Chasing Kvichak Rainbows

By Marcus Weiner 

I light up a cigar, and not your run-of-the-mill, dollar-store stogie, but rather a high-end, dark-wrapped import that lasts an hour and promises both bad breath and a light head. It’s the white socks. Minutes before, I felt like Pig Pen from Peanuts, a cloud of the pesky, horrifically annoying creatures doing constant laps around my head. One toke on the cigar, though, and they’re gone. 

The many brands of bug spray on the market may help keep the mosquitoes at bay, and while this is critical in southwest Alaska, white socks unfortunately remain impervious to our most potent potions. Bug shirts, head nets, smoke, wind, and water: These offer the best relief from the swarm. 

At the moment, however, it’s hard to concern ourselves with what flies above the water, as what swims below it is immensely more tempting. I make a quartering cast downriver and at the end of the drift, a two-foot rainbow smashes the swinging leech, immediately launching itself three feet into the air. 

Bugs? What bugs?

Fish Alaska editor Troy Letherman and I are guests at the Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge on the Kvichak River. The Kvichak, world-renown for the size and numbers of wild rainbow trout it produces, flows from massive Lake Iliamna to Bristol Bay, providing a conduit for what is historically the world’s largest run of sockeye salmon. 

It’s an angler’s river, too, with a uniform gravel bottom that’s easy to wade, very few snags, and an even-tempered flow. It runs gin clear in the upper stretches, making sight-fishing possible, and is full of the strong, energetic Kvichak fish of legend, trout reared on the surplus of nutrition found in ocean-like Iliamna. 

Silver, red, pink and chum salmon are the river’s anadromous species, while rainbow trout and Arctic grayling are residents. The river is most well known for its sockeye run, with trout fishing not far behind. Historically, sockeye runs begin in late June and run through late July.

June 8th hails the opening of spring trout fishing in 2005 on the Kvichak, when the trout are long and lean and in search of a good meal, out-migrating sockeye smolt being the main course. During most years, spring trout fishing on the Kvichak is good until the end of June, when a lull ensues as the rainbows—ready to begin the egg feast—follow the sockeye to their spawning grounds. 

Once the dying sockeye begin to wash down the Kvichak, the rainbows return to the river to feed on free-drifting eggs and flesh. By this time of year, they’ve given up the serpentine figures of the early season and more resemble a football than a fish. Mid-August through October is usually very productive, with peak of fall trout fishing usually falling in mid-September. In an effort to preserve this incredible fishery, rainbow trout fishing on the Kvichak is catch and release.

In the spring, with the river’s trout eager for high-calorie meals, bigger fly patterns are the way to go—smolt, sculpin, and leeches all can work well. Other anglers at the lodge were also having great success pulling small plugs through the longest, deepest runs. Throwing a variety of spinners would surely prove effective as well (during a very brief trail period, I had one strike on a #3 Mepps Aglia streamer). 

The lodge itself sits at the head of the Kaskanak Flats, where the river braids into some of its most impressive trout country. At orientation upon our arrival, we learn of the current fishing programs in effect, including the daily fly-outs to Kukaklek Lake, to the Brooks and Nushagak rivers, as well as fishing on the Kvichak from the lake to the braids. Troy and I decide to mainly work the Kvichak. 

The next morning we join Scott Williamsen, a six-year veteran of the lodge who spends the remainder of the year guiding for steelhead on Idaho’s Clearwater River, fishing the waters near his home in Missoula, Montana, and pointing out bonefish for anglers in the South Pacific. He works hard all day to get us into good fish and after a tough morning, the work pays off with several nice trout, the best approaching two feet.

Moving frequently, we fish out of the boat and then wade in about equal doses. Fly patterns included Articulated Leeches in several colors, sculpins in several designs, and Scott Sanchez’s Double Bunny. Best results come with the black Articulated Leech. Our rods are 9H- to 10-foot 8-weights, which are necessary, both to handle 275-grain sinking lines and the Kvichak’s gargantuan fish. 

