October 17, 2022
By Ernest Schwiebert
Editor's note: Flyfisherman.com will periodically be posting articles written and published before the Internet, from the Fly Fisherman magazine print archives. The wit and wisdom from legendary fly-fishing writers like Ernest Schwiebert, Gary LaFontaine, Lefty Kreh, Robert Traver, Al Caucci & Bob Nastasi, Vince Marinaro, Doug Swisher & Carl Richards, Nick Lyons, and many more deserve a second life. These articles are reprinted here exactly as published in their day and may contain information, philosophies, or language that reveals a different time and age. This should be used for historical purposes only.
This article originally appeared in the January-February 1981 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine. Click here for a PDF of the print version of "Alaska's October Rainbow."
The wind held the chill of the Bering Strait, and from the height of land along the marshy tributary, I could see the shining expanse of Lake Iliamna. Its headwater mountains were lost in storms.
The pools of the Kulik River flowed smoothly, winding along low bluffs and bracken. I crouched in the purplish serviceberries, trying to calm a wildly beating heart. The pool seemed empty now. It had held a dozen rainbow between twelve and fifteen pounds when we spotted it from the float-plane.
The pilot had set us down in the marshy lagoons downstream, and I had hiked back across the tundra to the bends between the bluffs. The big fish had seemed bored. I had fished a fly book of big nymphs, egg flies and bucktails over them, but I'd seen no display of hunger or curiosity until I tried a big, slate-colored sculpin. I had sent my cast far upstream both to avoid dropping the fly near the fish and to work it down among them. When the sculpin drifted back to a big rainbow, I raised it slightly.
I saw the fly disappear in the jaws of the huge fish and then a yardstick of rainbow leaped, its jump ending in a clumsy shower of spray. The other big fish in the pool bolted, creating heart-stopping wakes as they shot crazily downstream while my rainbow steeplechased after them. My fly pulled free after several wild somersaults. I sat dazed in the bracken and serviceberries and stared at an empty pool.
There is little argument that our best salmon and trout fishing, based on both average size and mindboggling numbers, are found in Alaska. Its fisheries are scattered in a vast landscape of lakes and river drainages, but the best rivers lie in a surprisingly small region.
Alaska is a universe in itself, and it has evolved its own mythology. Its scope is so large that it surpasses the perception of a single observer. A definitive portrait is perhaps impossible. But despite its seemingly endless wilderness, Alaska's best fisheries are limited, definable and fragile. Many anglers dream of unknown rivers teeming with big rainbow, yet none of Alaska's rainbow are native beyond the Koskokwim watershed at Bristol Bay. The species is not found in the major rivers of the state, nor in the wilderness waters of the Brooks Range. And the glacial drainages between Anchorage and Ketchikan are too silty to sustain large fisheries.
Although there are more than 50,000 miles of Alaskan coast, the state's finest rainbow fishing is found in the 150-mile stretch between Ugashik, at the root of the Aleutians, and Cape Newenham on the Bering Sea. The rivers flowing into Bristol Bay are perhaps the finest rainbow fisheries anywhere. These rivers are particularly exciting each fall when big rainbow run up on the heels of the spawning sockeye salmon.
According to field biologists, who readily admit their lack of knowledge about much of Alaska, there are no true steelhead populations beyond the watersheds that drain into the Gulf of Alaska. The rainbow that thrive in the rivers from Ugashik to the Goodnews and Kanetok have access to Bristol Bay and salt water, but few choose to migrate beyond their brackish estuaries.
The secret of these rivers' remarkable rainbow fisheries lies in their cornucopia of sockeye. The Bristol Bay rivers have the largest runs of sockeye salmon in the world. During the past season, between 25 and 30 million adult sockeye returned to spawn in the rivers between Bethel and Ugashik alone.
