Bristol Bay's Best Rainbow Fisheries

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Bristol Bay’s Best

Rainbow Fisheries Story and photos by Ken Morrish



n rare instances, geology and ecology come together to create ecosystems so extraordinary that all who visit are left in awe. The interior of Southwestern Alaska’s Bristol Bay region is one such place and the epicenter for what may well be the greatest rainbow trout fishery in the world. As one moves inland from the coastal towns of Dillingham, Naknek and King Salmon, massive natural lakes with names like Iliamna, Kukaklek, Nerka and Aleknagik dominate the landscape. These lakes and the multitude of clean, pea-gravel tributaries that flow into them are the cornerstone of the greatest and healthiest return of wild sockeye salmon in the world. Also worth noting is that Bristol Bay is likely the best managed commercial fishery in the world and after decades of heavy yet thoughtful commercial fishing, sockeye returns typically range from 20-40 million fish annually. What does that mean to the rainbow trout of the Bristol Bay interior? In short, it means everything. Where the winters are long and the growing seasons are short, the inland migration of the sockeye salmon is a gift of rich ocean-fed biomass to an otherwise barren interior ecosystem. Every part of the salmon life cycle is crucial to the trout of the interior. As the salmon begin to migrate upstream in July,

the rainbows begin to follow them. By August when they begin to spawn, the rainbows will gorge for a solid month on their spawn. When the eggs are gone, they feed on their decomposing flesh, sometimes tearing into their pale ghostlike carcasses like sharks. Over the long winter months the juvenile salmon feed on tiny bits of suspended flesh and likewise all of the trout’s secondary food sources including invertebrates, sculpins, and sticklebacks thrive on the salmon based nutrients. Come May, June and July, as both small seemingly transparent salmon fry and the larger ocean-bound smolt back their way downstream, the rainbows are waiting. They slash through clouds of the tiny fish like tuna on bait balls and by the time their downstream migration slows, the sea-bright adults are retuning and the cycle repeats itself. It is exactly this richness that makes Alaskan rainbows the big hearty and often voracious game fish that they are.

The Big Three

For the serious rainbow angler, the greater Bristol Bay region can be divided into three primary sub-regions: The Wood-Tikchik area, the Iliamna watershed, and the greater Katmai region.

“Where the winters are long and the growing seasons are short, the inland migration of the sockeye salmon is a gift of rich ocean-fed biomass to an otherwise barren interior ecosystem.”

PAGE Main4image: The Wood Tikchik

region from the air, all others images, scenes from the Iliamna and Katmai region. Photos: Ken Morrish


Created in 1978, the 1.6 million acre Wood-Tikchik State Park is the largest state park in the nation. Comprised of an impressive craggy mountain range, a long chain of fjord-like lakes and the lowlands of the massive Nushagak watershed, the region can be considered the Northwestern section of the Bristol Bay interior. Of the three regions, this area is arguably the most scenic and the least traveled. The best known river in the region is the Agulapak, which is a broad, swift shallow river reminiscent of the Madison. Known for some of the state’s best dry fly fishing in late July and throughout August, it is a favorite destination for targeting big rainbows and numerous arctic char and grayling. When this system is on anglers will be hard pressed not to see their backing as the fish really work the current and the angler alike. Likewise, the region has a tremendous bounty of small lesser known and seldom traveled streams that feed into the numerous lakes. Some of these systems offer outstanding sight fishing with dry flies to large arctic grayling and others offer solid fishing for rainbows in addition to vast numbers of arctic char in the 16 to 26 inch class. These systems offer true wilderness fishing and remarkable scenery. A couple of our favorite lodges in this region follow. Mo r r i s h Royal Coachman Lodge: This is one of the friendliest and most diverse fly-out operations in the state. From their base overlooking the Nuyakuk River, Royal Coachman not only chases rainbow trout but successfully target all of the state’s freshwater species. To top it off they also enjoy an incredible fly-friendly private river lease near the coast with prolific runs of sea-bright salmon. Fishing Bear Lodge: This modest and endearing family-run lodge has been a Fly Water Travel favorite for years. A trip here offers just the right amount of “roughing it” and an opportunity to experience a remarkable diversity of true wilderness fly fishing. Backing up against the surreal spires of the Wind River Range, Fishing Bear employs jet boats to fish a host of seldom seen small streams for hearty rainbows, abundant arctic char and large surface oriented grayling. In addition to these smaller “under the radar” systems, guests can enjoy late night trophy rainbow sessions on the renowned Agulapak. For dry fly enthusiasts, lovers of solitude and exceptional scenery, or families in search of a memorable wilderness adventure and a rewarding introduction to the wonders of wilderness fly fishing, this is the place. Iliama Region

Lake Iliamna is the largest lake in all Alaska and dominates the central northeastern portion of the Bristol Bay interior. Measuring 30 miles by

