Editors' Choice

Pike Dreams

By Andrew Tarica

He went to Alaska to catch a prehistoric fish.

"This is the entrance to the Pike Lagoon," Cliff says as we drift lazily down the Anvik in a flat-bottom boat, fly rods in hand. "One time a fish in here came after me."

As the story goes, Cliff Hickson was fishing here one summer and landed a 4-foot northern pike. After an "epic battle" between man and fish, he prepared to release the pike, when its eyeballs flared and turned toward him, and it lunged teeth-first toward its captor.

Getting attacked by an angry fish can’t be fun, but Cliff lived to tell this tale, and moments later I am perched on the bow of his boat, casting a bright yellow artificial fly into the center of the slow current. I wait nervously for the unmistakable strike of the pike. I can feel my knees weaken and begin to shake.

With dreams of catching monster pike, I have traveled to this remote region of western Alaska to spend a few days fishing at the Anvik River Lodge. But Cliff’s story now plays tricks with my mind, and paranoid visions of man-eating pike churn through my head.

Pike fishing isn’t a dream at all; it seems more like a nightmare.

My journey begins with a scratchy long-distance phone call from Cheryl Hickson, who co-owns the Anvik River Lodge with her husband, Cliff.

"We are about 400 air miles west of Anchorage and 80 river miles from the village of Anvik," Cheryl says by way of introduction. This is in a different area from most other Alaskan fishing lodges, which are located mainly in southeast and southcentral Alaska.

"The fishing is incredible. We have all five species of salmon, sheefish, Arctic char, grayling, and record-sized pike. Plus, we have the river virtually to ourselves, and I have even been known to do my fire-eating act for guests."

Fire eating? Still, having done my time with salmon and trout, I begin to imagine myself hauling in some of the biggest, meanest, ugliest pike on the planet in a setting that couldn’t be any more wild and remote.

Weeks later, I sit alongside pilot Jim Webster in a Cessna 185 float plane named Bug Eye, which shuttles guests to and from the lodge. My accomplice in this mission is an old friend named Jens Laipenieks, who lives to fly-fish, is an expert at the sport and once told me, in a serious tone, "The difference between you and me is that I am that fly on the bottom of the river."

The rendezvous point for this journey is the bush town of Anvik, home to about 80 people, most of whom are Athabascan in descent. It was here in 1834 that Russian explorer Andrei Glazunov, after having traveled down the Anvik, became the first white man to set eyes on the Yukon River. Today the village’s biggest claim to fame is that it serves as an Iditarod checkpoint during odd-numbered years.

Flying low above Alaska’s western outback, I sit in the co-pilot’s seat of the Bug Eye and look down upon a vast expanse of muskeg, a mostly flat landscape interspersed with moss-fringed lakes and patches of forest. It looks a bit like the world’s biggest golf course.

Soon, I get my first glimpse of the Anvik River Lodge. Like a lonely boat surrounded by hundreds of miles of open sea, the lodge sits at the edge of a raw wilderness. It is the only home on the 120-mile-long river, strategically positioned amid some of the most exciting sportfishing in North America.

The hand-hewn log lodge originally served as a trapper’s homestead, built in the early 1960s and expanded recently to a large, comfortable fishing retreat—the epitome of rustic charm. Its centerpiece, called the Great Room, is the living and dining area. It is flanked by four bedrooms, which can hold up to eight guests.

To the tune of Middle Eastern music, Cheryl kicks off the festivities by sauntering into the Great Room wearing a turban and holding several steel poles ignited with flames.

"I learned this growing up," she says. "I was in a kids’ circus in Wenatchee, Washington." With her head tilted back, she lowers the rods one by one into her mouth. Cliff stands to the side, a fire extinguisher in his arms. His bemused expression says it all: His wife is eating fire.

That’s just the appetizer to the main course, which is Cheryl’s five-star meal—moose marinated in red wine over pasta, fresh bread and a deliciously decadent chocolate cake for dessert. Full from the feast, I retire to bed with dreams of monster pike slowly circling around my pillow.

The next morning, bright and early, Cliff, Jens, and I head upstream by boat in search of these haunting creatures. Our destination is the mouth of Swift River, about 18 miles away.

