By Mark Hieronymus
MH: Alright, George cook interview, the only take we’re gonna get. George, if you could give me a quick introduction to you, a quick bio, a background, including when you first came to Alaska, where you have guided, your line of work that brings you to Alaska, and how often you get up there to fish, that would be great.
GC: Well Mark, I started guiding in Western Alaska, Bristol Bay, in 1983, on the Alagnak, and guided from 1983 to 1985 in the greater Bristol Bay region. Since those days, I’ve had stints in retail with the Kaufmann’s organization in Washington state, and from there I went on to work in-house as Sage’s Director of Schools and sport shops. In 1991 I was put in a field position as a rep for Sage and a half a dozen other companies which has now fortunately blossomed into our agency known as “Angler’s Rendezvous” which consists of myself and young Eric Neufeld, and we cover Oregon, Washington, and Alaska for companies such as Sage, Rio, Simms, Tibor, Smith, and Solitude flies.
How often do you get up to Alaska these days?
I’d say these days I get up there about five times a year, of which all are business oriented in terms of my rep-ship and working for those manufacturers, but of those five, there’s normally two that have some fishing attached to them, usually one that is pretty focused for rainbows, and one that is pretty focused for kings, and that’s a yearly deal for those two things.
Alaska is pretty unique…it has all five salmon species in abundance, it’s got a lot of trout, pike, sheefish...what is your favorite species to fish for, and why?
What a tough question. That's truly a loaded, baited question, Mark. I look at it a lot like the sporting life in general - things have a season, and early June, for me, marks the first shot out of the bag for rainbows. I'm a big fan of that - spey rods, swinging flies, Naknek-Kvichak-Kenai sort of stuff, but you're not too far into June and you are thinking kings, in my case kings on the spey rod, rivers such as the Kanektok, the Sandy, y'know, various and sundry rivers in Alaska, largely in Bristol Bay and some in South Central. I've done tons of silver fishing over the years, and I've always felt that August, with it's bounty of silvers, rainbows, and Dollies - particularly in Western Alaska - was as good as it gets in terms of "Fun factor, Action-Jackson" at it's best. I've done the giant Dollies in the Arctic, which I think is one of the more unique things in the state, and I've done steelhead on the Alaska Peninsula 200 miles below King Salmon where for years nobody said they were but they've been and continue to flourish, so I've seen the unique, I've seen the crowded, I've seen the treasured, I've seen a good chunk of the state...I suppose if my favorites have to be picked, I'm going to start with rainbows, go to kings, then giant Dollies, and steelhead...I dunno. You pick a month, we'll pick a favorite, how bout that?
That kind of leads into this next one...without giving up any secrets, what is your favorite place to fish in Alaska ?
Well again, pick a month, we'll pick something. For uniqueness, I think the Arctic region of Northwestern Alaska is maybe the most fascinating place I've been up there, but in terms of just pure action and availability, whether it is salmon or rainbows or Dollies, Western Alaska certainly has to be seen as one of the top favorites. Y'know, if you said you can absolutely only do one thing, just one thing...I dunno...a middle Kenai rainbow trip is certainly hard to beat, certainly an accessible one, but y'know, swinging flies for kings, the giant Dollies of the north, and Alaska steelhead with no one around...I don't know where we'd pick. Again, pick a month, we'll pick one. Pick a month.
Well ok, here we go...I got a month and a river, and I'll describe the scenario to you and you can fill in the blanks. Mid-July on the Kanektok river, bright kings are holding, you've got the perfect run, and you've got it all to yourself. What is your tackle set-up as far as rod, reel line, and three flies?
