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Pavlov’s Trout

Story & Photos By Nick Ohlrich

Ivan Pavlov was a psychologist in the late 1800s and was the guy that would ring a bell just before he fed his dogs. When the dogs saw the food, they would begin to salivate. For those of you that own dogs, especially labs, you know what I’m talking about. After many repetitions of ringing the bell before food was served, the dogs began salivating at the sound of the bell even when no food was present.

So, what does this have to do with Kenai River rainbow trout? I wish that simply ringing a bell in your boat would trigger big trout to feed, but that is not where I’m going with this.

Over the past several years it has become apparent that large rainbows (over 25 inches) and now even midsized fish (20- to 24 inches) are responding negatively to motor noise. Just as the sound of a bell triggered a habitual response in Pavlov’s dogs, the sounds of an outboard motor seem to be causing lockjaw in Kenai trout.

Now, I would like to point out that I am not a biologist, psychologist or anything else that ends in –ologist. I studied art in college. However, I have spent most of my adult life catching trout on the Kenai River and observing their evolving behavior. To better understand the changing habits of these fish, let’s take a stroll back 15 years to a time when the potential of the middle Kenai was just being let out of the bag.

Past
Back then, most trout aficionados circulated around the Cooper Landing area. The upper river was and still is a serious fishery comprised of very educated trout and trout fishermen. However, many (if not most) had no idea that just a bit downriver was a mecca for big, dumb rainbow trout.

At that time, a simple egg pattern could yield epic results. The bead simply needed to be round and resemble a salmon egg. Most trout anglers exploring the middle Kenai were in drift boats, so “power-lapping” and learning good trout water took time. Because “power lapping” wasn’t easy, big ’bows would tend to remain in their favored spots, which made for easy and successful fishing.

“Consequently, anglers are forced to step up their game and think of increasingly sneaky ways to hook these savvier fish.”

Present
Today, rather than just a pair of oars, many anglers are now running trout drifts in power boats. As a result, our pink-sided friends have received quite the education over the past few years and (I believe) have begun changing their habits…which brings us back to Pavlov and his salivating dogs. An increase in motor noise has become a signal to older fish that danger is high. Consequently, anglers are forced to step up their game and think of increasingly sneaky ways to hook these savvier fish.

Watching the interaction of the angler and fish over the last decade and a half has been nothing short of fascinating. As the fish get smarter and change their habits, the angler is forced to get smarter and change his or her habits. Each season I try to come up with one new pattern that produces big fish. That goal may not seem like much, but when you break it down there is actually a ton of trial, error and tweaking that takes place. But no matter how cleverly crafted a bead might be, a Kenai angler must recognize the complication of increased motor noise as a signal to the more mature and savvy giants.

I felt it necessary to mention the bead first, as it was the original catalyst for educating Kenai rainbows. As pressure increased on the middle Kenai, trout began getting very selective on what was real and not real. Actually, “selective” is not accurate; it’s more like IRS scrutiny—you know, like paying $30,000 in taxes only to then receive a letter stating that you underpaid and owe an additional $1.37.

The fish are paying closer attention than we often give them credit for.

I’ve literally had two anglers fishing the same bead, but one angler is hitting big fish and the other is netting only mid-sized rainbows. It doesn’t take long for all concerned parties to wonder what is going on. After closer examination, the “big fish” bead had just a few more specks on it than the one that was hooking medium-sized fish. How a trout can see that difference in glacial water flowing over 5 miles per hour is truly amazing, but that level of adaptation has helped the big boys avoid getting hooked and becoming part of a Facebook status update (trout hate Facebook).

Feeling the Pressure
It’s quite evident now that even the greatest bead on Earth will not convince a big trout to bite when there is excessive power boat traffic/noise pollution. If you have ever found yourself in Super Hole on a Saturday playing bumper boats, you’ll see people catching fish, but there will be nothing large flying out of the water. It’s mostly the “aw, shucks, ain’t it cute” trout. Once those guys get hip to the scene, the Dolly Varden take over. Dolly Varden are like the Honey Badger, and everyone knows that the Honey Badger does not give a darn. They just eat.

Finding pockets of big fish is awesome, especially if no one sees you. It allows you to come back periodically throughout the day and hook into some quality fish almost every time. What sucks is when you are spotted or someone stumbles into that zone and can’t help but hot-lap the spot. Inexperienced and/or overzealous anglers can push those big fish out of that zone permanently. It’s painful to watch, but before your tears completely cloud your vision, consider what actually happens in such an case.

Usually if a person jumps a big boy, they tear back to that spot and run it again. However, this time they will likely feel the excitement of only a midsized fish. Then bam, right back to the same spot and likely hooking a similar type of fish. Anglers are persistent buggers and will keep hitting that spot because they keep catching fish and know big ones are/were lurking down there. Soon the area is a churning mass of white caps and shame, killing the bite. Inevitably, the Varden and baby ’bows are the only fish inexperienced enough to still want to party. Usually by lap six other boats begin to stack up wishing to join in the fun. This creates a negative feedback loop that can drive the big boys out of the area and reinforce a negative relationship with motor noise.