Such fish, sea-bright when they first return from the salt, soon change into bright-red spawners with olive heads and tails. They arrive in waves so dense that many pale-bottom rivers display typical gravel shallows one week but appear blood-red the next as the spawning grounds fill with salmon. The sockeye deposit millions of eggs in the gravel of the Bristol Bay drainages during summer and early fall, and other fish gather to gorge themselves on the salmon caviar. Whitefish, grayling, Dolly Varden and char all join with the rainbow in an orgy of egg stealing.
The fish are not the only foragers. In response to the sockeyes' arrival deserted Arctic rivers suddenly burst into life. Eagles and flocks of gulls and ospreys are the first to arrive, but the giant Alaskan brown bears soon follow to feast on the plentiful food.
Alaska is alive with bears. Shaggy and wet with fishing, they wallow in backwaters and gorge on spawning sockeye. The bears are half comic, half awesome, and they smell of their diet. They gather in astonishing numbers, trampling the shoulder-high grasses, sitka alders and willows into a labyrinth of paths. But there are also giant rainbow following the sockeye, rainbow in such numbers that anglers willingly fish in spite of the bears.
The rainbow thrive, but grow slowly, in the lakes, feeding through winter on pygmy whitefish, sculpin, long-nosed suckers, pond smelt, crustaceans and aquatic insects. In spring the rainbow spawn in the rivers connecting the lakes, and they are soon followed by waves of salmon rushing in from the sea to spawn in the same gravel. Chum and hump-backed salmon mingle with huge chinooks during early-summer spawning in the lower and middle reaches of these watersheds. They, in turn, are followed by the sockeye.
Hungry rainbow follow each salmon species to its spawning grounds and hold downstream of the egg-laying fish to steal eggs as they are extruded into the redds.
"Don't be proud," Andre Puyans chides his friends. "It's still matching the hatch, you've just got to accept the fact that the hatch is a basic fish-egg omelette!"
Bright steelhead patterns that suggest salmon eggs–dressings such as the Thor, Skykomish Sunrise and Polar Shrimp–are common offerings. Some anglers fish egg dressings such as the Babine Special or various egg-colored yarn flies. However, the fishing is more complex than it seems.
The rainbow are often more selective than the egg-stealing grayling, Dolly Varden and char. The best choice of fly color can vary, depending on the eggs and their source. Freshly extruded eggs can be bright orange or hot pink, but spent sockeye sometimes extrude eggs of a washed-out color, and dead sockeye often contain milky-pale eggs that remain edible because of the cold water.
Since the specific gravity of salmon eggs helps them sink quickly and settle into the freshly shaped redds, they drift and tumble along the bottom. The eggs drift free in the bottom currents. Flies dressed to imitate them are typically loaded with fuse wire, although some fishermen weight their leaders with a few turns of lead wire at each blood knot. Sinking lines, and sinking-tip lines with shooting tapers are useful, depending on the water currents. Sometimes, however, large rainbow lie in shallow riffles, holding among the spawning sockeye and stealing their eggs. In such situations·you should use weighted egg patterns and floating lines, mending them often for a dead-drift presentation. It's possible to follow a bright egg pattern and mend its drift right to a specific fish. This technique combines the excitement of stalking fish and fishing to selective trout.
Territoriality can also play a role in these fishing tactics. Male sockeye will attempt to drive off the egg-stealing rainbow, and the trout display scars of such attacks. Sockeye attacks are often accompanied by frantic splashing and gouts of spray thrown across the water as the rainbow frantically try to escape. At such times the rainbow can be spotted by their dark color. Their acrobatics also betray their feeding lies, which in turn can indicate the location of large schools of rainbow. Egg patterns seem to be most effective when rainbow are jumping and fleeing–when the egg stealing is most energetic.
Another form of territoriality can influence rainbow behavior. Sculpin and sticklebacks are also egg stealers, and they poach among the feeding rainbow, which are intolerant of such larceny. Some rainbow will refuse an egg pattern, only to attack a sculpin or a dark, silver-bodied dressing that suggests a stickleback.