Three flies, the flies are easy. We'll start that one in reverse...for kings, there's a fly from Solitude Fly Co. called the Jumbo Critter which is an Intruder-style fly, and I think when you are in the tidewater regions of these rivers, you can't go wrong with chartreuse, chartreuse and blue, or black and blue, so if you gave me a chartreuse Jumbo Critter Intruder-style fly, a chartreuse-blue , and a black-blue , I'm set. Gimme 6 of each and turn me loose for the week. In terms of a setup, I'd probably want two different spey rods, one kinda smaller one and one sort of big one. The smaller one would be a Sage 8129-4, a 12-foot, 9-inch 8-weight - don't be fooled by the 8-weight designation, as it's a really powerful 8-weight and it makes for a nice, comfortable rod to cast, and often times in the wind, the smaller rod is more effective. If we got some wide-open stuff that we really wanna bomb 'em out on, could be the Kanektok, could be a Nushagak-type situation, a 10150, a 15-foot 10-weight, both these rods set up with [Rio] Skagit lines, cheaters where appropriate, particularly on the 15-footer. Generally for kings you're fishing t-14 or the new t-17 - these are sink-tips that sink at 9 and 10 inches per second [respectively]. You can custom-cut 'em, I suppose my favorite length for that setup is 13 feet, but you should certainly have yourself some 11-footers, and 15-footers, you'll end up fishing them all, but if you had to just pick one, a 13-foot chunk of t-14 is gonna get down into the living room and get some work done, Mark.
Can we get a reel in there?
Goodness gracious...say on that 15-footer a Tibor Gulfstream or a Sage 6012. On that 8-weight 8129, a Tibor Riptide or a Sage 6010. You see a lot of guys fishing Ross [reels] in Alaska, so a Momentum 6 could be a good one on that 8-weight, and a Momentum 7 on that big 15-footer.
Alright...since you named rainbows too, let's go with June 8th opener...or is it June 11th?...
It's the 8th in Western Alaska, so the Naknek is the 8th, and the Kenai is the 11th. You had it.
Ok, so, June 11th, Kenai river...
Multiple weapons. I'm gonna have a spey rod or two, small ones, maybe a 5-weight, maybe a 6-weight or
7-weight, big fan of the 5-weight 5126 Z-Axis, it's a nice, small spey rod, small but powerful, as John Madden likes to say about a placekicker...that rod, I'd put a Skagit 400 grain on it, no cheater, fish type VI, type VIII sink-tips, 15-footers, 109, 129 grains would be nice on that. I would fish sculpins, stuff like the old Willie Nelson fly, I think you are probably familiar with that one...various sculpins like Sculpzilla , it's become very popular up there, there's a host of great sculpin patterns that a guy can unleash. You can't go wrong with blacks, you can't go wrong with olives, early season, great colors for rainbows. So, there's a two-hander, the 5-weight, some guys will like a 6-weight, maybe the big rod for rainbows would be a 7136, 13-foot 6-inch 7-weight, again, a Skagit line, say, a 500 grain on that, no cheater, sink-tips in the 129-150 grain range would work great there, type III, type VI, type VIII. You generally don't need the t-14 setups for rainbows, although there certainly are places on the Nakenek, places on the Kvichak where it makes sense, so having an 11 or 13-foot section of t-14 is a good call. Single-handers, big advocate of 9 1/2 footers, 6-weight and 7-weight, 10-foot 6-weight and 7-weight for rainbows, a 7100 is probably in my eyes, in my mind, the perfect single-handed rainbow rod. It's big enough to play the big boys when you encounter them, but not so big that a 15-inch fish is completely overkilled...so I love a 7100, generally speaking, that early opener, probably get done with a floating line, maybe a versi-tip line where I could interchange tips, anywhere from a floating to a type VIII sink-tip, but generally a rod like that is probably gonna be set-up with maybe a flesh fly, despite the fact that, y'know, you don't normally think of the month of June as a flesh fly sort of time period, but what folks sometimes overlook is the fact that those salmon have been dead in the river since fall, some of the silvers didn't die until February or even early March, and those rainbows have been on flesh for months on end...it's a staple, and believe it or not, it works just as good in June as it does in October. So, the favorite flesh fly is the Ladyflesh , which is an AK original from Tracy Smith, who works for [AK Dept of] Fish and Game in South Central. We love that fly in a size 4, and the articulated in a size 4. Fabulous fly, works good all season long, love it probably the best in the month of June and the months of September and October.
