Article and Photos by Erik Salitan of Talarik Creek Lodge
“Fish On!” I yelled out.
My 11-year-old son, Lucas, immediately shouted back from across the hole, “Is it a rainbow?”
I answered him that it was not, and he shrugged off the 18-inch Arctic grayling on the end of my line like it was a piece of weed. My wife had sent us fishing that evening to catch some fresh grayling for dinner and our goal was now achieved, with four large, translucent-white-fleshed fish having been plucked from the cold waters of the Newhalen River.
The author’s son Lucas with what he calls “a real fish” also defined as any rainbow trout over 20 inches caught on a fly rod.
What is it about rainbow trout that incites such excitement? Why is it that when fishing guides congregate around a fire the conversation always finds its way to rainbows, not salmon, not char, not pike, but definitely rainbows? “Keep it in the water,” “Careful, don’t drop it,” and “Nice release,” are all phrases I’ve heard said and spoken myself. I have a personal admiration for the green-speckled creatures, and rainbow trout fishing has a cult following that comes close to an actual religion, but not everyone in Alaska shares these feelings.
Before statehood, the Territory of Alaska put a bounty on rainbow trout (other vermin to be eliminated included bald eagles and seals). Although the state has evolved since the days of trout bounties, in some ways its focus is the same: food. Rainbow trout are not salmon; they don’t taste like salmon; they’re not as fat as salmon; and they can’t be harvested in great quantities like salmon. This fact alone puts them far down the list of importance to rural Alaskans. Traditionally, rainbows in southwestern Alaska, Bristol Bay, and Iliamna are fed to dogs or made into specialty foods like fish Agutuk. Most of these fish are harvested when they are in their pre-spawning migration under the ice.
The author with a beautiful rainbow taken from small pocket water in an overlooked creek. An angler willing to walk relatively short distances though obstacles like swamp, tundra, and bear-infested brush can reach fishing Nirvana, virgin water!
Living year-round in Iliamna with my family and owning and operating Talarik Creek Lodge affords me a diverse perspective. As a person who appreciates irony, the diverse user groups that utilize rainbow trout do not subscribe to the same ideologies. I cannot even imagine the horror that both clients and nonresident lodge owners in the region would feel if they came to any of the top rainbow subsistence fisheries, which operate in late winter or early spring. Subsistence nets under the ice and dozens of ice fishing holes can sometimes result in the harvest of over 100 rainbow trout from a single creek in a day. These are the same fish we have gone through painstaking measures to gain that perfect, safe release that we all strive for. The harvest is so significant that the evidence is apparent from the air, with snowmachine highways to the choice creeks, the snow stained by blood, and the frozen trout piled in sleds like cordwood.
Before you, my fellow trout-worshipping angler friend, have a heart attack and call the Alaska State Wildlife Troopers, keep in mind this is a legal subsistence activity, and this is the way it’s always been. In fact, these activities are actually declining here in Bristol Bay, mostly due to the increasing scarcity of sled-dog teams here and across all of rural Alaska, which were the main consumers of the trout.
Not all the traditional harvest has been done by rural Alaskans. It was not that distant in the past that rainbow trout (and all species for that matter) were treated very differently by us. Before the invention of the fiberglass-replica mount, the biggest, most beautiful, oldest fish were killed by lodge owners and fishing clients alike for skin mounts. Many of the old trophy-fish pictures my in-laws have in their old lodge albums are of frozen fish. It was a different time, and I’m happy to have a 100% rainbow-release policy at my own lodge.
Having married into a sportfishing-lodge family, there are certain expectations that my father-in-law, John Baechler, who ran several lodges in Iliamna for nearly forty years, has set upon me. Most of these involve greasing jet units, changing oil, and properly running our custom Bentz inboard jet boats, none of which I do to his standards. Having come from a hunting-guide background, I had a lot to learn a decade ago when I began fish guiding. I made plenty of mistakes as my wife Martha and I built our own lodge clientele.
There were many differences that I encountered in the transition between hunt guiding and fish guiding, but there was one type of fishing that had strong parallels: rainbow trout fishing. In both hunting and rainbow fishing, the participants are fanatics, and unlike any other type of fishing, big rainbows are hunted, not fished. Big fish, just like a big Dall sheep, can be caught by luck, but most quarries of either the aquatic or terrestrial variety are won through thoughtful determination.
Although my father-in-law may not admit it, we have been in a fishing derby of epic proportions over the last ten years. With his four decades of experience and the unquestionable abundance of monster rainbow trout in the surrounding Iliamna watersheds in the 1980s and 1990s, it has been difficult to compete. The only advantage I have is that although my father-in-law is a fantastic angler, he is not a hunter.
It was with this limited skill set that I trudged forward in search of exceptional fish for my clients. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to bring a few impressive photographs to my father-in-law, including two separate lake trout that have been featured on the cover of Fish Alaska and some frighteningly large northern pike, but no truly monster rainbow trout. That being said, we had hit the magic 30-inch mark on several June “snakes,” post-spawn rainbows that had no “shoulders,” and any client who has moderate skill with a fly rod could expect several upper-20s fish during their six-day stay.
