Bristol Bay

For anglers headed to Alaska, looking to package spectacular fishing opportunities with some of the most remote, awe-inspiring settings in the Last Frontier, the clear-flowing rivers of southwest Alaska must appear to be a little slice of heaven right here on Earth. The renowned streams of the Bristol Bay region and of the raw, untamed Alaska Peninsula, as well as the many tributaries of the lower and middle Kuskokwim River, present more abundant fishing prospects than just about anywhere else in the state. 

Southwest Alaska is home to some of the state’s most scenic and remote watersheds. From the vast Kuskokwim River and its many tributaries south to the Iliamna and Naknek tributaries through Katmai and on to the Alaska Peninsula, a map of the area reads like an authentic Who’s Who of North America’s most productive wilderness rivers. And unlike some other areas of the state, silt-laden rivers of strong glacial influence are the exception here rather than the rule. Many of these Southwest streams are sparkling clear, and because of that—and the fantastic numbers of salmon, trout and char to be found—angling conditions could hardly be better.

The second largest river in Alaska, the 800-mile-long Kuskokwim has long been of great importance to Native Alaskans. Principally glacial in origin, sport fishing in the drainage is limited mostly to its clear-flowing tributaries, some of which, especially along the lower river, are quite famous. The Aniak, Kisaralik, and Kwethluk rivers should all come to mind. Above the Aniak confluence, sport fishing for salmon and other species has historically been very limited. However, in recent years, guides and anglers alike have been venturing toward the tributaries of the middle to upper Kuskokwim. The Holitna River system is the most productive sport fishing tributary within this section of the watershed, supporting approximately half of the fishing effort, harvest, and catch in recent years for the upper Kuskokwim sport fishery. Access to this portion of the Kuskokwim drainage is generally gained via floatplane from the communities of Iliamna, Aniak, or Bethel.

The longest history of active sport fisheries in the Kuskokwim drainage undeniably belongs to the Aniak River. Beginning at Aniak Lake in the Kilbuck Mountains, the Aniak flows north to reach the Kuskokwim River at the community of Aniak. Major tributaries include the Kipchuk and Salmon rivers, both swift, alpine-natured streams. The upper two-thirds to three-quarters of the Aniak are moderately swift and shallow with much braiding among the numerous gravel bars. In the lower reaches, the river has a single deep channel that flows slower, with the water also becoming less clear. There are several lodge operations on the lower river, with powerboats the preferred means of travel. A number of experienced floaters also utilize the watershed each season, though it’s not a system for the beginner. Spring runoff and periods of heavy rain cause frequent course changes in the river, and high-water events regularly deposit large numbers of trees and other plant material on gravel bars, occasionally blocking large channels of the river.

Between the Aniak confluence and the point where the Kuskokwim empties in the bay of the same name, there are several other outstanding possibilities for anglers, each of them pristine drainages that receive relatively little in the way of fishing pressure. The Kisaralik, Kasigluk, and Kwethluk rivers are the most well-known of these, and for good reason, their clear, clean-flowing waters are typically favorable to the angler. 

South of the Kuskokwim River, epic angling opportunities continue in all three of the major rivers draining into Kuskokwim Bay—the Kanektok, Goodnews, and Arolik. Presenting outstanding prospects, their clear, fairly shallow flows are ideally suited to fly-fishing. The Kanektok, which begins at Kagati Lake and flows through a broad, mountain-lined valley and then across the flat tundra floodplain of the Kuskokwim Bay area, produces good numbers of the fall-returning salmon, which tend to receive less angling pressure than the river’s Chinook. The Arolik River sees even fewer visitors, primarily because it’s a more difficult trip to make, though the fishing can be superb.  The coho fishing on both rivers, as well as on the nearby Goodnews, primarily takes place in the lower ten miles or so of water. All three also offer good to great rainbow trout fishing. 

Another sure highlight of Alaska’s southwestern region is the Togiak River, an exceptionally scenic tundra river flowing through the heart of the over four million acres contained within the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness. The Togiak runs gin-clear and is only 40 to 80 feet wide in most of the upper reaches. The sport fishery commences about the third week of June with the arrival of the first sea-bright Chinook (the Togiak historically averages approximately 36,000 returning kings per year) and is usually concentrated in the lower 20 miles of river. 

Maybe Alaska’s premier Chinook salmon drainage, the Nushagak River should need no introduction. In case it does, the river begins with headwaters that rise in the Nushagak Hills and flows nearly 275 miles to Nushagak Bay. It is the largest non-glacial system in southwest Alaska and the largest producer of all species of Pacific salmon except sockeye in Bristol Bay. Also of interest to fly anglers are the Nushagak tributaries, primarily the Nuyakuk and Mulchatna rivers, as well as the Mulchatna’s well-known feeder streams, the Stuyahok, Koktuli, and Chilikadrotna rivers.