Alrighty...Not involving landing a fish, what is your most memorable Alaska experience?
Boy...wow Mark...How much time we got?
I think I have 2 1/2 hours on this thing...
I have fished and hunted extensively in Alaska, so I have...This is a tough one, because, y'know...the first couple of Dall sheep I shot in Alaska is probably one of the more memorable things...a Brown bear, a Boone and Crockett moose...so, we'll get off hunting and try to confine this one to fishing...
Is there something that pops to mind, the first thing you can think of?
I think I would probably tell you two things that probably stick out as much as anything...The first king salmon that I ever hooked on any gear, which happened to be on a drift rod in the Alagnak...I never saw that fish, I'm rather sure that it was north of 40 lbs...the next day I would catch one, 46 lbs, so the power, the impressive power of a "just in" king salmon way back in the '80's will always be embedded in my mind...and probably the first Dolly Varden that I saw in the Arctic that was north of 35 inches was probably one of the more memorable "Wow, look at this" experiences, y'know, those, coupled with some of the things that I have done hunting are among the awe-inspiring thoughts that I would throw at you.
Ok...you have been in a lot of places in Alaska, so this one is going to be kind of tough...
Let me know when the tough starts.
Ok...where have you not been in Alaska that is at the top of your list to go?
The big pike fisheries that Greg Befus is doing I think in...either off the Yukon or the Kuskokwim...that one, and the sheefish stuff that is out in that same portion of Western Alaska, those are two things that I have not done. I think there is some steelheading yet to really be explored to the extent that it exists on the Pacific side of the Alaska Peninsula...those things would come to mind...and despite the fact that I'm a fly fisherman 98% of the time, I think those Kodiak king fisheries of May and June in the saltwater are something I would personally like to do, that's not something that I really do, so it would be kind of a new adventure for me as a fly fisherman to go see that side of angling. We encounter those fish when they show up in the Kenai, generally in June or July, it would be interesting to see those same big kings in the salt.
That would be pretty cool...You have been fishing in Alaska since 1983. What part of fishing was better back then, and what part is better now?
Well, I'm not sure if anything was better back then. When you've seen a 25-plus year span, you've seen what some folks would say "Well, y'know, there was more of this then", or "There was more of that then", or "I had more success way back when", but that's hard to say, I guess a guy could throw it out there that "Well, I had x-amount of success then because of a plentiful resource, but maybe I'm having more success now because of advanced tackle and techniques and methods and understanding", but I can actually tell you that I think there's a number of aspects of Alaska fishing that are better today. I think rainbow fishing in Western Alaska is better today than it was 25 years ago, for the simple reason that in many, many fisheries...say, the Kanektok in the west, the Alagnak, the Naknek, and in the Kenai itself, I think the conscientious factor of today's angler as well as today's native community towards the rainbow trout is much more of a protected one, of catch-and-release, you know, "Now we don't need to be netting those guys, we've got plentiful salmon"...so I think the rainbow fishing in Alaska today is, I think it's better than it was 25 years ago. I think king fishing seems to have somewhat of an any given year, any given river is good or down a little bit, y'know, occasionally fantastic...I suspect king fishing might have been better back in the '80's than it is today, then again, any given year and run...so yeah, you certainly hear people talk about those fragile fisheries of the Arctic, and those Dolly Varden and the Western as well as Eastern Brooks range, that those fish are not in the abundance that they once were, but y'know, I'm not sure that there's...how much data there is out there to really tell us what was going on then versus now.
Is there anybody that you can point to, one person or a group of people from your early days of fishing, or maybe as you were leaving Alaska that influenced you to be where you are now? A guide, a lodge owner, an angler...someone that gave you a direction?
