experienced anglers on my boat last year. Ashforth stands 5-feet-5 and has a spirited personality and infectious energy.
A landscape artist by profession, she is no stranger to Alaska, but this trip last July was her first on the Togiak River. And she had clear goals. Her main one was to get the family together, the other to catch a trophy rainbow trout on a mouse fly.
The Togiak usually teems with rainbows, but with low water levels after a light-snow winter, much of their holding habitat was inaccessible to the fish. It’s tough to tell someone who comes nearly 3,700 miles for a shot at a fish of a lifetime that her dream will be difficult to achieve.
On the fourth morning, we set out from camp in the raft we dubbed Wrecker Boat. Ashforth had caught her fill of Dolly Varden char, so we holstered the bead rod and rigged up a Mr. Hanky mouse fly on a 7-weight rod. As we made our way down the river, Ashforth fished with great focus. She pounded the banks with deadly accuracy.
“Losing a fly just wastes time,” she said. She had no intention of doing either.
We stopped for lunch on a bar, where tracks and a salmon carcass painted a picture of a snack stand for grizzlies. We filled our stomachs, floated 100 yards downstream and dropped into a section of deep, fast water full of woody debris — exactly the habitat an ambush predator such as an Alaskan rainbow might occupy.
Ashforth cast deep into the knotty wad just inches from the bank and stripped the mouse once before it was sucked off the surface. She set the hook as we drifted downriver, her reel singing, line ripping off.
We hauled off in a back eddy on the opposite bank as she locked down and turned the fish’s head. She cleared the roots and branches while opposing currents lifted the rainbow and provided a brief glimpse of the fish she had come for. I was beginning to feel the pressure of landing it. I walked out until the water was nearly over my waders, net in hand, and Ashforth scolded me with a motherly tone.
“John, the take was incredible enough. Don’t get swept away over it. It’s really OK.”
I looked back, my heart pounding, a smile on my face.
“It’s a really big rainbow,” I said.
I shuffled a bit shallower, and Ashforth pulled its head up at the precise moment for me to get the net under the fish. Her son Gardie and Mark, who were downriver from us, heard the commotion and scurried up, cameras firing.
“It was such a gift to be able to catch that fish,” Ashforth said as we released it. “The goal was to catch a big rainbow, and when everything lines up, it’s golden. That was a magical moment.”
For adventure-seekers, fly-fishing in Alaska delivers, and it’s usually only a matter of time before this wilderness makes it onto your bucket list. Some anglers stay at lodges with all the amenities, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Those who choose the path less traveled — I call it the “wilderness immersion experience” — experience every mile of a river firsthand, from headwaters to estuary. This is a place where the natural world functions like a Swiss watch, each piece as important as the next. And you’re a part of it.