Tucked in the corner of Bristol Bay, right at the hip of the Alaska Peninsula, Lake Iliamna covers hundreds of square miles. The largest lake in Alaska and eighth largest in the U.S., its 1,000 square miles house freshwater seals, monstrous trout and Alaska’s version of the Loch Ness Monster. It’s also the spawning and rearing grounds for millions upon millions of salmon, most notably the planet’s greatest concentration of sockeye. For anglers, though, it’s the clear-flowing and highly fishable tributaries of the great lake that are of the most interest. 

As the primary outlet for Lake Iliamna, the Kvichak River harbors some of the world’s largest wild rainbows and has long been at the head of the list for Alaska’s trophy trout—not to mention the fact that those tens of millions of sockeye salmon all have to pass through these waters on their way to the lake. The river runs clear and deep, providing perfect habitat for the resident rainbows, whose life histories are very similar to those of steelhead, except that the large lentic system the Kvichak fish migrate to after spawning is an immense freshwater lakes, not open ocean. The Kvichak lies approximately 250 miles southwest of Anchorage and is most commonly accessed from either King Salmon or the village of Iliamna.  

The world-class productivity of the Iliamna Lake system certainly doesn’t end with the Kvichak, either, as several of the lake’s other tributaries provide anglers with trophy trout potential that remains virtually unrivalled.  

Big, fast, and deep, the Newhalen River flows for about 25 miles in connecting Six Mile Lake and the adjoining Lake Clark to Lake Iliamna. It’s a major migration corridor for the sockeye making their way into the far reaches of the drainage, and as such, it can offer prime trout fishing opportunities in September and October, when the fish are at their fattest—but still plenty happy to eat. Of similar characteristics, streams such as the Gibraltar or Taziminia rivers were once much higher-profile trophy trout fisheries but experienced a little downturn in their rainbow fortunes when the area’s sockeye returns slumped. However, with the sockeye back in a big, big way, and state catch-and-release regulations playing their part, the trout populations have rebounded and are again at or approaching historical norms. Scenic and clear-flowing, the Gibraltar is typically fished as a day-float for the fly-out lodges. The 54-mile-longTaziminia, which flows within Lake Clark National Park, drains a series of lakes of the same name before emptying into Six Mile Lake and the Newhalen River. Because of some waterfalls and portages, most fishermen usually access the lower river only. 

Unlike most of Alaska’s best trout streams, Iliamna’s Copper River—home water to Rainbow River Lodge—was made famous by dry flies. This clearwater stream originates in a series of lakes in the Chigmit Mountains and runs swiftly from there the 15 miles to Iliamna’s Intricate Bay. Its lower ten miles are perfectly suited for the wade-and-fish angler, and of course, the Copper remains one of the state’s best dry-fly streams, especially during June and early July. This is because most of the Copper’s rainbows are river-resident fish that don’t retreat into the expanse of Lake Iliamna like the Kvichak fish.  

A note on the Copper and other rivers discussed: Along with the Pacific salmon, and of course, the headliner rainbows those salmon help nourish and produce, nearly all of the Iliamna tributaries also offer opportunities for anglers to target Dolly Varden, Arctic grayling, or in the sloughs and side-channels off the Copper, northern pike. Obviously, some streams produce better for one species or another, but in general, anglers with a mind for prospecting will eventually find some success.

But talking rainbow-specific rivers, one other Iliamna tributary needs very little in the way of introduction, as just hearing the name Lower Talarik Creek is enough to send most savvy anglers straight to their travel agent. 

Lower Talarik is an unassuming stream, flowing through low scrub willow and wet muskeg as it wends its way across a featureless plain on the way to Lake Iliamna. It looks no different than half a dozen other tundra streams. What sets it apart is probably the fact that it has been one of the Iliamna area’s most popular trophy trout fisheries since at least the 1950s. A small isthmus separates the creek from Lake Iliamna, where many trout over 25 inches congregate well within most casters’ range.  

Continuing south, anglers will find the renowned Katmai Country, home of world-class rainbows, otherworldly returns of sockeye, and high concentrations of brown bears. And when talking fishing in Katmai National Park & Preserve, which encompasses over four million acres of wilderness, more than twice the area spanned by any park in the Lower 48, the most difficult decision may in fact be where to begin. The streams and rivers of Katmai include some of North America’s most famous, and most productive, trout waters, many of them separated by mere minutes on a float-equipped plane, the primary mode of transportation for Katmai anglers. 

First up are the headwaters of the Alagnak River system, specifically meaning its twin lake outlets, the Nonvianuk River and the Kukaklek branch of the Alagnak. The two lake outlets, particularly Kukaklek, have long been famous trout locales, with participation increasing both there and in the Alagnak River over the years.  Fishing at the outlets is prevalent during the early-June Bristol Bay trout opener, when fly fishers look to work the groups of aggressive rainbows schooled up during the peak of the smolt out-migration.  Moving downstream, the confluence of the Alagnak and Nonvianuk will almost always hold trout in the long, conspicuous seam that marks the two flows’ convergence.  Below there, the best trout fishing on the river is encountered in the famous Alagnak braids, which occur outside the boundaries of the park.  

