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The Greatest Place for the Greatest Fish

I’ll never forget my first day on the Little Ku.

We’d spent the previous afternoon exploring a remote, nameless headwater in the vast system of rivers, creeks, and lakes that make up southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed. We’d had the place to ourselves except for the bears, and we’d caught an interesting mixture of rainbows, char and grayling. But none had been big, at least by Alaska standards. My best rainbow probably measured 18 inches in length, and I hadn’t come close to seeing the backing on my fly reel all day. While the combination of solitude, wildlife and plenty of fish left no basis for complaint, I’d been lulled into an artificial sense of complacency about the true nature of the Bristol Bay rainbow fishery.

That complacency didn’t survive my first cast on the Little Ku. We’d hiked across a mile of tundra from the nearest floatplane lake, and my bear radar had started to beep the moment we entered the brush along the stream. The bear trails were worn deep into the mud, and freshly gnawed red salmon carcasses lay everywhere. Fueled by a steady week of rain, the current was kicking and the gravel bars all lay below two feet of water. With dense brush choking both banks and no place to cast comfortably, I immediately recognized that we were in for a challenging day.

Those distractions no doubt explain my inattention onmy first cast. Struggling to stay upright in the current, I casually flicked my single-egg pattern upstream to work out some line and determine whether I needed to add a second split-shot above my tippet. The next thing I knew, my rod nearly flew from my hand. I know that’s an old chestnut in the catalog of angling tall tales, but this time around it very nearly happened. I didn’t even bother to strike, and when the double-digit rainbow cleared the water by two feet I couldn’t do anything but stare as it threw the hook.

“Did you see that?” I shouted to my wife Lori, who was standing 20 yards downstream. She didn’t, but she had a good excuse. As I glanced back over my shoulder I saw her leaning precariously into the current with her own fly rod bent double, and then a fish every bit as big as the one I’d just lost went airborne midway between us. Evidently she’d addressed the water with more respect than I’d shown it, for ten minutes later she was leading her fish into a gap in the brush where our friend Josh Fitz stood waiting with the net.

Anywhere else in the world those two rainbows would have been the fish of the season if not the fish of a lifetime, but they were just the beginning of a long, unforgettable day. It would be impossible to describe everything that happened over the course of the next six hours without lapsing into the kind of cliché I’ve already regretted, so I won’t even try. But that day explains why everyone who shares my passion for big rainbows on the fly needs to cowboy up and endure the expense and effort necessary to fish the Bristol Bay watershed at least once.

Special Country, Special Fish

Most articles on this area consist of personal anecdotes about a week of great fishing or a minute analysis of a given stream, with a handful of “what fly?” instructional pieces thrown in for good measure. Here we’ll see an overview of the country and the fishing, emphasizing common points of relevance throughout this vast watershed. I’ll name some streams and discuss some fly patterns, but my principal focus will be why this fishery is unique and what the first-time visitor can expect without regard to any specific destination.

Geographically, the area begins somewhat arbitrarily at Togiak and proceeds clockwise in a semi-circle to the southwest through the Wood River system, across the Nushagak to Lake Iliamna and its tributaries, and on to the Naknek drainage. All of the freshwater here drains south and west into Bristol Bay, the richest commercial salmon fishery in the world. The relationship between abundant Bristol Bay salmon and giant rainbows is not coincidental.

The first concept new arrivals, especially those from the Lower 48, must grasp is the roadless nature of this vast wilderness.  While “jump-off” communities like Dillingham, King Salmon and Iliamna have limited road systems, they’re not much use to the visiting angler. Aircraft are the pickup trucks of the north. Operating them is demanding and expensive, all of which helps explain why Bristol Bay area lodges are pricey and the region is such a challenging do-it-yourself destination.

These waters are home to almost every freshwater gamefish species in the state. Most can be caught with less effort and expense in other places. Rainbows—big rainbows—are the unique feature of this fishery.

Why do Bristol Bay rainbows grow so large? Simple genetics are an important factor, but nurture may be as important as nature. First, these fish enjoy ready access to a tremendous source of nutrition during summer salmon runs. Second, the region’s largest trout benefit from a life cycle featuring periodic migrations to and from the deep oligotrophic lakes that form part of many area stream systems, where they spend part of the summer feeding on salmon smolt and the long northern winter in a state of suspended animation, conserving their metabolic resources for the spring spawning run. While local rainbow stocks demonstrate several variations on this steelhead-like pattern of migration, the lakes always provide important security habitat and a rich source of food.

