I’m the first to tie on a dry fly.
We’re gliding across a stillwater slough connecting Fog Lake to the middle Copper River, flushing the occasional hammer-handle pike, and rather than take in the scenery, which includes a young brown bear nosing around in anticipation of the reds that should be arriving any day, I work on snugging 6-pound tippet to an olive Stimulator.
My guide for the day, Tim Pearson, is alternating between rowing and choosing a pattern for the other angler in the boat, Texan Tom Gingerich. They’re thinking fry, maybe sculpin, maybe dry, clearly not aware that there’s a race on to draw the first topwater strike of the day.
As anyone who’s fished many of the salmon-stuffed streams of the state will tell you, Alaska rarely affords much opportunity to cast dry flies to rising trout. Here, on Lake Iliamna’s Copper River, dries are de rigueur. It’s not a bug soup like the Henrys Fork or anything, but there are actual hatches you can count on, and the river’s trout are duly conditioned to look up.
The river serves as home water for Rainbow River Lodge, literally right on the doorstep in fact, which suits managing partner Chad Hewitt just fine.
“The Copper River, in my opinion, has the best dry-fly fishing in the state,” he explains. “I haven’t fished everywhere else, of course, and as a result I don’t want to overlook any of those fine streams, but we’ve got great hatches—caddis, mayflies and stoneflies—and they’re consistent. If you didn’t know you were in Alaska, it’d be easy to think you were on some blue-ribbon trout fishery in Montana.”
Rigged by the time the boat slides into the river-proper, I don’t even bother to cast at the first hole we float over, a deep, slow-moving corner pool with a white-sand bottom. The water is so clear it’s like looking into an aquarium—an aquarium full of trout, some quite large. It’s a trick, one I’ve fallen prey to before. An angler could waste half the day standing here casting to these fish, which are certainly big enough to make the proposition seem worthwhile, but there’s only a minute chance at success. Parked in the first hole after the floatplane put-in, these are trout that have seen every fly known to man—and with the clarity of the water and it’s tepid pace, they’ve had a close enough look to likely count the individual hackle fibers in an Elk-hair Caddis. We move on, beach the boat a little farther downriver, where the water is a little more varied, and cast with a lot more confidence, even if we can’t see the fish.
A brilliant 20-inch river rainbow crushes my dry on the third drift. It’s a satisfying as any fish I’ll catch all year. I hook two more before taking so much as a step downstream.
Tom, who I only met hours before, has gone with the fry. “Hey, Wally, whatcha usin’?” he hollers. I show him my dry just as he comes tight to his own Copper River rainbow. We go on in this manner, fishing out this hole and then several others as we float downriver to lunch, me on the dry and Tom working through most of his fly box and our guide’s, both of us catching trout at a regular pace. He also continues to call me Wally, although neither Tim nor I know why.
“That’s not your name, is it?” he finally asks once we stop for a gravel-bar lunch. I just shrug. “Well, I wish your name were Wally,” he says. “You look like a Wally.”
I have no idea what that means, but in the middle of a July day’s fishing on the Copper River it hardly matters. Wally, it seems, is a dry-fly guy, and he’s being spoiled.
This is my first day at Chad Hewitt’s Rainbow River Lodge, which is located on a private holding just off Lake Iliamna in the heart of the region’s trophy trout waters. The lodge was founded more than 25 years ago, after ADF&G “discovered” the abundant trout population in the Copper River while conducting a statewide stream survey. The amenities are quite simply first-class, from the comfort of the cabins to the rustic luxury of the main lodge, where we dine on things like pork tenderloin medallions in raspberry Dijon sauce one night and black tiger prawns in a vodka cream white sauce over fettuccine the next. Most unique for me is that Chad and his wife Nicole, along with their guides and the rest of the lodge staff, have a managed to maintain the feel of a hard-core fish camp, even if there’s hot coffee brought to your door every morning. The standard of service is undeniable, but there are other high-end lodges in the Bristol Bay region that provide a similar setting. The fishing in this area is spectacular, of course, and there are outfits that get after it with the seriousness such a place demands. Very rarely do the two merge so well as they do at Rainbow River Lodge.
“I think one thing that really differentiates us from everyone else is that we can cater to the individual,” Chad explained. “That’s part of the reason we prefer to stay small and intimate. You don’t have to go through some rotation for the best water; everyone gets up each morning and decides what they want to do. In the end it’s really about the style of fishing you prefer.”
Operating two floatplanes, guests at Rainbow River have their choice of destinations, all of them short flights, and can find fishing as productive and varied as there is anywhere. From grayling to king salmon, it’s all on offer at the lodge, depending on the time of year. The region’s fishing is so good, in fact, that Chad often prefers to use their home river—named one of the world’s 50 best trout streams by Trout Unlimited—almost as a backup plan.
“We keep it as our ace in the hole,” he says of the Copper. “Flying in this part of Alaska is weather-dependent, and if we get one of those uglier days to get around in, our guests can go right outside the front door and fish one of the best rivers in the region.”
