“Would you rather get laid by supermodel, or catch a 30-inch rainbow?”
I still remember the exact stretch of river we were floating down when I was asked the question.
“30-inch rainbow” I replied without hesitation. Keep in mind that answer bears a lot more weight coming from a fishing guide living alongside a bunch of dudes in a remote tent camp in western Alaska, than from your average twenty-something bachelor. Believe it or not, there aren’t many single women in the Bush.
“Legit,” said one of two fellow guides in the boat. “So fishy,” said the other.
We were floating down the home river of our lodge of employment, a remote river in Western coast of Alaska I’ll call The Chosen out of respect for the other guides who call it home. Known mostly for its prolific runs of king and silver salmon, the Chosen’s true gem, the leopard rainbow trout often goes unnoticed.
A rare strain of rainbow trout, leopard rainbows are only native in the U.S. to a small portion of Western Alaska. Known for their vibrant colors, uncountable numbers of spots, and propensity to take flies large enough to spook a 100 plus pound tarpon, leopard rainbows are highly coveted by most guides and experienced anglers fortunate enough to cast a fly wherever they can be found. Unlike some of their larger cousins throughout Alaska, a leopard rainbow in the 25-inch range would be considered a trophy to most, with a fish pushing the 30-inch range (an estimated 13-to-15-year-old fish) to be a true fish of a lifetime.
Despite a surprisingly slow evening of fishing, the morale in the boat was high. After all, the opportunity to fish during your downtime is more than a perk to a fishing guide in the Bush. It’s compensation. It’s what makes living off the grid, far from the comforts available in the ‘real world,’ all worth it. It’s the confluence of what you work for, and what you live for.
That being said, as the evening rolled on, morale eventually began to slip as the guide on the sticks at the time, Ben West (affectionately known around our camp as ‘Big Country’), starting having issues with a faulty contact lens; announcing that due to the fact that he couldn’t see where he was casting, he would be rowing for the rest of the night. It made sense at the time. That left fellow guide Eric Robbins chucking from the back the boat, with myself holding down the prime position in the front.
As we floated under the light of the dusking midnight sun, the three of us rotated from fishing to rowing, employing previously defined ‘trout rules’ in a gentleman-like manner; farm a fish and you’re out, break off a fly and you’re out, land a fish and you’re out, well, unless it’s under twelve inches of course.. That’s a ‘tiddler,’ you get two of those, then you’re out.
As we continued our relatively fruitless float, our usual banter and mild heckling was interrupted by the subtle twitch of my rod tip. Immediately following a sharp hook set was the deep familiar throb of our target species, and busting through the surface came a lovely specimen of a trout. Big Country heaved on the oars, eventually grounding the bow of the boat on the nearest gravel bar, allowing us to quickly lead the fish, a healthy leopard rainbow somewhere in the 23 to 24-inch range, into the net. A stunning fish worthy of a quick attempt at a photo, but borderline-worth stretching a tape out for.
With roughly twenty minutes left to make it home in time for our midnight camp curfew (a necessary precaution in bear-country), and having caught the last fish, I attempted to hop on the oars for the remainder of the evening. “I told you I’m rowing for the rest of the night,” Ben reminded, “I can’t see for shit, get back up there.” Trying to be fair, I then offered Eric the front of the boat to which he replied, “Nah, I’m good up here, stay up front.” It pays to fish with good people.
Not two casts later, my fly line slowly drew tight against the weight of the drifting boat. Feeling the weight and fearful that it was yet another root wad, I allowed the rod tip to draw low towards the surface of the water before making a haymaker sized hook set. The rod bent deep into the butt section and remained there, static. Knowing this was likely the last cast of the night, regardless of whether my leader broke or not, I held the hook set tight which was quickly answered by one deep pulse of a head shake. Then, another. Followed by a slackening of the line.
Just then a salmon-sized silhouette with a magenta hue came rocketing out of the water with the fly still attached. “That was a salmon, right?” I asked out of disbelief, trying to convince myself I’d just hooked a rogue sockeye. “Uh, that was a trout…” Eric confirmed.
With the rod held high, I could feel my knees beginning to weaken like a pre-pubescent teenager being approached by an attractive upperclassman. As we reached the gravel bar, I piled out of the boat running as far up the bar as possible to maintain tension. Ben stood frozen, staring at the two net sizes in the boat; a traditional long-handled trout-sized net and a ridiculously large mesh net we use to wrangle adult king salmon. “Just grab a f***ing net, Country!” Eric commanded. He picked up the king net.
After what in hindsight was a surprisingly short fight around a few hair-raising obstructions, I took a deep breath and gingerly raised the rod up and over towards Ben with the net in hand. As he went in for the stab, the fish made one last kick back towards the center of the river just as he thrust the hoop forward, dropping the excess mesh of the net bag into the water. I stood there trying to rationalize that it wasn’t that big of a deal; the fish of a lifetime was either in the net, or it wasn’t… Either way, it would still make for a good story, right?
Ben carefully lifted the hoop of the net from the surface and a quick splash revealed we had him… The largest leopard rainbow trout each of us had seen to date, a legitimate 30-inch slab.
It’s hard not to look back at that night and laugh at all the variables that had to line up to connect with such a fish. A fish that collectively we had spent over nine seasons trying to find. Some might call that sort of thing karma, but I’m not sure the Universe gives a damn about fly fishermen. Either way, a guy can’t help but wonder what might have happened had he chose the supermodel instead. Then again, I’d rather not know.