Leaders are short, roughly four feet long, and tapered to 0X tippet. It is hard work casting this setup all day, but compared to the amount of lead that would be needed to bounce bottom (and the type of “chuck and duck” casting that would entail), this is far superior. In the end, our first impression of the Kvichak is quite favorable. The big water is daunting at first, but as you learn the runs, seams, and holes, and how best to fish them, it becomes very fishable for both fly and gear anglers.

The next day we spend with Andy Bullick, a guide at the lodge and a recent contributor to Fish Alaska magazine (his guest editorial on the proposed Pebble Mine and feature on western Alaska chum salmon can be found in the January and July 2005 issues respectively). When he isn’t guiding at the Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge, Andy is a high school teacher in Juneau. 

Fishing with Andy is fun—he is a good guide who gives sound advice and positive feedback. We begin at the lake and work back down to the braids. I land about 20 fish in a full day of fishing, which actually stretches into the night, as Andy and I work various spots around the braids after dinner, ending at 10 p.m. This is the guides’ curfew as set by Brian Kraft, managing partner of the lodge, who needs to make sure fishing fools like myself don’t keep them on the water all night.

On day three, we are in for a special treat with a flight to Kukaklek Lake to fish the outlet of the Big Ku, or Kukaklek River, which eventually teams with the nearby Nonvianuk River to form the Alagnak. Expert fly-fishing guide Todd Calitri joins myself, Troy, Brian, and Derek Donald for a half day of angling for rainbows. Derek is a longtime friend of Brian’s, and like Brian, was a past professional hockey player with the Anchorage Aces. Derek is also a cut-up and his non-stop commentary keeps everyone entertained. 

The fishing is good, with long casts and upstream mends ending in jarring strikes. We wade into the lake as far as each of us feels comfortable and try to get the sinking line and big fly into the trough that forms at the mouth of the lake and continues into the river. Many fish in the 16- to 24-inch range are landed and the one thing that they have in common is their tremendous girth. There is constant activity on the surface and the fish show clear evidence of gluttonous feeding on smolt. Conehead Buggers, Articulated Leeches, and Conehead Western Bunnies all produce.

In the afternoon, Troy and I fish with Todd on the upper Kvichak. Todd puts me into the first hole and gives me a set of precise instructions on how much line to cast and at what angle downstream. His advice is so accurate that when I make my first cast, I am rewarded with a 20-inch trout. The highlight of the afternoon is a 27-inch chrome hen that Todd lands at the top of a productive run. He really enjoys the opportunity to get out and fish and poses with the trout like a pro who has caught plenty of fish. 

At the end of the next morning, again fishing with Scott, we find ourselves back at “One-a-Day,” a favored run within sight of the lodge, and sadly it grounds us with the knowledge that our flight leaves Igiugig in two hours. Luckily we won’t need the usual 120 minute arrival at the airport prior to takeoff; rather, 15 minutes will do the trick. 

Troy works the bottom of the run and methodically lands sleek, powerful rainbows in succession. Scott casts long coils of line with his 14-foot two-hander and covers large portions of water while catching several fish in the middle of the run. I take the opportunity to walk to the top of the stretch of clear Kvichak water. Settling in at just past knee deep, I quarter the sink-tip downriver. Forty feet of line swings cross-current and at the end of the cast the white Articulated Leech is struck hard by a strong trout. 

It’s clearly a nice fish, vaulting several times into the air, and finally tapes at 24 inches long. It is exceedingly fat for this time of year and chock full of smolt. 

Returning to the top of the run, I make a cast that eventually will remind me of the reasons I chase trout all around this state.

The fly has only begun to swing when a vicious strike rips the fly downward and straight towards the center of the river. There’s barely time for my reel’s drag to do its job, the 0X tippet no match for this big trout. 

I stand there numbly for a few moments, gathering my thoughts and examining the remains of my leader. Slowly a smile crosses my features as I think about what this trout will look like when I pay him a visit in the fall. 

Marcus Weiner is publisher of  Fish Alaska magazine.

Back to Bristol Bay Area Page