Traveling along the Anvik is like stepping into an Audubon painting: Canada geese, mallards, and mergansers fly in squadrons overhead; peregrine falcons and bald eagles nest in rocky cliffs along the riverbanks; otters pop their heads above water as if they were submarine periscopes; and, in a rare sighting, a lone black wolf guards its den near a secretive, tree-shaded spot along the water’s edge.

"It seems so pristine here," Cliff says, "but 150 years ago, this was the main trading route for Russians traveling from Norton Sound to the Yukon River. Thousands of people came here in search of fur, gold and coal."

We search mostly for Arctic char and grayling on this day. Shafts of sunlight filter through the clouds as we wade waist deep near the confluence of the Swift and Anvik.

By lunchtime, Jens and I catch and release enough silver-colored grayling to populate a city aquarium. The fish are trophies in the 15-inch range and full of fight, but they’re nothing compared to the pike, the so-called "barracuda of the north," I’m told.

Pike like to spend their days patrolling brackish, slow-moving water, which is why we are fishing in a slough not far from the lodge near the end of the day.

Switching fly rods, from lighter to heavier equipment, and fishing line from monofilament to steel, we muscle our flies into the middle of a large pool. We are fishing with top-water flies called Dahlberg Divers, colored an assortment of yellow, red, green, and white.

"The idea is to get the pike’s attention by casting far out and then stripping back in," Jens explains. "These fish are so voracious and territorial; they’ll attack anything that comes near them. You could toss a door hinge in there, and they’d probably go for it."

Speaking of which, I’m a bit concerned about wading in the midst of these pike. As I plunge into the river, with my lower body exposed to the elements, I can’t help but pray that the pike will have mercy. I can just imagine them focusing their beady eyes on me, coming nearer, nearer, and then chomp!

Thankfully, this nightmare scenario never develops and within seconds, a V-wake approaches my fly like a torpedo targeting an enemy ship. And then, just like that . . . bam! The water erupts in a fury. Unfortunately, like so many other times in my fishing history, I’m not fast enough to "set the hook," and the pike gets away. I didn’t even get a chance to really see it, see how ugly it is, with its long body, nasty needle-sharp teeth and beak-like mouth.

Pike are considered unorthodox quarry for most fly-fishers, who mainly angle for trout and salmon. In fact, some anglers consider pike utterly worthless, but as angling grows more popular, and as fly-fishers continue to diversify their craft, these ferocious fish loom as perhaps the ultimate species to catch on a fly.

Pike fishing, however, is not a G-rated sport. The night after our first glimpse of the fish, Jens experiences a touch of fish-induced insomnia.

"I can’t sleep," he moans. "It’s a pike dream. I see a fish slamming my fly. I feel like it’s coming back to get me. I keep thinking of the inside of the pikes’ mouths, their tongues all coated with teeth, all tilted back. You can go in, but you can’t get out—like a Venus fly trap. It’s scaring me, man."

After an early start the following morning, we are ready to dance with the devil again, as we take the float plane to a remote, serpentine river a few dozen miles from the lodge. Cliff has a canoe stashed in the woods, which we use to float downstream in search of suspicious sloughs and other pike-likely places.

A sense of isolation hangs over the river, broken only by the call of a solitary raven flying above our canoe. No one lives on this river; no one fishes in the river; it is virtually unexplored.

Cliff makes me promise not to divulge the name of the river, so I won’t. But as a tribute to our mission, and to the roughly 13-million- to 36-million-year pedigree of the pike, let’s just say it is the River of Prehistoric Pike. (Incidentally, the time period when pike originated—the Miocene and Oligocene—is about when apes and sabertooths first appeared on earth.)

Around midday, we bank the canoe on a grassy knob of land, and I follow fresh, deep moose tracks to a secluded fishing spot. The river is slow, the air still, and the conditions seem perfect, which is why I am able to cast my line farther into the current than normal. This is where the big, old pike lie, as I’m about to discover.

I feel a tug—more like a yank. I raise my rod tip up high, with force, and set the hook. No problem this time. I can feel the power at the other end of the line, and it feels more like a man than a fish.

My monster-pike suspicions are confirmed as the predator breaks the surface and shows itself. "Holy smokes!" I scream, as a dark brown 3-foot northern pike, with yellow spots, does a back flip in front of me, close enough that I can see its creamy-white belly. "Fish on!"