As an aside, it may seem that I’m trashing Dolly Varden, but this isn’t the case. Dollies are a great indicator that a) there is something going on in the trout’s environment that is making them not bite (water temp, time of day, pressure, motor noise, etc.), or b) you are using entirely the wrong pattern. Beneath the surface of the Kenai lies a pecking order: big trout first, then midsized rainbows, followed by the babies and Dollies. Honestly, I love seeing a nice-sized Dolly Varden all decked out in their fall spawning splendor. It’s all part of the magic of the mighty Kenai River. However, if one’s goal is to hook a big ’bow, then you need to recognize what the Dolly on the end of your line is telling you.

Powerboats make it easy to fish a single run multiple times, but anglers need to be wary of overworking the trout––runs need rest if you’re looking to entice the big boys to bite.

Weapon of Choice
For those of you who recently took the $30,000 plunge on a shiny new power boat because you want to scour the Kenai for trophy trout and are reading this, take a breath, shrug off the buyer’s remorse and wipe away the tears. There is hope, but you need to consider stealth and resist the urge to run right back to that happy place where you just jumped the donkey trout of your life. I know; it’s hard.

As a fishing guide I have to break hearts on a regular basis:

Client: “You mean we’re not going to run back there and hit it again?”
“No, not for awhile.”
Client: “But I just hooked a big one.”
“I know. This is why you hooked a big one.”

I know that we have a greater chance of tangling with another beast in the same spot if we exercise patience and put our emotions in the closet where they belong. Once the initial disappointment subsides, most folks quickly see the big picture.

There is a new idea in addressing the problem of mobility and stealth, the power drifter. In recent years, more and more power drifters are emerging on the Kenai. A power drifter is a hybrid power/drift boat, usually powered by a 50hp jet or prop with a rower’s bench in the middle of the boat to run the stealth drift. Personally, I have not run nor fished out of one of these, but I really like the idea. At some point I may purchase one, but not yet. I don’t think we are quite there with the angler/trout cat-and-mouse game that a power drifter is a necessity.

A power drifter sits at the ready.

Drift boats are still the best way to be the sneakiest, offering the rower the ability to really slow the boat down and work an area without disturbing the monsters that lurk below. I realize that the power drifter can perform the same task, but I question the ease of rowing and maintaining that perfect trout drift in areas where the current is flowing faster. The hull design of the power drifter bridges the gap between a powerboat and a drift boat; the flat bottom allows the power drifter to run fast on step, but I feel the flat hull will also create extra drag for the average rower. With either vessel, you will find the same problem of spooking fish when you jump a big one in that hole.

Picture ten big, educated ’bows sitting off a juicy gravel bar drop happily gulping down eggs, carcasses and flesh, etc., without a care in the world. All of a sudden one of the monsters—let’s call him Walter—chomps down a great big hunk of flesh with a few eggs attached to it. Unfortunately for Walter, this is a well-crafted flesh fly. He now has a complete temper tantrum, thrashing about, jumping out of the water and then suddenly takes off. His buddies know what just happened and all get a quick case of lockjaw. They will continue this hunger strike until their world calms down and returns to a more natural, undisturbed state. Hence, hitting Walter’s spot again too soon not only decreases the likelihood of another large strike, but also encourages fish to be warier in general. So, patience is not just a virtue but also a successful long-term fishing strategy for the big trout.

Creating the perfect pattern for fishing Alaska’s most educated trout takes a lot of trial and error in the guides’ laboratory.

Tying it Together
The Kenai is an amazing fishery and I feel blessed to have spent so much time floating its waters. It is great fun to watch and learn the ever-evolving habits of Kenai trout and to figure out how to outsmart such intelligent creatures. The days of hooking into these giant monsters with stock beads straight out of the package have passed, but that is not a bad thing.

Witnessing the evolution of such amazing fish as they grow in size and sophistication is what fishing is really all about. It’s a game of cat-and-mouse that will never end, and it is something that I look forward to as it constantly keeps me pressing the boundaries of the patterns I create, spending many sleepless nights thinking of ways to outsmart and stay ahead of the big fish. If you continue to be observant, patient and push yourself, you have no choice but to become a better, smarter angler.

So, next time you’re on the river choosing that big-fish pattern, consider motor noise and what you will do right after tangling with a mighty Kenai rainbow.

 

Nick Ohlrich is co-owner/guide for Alaska Drift Away Fishing. For more info check out their website at www.guidekenairiver.com or contact them at info@guidekenairiver.com or 1-877-999-8677.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Fish Alaska.

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