Boy, that's a great question. When I was up there in the 1980's, I was around it seemed like a couple of different factions of anglers. When I was guiding on the Alagnak, I was with a lot of guys that were from Washington state, and they were largely steelhead and salmon guides from Washington state, the Skagit, the Olympic Peninsula, and while these guys weren't really fly fishermen in the sense that we se so many Alaska guides today, these guys were...these guys were just fish hunters, I mean literally in the sense of the word. They were anadromous adventure anglers. The passion that they brought to the game, these guys, was very inspiring. I would say that there was two individuals that from a fly fishing and just pure inspirational standpoint that jumped out...I happened to guide with Jerry Siems, he was the head, the chief of rod design at Sage and has been for well over 10 years now, and Jerry and I both guided on the Alagnak. Jerry was an icon way back in the early '80's, and to be around guys of that magnitude as well as these "steelhead legend" guides that come from Washington to guide in Alaska was...boy it was a great melting pot of anglers and knowledge and passion. Maybe the guy that threw a lot out on the table that I listened to early on was a taxidermist from Anchorage, a very famous taxidermist by the name of Hunter Fisher...that's his name. Hunter Fisher, and he still has a taxidermy shop there, and this guy really put it out there that "Hey, there's life beyond the river that you are on" y'know..."Yeah, son, you're guiding on the Alagnak and you got a pretty good handle on what's going on there, but there's this whole world to the north of you, off in Iliamna, there's Western Alaska"...y'know, this guy...this guy put a lot of streams and species and places and talk of 20 lb rainbows in my head, and he did that in the early '80's, so I always had a hankering to guide or fish places like the Kvichak, the Naknek, the Talariks, the Moraine, the Kenai, Battle, Funnel...the list goes on and on. So that inspiration to go seek out these spots and see these rivers was planted with me pretty early on.
In the last 5 or 10...actually, the last 5, 10, or 15 years, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest have been "the Laboratory", if you will, the cutting edge of a lot of developments in fly fishing. To name a couple, the use of beads, the surge in popularity of two-handers, strung-out or stinger-style flies, stuff like that...is there anything going on in the Pacific Northwest or Alaska that in its infancy now that you see as The Next Big Thing?
Boy, you certainly rattled of an interesting evolution of things... I mean, I can recall the days when we were really thinkin' we were king fishing with a 13-foot type VI sink-tip and we really thought we were in the game...actually, a 13-foot type IV, to be honest...so yeah, no doubt tackle has advanced, fly design has advanced in a monstrous fashion in the last 15 years versus the previous 30. I think the first couple of kings I saw guys catch on the Alagnak in the early '80's were actually on tarpon-style flies...and y'know, the young guy that came up with the showgirl, the popsicle, the volcano, and the pixie's revenge, which were all flies I drummed up in the 1980's that were coined the Alaskabou's...it's amazing how it went from, say, a Skykomish sunrise or a tarpon-style fly for king salmon to the Intruders of today. The bead thing, boy, did I see that revolution...I was behind the curve on that one. I kinda fought it, I thought it was just a step away from bait-fishing at one time...y'know, there was a lot of the old-guard, the dealers and lodge-owners and guides that kinda were...I don't know if they were fighting it or just avoiding it. I think in my case I was avoiding it, and I saw firsthand on the Kanektok - this is a great little story, Mark - this backchannel I fished, I fished with the "Duct-tape Duncan and Sons" crew, I always caught fish in this backchannel, fish like there was no tomorrow...rainbows, Dollies, the occasional grayling, it was borderline stupid. One year I went down that backchannel in the month of August, I had my traditional glo-bug in salmon-egg color on, I had gone maybe 30 yards and I hadn't got a fish, hadn't even hooked one. I couldn't fathom it...it was like someone had dropped a neutron bomb on the Kanektok, the foliage was all intact and all the fish and game were gone...I had some beads, and I kind of reluctantly put one on, and it was like suddenly the