Iliamna's Hidden Treasures: Big Dreams in Alaska's Small Streams
February 05, 2020
The first time I flew into Moraine Creek, we ate breakfast early and loaded the Beaver at dawn. We skirted the perimeter of Katmai National Park, watching the sun rise from 500 feet above the tundra, but when we spotted the elbow-shaped Crosswinds Lake, there were already nine other float planes there. Our guide and pilot consulted via headphones, then made an audible to fly to Narrow Cove and walk up the Battle River instead. And so it went on many other days on that trip, and on several other trips to the region over the next few years.
Alaska’s best trout fishing is in roadless wilderness areas. As a result, most fly fishers in the lower 48 imagine themselves flying to these rivers and having them all to themselves. It’s often not the case. The best trout rivers in the Bristol Bay region are all well known to the dozens of fly-fishing lodges and hundreds of seasonal guides, and the problem is exacerbated inside Katmai National Park, where all the lakes and rivers are (thankfully) public property. We’ve all seen the crowds that can gather at Old Faithful, and the salmon-laden rivers of Katmai National Park are just as miraculously breathtaking and predictable. Everyone should see it.
I was rebuffed by Moraine Creek in this way many times over the course of a decade until finally one serendipitous morning, we flew over Crosswinds Lake and saw no other planes. We landed, packed our inflatable rafts to the river, and we didn’t see another group until late that day at the mouth of the river, where some other parties had arrived by boat from across the lake. The fishing was well worth the wait. No wonder so many people had queued up for Moraine Creek. On that day alone I photographed 36 different brown bears, and the river was loaded with famously transient rainbow trout feasting on sockeye salmon eggs.
I’ve had quite a few unbelievable days like that in the park—days when I got lucky, or else when I walked a long way from the regular float plane landing sites to find solitude on rivers painted red with sockeyes, and rainbows close behind them. Good pilots, adventurous guides, and willing legs are a key part of that.
But over the past two decades of fishing in Alaska, I’ve also learned that an alternative method to beat the crowds in the Bristol Bay/Iliamna Lake region is to fish outside the park on permitted state lands and tribal lands (private property) where the fishing rights are leased or otherwise more closely regulated.
“We can fly anywhere we want within about a 150-mile radius,” said pilot Craig (Gus) Augustynovich, who manages Rainbow King Lodge on the north shore of Iliamna Lake. “But we don’t fly up to that madhouse any more. There’s too much good fishing outside the park that we can have all to ourselves.”
Bristol Bay is famous for all five species of Pacific salmon that run from the ocean to their natal streams primarily between July 1 and October 1. Silver salmon (coho) are prized by fly fishers because they aggressively hunt and crush flies—even waking flies at the surface—and they fight acrobatically, leaping with airborne cartwheels like rainbow trout. King salmon (Chinooks) are far more reticent, and they haunt deep waters where they are often not accessible to fly fishers, but if you can catch one early in the year when they are still silver, these largest of the Pacific salmon are drool-worthy gamefish.
However, most fly fishers don’t travel to Alaska exclusively to catch salmon. By nature we’re trout fishermen, and most of us come to Alaska to catch the biggest native rainbows on the continent. What makes it all happen is the region’s sockeye (red) salmon that in 2018 numbered 62.3 million fish. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the 2018 run was the largest on record dating back to 1893. The commercial harvest was worth $281 million, and the escapement (the number of fish left over to spawn) was 21 million. Every salmon river in Alaska met or exceeded its target escapement in 2018.
Even in a “normal” year of 30 or 40 million sockeyes, Bristol Bay represents the largest biomass of sockeye salmon in the world, a funnel of fish that essentially transports nutrients from the Pacific Ocean into the otherwise barren streams of southwest Alaska. The rainbow trout in these rivers don’t go to the sea like steelhead, but the ocean comes to them in rotting carcasses that form the base of the entire food chain, and also in salmon eggs that are at times so prolific they collect in slow pools along the shore and in the swirling backeddies around your boots.
Sockeyes have a peculiar life cycle compared to other salmon species—without exception they migrate upriver into a large lake. They pause in the lake, where they mature from silvery bullets into crimson fish with dark greenish heads and wickedly twisted canine teeth. They gather in massive schools in the lake and when they are ready to spawn, they run in waves up small lake tributaries, where they dig redds in the gravel, spawn, and then in their final act of life, bury their eggs.
