Behind the Vice: George Cook, The Legend
Blog by Joe Jackson
I recently tried to explain to my wife why I was so giddy after meeting a certain, famed flyfisherman for lunch in Anchorage.
“George Cook is like the flyfishing equivalent of Wayne Gretzky.”
My first attempt didn’t strike any chords, so I tried again.
“If flyfishing gave out Nobel prizes, George Cook would have one.”
Beyond that, I was at a loss. How else do you explain a guy like Cook who, in the course of 35-plus years in the industry, has revolutionized both the course of spey fishing and the fundamental ways that steelhead and salmon flies are tied? Maybe as a writer I should be more skilled at encapsulating people, though I do believe that there are just some folks like Cook that leave you with the general feeling of a teenage girl who’s met Justin Bieber. I didn’t go so far as to ask him to sign my napkin, but I came close.
In a print article I did for Fish Alaska’s April ‘21 issue, I made the claim that we’re in a golden age of flyfishing and tying here in the Last Frontier (at least as far as salmon, trout, and steelhead are concerned). But that naturally begs the question: When did this golden age begin?
Let’s rocket back to the early 1980s. Granted, I wasn’t even a thought at that point in time, but the relevant history has pointed me to the emergence of two flies that mark the start of this notable era. The first is, of course, the late Will Bauer’s egg-sucking leech, and the second has to be George Cook’s Alaskabou series. These days, when flies are every ostentatious color you could dream up and bound together with space-age materials, it’s hard to imagine a time when they weren’t like this. But back in the ‘80s, before the ESL and the Alaskabous, it appears that Alaska’s fly anglers lived and died on bucktail; with results comparatively primitive to those of today. Cook’s Alaskabou went on to change the game so much that, at one point in the early 2000s, Ed Ward and Scott Howell (co-creators of the Intruder, which you may have heard of) suggested that salmon and steelhead flies wouldn’t be where they are without it. Imagine that.
Cook tells me the story of the Alaskabou between mouthfuls of deep-fried halibut. He even shows me some of the original patterns, which, when extracted from their paper bag, elicit a moment of museum-like silence. The first of these prototypes were tied tarpon-style, with saddle hackles, Flashabou, and a collar of schlappen, all in superbly bright colors that would come to hallmark Alaskan salmon patterns. This initial pattern was dubbed the “Showgirl.” Let’s say this was around 1983, when Cook was 22 years old and testing his metal at the Alagnak Lodge in Bristol Bay.
Despite this early innovation, swinging flies for salmon was still a mystery. Certain chums and silvers could be caught on floating lines or standard sink-tips of the day, but the deep-holding fish, or tidewater kings, for example, were nearly impossible without the advent of sinking lines with lead or powdered-tungsten cores. Before the Showgirl, Cook and his colleagues tried out some classic Pacific Northwest steelhead patterns and found them to be effective, but not quite stellar. Then they began to attach the Showgirl to 10-foot, type-3 sink-tips and things started to come together.
The very next year, tragedy struck: the Alagnak Lodge ran out of saddle hackle. Cook took this as an opportunity to rethink the Showgirl by shortening the tail, beefing up the profile, and replacing the saddle hackles with clumps of marabou. This second iteration, nearing what we know as the Alaskabous of today, was called the “Pixee’s Revenge.” With both of his creations, Cook was attempting to emulate the popular spinning gear of Pixees, Krocodiles, and Vibrax spinners. Funnily enough, it seems that most influential Alaskan patterns have come from a similar school of thought—take Mike Cole’s Mr. Bodangles, for example, or the Intruder itself. Cook goes so far as to tell me that all of the truly deadly anadromous developments follow the same path: They’re invented by anglers with a Pacific Northwest background who guide in Western Alaska and strive to replicate conventional tackle.
Cook, of course, fits this description like a glove. His fly angling days began on the Henry’s Fork of Idaho around age eleven, where he’d set off with a handful of Green Drake flies and cast to risers with falcon-like focus until he either ran out of flies—at which point he’d walk across the road to the fly shop and use whatever pocket change he could scrounge to buy more—or until it got so dark, he could no longer see. Washington State University gathered Cook during his college days, and it was during this period that he started teaching flycasting classes and working retail for the Kaufmann’s Streamborn store in Bellevue, Washington—once just a small, homely fly shop in downtown Tigard, Oregon, now considered one of the greatest fly shops in American history (albeit one of the past; Kaufmann’s closed down in 2011). By the time he started guiding in Alaska, it would seem that Cook was well-poised to shake things up.
Hot on the heels of the Pixee’s Revenge came the Popsicle we all know and love. Actually, the Popsicle was simply one of Cook’s favored color combinations for the overall pattern (“It’s cherry, orange, and grape…must be a popsicle!”), with other colors including the Volcano, Blue Moon, Manhattan Beach, and Aleutian Queen. Randall Kaufmann (co-owner of the fly shop with his brother, Lance) christened this series the “Alaskabous,” and collectively, the patterns took a vital spot in the pedigree of flies that began a marabou revolution. Though marabou is carefully tied in tip-first and wrapped like hackle on the Alaskabous of today, Cook admits that in tying the first versions, he was a “clumper.” I guess we won’t hold that against him.