80 miles, this lake is ocean-like and supports one of only two species of freshwater seals, as well as millions of returning sockeye salmon. It is also home to several distinct populations of rainbows some of which are typical semi-migratory river fish and another race which migrate in and out of the main lake and closely resemble beefy chrome bright steelhead. This super race of steelhead-like rainbows tend to enter rivers like the Kvichak, Newhalen, Copper and the Talariks in late August to gorge on eggs and they are without question some of the largest and strongest rainbows on the planet. While many of these fish exceed ten pounds, only a fraction of them are ever landed. The more typical resident fish are more widely spread, available throughout the season, and the best specimens occasionally top the magical 30 inch mark. The greater Iliamna region is best fished by one of the many fly-out lodges in the area who have the ability to take you to where the fishing is best. Some of our favorites are listed below. No See Um Lodge: Few operations enjoy the reputation for quality, comfort, and hospitality that No See Um and the Holman Mo u s e family have earned over the past 25 years. No See Um is one of the few lodges that provide pilot-guides, ensuring that their handsome DeHaviland Beaver float planes stay with the anglers all day every day. These folks know the rainbow and salmon waters of the greater Iliamna/Katmai region like the back of their hand and enjoy one of the highest return rates in the state. Rainbow King Lodge: Located on the shores of Lake Iliamna, Rainbow King has gone above and beyond to ensure that their guests get the most exclusive fishing experience that Alaska has to offer. With private leases on fabled waters including the Copper, Dream Creek and Upper Talarik, competition is minimal and rewards are maximized. Rainbow King also offers one of the longest silver seasons in the region, a huge flying range and a handsome halibut boat at sea. Igiugig Lodge: With 27 years of guiding the region under his belt, Brad Waitman has created one of the most unique and intimate operations in the state. Catering to only five guests a week, his program allows three anglers to fly out with him each day and two anglers to focus on the trophy waters of the Kvichak. This is not only one of the greatest values in Alaska but also a shining example of what a hands-on owner operated lodge can be.

Richard PAGE 6 Berlin enjoying upper American Creek: Photo Ken Morrish

Throughout the months of August and early September, beads imitating salmon spawn are a staple. Photo: Ken Morrish. PAGE 7

Main 8image: A rainbow that fell for the mouse trick; all others images, scenes from the Iliamna and Katmai region. Photos: Ken Morrish PAGE


Located just south of Lake Iliamna, the vast and varied Katmai region has a host of big lakes and countless rivers that are literally loaded with salmon, Dolly Varden, grayling and big rainbows. The list of famous rivers in this region is long and highlighted by names like Moraine, Battle, and American Creek, as well as the Big Ku, Brooks, Alagnak, Kulik, and Naknek Rivers. With smoking volcanoes in the distance and the greatest density of brown bears in the world, this is arguably my favorite region with more trophy rainbow water than one could ever fish. While the rivers vary from huge all the way to seemingly tiny, they all share one thing in common, that being big hard fighting rainbows. Again, aircrafts are a big plus when it comes to access and in many cases, good walking legs are equally important. When looking into fishing this remarkable region consider the following destinations. Rapids Camp Lodge: Located overlooking the trophy waters of the mighty Naknek, Rapids Camp boasts the most robust fleet of float planes in the state, featuring private flight charter service to the lodge and an enormously generous range of fly-out fishing options. With the ability to chase all of the state’s prime sport fishing species (including halibut) and all the needed waders and tackle provided, this turnkey operation continues to be a top choice for the ultimate Alaskan fishing adventure. Royal Wolf Lodge: When asked where to go to focus on hunting big rainbows, Royal Wolf is always at the top of the list. With a strategic location in the heart of Katmai’s most prolific waters and some of the most gifted and experienced guides in the state, Chris and Linda Branham’s Royal Wolf is in a class by itself. When it comes to short flying times and incredible walk and wade fisheries, this is the place. Big Ku Lodge: Big Ku is small strategically located six person lodge in the heart of the Katmai region’s most famous rainbow waters. Guests enjoy jet boat access to the fabled waters of Moraine Creek, Battle Creek, Little Ku and Big Ku without the need of float planes. Moreover, they have unlimited access to the trophy home water of Big Ku for after hours angling.

Seasons and Techniques Trout season opens the second week of June and ends for all practical matters in mid-October when it gets too cold to continue fishing. The early season is dominated by streamer fishing and anglers do well targeting trout with fry and smolt patterns in addition to standard leech and sculpin patterns. There are no adult salmon to speak of so folks can really focus on swinging flies for the favored species. Near the end of June and throughout July, as water temperatures rise and the downstream migration of juvenile salmon slows, there can be windows of remarkable dry fishing where rainbows in excess of two feet long will readily engulf a bushy #12 Wulff, stimulator, or parachute Adams. This is also the best time for “mousing.” Few experiences in fly fishing rival a good day of mousing in Alaska. By the first week of August, the sockeye begin to spawn by the thousands and the egg game begins. This is typically a short line nymph and indicator game and more often than not, the entire month of August produces the highest catch rates of the season. It is also the most visual time to fish Alaska, as the rivers are literally red with salmon, and the bears are everywhere. For those that tire of the bead and indicator, fear not, you can still drum up a fish on a leech or a mouse. By late August early September, the spawn begins to dwindle and rotting sockeye carcasses stack up deep on the gravel bars. The rainbows are fat and hopelessly stuffed but despite themselves, and with the long chill of winter nearing, they continue to feed on flesh, leeches and sculpin. The weather worsens but for hardcore anglers keen on the biggest bows of the season, this time period is pure magic. For steelhead minded anglers who like to swing flies with single or double handed rods, this is the window.

All the Options If you have any questions or would like to discuss available dates for the 2014 season please call David Kalinowski or Ken Morrish directly at 1-800-552-2729.

“It is also the most visual time to fish Alaska, as the rivers are literally red with salmon, and the bears are everywhere.”

Kris Hamrick enjoys the Copper River in the Iliamna region. Photo: Ken Morrish PAGE 10

DeHaviland Beavers await the coming day on the mighty Kvichak. Photo Ken PAGE Morrish11

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