One of the reasons I consented to fish the Goodnews River with Mike Gorton was his tantalizing tales of taking sockeye salmon on a deer hair mouse fly. Most anglers agree that reds are finicky feeders when in fresh water. However, many anglers simply state, “reds never bite.” Then comes Mike Gorton, owner of Goodnews River Lodge, “We take ‘em on a deer hair mouse all the time. He so convinced me that I was willing to try.
After I arrived at the lodge, Mike backpedaled a bit by qualifying his previous sure-deal brag, “We do it all the time when conditions are right.”
“What conditions?” I inquired.
“Find ‘em in shallow water or close to the top. It’s best if you find two males fighting each other for a nest,” Mike replied. “Water’s a bit high right now, but I still think you can do it.”
I looked Mike straight in the eye. His eyes met mine, and there was a glimmer that said he was telling the truth, so I took the bait. “Can we try it tomorrow,” I asked?
Mike seemed to make sure a few of the guides were listening before he answered. “Any time you want, just ask your guide.”
The first day’s fishing was spent getting acquainted with the river, but toward afternoon I asked my guide if we could go for a red on a deer hair mouse. He agreed, but added, “I know they do it all the time, but I’ve never caught a red on a deer hair, and I’m not sure of the way to do it. We can try.” His straight face suggested his answer was genuine.
After an hour of scaring sockeye out of their intended nests by tossing a mouse over their heads and dragging it back, trying to imitate a mouse swimming for his life, I gave up, and we headed back to the lodge.
The next morning I had a different guide. Yes, he would be glad to take me to a spot where he thought we could connect, but then added, “I’ve never done it, but Mike does all the time, and he’s told me how.” Then he gave me a grin suggesting he wasn’t convinced.
The only change to the water-flaying exercise of the previous day was the length of time spent throwing the mouse at a group of reds. The day before, I’d given it only an hour. I doubled the time this day, but with the same results—nothing—not one rise. The guide did tell me a time or two that one of the targeted fish followed the swimming mouse-look- ing fly, but I only saw reds moving away. On the way back to the lodge in the evening, I wondered why the guide didn’t pick up a rod and test his mettle since he admitted earlier that he hadn’t ever done it before.
By morning the thought of the guide not picking up a rod had disappeared when my guide for the day admitted to having taken a red on a mouse. After I spent two hours of good fishing time with a mouse and no results, and the guide didn’t pick up his rod, for some reason, I remembered a snipe hunt. You know, where the one who has never hunted snipe be- fore is left alone in the woods holding a flashlight in a bag while those who have hunted before go out and beat the bushes and scare the snipe into the bag.
By morning I’d worked up enough courage to suggest to Mike that his red on a deer hair mouse was probably a snipe hunt. “No way,” he said. “We do it all the time. You’ll connect today; if you don’t, I’ll personally take you tomorrow.”
Well, I didn’t connect. Two more hours of dragging a mouse in little jerking motions across the top of reds in deep water and shallow. “Are you sure this isn’t a snipe hunt?” I asked Mike when we returned.
“Course it’s not a snipe hunt,” he said. “Tomorrow, we’ll find the right hole.”
Later that night, I heard some guides laughing in one of their cabins, and I just knew I was the reason. I could just hear them talking and laughing about this guy who’s been in Alaska for 44 years being taken on a red salmon snipe hunt.
I was ready to tell Mike the snipe hunt’s off and let’s just go fishing when he showed up with his personal $1,000 rod and reel with a deer hair mouse already attached to the tippet. “Let’s go catch a red,” he proclaimed.
The drill with Mike was no different than with the other guides. I threw the fly; they encouraged from the sideline but didn’t pick up a rod and show me how it was done. Finally, Mike said, “I guess the water’s too high, or the hole’s too crowded, or something’s wrong. Let’s just go fishing.”
And like the days before, we fished. It was fishing out of this world, taking the edge off the deer hair snipe hunt. As the day ended, which was my last day to fish the Goodnews, I said to Mike, “Okay, Mike, I’ve gone on your snipe hunt every day. I’ve heard the guides laugh at night and my arm’s sore from casting your long rod to reds. Now tell me the truth. It’s a snipe hunt, right?”
“It’s no snipe hunt. Reds will take a deer hair mouse. You can believe it. It’s no snipe hunt. It’s for real.”
“Okay,” I said. “Play it all the way. Play it to the end.”
“Evan,” Mike said. “I’d never take you on a snipe hunt. We just didn’t find the right conditions. I can give you names and phone numbers of at least a dozen guys who’ve been here and taken reds on a mouse.”
Mike seemed hurt that I didn’t believe him, so I let it drop. Then, late that night, I heard the guides laughing from their tents again. But that’s alright. They’d shown me a good time and put me on plenty of fish, and I learned a few tricks from these pros. So I just put it down as part of the price of admission.
As I was leaving, Mike shook my hand, expressed good feelings, and extended an invitation to “come back again, anytime.” And the last thing I remember him saying was, “And next time, we’ll take a sockeye on a mouse.”
Now that I’m back home and have had a chance to think about my week on the Goodnews, I remember that everything about my trip was just like Mike said it would be—and maybe more. Perhaps he wasn’t pulling my leg. Maybe it wasn’t a snipe hunt.
And then I remember his “Come back again, anytime” invitation. Okay, Mike. I’ll come back. “Let’s go fish for reds on a fly.” I don’t care if it’s a snipe hunt or not, and I don’t care if the guides laugh at me every night. A couple of hours of mouse-at-reds fishing is a small price for a day’s fishing in water created in heaven for a fly fisherman. I’ll even pretend I’m hopeful I’ll score with a mouse. You keep asking me back, and I’ll keep throwing a mouse at sockeye. When I think about it from this perspective, I wonder, who’s on the snipe hunt, Mike or me?