There are a few rules for landing such a fish, but unfortunately I don’t know any of them. Luckily Jens scurries to my rescue and coaches me through this, instructing me to turn my rod from side to side, to keep the fish off-balance, and also to give the fish some line when it wants to take off. And when it stops moving, that’s when I reel.

It takes about 20 minutes but the fish eventually tires and I am able to beach it along the bank. Now the scary part really begins, as Jens helps me to unhook the fish, using pliers to pry open its mouth and hold it up for a photo.

There’s a hard, bony shield on either side of the pike’s jaw, where you can hold the fish and keep it from moving. Wary of losing a thumb, I keep my eyes fixed on its slanted teeth. But I can’t wrap my fingers entirely around the fish’s devilish mug, and it slithers from my grasp as we stand in front of the camera.

I’m quite frankly shocked that I just landed this beast in the first place, but the dumbfounded look on my face says it all. If there was an advertising executive along this river, they’d surely make a commercial out of me: "Fly rod, $300. Alaska fishing license, $20. Look on your face after you land the biggest, ugliest fish of your life—priceless."

On our final day in western Alaska, Cliff guides us by boat about 20 miles downstream from the lodge. After passing through a big-sky landscape, the rolling Nulato Hills in the distance, we enter a narrow slough that opens into what Cliff calls The Pike Lagoon.

Drifting slowly toward the closed end of the horseshoe-shaped lagoon, I stand on the bow of the boat, casting, while Jens casts from the stern. Looking down, I see the pike are stacked like logs, swirling and curling their way around the coral-like moss and our foreign craft.

If yesterday’s experience with the monster pike was about quality, today’s fishing is all about quantity. For someone like me, who has never had much luck with a fly rod, having a bountiful day is nothing short of miraculous.

And today I feel like I can do no wrong, as I hook into fish on nearly every cast. They’re smaller fish, referred to as hammerhandles, but they’re feeding with wild abandon, much to our pleasure. Indeed, fishing in Alaska is a bit like hitting the jackpot in Vegas, and I sadly realize that fishing in the Lower 48 will never again be the same.

With Jens whistling the theme tune to Jaws in the background, we catch and release pike all afternoon, as they fight for the right to take our flies. "Thanks for stopping by—come again," Jens says, after releasing what seems like his 100th fish of the day.

It’s close to dinner time, and we can almost smell Cheryl’s cooking from miles away. That’s especially true since we know that, after Jim dropped us off on this river, he flew the Bug Eye over the hills to Unalakleet, a small village on Norton Sound in northwest Alaska, to pick up fresh king crab for our farewell surf-and-turf feast.

But there is still time to fish. I cast a bright yellow fly as far as I can, using a method called the "double-haul" to scratch a few extra feet of distance. Stripping my line rapidly back, I see a fish following my fly about 20 feet from the boat. "Here it is," I say, as Jens and Cliff take notice of the pike in pursuit.

Each time I strip line, a few inches at a time, the fish gives chase—a crazy game of cat-and-mouse that leaves the curious young fish within a hair of my fly. Soon, the pike is directly in front of us, and it’s still eyeing my offer. "Hit it!" Jens impatiently screams, but it’s still too early.

Once more, I jig the fly and to my amazement, the fish still follows. Finally, the venerable pike attacks, right below my feet, and I set the hook. With a huge grin on my face, I play the fish for a few minutes before its fight is finished.

I carefully remove the hook from inside its jaw, snap a photo for the ages and set the creature free. "You know, the best thing about these past few days," Cliff says, "is that we must’ve caught 200 fish, and we let them all go. I love that."

Later, while flying back home, I shut my eyes and fall asleep, and my imagination takes over. I can see the Anvik River Lodge, our small boat drifting into the Pike Lagoon, and then I see a vision of the pike, inching closer, closer and even closer to my fly—the ultimate visual fishing experience. This, I now realize, is not a nightmare, but rather the sweet pike dream.


Writer Andrew Tarica lives and works in Seattle, but he often dreams of fishing in Alaska. He can be reached at andrewtarica@hotmail.com.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For an archive of these stories go to the Editors' Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.


Read more from Andrew Tarica, Editors' Choice

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