Mouse fishing; just the words chained together alone almost doesn't make sense. In the lower 48 you're pretty much cornered in to throwing them at night. Ive had various success hucking big rats at night on the tailgaters of Tennessee, mixed with some memorable moments on the South Houston in the middle of the night in particular. Theres no question that trout feed on these furry servings, but nowhere else in the country like in Alaska.
Southwest Alaska is world renowned for its mouse fishing. Most fish on wilderness floats have never really seen too many mouse imitations thrown at them and can be quite vulnerable to top water feeding. We are lucky enough to have a system that barely receives any pressure from guides, and little pressure from the public in general. The Chosen flows through Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, all 6 million acres harbor ridiculous amounts of water in various states. Tundra ponds, beaver ponds, springs, wetlands, brooks, creeks, ditches, streams, rivers - you can imagine how every once in a while one of the 11 species of rodent might fall in to some water. Kanektok translates in to English something along the lines of "changing river." When the river changes, the braids and forces of flowing water can cut off traditional burrows and routes used by rodents as well. These two factors, plus the incredibly short growing season results in trout who feed on mice daily.
Many anglers come to Alaska loaded with mice patterns of different sizes and shapes. The different shapes are meant to imitate different species; lemmings, mice, rats, voles, moles, shrews, and even ermine. The easiest for guests in general to throw would be the mice imitations. Do the trout eat all the other species? Absolutely. Ive thrown split shot in front of some of the larger rodent imitations just to get a real sense of a "drowned rat" and had lots of trout takes. Some of the bigger and longer imitations out there for bass and musky I have used as well that even 16" trout feed readily on. But the easiest to throw and most effective would have to be the mice imitations. The Morrish Mouse, Mr Hanky, and Mercers Mouse are all great imitations. When selecting patterns I like to stick to these, and variations thereof.
The preferred set up for throwing these flies is at least a 7 weight. I use a SAGE Z-AXIS 796, the longer length being great for the wilderness floats. I use straight Maxima tied to the fly line - 15lb. This allows for the fly to be presented rapidly firing at will to the targets. Targets for the mouse cast is typically along the wood and root wads the Kanektok is so famous for. We fish out of Avon Pros with custom frames so we are able to slow the boat down and get the correct angle for the cast to be made. What is important to recognize with the mouse in particular is the trout's "cone of vision." The Leopards might be deep in the wood, but they're looking out there in the current and in the traveling windows of seams. Presenting the fly far above these lies and allowing the mouse to drift and drag and skitter in to these zones will produce the eat. Most people love to shake and skitter the mouse which is applicable to some degree. I like to almost dead drift the mouse, allowing the river to make it go in to places you would otherwise be skating and skittering you're way out of. With the dead drift comes incredible takes as well. Most mouse takes are pretty violent and trashy because of the very nature of them. Most trout are going for the death blow on the first "eat" and then circling around to take down the injured prey. With the dead drift mouse (the Ive given up and am going to die mouse) the trout almost realize the prey is already injured and I have seen them sip down palm size mouse imitations like a 24 midge on the tailwaters!!
Our entire Summer on the Kanektok can have windows of opportunities for mouse fishing. Just last year we were still catching them on mice all the way in to September! That being said, after 13 years out pursuing these legendary trout Id have to say the best time for mice in particular is July. The bulk of the salmon have not started bedding up, theres no flesh in the system, and I think the trout are just looking for easy meals before the salmon biomass shows up.
Mouse fishing in Alaska will push your abilities and techniques to the limits. They're terrible to throw and a bear to manage in the wind. Most of the time the trout are feeding on eggs and flesh which they don't have to hunt down and prey on. You miss a lot of takes because of the nature of the takes and the speed of the boat floating by. But successful tactics and great conditions can really change your perspective on what trout typically do. On the Kanektok there is no "typical" behavior, these trout are so wild and free they can do what they please when they please. But when they choose to eat mice, Ill be there with my guests happily feeding them!!
All photos courtesy of Capt. Chris Maher
*Dolly Varden and Cohos eat mice, too. Just a thought...