Unlike Chinooks and some other species that most often spawn in the main stems of massive rivers, early-season sockeyes frequently spawn in small tributaries with pea-size gravel high in the headwaters of lake/river watersheds. Trout thrive in these habitats because they find refuge in the lake during winter, in the spring they feast on salmon smolts migrating downstream by the billions, and in the summer they migrate upriver along with the salmon to gorge on eggs and later on decomposing salmon flesh. It’s a full season of “matching the hatch,” but aquatic insects barely play a role in it. For rainbow trout it’s heaven, and for fly fishers it creates the ultimate fantasy scenario of big fish in small streams. Only in the Bristol Bay region, it’s not a fantasy, it’s reality.
The Heart of Bristol Bay
On the north side of Bristol Bay (North of Dillingham), Wood-Tikchik State Park holds two major interconnected lake systems with 12 lakes, including lakes Aleknagik, Nerka, Nuyakuk, and Chauekuktuli. To the south and west is Katmai National Park with Naknek, Nonvianuk, Kukaklek, and several other lakes and two massive rivers draining the complex lake/rivers systems: the Naknek and the Alagnak.
Between these two deeply glaciated regions is Iliamna Lake, the heart and soul of the Bristol Bay region. At more than 1,000 square miles, it’s the largest lake in Alaska and America’s seventh largest freshwater lake. The massive Kvichak River (pronounced qwee-jack) flows from Iliamna and is the biggest sockeye salmon producer in the region. And around the lake perimeter are dozens and dozens of sockeye salmon spawning streams, some with healthy populations of resident trout, and others that are too small to support trout through the winter, but they pull massive runs of rainbows from the lake as soon as the scent of salmon eggs is in the water. Unlike the state and national parks to the west and the south, Iliamna is surrounded by a mix of native, private, and state lands.
The bad news is that this type of ownership could result in potentially toxic uses like the proposed Pebble Mine just 8 miles from the north shore of Iliamna. In other places, it results in carefully managed access, with fishing leases and permits carefully doled out by local tribes and other landowners for sustainable use that avoids the all-to-familiar “tragedy of the commons” first described by British economist William Forster Lloyd.
When Augustynovich told me we’d fish on Iliamna tributaries ripe with spawning sockeye, and we’d be catching lake-run rainbows that looked like steelhead, I assumed we’d have an early morning fire drill each morning to fly to wherever the sockeyes were dropping their eggs. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. His go-to rivers are almost exclusively on carefully managed private or tribal lands, or places where there are limited numbers of permits to preserve the “wild” experience Alaska should be famous for.
For example, there are two Talarik creeks on the north shore of Iliamna known as Upper and Lower Talarik. The uninitiated might think these are the upper and lower portions of the same watershed, but they are in fact two different rivers, one “up” the lakeshore, and the other lower down closer to the lake mouth. Lower Talarik Creek is one of the most famous trout streams in the Iliamna region, and a huge glacial erratic boulder called The Rock is an iconic vantage point to spot 24-inch rainbows moving from and to Iliamna Lake. Like Moraine Creek in Katmai National Park, in prime season Lower Talarik is one of the most popular rainbow trout fly-out destinations in Alaska. In fact, in 25 years of visiting the area, I’ve never been willing or able to land at Lower Talarik, as too many others preceded us. Some people camp along the river overnight to get first shot at prime locations like The Rock, and it’s widely rumored that quite a few pilots are willing to fly by the light of the moon in order to touch down first at Lower Talarik.
Upper Talarik Creek runs into the same lake, has the same push of spawning sockeyes around the same time of year, and has massive Iliamna rainbows, but it runs exclusively through tribal land. The fishing rights are leased to Rainbow King Lodge. The public cannot land there, camp there, or walk the banks.
Augustynovich flies just two rods per day to this pristine Alaska paradise, and it’s a microcosm of how perfect fishing in Alaska can be. I started the day in a deep slough adjacent to Iliamna. The water was high, flooding the wetland grasses, and my friend Bruce Holt and I waded nearly up to our wader tops to get into casting position near the deepest part of the slow, froggy water. We wanted to start the day off with a few silver salmon.
While the sockeyes in the river were red and digging their nests in the gravel upriver, it was mid-August and the silver salmon were just staging in this deep slough—sort of a no man’s land between the lake and the river—and they were the color of polished nickels. They were just the sort of salmon you want for the fly rod—aggressive and sexually immature. At that stage, they look and act a lot like steelhead.
I caught two nice silvers in the slough, and one of them took a pink foam Wog. Perhaps the most endearing quality of silver salmon is that in the right conditions, they’ll chase and crush skating surface flies. No other type of Pacific salmon is so accommodating. Silver salmon are also delicious, so I caught a few of them, and used a priest on the two largest fish to fill my limit.