Since the big rainbow are migratory, and follow the sockeye in their spawning runs, they do not always lie in the same pools and riffles. The Bristol Bay rivers, even those draining the rich volcanic soils and hot springs of the Katmai and Iliamna regions, cannot sustain resident populations of trophy-size fish. The largest rainbow usually come from lake populations that have followed the schools of migrating sockeye.
Skilled fishermen have discovered that the largest schools and biggest rainbow are found in the Iliamna Lake drainage in late October. Similar, though smaller, runs of rainbow also occur in the Wood River/Tikchik Lakes drainages, as well as in the Nonvianek Lake system. Gathered in large numbers downstream from the spawning salmon, the packs of gray-colored rainbow are often visible from a float plane, and since the largest rainbow are almost as large as the sockeye males, these rainbow seem less frightened of the territorial fish than their smaller brethren, and you can spot them lying right among the spawning sockeye.
By October the stillwaters of the lagoons are filled with dead and dying sockeye, and the gravel bars are alive with gulls and other scavengers. Some fishermen find it difficult to enjoy their sport surrounded by such grisly remains. But perhaps we should remember that without the food-chain organisms sustained by these decomposing sockeye the relatively barren watersheds would be even less fertile than they are now. Baby salmon feed on the life-giving fertility released by the deaths of their parents. Alaska teaches us a naturalist's lesson that is perhaps chilling, but also full of hope.
The immense runs of salmon that ascend Alaska's rivers each summer are deceptive, and many anglers mistakenly believe that both trout and salmon are countless. Pacific salmon spend only a short time in their parent watersheds before migrating to salt water as smolts. The ceiling on their numbers is tied to the plenty of the sea, rather than to the relative scarcity in the rivers.
Alaskan rainbow are not as lucky. They grow slowly in these subarctic waters, and a trophy-size fish is often surprisingly old. The big schools do not reflect large populations, but are often the aggregate populations of prime brood stock from both the lower rivers and each lake in their watershed. Local outfitters and lodge owners are aware that the rainbow fisheries are limited and fragile, and several guard their favorite waters more stringently than current regulations require. However, even greater regulation of both angling and poaching may be necessary to protect the rainbow fishery.
That last afternoon of our trip Jack Hemingway joined me on a gravelly shallows just below the outlet of Kulik Lake. After a hard rain a school of bright sockeye had gathered, moving upstream in the slightly raised Kulik River to begin their spawning. Hemingway quickly rigged an egg-fly pattern and waded out stealthily, studying the shallows for the dark shapes that were big rainbow.
He cast and mended his drift skillfully with a series of wrist-rolls. When I finished with my tackle, I heard him stop whistling suddenly and his reel began a shrill protest. The rainbow jumped and we both gasped. It ran deep into the backing, jumping several times as it fought stubbornly, and each time Hemingway patiently forced it back. Finally it surrendered in the bear-grass shallows, its saucer-size gill covers working in the current.
"Thirty inches!" I said. The fish was immense, bulging with layers of fat after gorging itself on salmon roe. Its shoulders bulged like those of a male sockeye, and it was as muscular as a smallmouth.
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame!" Hemingway said.
He cradled the big henfish in both hands and nursed it patiently in the smooth current. "She's so fat she should be ashamed!"
"The Hunchbelly of Kulik," I responded.
We also gorged ourselves, fishing greedily through a week on these wild rivers at the threshold of the Katmai country. Its immense crater lies just beyond the Kulik, and the somber Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. We had caught and released several hundred big rainbow between us, with a dozen between six and twelve pounds.
The October wind carried the promise of winter, and the willows and alders were stripped of their leaves. Clouds hung over the steep-walled lake, but swirled fiercely along the ridges farther south. We were filled with fishing, and when Jack's henfish had drifted back into the current, we sat on the bear grass laughing like schoolboys.
Ernest Schwiebert is Fly Fisherman's Editor-at-Large.