Clouds and rain threatened as I stepped from the single-prop onto the tarmac at the Alaskan village of Galena, home to a few hundred residents along the north bank of the Yukon River, 270 air miles west of my home in Fairbanks.
Waiting for me in the parking lot, leaning against his vintage Toyota pickup, was Wyatt Snodgrass, fisheries biologist for the Innoko, Koyukuk, and Nowitna National Wildlife Refuges (combined acreage: 9,450,488—the size of six Delawares). I was visiting in my capacity as a fisheries ecologist for the NYC-based Wildlife Conservation Society, here to help Wyatt with a pike research-and-monitoring project in the Innoko River, Alaska’s fifth-longest at 500 miles.
Our plan was to document the population’s diet, age, genetic information, and levels of contaminants. I felt fortunate to be fishing the Innoko, one of the world’s top big-pike destinations.
I took in the landscape around me: old military buildings (Galena served as an airfield during World War II); wide, flat topography; and muddy roads, surrounded by a green hardwood forest. The rain began peppering the windshield as Wyatt took me on a driving tour of the sleepy, dispersed hamlet scattered along the enormous river.
The following morning, Wyatt and I carried our gear to a pair of red-and-white Piper Super Cubs resting in a shallow, weedy slough. Here we met our pilots, Ben and Ed. Ben was an avid hunter and a soft-spoken guy who exuded competence. Ed was warm and garrulous with a flowing golden mullet reminiscent of a pro hockey player. The pilots crammed our gear into the planes, wedging in rods, camping kit, food, sampling gear, and a cooler. Skimming down the slough, we were soon airborne over Galena and then heading south across the mile-wide Yukon.
After a turbulent, hour-long flight over low mountains and expansive spruce forest, Ben and I descended toward the muddy ribbon of the Innoko. Tin roofs and aluminum boat hulls glinted in the sun as we angled down and landed on the dark-brown water of a slough adjacent to the river. Ed and Wyatt landed ten minutes later, and we all went about the chores of making this unique USFWS camp serviceable. The outpost consists of several small cabins for cooking, sleeping, and storage, all of them perched high on pilings to keep clear of frequent floods, giving the place a sort of Amazon-village vibe.
Ed fired up a small tractor with a rope attached to it and used it to lower a boat thirty yards to the river, where we tied it up and prepared it for cruising the Innoko in the coming days. After one last caution about bears chewing exposed fuel lines, the pilots climbed back in their planes and left us alone at our camp in pike paradise.
Having dreamt of this opportunity for months, I soon began casting from shore with my seven-weight, wire leader, and rabbit-strip streamer. It didn’t take long to land several medium-sized pike to keep for samples. To protect the large female spawners, we would only be collecting fish that were under twenty-eight inches. This became a challenge when a quarter of the fish we caught stretched beyond that mark. An hour in, while sloshing around in the slough, I hooked a particularly large pike. It smashed my streamer along the lilypad-littered margin of the deeper water, bucking and diving in the inky depths. After a fight of several minutes, I got the fish to the bank and laid it on a measuring board, taping it at thirty-four inches. Removing the hook with long-handled forceps, I slid its yellow-and-green mottled bulk back into the dark water.
One evening, while reading a book in the twilight, I kept hearing a faint bumping noise outside. Assuming it was Wyatt rummaging around his cabin, I peered out my window and instead saw a small black bear under the overhang of my cabin platform. Grabbing bear spray, I popped out onto the deck and yelled at the bear, just ten feet away. It apparently found a fisheries ecologist in sweatpants not the least bit intimidating, as it simply ignored my yelling and continued sniffing around the underside of the cabin. A bit louder and more spirited noise-making sent it onto the porch of another cabin (not Wyatt’s), where it began chewing on a glove that was covered in pike slime. Eventually, I walked down and blew the boat horn. While this did wake up Wyatt in a startling manner, it also made the bear spit out the glove and finally amble out of camp. We saw him the next day on the far side of the slough, but he never returned to bother us.