Bruce was having too much fun with the silvers, so I left him with guide Kevin Flanagan and pushed through thick stands of alders to negotiate around the wetlands. I walked through a field of Labrador tea and could smell the fragrant intoxicants as my boots crushed them underfoot. On a hillside, a grizzly sow and two cubs grazed in pastures of ripe tundra blueberries. In just a few weeks they’d be feeding primarily on sockeyes, but at this stage of the season, blueberries were easier.
I ditched my 8-weight rod in the grass back with the dead salmon, and grabbed my favorite trout setup, a 5-weight Asquith with a tiny Abel TR reel just over 3 inches in diameter. The reel has no adjustable drag, just a sweet-sounding clicker that sings as the line melts away. My recommendation for these big Iliamna rainbows is to use at least a 6-weight rod, and a reel with a powerful disk drag to stop these fish quickly, but I wanted to see if I could do the same job in a low-tech effort, palming the reel hard when I could, and running downstream to make the fish feel that pressure and take the fight upstream against the current. Clearly, I don’t always make wise decisions.
My box was plush with the same bead setups we’d used on previous days on the Gibralter, Copper, Iliamna, and Tazimina rivers. On hard-pressured rivers everywhere, trout respond to catch-and-release angling pressure by becoming selective about the flies they’ll take, and that’s why on some Alaska streams, the guides often hand-paint 6mm plastic beads to imitate specific stages of the sockeye salmon spawn: fresh eggs, fertilized eggs, dead eggs all have different color variations and trout do focus on specific stages at different times.
However, the trout we’d been seeing this week had been feeling no pressure, and as ravenous, undisturbed fish often do, they were just as likely to take a 10mm bright pink Chinook salmon egg. You just had to find the fish, and drift your bead in the right feeding lane at a moment when the trout wasn’t otherwise engaged with the other one million eggs in the river. Not easy fishing, but our experiences the past few days had shown that a larger egg might be working a little better because it attracts extra attention.
It was raining and off and on, and the dark overcast day made it impossible to see the ghostly rainbows, so I walked upriver, looking for the types of water sockeyes dig their redds in. I started at the top of an island, where a deep pool above fanned into a wide tailout and then split into two channels. I dissected the water carefully, planning drifts about 6 to 12 inches apart and moving toward the shallower edges. After patterning a grid, I moved up through the tailout, making another grid to mesh with the one below. I had a few bumps that moved my indicator, but these fish can eject the bead quickly, especially in slower water where the drift speed increases the lag between what’s actually happening and what the indicator tells you.
Upriver I picked my way along a huge outside bend where root wads, alders, and clumps of sod created breaks in the heavy flow. It wasn’t good water for sockeyes to spawn, so my feet moved more quickly through this water. Still, it looked like big-fish water, and I could envision torpedo rainbows holding deep in the fast water, waiting for the next feeding session.
Upriver, there was a classic head-and-tail pool to unravel, and I noticed that while sockeyes seemed to be spawning in the gravel at the tail of the pool, the two rainbows I landed were in the fast, protective water at the head of the pool. They were nowhere near the sockeyes. I could only assume the rainbows were feeding on eggs that drifted into the pool from the terrain upriver.
As I made my way upstream, I noticed that while some sockeyes were indeed dropping eggs, most others were not quite there yet. They were staking out territory and ceaselessly chasing each other in preparation for their eventual pairings. When one male sockeye chased a competitor away from a female—biting and slashing at it with snaggled canine teeth—another suitor immediately took its place. In other rivers—and in later stages of the spawn—I’ve caught rainbows sitting in sockeye spawning depressions, often just a few feet from spawning salmon that were almost trancelike in their efforts. But on this day, the sockeyes were just getting the party started, and the rainbows didn’t want anything to do with the alligator mouths of pre-spawn sockeyes. They found refuge from the salmon below gravel bars, in the fast water at the heads of pools, and in rocky pocketwater, behind and in front of big boulders.
I found trout of all sizes; some were small enough to show their parr marks, but all the bigger fish were silver, showing they were fresh from the lake. Resident river fish in Alaska—sometimes called “leopard rainbows”—are heavily spotted with olive backs, broad red stripes, and white-tipped fins. But Iliamna Lake fish need a different type of camouflage when they hunt in open water often deeper than 500 feet. They don’t need to blend in with a mottled stream bottom, they need to be invisible in open water. They need to look like water. As a result their spots are muted, and their silver sides show no signs of olive or red—they are like mirrors with fins.