This life cycle has an important corollary: Big Alaska rainbows are old Alaska rainbows, given that they only feed vigorously for a few months each year. Rainbows in most places usually don’t grow older than three or four years, but Bristol Bay rainbows may live two or three times that long. This means that these fish are just too important to kill. Anglers who want to take fish home to family and friends should schedule a day on one of the area’s many productive salmon streams. The right place for a big Bristol Bay rainbow is back in the water. 

The Fuel That Drives the System

Writers have contributed more than their share to the enduring myth that Alaska is a rich ecosystem teeming with fish and game, but this is hungry country. Its poor soil produces low-quality forage, and its streams are nearly barren for much of the year. The ultimate base of the food chain can be reduced to one word: salmon.  The anadromous fish that carry protein and calories inland from the sea each summer, especially red (sockeye) salmon, are crucial to the survival of everything in southwest Alaska from mayflies to brown bears. Understanding the life cycle of the red salmon is essential for any angler intent on catching the area’s trophy rainbows.

After emerging from eggs as tiny alevin, young red salmon migrate to the nearest lake where they spend one to two years growing into finger-length smolt, which then head downstream to the sea during spring high water. After growing for another two or three years in the marine environment, mature reds return to their natal waters beginning in early July and continuing through September in some streams. After turning from silver to red, they pair up and spawn when they reach full sexual maturity and suitable habitat. Fertilized eggs remain under the gravel in the streambed until the following spring, when they hatch to begin the cycle anew. Adults deteriorate and die shortly after spawning.

Hungry rainbows capitalize on every step in this process. They feed eagerly on immature salmon, and in June the sight of giant rainbows hitting smolt balls migrating down the Naknek or Kvichak can be spectacular. The “egg drop” inspires another feeding frenzy, and rainbows gain weight rapidly for weeks as they gorge on this preferred food source. Finally, as bears, eagles, and gulls begin to tear dying adult salmon to pieces, trout enjoy another bounty of macerated and decaying flesh.

This cycle should guide the angler’s choice of flies and technique. In June and early July, stripping smolt imitations downstream from rearing lakes can be deadly. It’s not hard to determine the beginning of the egg drop. From the air, look for salmon paired up over smooth stretches of pea gravel. At the streamside, it’s easy to spot salmon eggs tumbling along in the current. Then it’s time to switch to single egg patterns. Sometime in August or September trout will turn their attention from eggs to flesh from dying salmon. When in doubt, fish a “Steak and Eggs”—a single egg pattern tied behind a Flesh Fly—and see which half of this combination draws more strikes.

Trout on Top

While the fastest action for the largest rainbows will usually come on subsurface imitations of some stage of the salmon life cycle, dry-fly enthusiasts need not despair. Except during the peak of the egg drop, when rainbows usually have just one thing on their mind, it’s almost always possible to catch some fish on dry flies, and at times, especially early in the year, the topwater fishing can be spectacular.

Anglers accustomed to matching specific insect hatches can leave those notions behind. While many of these streams produce hatches of caddis, mayflies, and stones, they are usually sporadic and rainbows seldom feed on top selectively. Of course there are exceptions and it’s always wise to carry a basic selection of generic imitations like Elk Hair Caddis and Adams patterns, but I usually do best with attractors like Stimulators even in the middle of a hatch.

The best “hatch” of all may be of mammalian origin. When mice and voles are migrating across the tundra, some wind up in the water where they offer big ’bows a meal impossible to resist. These events can be sporadic and unpredictable, but the sight of a 10-pound rainbow rising to a Deer-Hair Mouse that looks as if it belongs in a southern bass pond provides an experience no serious fly-rod angler should miss.

Four-Legged Fishermen

 Because of the importance of the brief summer salmon run to the survival of every predator and scavenger around, anglers can expect to share the water with an array of non-human company including gulls, raptors, and the largest and most intimidating land carnivore on the continent: the Alaska brown bear. Fish Bristol Bay streams when the salmon are in and you will see bears, often at disconcertingly close range. Sometimes these encounters may be nothing more than occasional glimpses. At others, well… On the Brooks in September we routinely assign one member of the party to do nothing but stand by and watch for bears so one doesn’t get too close to a distracted angler fighting a fish, and I’ve been run off Moraine Creek in the middle of spectacular fishing by a concentration of bears—including one evil-tempered sow—so dense that it was simply impossible to keep track of them all.