stadium was full again, y'know, there's cheering...I caught fish like crazy, and I've never fished a glo-bug since, so yeah, I certainly saw that one go on. I think the thing going on today that's the next revolution is actually not fly fishing, I think it's in a form of gear-fishing known as the center-pin. The kid who works for me in my office, Eric Neufeld, is somewhat of a center-pin crackhead, y'know, we let him out of the closet occasionally, but he goes crazy talking about it. In fact we just signed on with the company Raven, out of Eastern Canada, to rep that product line. You look at...the center-pin phenomena, for the most part, has come out of Canada, it's come out of British Columbia for what's in terms of the Pacific Northwest, and Ontario to the east, and this is, I think, the next big thing, and I think it's the next big thing because it takes the idea of nymphing that has become such the rage in Alaska, nymphing with beads, nymphing with flesh flies...not traditional nymphing as one would think of in Montana, but rather, Alaska-type fishing, with beads, which is in essence nymphing...it is...the idea that you can do it with this tackle that is not really a spinning rod, it's not really a spey rod, it's...I kinda call the center-pin the "spey of gear", in a way, although you don't cast it that way, the casting is unique, and it's wickedly, wickedly effective. If you were to compare the center-pin to a fly rod and the effectiveness of fishing a bead, it would be equivalent to that of a fly-rod is a bow, and the center-pin is a rifle, so, you're making quite a move there...so that is what I think is going to be one of the next big ones. I think the long-time chase to effectively catch king salmon in saltwater on flies, as well as halibut, I think that is going to continue to be an ongoing thing, and now that Brian O'Keefe is somewhat retired, he may well be the guy that really puts that one on the map in Southeast...so yeah, there's some things that I think are really gonna unfold.
You have been guiding, fishing, and hosting other anglers in Alaska for a long time now. What is one thing, or a couple of things, that you could tell folks coming up to Alaska so that they would be better prepared to have a good trip?
Better prepared to have a good trip...take your tackle seriously. Take it seriously. Granted, in the trips that I lead, whether it is something specifically just for rainbows, or a Western Alaska king trip, we tend to have a lot of contact with these folks that are in these groups, and they get the tackle pretty well laid out for them in a menu-like manner, much like this conversation with you, whether it's a spey rod...
[interruption by adoring fan of George]
...Where were we?
We were on the "folks coming to AK..."
Oh yeah. Pay attention to your tackle. We get a lot of time with these folks in terms of pre-trip preparatory stuff, so we get guys that are really, really, really...their stuff is put together, rather, they put it together in Seattle where they live, or Denver, or Raleigh, NC...doesn't really matter, these guys tend to show up really outfitted, but I see a lot of guys show up, that show up for a king trip with an 8-weight, y'know...that's like showing up for a brown bear hunt with a .243...probably not the best...the best preparedness. So, listen to what the lodge guys are telling you. Talk to guides. Talk to other anglers that have gone up there, y'know, seek out the local knowledge of the fly shops...there's some good websites...the Juneau-based alaskaflyfishinggoods.com, Brad Elfers...these guys have got a fabulous website on flies, on gear, and this is...these are things that are there for the angler to seek out and get the right gear, whether it's a king trip or a silver salmon focused trip...Have the right gear. There's no sense in shelling out, y'know, $2500, $5000, $10,000 for yourself and a friend, or a spouse, or a youngster, and not having the right gear and having this trip not come off as the trip of a lifetime as planned...make it happen. Seek out the knowledge. If you've got a night in Anchorage, as many of these guys do, spend an afternoon and go visit a fly shop, don't be afraid to take in your tackle and show these guys what you've got if you didn't get it rigged up on the front-end, because there's no reason not to show up ready to roll and pitch 9 innings as an angler.
Alright, you mentioned a night to kill in Anchorage, which leads me to the next question...what are your top three bars in Anchorage, and why?