Palming the reel on the first few fish was fun, and instead of adjusting the drag as the fight progressed, I could very quickly just cover the little reel with my open hand and, using sideways pressure, bring the fish into quieter water. The light rod and reel made casting more like play than work, but the 12-pound-test tippet gave me some room for error, and I enjoyed the challenge of stopping each fish with a more tactile effort, and using the terrain to my advantage. Two of the bigger fish I managed to steer into a stillwater lagoon, another tried to run over a gravel bar and essentially beached itself.
After many days of rain, the river was high and difficult to cross. I had already crossed once to avoid a sow bear and her two-year-old cubs, and now I came to a place where the left bank was a tangle of alders, many of them in the water where the current was chewing away at the land. It looked like I might be able to cross here without getting wet, because I could angle my way downstream toward the shallows on the opposite side without battling the current, but it was one of those places where getting back looked impossible. I’d have to find another place to cross.
Safe on the opposite bank, I surveyed the long arc of an inside bend and started working my way upstream using long casts and long drifts to try and sink the bead in the heavy flow, but I had to add another BB split-shot before I started tap-tap-tapping the bottom where I knew there was slower water. I imagined trout hugging that inside bend, and darting out just inches to catch eggs rolling fast in the heavy flow. I missed a couple of strikes that stopped the indicator cold, and a third fish grabbed the hook, ran straight across the river toward a nest of fallen alders, and when I reared back on the rod to stop it, the fish leapt clear out of the water in a cartwheel that threw the hook, and sent the rainbow hurtling over the top of a fallen branch.
As I approached the head of the run, the water got faster and less hospitable, and I didn’t have to imagine the bottom contours, as I could see there was a big white boulder that might provide the only break in the flow. Above that, there was a short section of plunging rapids, and then a wide glassy pool with a gravel bottom.
It took a few casts to experiment with the flow as it broke from right to left out of the rapids, but the first time I judged it correctly—and the bead drifted close to the slipstream behind the boulder—I saw a flash of silver already hurtling downstream with my indicator in tow before I could even think of setting the hook.
Before I could get my feet on shore the fish had run nearly the length of the pool and was surging toward the alders where I had lost the previous fish. I ran 50 yards across the cobbles, thinking that I could force the fish onto the gravel where I had crossed, but before I could get into position to apply pressure, the fish broke into the rapids below and was running away downstream toward the lake, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. With my backing flying off the reel, I could either clamp down on the reel and hope to tow the fish upstream back up through the rapids, or I could keep chasing and hope for some luck. I gambled.
I crossed the river exactly in the place I told myself I shouldn’t, in water so deep and fast that my feet only grazed the rocks while I washed over them. To make this reel work, I was supposed to apply friction with my spare hand. But I was in survival mode with both arms stretched wide as I tried to keep my balance, and my feet skated from one rounded boulder to another. While I was busy trying to avoid a drowning, the fish took all the line it wanted. By the time I was able to grab a fistful of alders on the far bank, I looked down to see the last few feet of backing disappear from my reel arbor. As the rod lurched down toward the water, I started toward the lake, at first tripping and twisting over clumps of sod and branches, just to keep the line from breaking. Eventually I reached a gravel bar where I could move quickly to gain line, and the fish found a deep pocket where it pulsed and throbbed, but finally stopped taking line.
Even tired, the fish was a powerful force in the heavy current. When I finally got perpendicular to the fish, I bent the rod sideways and just as it entered my mind that I might by now be hooked on a submerged limb, the fish started to move toward my bank. Just then, Flanagan came trotting upriver. Together we scooped the massive trout into the net and admired its muscled girth, opalescent white flanks, and transparent tail. Clearly, the fish had come into the creek within the past few days, and when the salmon were finished, the trout too would be gone back to Iliamna. I had found him gorging on eggs at exactly the right time.
It’s been said that fly fishing is about making a connection with nature. When you are standing on a Michigan river when the sun goes down, and big Hex mayflies start hatching, you are plugged in. It’s the same way when you’re there at the right time, and the right moment, to find a steelhead 400 miles from the ocean, or a tarpon rolling over white sand just 70 feet from the bow of your skiff. The annual migration of sockeyes in the Bristol Bay region might be one of the greatest natural events on planet earth, a constant cycle that moves billions of pounds of nutrients from the fertile ocean to the otherwise barren tundra rivers of Alaska. And when you connect with one of Lake Iliamna’s big rainbows, you move from bystander to participant. It’s an electrifying spectacle to be a part of.
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman.