BIG FELLOW - The author holds up a big lake trout that he caught up in the Yukon this spring. Brittney Thomas

Are you experienced?


I used to be a trailblazer. Upon first arriving in Alaska, I felt the need to seek out fishing spots from Skagway to Whitehorse, and everywhere in between. This intrepid attitude led me to places where surprise was ordinary, and occasionally where fish happened to dwell.

I remember hiking up a steep slope where stunted evergreens grew twisted and bent in defiance of the elements and the movement of time. The ground was covered in mint-green lichen, speckled with tiny yellow and blood-red flowers. A blanket of fog churned overhead, but no hint of the wind that moved it fell upon my face.

I was walking along a narrow game trail, which eventually turned near the edge of a steep cliff. A few hundred feet below, a narrow stream the color of blue diamond sliced through a dense thicket of alder painted with the tones of ruddy autumn rust. The sound of the stream carried up the slope and mingled with the high-pitched chirping of sparrows hidden in the ground cover.

I scanned the slope for a way to hike down to the stream, which I was quite certain would hold grayling. I eventually made my way down to the water, although it was an effort in trial and error, false starts and retracing misguided steps.

I began fly casting into a small backwater that swirled around a deep hole. I was using a mosquito pattern, a safe bet when you’re off the beaten track. After the first grayling hit, I noticed that they were literally everywhere. None were larger than 15 inches, but they would rise to the surface and feed with a chaotic rhythm that only became apparent after some time had passed.

I fished at this particular spot only one time. That’s because during those years of exploration and discovery I found better spots for catching bigger fish, places that required less effort to reach. The routes to these fishing holes are now well traveled, as are the pathways they have etched within my mind after so many repeated excursions.

Experience itself is often a double-edged sword. It can impart wisdom, which is the application of knowledge that leads to success, but if the experience is negative, then you’re left with a resolute belief that might have little to do with reality.

Still, there is no substitute for experience when it comes to fishing. The novice angler believes that catching fish is reliant upon fishing at a certain place, but conditions over a given location are always changing depending on how the elements sculpt it with each passing minute. Knowing where to fish is far less important than knowing how to fish, a subject that is open to much debate among those who consider themselves seasoned anglers.

This makes sense because everyone’s personal experience is different. Fishing techniques are developed over time via experimentation, and everyone who believes they have the definitive answer possess power that the uninitiated covet.

Fishing is far more than the summation of some quotient – it is an experiment of unknown factors that fall somewhere within the realms of mysticism and ingenuity. There are no secrets if you consider this truth for what it’s worth.

If you’re reading this nonsense then chances are you want to learn to fish. Fear not, because all you have to do is spend some time within this realm and the answers you seek will be self-evident. You obviously live in Alaska, right now at this moment, so there is no good reason why you shouldn’t act on this simple desire.

Every year I get asked by a handful of people if I can take them fishing. I am more than willing, but I always ask this simple question, “Do you want to go fishing, or do you want to learn to fish?”

The difference is palpable. Going fishing for a day requires little effort. Learning to fish is a commitment that few are willing to undertake. Perhaps it’s for the best, unless you’re eager to concede to the forces of superstition, obsession and misguided confidence.

In this realm experience is your friend. Still, there are a few things you can do ahead of time to make the endeavor more rewarding.

Learn to tie a fishing knot. It might seem obvious, but if you aren’t able to tie a lure to the end of your line then you can’t really say you’re putting forth any real effort.

Learn the water. Around these parts the water is always changing. This is true of ocean, river and lake. One rainstorm can transform any body of water into something completely different. Knowing how to read a body of water is paramount to understanding the fish that dwell within it.

Learn patience. Experience isn’t born overnight. It takes time to refine your own technique. You can learn from others, but only building your own skills will reap dividends. You need time to develop you own methods, and time spent on the water is yours alone.

There is a place within these simple pointers where truth resides. When the cylinders are firing in unison, and you’re barely aware that it’s happening, the world around you transforms into blind symmetry and your fishing rig becomes a mere extension of your body. In this place your mind flows freely, and what you find in there can be comforting or disquieting. All of which falls away when the rod bends over and your efforts find fulfillment.

And isn’t that the whole idea? If you’ve never felt the adrenaline rush that coincides with a fish’s strike, then you are missing out on one of life’s most simple pleasures. All it takes is a little bit of effort, and the willingness to commit to something with no guarantees.

When it comes down to the bare essentials, all you have is your own experience. It’s all you’re ever going to have, so why not make the best of it? Test those waters for all they’re worth, and you might be surprised at what you find. The mysteries that reveal themselves are often the ones you least suspect. If your experience helps you find fish then you’re obviously doing something right.