Several of the system’s smaller lake tributaries also offer exceptional rainbow fishing, including plenty of trophy potential.  Both Moraine and Funnel creeks offer large rainbows in strong numbers, with some fish pushing 30 inches every year.  The Kulik River and Battle Creek are noteworthy as well, with fall being the prime time to search for 24-inch and larger rainbows.  Kulik, much like the Brooks River, is a tiny one and a half mile-long stream connecting two larger bodies of water, in this case Nonvianuk and Kulik lakes, and can also present some exciting spring fishing when the trout congregate to chase the sockeye fry and smolt heading for the safety of Nonvianuk.

Moraine Creek is a classic piece of Alaska trout water, with nice riffles and pools that hold big fish scattered throughout.  This used to be one of Alaska’s most closely held trophy-trout secrets, but the word has long gotten out and now the lodge crowd descends on the stream in force. The fishing picks up in July, when squadrons of sockeye move through Kukaklek Lake and distribute themselves along Moraine’s spawning gravel.  The rainbows traveling with them can be fished with streamers and other traditional trout patterns for a few weeks, until the eggs begin to drop and the feeding frenzy begins.  By mid-August, Moraine Creek is usually an egg-only affair, at least until later in the fall when the salmon begin to die-off in numbers. Nearly identical angling circumstances exist in Funnel Creek, the primary tributary to Moraine.  Both also share another trait, as do Kulik and Brooks—lots and lots of salmon-munching bruins, enough that the pair of streams stand out as favored grizzly locales even among the other bear-infested streams of Katmai. 

The other major system draining Katmai, the Naknek system, is also well known for the quality of its trout. Heading the list, of course, is the Naknek River itself, typically not thought of as a Katmai fishery, but as a standalone monster trout destination.

Within the system as a whole, there are five distinct spawning stocks of rainbow trout: one each above and below the falls of the Brooks River, one in Idavain Creek, an American Creek population, and the Naknek River stock, which probably holds more trophy potential at this time than any other population in the state. None of the other four stocks exhibit steelhead-like tendencies to the extent of the Naknek fish, and none are known to produce trophy specimens with such regularity, either. Still, the rest of the drainage is not immune to producing the occasional 30-incher, either. In fact, the Brooks River, which flows barely a mile in connecting Naknek Lake to Lake Brooks, kicked out a large number of trophies in the past, though that number has dwindled with the increase in fishing pressure throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

For more intrepid souls, there are also Idavain and Margot creeks, smaller tributaries of the lake. The former flows about a dozen miles from Idavain Lake to its terminus in the North Arm of Naknek Lake, just west of the Bay of Islands, while the latter empties into Iliuk Arm about eight miles southeast of the Brooks River.  The trout population in Idavain is strong and can be sight-fished with good success both in the spring when the fish are concentrating on the juvenile sockeye migrating from Idavain to Naknek Lake and then again in the fall, once the sockeye have taken up their positions on the spawning beds.  Between those two periods, however, most of the Idavain rainbows—the bigger specimens in particular—will be in the Bay of Islands area of Naknek Lake.  To a significant degree, however, Margot hosts only Dolly Varden, though the basics of the fishing are similar. Both have access limited to floatplanes and boats, which also means relatively few other anglers will be found at a given time—except the four-legged variety.  Idavain and Margot creeks are teeming with Katmai grizzlies, and in the fall especially, encounters are nearly guaranteed.

If bears, solitude, and rugged country are the quest, with strong numbers of wild rainbow trout of course, then American Creek is an even better bet.  Issuing from Hammersly Lake to the northeast of Naknek Lake, the stream rushes and sometimes rages about 40 miles to Lake Colville.  American Creek presents an advanced challenge for floaters, with abundant sweepers, some class III rapids, and lots of browns.  Because of the speed much of the river flows at, combined with its narrow confines (especially in the canyon section) anglers can find themselves right on top of a bear before either realizes what’s happening.  The trout fishing, however, can reach the spectacular.  In the river’s upper stretches, the rainbows are generally smaller, rarely going over 20 inches, but the area does present the best potential for dry-fly fishing.  Hammersly Lake also sends sockeye fry swimming for Colville Lake early in the spring, and trout anglers with impeccable timing can find the action furious.  In the fall, the creek probably fishes better than it does at any other time of year, particularly in the pools and tailouts of its middle and lower sections, where beefier ’bows will be gorging on sockeye eggs and flesh.

Add to these headliners an untold number of isolated feeder creeks and tributary streams—the unseen Katmai, as it were—and factor in the fabulous fishing to be had for other species, including Dolly Varden, grayling, lake trout and even northern pike, and we’re talking a pretty impressive piece of angling real estate, even when compared with the best of what the rest of Alaska has to offer. 

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