The mid-’80s also saw another shift in regime, one that compounded the effects of Cook’s emerging marabou flies: the development of sinking lines and spey tactics. Sinking or sink-tip lines had proliferated to the point that there were dozens of variations—the Cortland 20-foot type-3 or the Scientific Anglers 13-foot type-4 for example—though none, as Cook points out, were as radical as the Teeny T-300 line developed by Jim Teeny in 1983. This line, to use one of Cook’s many colorful analogies, “is what brought the Native Americans from bows and arrows to rifles.” Spey, as Cook points out, was a true backwater in those days, with folks like Jimmy Green, Mike Maxwell, and Mark Bachman plying the waters of British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon with almost-speakeasy secrecy. By the early ‘90s, spey had been more widely adopted across the Northwest but was still considered in its infancy.
Cook and his guide comrades made good use of these developments, uncovering new methods and line arrangements to become proficient in, if not quite master, the king salmon and titanic-rainbow game. Cook’s triumphs include his first king in ‘83 and his first 30” rainbow taken on a Babine Special from the Kvichak not long after. Another unconventional method employed by Cook was fishing Glo-bugs on sink-tips. You’d high-stick the drift the same way others might Euro-nymph today, and such a tactic proved deadly even for fish glued to the bottom.
By the ‘90s, lines and flies had evolved to the point that Cook says, “Guides had it far easier.” This is the era that brought us the Intruder, RIO Windcutters (the first purpose-built Spey line in the world), and beads. Cook had started spreading his efforts across the Last Frontier, teaching a flyfishing school at Howie Van Ness’s Alaska Fly Shop in Fairbanks for 18 consecutive years, conspiring with Alaska Department of Fish & Game biologist Fred De Cicco for Arctic-region Dolly Varden, and swinging the waters of the Kenai devotedly for his first spey king there in 2003. The photos he shows me of Arctic dollies are especially impressive: 30-plus-inch fish after 30-plus-inch fish, caught with unbelievable regularity on flies like Joe Howell’s Starlite Leech. Simultaneously, Cook developed a few new fly patterns of his own; the first being the Dean River Tiger, the second being the Haley’s Comet. Both of these patterns harken back to the Popsicle in profile and use of marabou, and both have become classics for Pacific Northwest steelhead. Much of Cook’s genius comes from his use of colors. Anadromous fish are more or less receptive to certain colors depending on water turbidity, weather, brightness of day, and their progress in a given watershed. The Tiger and the Comet, for example, are designed for specific parts of a steelhead river; just like many of Cook’s color combinations for kings are assembled with distance from the ocean in mind. For an angler like Cook, with decades of devoted fishing experience, most of this information has become second-nature. For me, it’s like drinking from a firehose. I jot down what I can and Cook and I agree that this topic might require its own separate article. Stay tuned.
The first fly I ever bought in Alaska was a Popsicle. I recall it vividly: I was visiting my girlfriend (wife now) in my senior year of high school during August, and we were at the Sportsman’s Warehouse in Wasilla gearing up for my first attempt at Alaskan fish. Never mind that I’d totally missed the Klutina sockeye run I was hopeful to hit; I had some money burning a hole in my pockets and an entire shelf of flies in front of me. I bought a handful of Popsicles not because I’d heard of them, but because they looked so absurdly different from the flies I used back home in Wyoming that I figured they had to be good for these alien Alaskan species. My perception of Alaskan flyfishing, therefore, was shaped—begun, really—by this fly. Back then, if you’d have told me that someday I’d meet George Cook, I would’ve had the tepid response you’d probably expect from a teenager more interested in girls than in some stupid fly. Now, as a flurry of snow materializes in midtown Anchorage and Cook regales me with tales and photos of fish from years past, you could just about knock me over with a strand of marabou.
This is an angler who’s fished up and down southwestern Alaska, swung for giant sea-run brown trout on Tierra Del Fuego, and become so familiar with famed rivers like the Dean that their runs and pools are like old friends. This is an angler who invented a fly before I was even born that, now in my 25th year, is still the toast of the town in Alaskan waters. (By the way, I eventually came to nail the Klutina sockeye run, and let me tell you, the Volcano variant is money out there.)
Eventually we make our way out to the parking lot, where Cook brings me around the back of his vehicle with the air of someone selling oxycontin at the Black Angus Inn. In the back, he’s got a pile of duffel bags; all of which, I come to find out, are stacked with tackle boxes stuffed with flies. I mean there are thousands of these things. Cook, as a representative for Sage, Tibor Reels, RIO, and Redington (among others), is due to make his rounds of delivering some of RIO’s newest patterns to shops like Mossy’s and Mountain View Sports in just a few hours. He starts sifting through them and shoving some into my hand.
“You’ve got the CCFCCP,” he says of a mini-Squidro-looking fly, and at my confused look he clarifies: “The Coo-Coo-For-Cocoa-Puffs.”
Then there’s the “Checkmate,” the “Duck Norris,” the “Hare Snare,” the “Pocket Rocket,” the “Pip Squeak,” the “Pay Dirt,” and the “Trailer Trash,” all of which combined in a Ziploc and look like something that might be expelled from a nuclear reactor. You can imagine how my head was spinning then. I’d just had lunch with George Cook, I got to see the original predecessors to the Popsicle, and here he was handing me several pounds of fur and feathers that came with his own anodized guarantee.
I really regret not having him sign my napkin, though.
Joe Jackson is a fly nerd who wishes to thank each and every subject of Behind the Vice for indulging his curiosity. Joe has written for Fish Alaska, The Flyfish Journal, The Drake, and American Flyfishing, and his favorite fly to tie is a toss-up between the Splitsville Caddis and the classic Hare’s Ear.