As exciting as it is to catch amazingly colored, wild, sky-dancing rainbows in the 20- to 30-inch range, I yearned for more. I wanted to have a client catch a fish with the wow factor.
Alaska is the Last Frontier state, with an image of rugged mountains, jagged glaciers, and innumerable rivers and streams traversing the land. The untouched wilderness image has its truth and its lies. It always makes me smile when a first-time client fishing a drainage like Moraine Creek asks me, “Do you think anyone has ever been here before?” The sad truth is there is not a lot of water that hasn’t already been worked over by skilled and dedicated anglers.
There are, however, still waters to pioneer. These virgin waters are not mighty rivers or lakes accessible by every float plane from Homer to Anchorage. The waters that haven’t been fished all have one thing in common: They are unfriendly for people in some way. It might be that a given creek is too brushy to cast or simply that the access is too demanding for most clients. Often, some of these smaller tributaries are overlooked by most lodge owners and managers because they don’t hold the numbers of fish required to entertain a Beaver or Otter full of guests for a day. The most powerful limitation is time. These waters require such an incredible amount of time to find and scout in the first place that the vast majority of lodge owners and managers, who are predominantly nonresidents, can’t justify the time required during the season and the risk of having clients get skunked on some wild goose chase trying to grasp at an imaginary dream of pioneering a virgin trout water.
Big trout, small water. Yes, those big rainbows are up there! You just need to be willing to break your fly rod in the brush and chase off the bears! If you’re the type of angler that wears a bug net this is probably not for you.
These factors do not apply to me. It was February when I found it. I was telemark skiing in the upper Newhalen River drainage and had been following the tracks of a family of otters for several miles in the fresh snow. As the tracks weaved in and out of the alder and gnarled birch, I came upon a trickle of open water. The waterway that the otter tracks were following was about a foot wide and two feet deep, hardly a creek. To my surprise, I came to a place on the bank where there were the remnants of salmon. This surprised me because of the distance I was from the Newhalen River and how small of a creek these salmon had run up. With my interest perked, I kept skiing down the little drainage. After a half mile or so, the creek made a sharp turn at the base of a hill and, and as I rounded the corner, my level of intrigue increased. The creek was linked to a small tundra pond that continued as just a trickle towards the Newhalen River. Here I found more salmon carcasses and realized that I may have really found something; after all, where there are salmon, there are rainbows. I skied off and filed it away.
In August, Russell and Linda Ueckert arrived for their annual trip to Talarik Creek Lodge. I was excited to see them, as they are among my favorite clients. Russell and Linda, veterinarians from Abilene, TX, normally come in July for the sockeye extravaganza, but this year they wanted to do something different and were going to try for silvers.
After a few days, they had caught several fish boxes worth of silvers, some average-sized rainbows, and were starting to yearn for something more. Because they are a physically fit couple, I decided to send them to the spot I had found on my ski the previous winter—Notellem Creek—even though the journey there involves a long trek through bear-infested, swampy terrain.
“So, Evan,” I told my guide, showing him a topographical map, “I need you to take Russ and Linda here.” Evan gave me a look of surprise and confusion—I hadn’t previously let him know that this creek existed. Russell and Linda left with Evan, and I dropped off a different group of fishermen and returned to the lodge. At about 4 p.m., I was coming out of the shop when I saw our van, Evan’s assigned vehicle, coming up the lodge driveway. What?! I thought, because the Ueckerts fish hard and never come back early. My concern and confusion grew as the van pulled up, and I could see that Evan was crying!
I asked Evan, “What’s wrong? Is everyone ok?” He responded, “Yeah, we’re all fine.” So, I asked him, “Why the heck are you crying then?” He responded, “Because I can’t smile anymore,” and burst into tears again.
Evan handed me a photograph of the largest rainbow trout I’d ever seen. “How big is that?” I asked.
Evan let me know he’d measured the trout three times for accuracy and that it measured 33¼ inches by 15½ inches.
Then I asked him the real question, “Did you safely release it?”
“Absolutely,” he shouted. “Great release.”
“Good,” I said. “Who caught it?”
“I did!” said Linda.
“Awesome!” I said, thrilled for her. “Did it jump?”
“Yes!” she answered. “It did acrobatics four feet out of the water!”
Russell and Linda Ueckert showing off Linda’s trophy rainbow. © Evan Gordon.
Having a great client like Linda catch a goliath rainbow trout like she did is rewarding enough in itself but to have her catch it in pioneered water was the icing on the cake. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimated the fish, based on photographs, to be 8- to 11 years old and confirmed that, including seining for research, it was the longest trout known from the world-famous Newhalen River drainage. My father-in-law claims he saw one frozen in 1985 that was bigger, but he didn’t have a picture, so I say that’s fake news.
Whether or not it was truly the largest rainbow to come from the Newhalen system, I don’t know. What I do know, though, is the little creek is still there, and that the salmon will come there to spawn again like they always do. With just a little luck the big rainbow will be there, too.
Erik Salitan lives year-round on Seversens Point, Lake Iliamna, with his wife and two sons. He has a degree in Conservation Natural Resources, is a member of numerous conservation groups, a registered guide, owner of Talarik Creek Lodge, pilot, and an avid outdoorsman.