How does one fish elbow to elbow with thousand-pound animals that can outrun a racehorse and bring down a moose? First, remember that brown bears at this time of year are mostly interested in the same thing you are: their next fish. Bear attacks on anglers in this part of Alaska are exceedingly rare. However, bears are potentially dangerous animals that deserve respect at all times.

Firearms as a means of defense have significant limitations. Unless you’re an expert, your chance of making a bad situation worse is better than your chance of making it better. Furthermore, it’s illegal to carry firearms inside National Parks, where much of the area’s best fishing takes place. Although I guide bear hunters seasonally, I almost never carry a firearm when I’m fishing. Bear spray works, and it’s a good idea for one member of the party to carry it. (Remember that bear spray should never be transported inside the cabin of an airplane. Put it in a float compartment instead.)

But the best way to stay out of trouble is by developing “bear sense.” Don’t surprise bears at close quarters in brush. Give sows with cubs a wide birth. Observe the behavior of nearby bears carefully. If they give any indication that they’re concerned by your presence, back off slowly. If a bear seems interested in a fish on the end of your line, break the fish off at once. 

Over the years I’ve watched a lot of people bounce off a lot of bears. Some folks were obviously terrified, and needlessly let the presence of bears ruin their day. Others were way to casual, treating even sows with cubs like big puppy dogs. Strive for a middle ground, giving the bears the respect and attention they deserve while remembering how rare attacks really are.

Random Notes

Even in clear water, Bristol Bay rainbows are seldom leader-shy. Fish with 12-pound tippet at a minimum. Quick fights draw less attention from bears and are easier on the fish.

Crimp down your barbs. You’ll hook just as many fish, and it’s easier to remove hooks, sparing both the fish and occasionally your own hide (perish the thought!).

Big fish come from big water. I love remote, nameless little headwater streams, but if I really want a benchmark 30-inch rainbow, I head to the Kvichak or the Naknek.

Strike indicators are a matter of personal preference. If they help you, fine. I pay more attention to the water and enjoy the fishing more without them.

Are beads really flies? Leave that question to the philosophers if you like to catch fish. I solve the conundrum by threading a bead ahead of a Wilson Egg or similar pattern. 

I’m a do-it-yourself outdoorsman by nature, and I’ve spent most of my time in this area on my own. However, before you try it be sure your wilderness skills and experience level are up to the task. Anglers new to Alaska will be well advised to begin with a guided trip with one of the area’s many fine lodges.

As a DIY option, consider an extended float trip down one of the area’s less famous streams. I’ve done the Mulchatna and the Koktuli many times. The rainbows weren’t as big or as numerous as those I’ve taken on better known angling waters, but enjoying the solitude offered by miles of water inaccessible by floatplane provided more than ample compensation.

Above all, take time to stop and smell the roses (or, more accurately, the tundra). One can only catch so many fish, even when they’re huge rainbows. From snow-clad volcanic peaks to wild coastlines and the visual splendor of autumn foliage on the tundra, southwestern Alaska represents a slice of wilderness like no other in the world. The judicious angler will call time out from time to time, to experiment with new angling techniques, help a friend, photograph bears, or savor the simple pleasure of leaving the busyness of the everyday world farther behind than most people will ever imagine possible.

The Candle in the Wind

Although I’d rather discuss the fish, I find it impossible to write about this area without drawing readers’ attention to the potential ecological disaster the proposed Pebble Mine project represents. Bristol Bay salmon are about more than trophy rainbows, as if that weren’t enough. Salmon runs sustain the most important commercial fishery in the state, allow local Native communities to enjoy their traditional lifestyle, and form an essential part of the biome in a vast, unique ecosystem. If the Pebble Mine becomes a reality, all of this could disappear forever.

This magazine has already taken a strong editorial stance against this ill-advised, foreign-backed project. Anglers interested in the long-term health of this special fishery should contact resources such as Trout Unlimited (www.tu.org)or Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (www.alaskabackcountryhunters.org) for further information.  

Don Thomas and his wife Lori divide their time between homes in Montana and southeast Alaska. Don’s latest book, How Sportsmen Saved the World, documents the contributions hunters and anglers have made to the conservation movement. His 17 outdoor books are available through the website www.donthomasbooks.com

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