The clear-flowing Copper 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 or so are perfectly suited for the wade-and-fish angler, with everything from pocket water to long, deep seams and slots flush with fish. Even more than its dry-fly renown or its fishy-looking characteristics, one thing anglers who visit Rainbow River Lodge enjoy is its consistency.
“It’s a very steady system,” Hewitt explains. “The Copper very rarely blows out, and unlike some of the area’s fisheries, which can be great in the fall but might only produce a couple fish in an eight-hour day in June, it fishes year-round. There’s not a dead time on the Copper.”
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 trout from nearby systems. The season begins in the early summer with the usual suspects after the trout have spawned: alevin and fry imitations, sculpins and other streamers, and at times of low light and the right water temperature, smolt patterns. The topwater action begins early in the season as well, with hatches continuing through July. Stoneflies and caddisflies account for the bulk of the river’s angling-worthy insect life, and like most western North American streams, the bigger fish are usually taken on a nymph rather than a dry. Lots of pocket water and some isolated, deep pools are ideal for traditional nymphing tactics, and during my first afternoon I put a CDC Prince Nymph to great effect after the topwater action dried up. An advantage of fishing this pattern is it can double as a fry imitation as well, making it perfect for this time of year.
Like the other tributaries of Lake Iliamna, Copper River rainbow fishing is also good in the fall once the salmon have paired up over their preferred gravel, with the usual egg-imitating fare affording anglers the best results. The season comes to a close with flesh flies and large streamers again taking center stage.
“I honestly don’t know if I’d rather fish the Copper in June or September,” Hewitt finished. “There’s no other fishery I could say that about.”
I’m here on the shoulder—the small window of time between the great, and predictable, early-season fishery, when the fry and smolt are active and have the trout queued up for days, and just before the sockeye move in, turning every rainbow into a connoisseur of the many sizes and color stages of the salmon egg. In either case, you know exactly what to fish before stepping out of the boat, and you’re likely to get skunked by straying outside the norm.
Fishing during the shoulder season, on the other hand, is marked by variety, by randomness, by volatility. A hatch can come out of nowhere and turn the fish onto size 12 stoneflies, when ten minutes prior a Zonker fished on the swing was the way to go. You can go hours without a hit and then watch thousands of fry dump into a run, turning the fish towards a surface-sipping frenzy. The bite might last 45 minutes; it might last four hours. Nymphs can work, then other streamers, then maybe you find spent mayflies falling to the water near a willow overhang. An egg will still produce on occasion, even before the first salmon arrive. And when the sockeye do show in their characteristically robust numbers, the trout can freak and bug out of a system altogether, backing down into a lake and then returning in a few days when the spawn begins.
To illustrate the insanity of trying to predict fishing on the shoulder, during one of my days at Rainbow River Lodge we flew to the nearby Gibraltar River fora day-float. It’s a moderately fast, gin-clear stream with alder-covered banks and a heavy gravel bottom that receives a solid return of sockeye. One of the hottest-fishing rivers in the area the week leading up to my arrival, we traveled with high expectations. As we pushed our raft into the outlet, however, we already knew it was going to be a long haul, as guide Larry Tullis and I could plainly see large groups of chrome-sided sockeye filing into the lake. It became a day of work—a lot of casts, a lot of fly changes and only occasional success until we bumped into a mini-hatch of sorts at the end of the afternoon, when you could consistently catch trout by dropping a small nymph into the bucket and letting it lift in the water column like an emerger. That provided all the action I needed to deem the float a resounding success, having struggled just enough to feel like a genuine fly-fishing problem-solver at the end. Then, while waiting for Chad to return with the Beaver for our pickup, I decided to try a few casts where the river dumps into blustery Lake Iliamna.
The mouth of the Gibraltar is separated from the lake by a long gravel spit, which whittles the river into a narrow current barely wider than your average ditch. I selected the largest, heaviest baitfish pattern I could find and hucked the thing as far as possible into the lake. About four strips later a ’bow hit with the fury of a freight train and I promptly snapped the tippet. Heavier fluorocarbon, a new white articulated leech and one cast later, I was snug to one of my better rainbows of the trip. I’ve rarely felt so content when breaking down the fly rod for a return flight.
On other days of my stay we ventured out to remote rivers just stuffed with Dolly Varden, where the beads were outperforming streamers by a margin of at least four fish to one, even though there were no discernible salmon in the stream at all. In all I caught fish on various dry flies, more nymphs, streamers of every construction and hue, fry, alevin and smolt patterns, and finally, egg imitations. Some guests opted for a fly-and-hike option for trophy grayling, while another group was out on a weeklong float in Katmai. Some went searching for sockeye fillets to take home. With the fishing options so diverse, and the angling packages at Rainbow River Lodge completely customizable by the day, it really gets to the point where it’s hard to choose.
Unless you look like a Wally, in which case another trip down the Copper suits you just fine. Wally, it turns out, is a dry-fly guy.
Troy Letherman is editor of Fish Alaska magazine.
‘Bows on the Shoulder: Summer Trout at Rainbow River Lodge originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Fish Alaska.