Meet Alaska’s native trout species and the angler who pursued them during a single visit
Story by Marian Giannulis
Photos by Daniel A. Ritz/@Jacks_Experience_Trading
When one thinks of fishing in Alaska, a few special species typically come to mind: the mighty salmon, door-sized halibut and vividly colored rainbow trout. Fewer people are familiar with all species of trout and char native to Alaska. When Daniel Ritz (tu.org/magazine/author/daniel-ritz/), an angler in pursuit of accomplishing the Western Native Trout Challenge, recently visited Alaska, he shined a light on the native species here and had the time of his life fishing with Trout Unlimited’s Alaska Program staffers and volunteers. Daniel is a Trout Unlimited volunteer, and the communications coordinator for and a board member of the Ted Trueblood Chapter of Trout Unlimited in Idaho. He learned to flyfish in Idaho and was surprised to learn that many of the fish he was catching in remote and pristine environments there were not native to the area. After learning of the Challenge, he saw the opportunity to gain a comprehensive understanding of American trout, their native habitat across various mountain ranges and watersheds, along with their cultural history.
The Western Native Trout Challenge is an initiative to catch 21 species of trout and char in their historically native habitat across 12 western states (westernnativetroutchallenge.org/). The native species are found in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. The Challenge encourages anglers to familiarize themselves with species of native fish, their natural habitat, and where they can be caught responsibly. Once the fish are caught, participants submit photos and descriptions of the fish and then earn a certificate, hat or medallion. Registration fees for the Challenge fund conservation of the native species. Local state and wildlife agencies in each of the 12 participating states partnered on the effort, along with the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and Trout Unlimited.
The Alaska species featured in the Western Native Trout Challenge include Alaskan lake trout, Alaskan rainbow trout, Arctic grayling, Arctic char, coastal cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden. The pursuit of these six species will take you to vastly different bodies of water and areas across the state. Daniel felt it was important to pursue and share this experience as a contemporary insight into the modern reality of native trout across the West.
Daniel’s first stop on his Alaska tour was southeast Alaska. During his time there he pursued coastal cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden with Mark Hieronymus, Trout Unlimited Alaska’s community science coordinator. Bad weather kept the two from their original plan of flying out of Juneau, but thankfully you don’t have to go far from Alaska’s capital city to find good fishing. Both species can be found in coastal areas throughout southeast Alaska. They first targeted Dolly Varden at a beach known for productive fishing on the outgoing tide. They stripped fry patterns, imitating the salmon fry and smolt that dollies love to eat, and caught fish after fish in the 15- to 18-inch range. Daniel’s first Alaska species was a smashing success. Later in the trip, after proposing to his long-time girlfriend, Holly, deep in the Tongass National Forest, Daniel set out on a late-night solo mission and caught coastal cutthroat trout at a small stream unknowingly only steps from his rental house.
The second stop on Daniel’s journey was interior Alaska in pursuit of Arctic grayling. There he met up with Oliver Ancans, president of the Fairbanks Chapter of Trout Unlimited. Together the two fished for trophy-sized Arctic grayling in a tributary of the Tanana River. Daniel found success tossing dry flies and pulled in several 18- to 20-inch grayling. At three for three, Daniel’s Challenge was looking good, but he was about to realize that not all Alaska native fish species can be found without a struggle.
The next species proved to be a greater test for Daniel. He and Oliver headed to an unnamed lake in the Alaska Range, aiming to add lake trout to his list of species caught. For hours they cast from the icy shore, hoping to entice lake trout from the cold depths as they fed along the receding ice line. The cold weather conditions and shore casting proved difficult for Daniel, but after several hours of fishing with a whitefish-imitation fly, he hooked into and landed a 25-inch lake trout. This outing was the coldest and most remote of his trip thus far, but worth the effort for this impressive fish.
After being frozen lakeside, it was time to head south to warmer and smaller waters. Daniel’s next stop was Talkeetna, where he would target rainbow trout. He and Eric Booton, Trout Unlimited Alaska’s Eklutna project manager, set out to fish a tributary of the Susitna River. Daniel threw Dolly Llama flies and tried his hand at casting with a mouse pattern. He hooked several nice-sized rainbow trout, but each gave him a run for his money and broke free. Frustration grew, but eventually Daniel hooked a rainbow trout on a fry pattern. After no less than four aerial jumps Daniel landed his first Alaskan rainbow trout. He was surprised to see that the feisty fish was only 12 inches long. This fish was much more powerful and difficult to land than the hatchery rainbows he was used to catching at home in Idaho.
The last species on Daniel’s Alaska list was Arctic char. He traveled even further south to the Kenai Peninsula to fish for char with Dave Atcheson, the Kenai Peninsula coordinator for Trout Unlimited Alaska. Dave and Daniel fished the Swanson and Swan Lake systems. While there they both caught rainbow trout in the double-digits, but the char remained elusive. For four days the rainbows were bountiful, but not a single Arctic char was caught. Daniel tried weighted flies, sinking lines, sinking tips, green buggers, black leeches, baitfish imitations, big streamers and small nymphs to no avail. The sixth and final native Alaskan species would not be crossed off his list, but not without admirable effort.
At the end of the trip Daniel celebrated the success of catching five of the six species, and reflected on his failure to catch Arctic char. The experience left him hungry for his next fishing trip to Alaska, but also grateful for the experience. He had traveled to the land of the midnight sun and caught wild and beautiful native fish from healthy populations in incredibly scenic areas. What more can an angler ask for?
If you want to participate in the Western Native Trout Challenge, visit westernnativetroutchallenge.org/. Pursuing the native trout and char species of Alaska is an excellent way to experience a wide variety of the seemingly endless fishing opportunities in the state. From the beaches of southeast Alaska to the lakes and streams of interior and southcentral Alaska, there is a fishing adventure for all.
Trout Unlimited’s mission is to protect, reconnect and restore North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds. Learn about our work in Alaska at tu.org/project/alaska/. Marian Giannulis is the Alaska Communications & Engagement Director for Trout Unlimited.