With a few days remaining, Wyatt and I decided to fish the main river. We boated across the slough and transferred to the bigger boat, where we found three puncture marks in the handle of a gas can—more handiwork of the bear. Cruising up and down the muddy, slow-moving Innoko, we caught pike while casting soft-plastic minnow-baits on spinning gear. But out on the main river, a higher percentage of them were too large for our sampling. We caught many fish over thirty inches and two that measured more than forty. These fish were healthy and strong, and it was difficult to land and release them from the boat, because the landing-net mesh ripped during an encounter with a particularly large specimen. The cut-resistant glove and long forceps did the trick, but we tried to keep the fish in the water so they wouldn’t hurt themselves.
Our research permit allowed us to set some tangle-nets in the river to increase our sample size, but this proved ineffective for pike, as they were either not moving around or could see and avoid the nets. We did catch one chubby whitefish that looked to be the perfect-size food for a forty-inch waterwolf.
One side of the river was the boundary of the 1,240,000-acre Innoko Wilderness Area, and we walked around on the bank basically so we could say we visited it—not many have. Our base camp was more than a hundred river miles from Shageluk (pop. 99), the nearest downstream village. No villages are upstream.
The next day the Innoko was higher and muddier, with rain continuing to fall. On the way upstream, along one wide bend, movement on the left bank caught my eye. It was a group of seven wolf pups, playing and exploring beside a large den in the riverbank. When we first approached, they ran toward us to get a better look, but when we got within thirty yards, they reconsidered and retreated into the den and the surrounding vegetation. A pup poked its nose out of the foliage here and there. Just upstream, near the top of the riverbank, we saw an adult that was likely the pups’ mom. We pulled upriver across from her, and she watched us, unimpressed. She was a spectacular animal with salt-and-pepper coloring. A raw wound on her side was noticeable, perhaps from an encounter with a moose she was trying to bring down for her pups.
We backed off and continued upstream. Later that day, hunkered in the boat to shelter from heavy rain, we saw another black bear, this one swimming across the river. These encounters drove home just how remote and wild this setting was. Since the cabin gets so few visitors, it’s likely these animals we encountered had never seen a human.
On our final morning at camp, I was back out on the slough with my seven-weight, trying to catch a forty-inch pike on a fly rod, which I’d set as my goal for the trip. The closest I’d gotten was the thirty-four incher at the beginning of the trip—my personal best on the fly. Drifting within sight of camp, I threw a large foam mouse into some dark water next to a lily pad, and as I began stripping it back, a giant pike exploded on the mouse, going airborne trying to eat it. I set the hook too early, missing the fish as it crashed back into the water. Cursing, thinking I had blown my chance, I made another cast. Immediately after the mouse hit the water, the big pike ate it. I reefed back, setting the hook, and the fish shot directly into a patch of water lilies. For a moment I thought it might break off, but my thick leader sliced through the vegetation and the pike was soon out in open water, shaking its head and going on several powerful runs, one of them taking me into the backing. After five-plus minutes of fighting, I finally had the fish alongside the boat, where it thrashed and caught one of my fingers with its teeth, cutting a half inch slice that bled profusely. I grit my teeth and waited for the pike to calm down.
When I lifted it to take a photo, I noticed a streak of blood on its side. My blood. I laid the beast on the measuring board in the bottom of the boat. Thirty-eight inches. Not quite the forty-incher, but I was satisfied with this magnificent fish, a new personal best on the fly for me. Popping the mouse out of the pike’s jaw, I lowered it into the water and cradled it there. With a single thrash of its tail, it shot away toward the lily pads. I wrapped my bleeding hand with a towel and motored back to camp.
Wyatt and I were happy with the data we collected, which will be kept in refuge records for future use in fisheries studies. The Innoko River had lived up to its legendary reputation as a northern pike stronghold in one of the least-populated parts of a state known for its many remote areas.