Oh goodness gracious, Mark...
I guess I should qualify that...what are your top 3 bars when you're going up there for the spring, and what are your top three bars when you're coming out of the bush in the fall?
Well, I'm fixing to be up there in April for the Great Alaskan Sportsman's Show...myself and some of my fellow reps, whether it's my buddies in the gun business or Mike Perusse, the Loomis rep, we'll inevitably find ourselves in Humpy's...I mean, how could you not? Lots of guys talk about, well, "We'll go to Humpy's, maybe we'll go to F street, or we'll go here, and maybe we'll get drunk enough to wind up at 'Koot's or The Bush Company." Well, you know, that's a trail of tears that has been followed by many a man, Mark, many a man. I'm not so much a Bush Company guy, 'cause it's kind of like, y'know, it's kinda like a "park hunt", in that you got let into the park, but you couldn't really hunt, now, could you?...So anyway, buddy, there's so many great places to go there, but I guess Humpy's would probably stand out as much as any, it's certainly an atmosphere that's...it's...it's truly Alaska, and it's one that I think everybody ought to see if you've got a night, y'know? If you want some great food, Simon & Seafort's, bring your wallet but bring your appetite, it'll all work out there, y'know...there you go.
Ok...after the bars: Bush Company or Crazy Horse?
[Laughter] Well y'know, if we're gonna do a park hunt, we're probably going to the Bush Company. Why? Well, it's usually nearest to the hotel, so you're within stumbling range, and well...y'know...hey, it's got...as we like to say in the fly fishing business, being the Sage and Simms rep, we've got a lot of brand-equity...I think the Bush Company has a lot of brand-equity and cachet to go with it, would you not you agree?
I would have to agree with that. Alright, you've seen plenty of clients in "No-brainer" mode..."Brain-on-vacation" mode...just completely in shock, in "mental vacation" mode. Do you have a classic move that you've seen, maybe more than once, from the Cheechakos, the first timers?
[More laughter] The look of bewilderment after the first king hooked on a spey rod and the "organized chaos" that has come full-fledged to his life on the beach...that's a good one. I've seen some pretty crazy things over the years, and maybe some of the craziest ones was guiding, and I watched a guy from Oklahoma make a beautiful cast out of the boat with a spinning rod once, fishing for Dollies and rainbows at the bottom of one of the outlet streams in the Tikchiks, I think we were in Lake Beverley at the bottom of the Agulukpak, and he made such a beautiful cast that he threw his spinning rod right out of the boat. I mean, threw it, y'know? Roger Clemens-like throw. Fortunately, his son's line was out, and his son was reeling in and he happened to catch the line of dad's rig...unfortunately, the bail on his spinning reel was open...the son brought the...he was fishing a "Kastmaster", a little lure that's heavy and effective for stuff that time of year, and he brought up the line which I carefully grabbed and informed my two boat-mates, the clients, that at this point I was taking over, and I hand-lined this thing in until I could feel the line stop which meant I was at the arbor knot on the spool of the spinning reel...well we got it back, by god, we actually not only got it back without losing it but we reeled it up as if nothing else happened...I had another guy, on the Alagnak, another guy from Oklahoma...this seemed to be a Sooner phenomena, apparently...better luck with football season maybe, but this cat threw his rod, during kings, out of the boat, be he not only threw it out, but he was right behind it and got it, and he was back in the boat before I knew that he had done anything...it was unbelievable. Yeah, I think the things that are pretty memorable with clients are that first king salmon, y'know, the first stick of one and the clearing of the line and the ensuing chaos, but on the other end, just the fact that you could watch a guy catch 30, 40...60 silvers in a day and think "Aaah, he's had enough", but by the next morning, he's the first guy in the boat, he's got a whole pile of leeches ready to roll, y'know, ready to do the same thing again...those are some good ones.
Those are some good ones indeed. Well, George, thanks for this interview...
Thanks, Mark...there we go.