Everything seems to be a little bigger in Alaska; rivers, mountains, fish and bears all seem to be supersized. When it comes to exploring Alaska’s famed fly fishing, the renowned waters of the Bristol Bay area offer the highest density of salmon and trophy rainbow trout rivers in the world. This region is home to the largest pacific salmon runs on the planet which also fuels the growth of huge rainbow trout and char that feed on both the salmon’s eggs as well as their decaying flesh after they die . The massive salmon runs also result in extremely high brown bear counts offering spectacular wildlife viewing opportunities when fishing.
Bristol Bay Fisheries
There are several factors that make the salmon and trout fisheries so supercharged in the Bristol Bay region. This part of Alaska lies about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage where the peninsula that eventually breaks into the Aleutian Islands begins to separate from the main body of the state. The region is sandwiched between the Bristol Bay to the north and the Gulf of Alaska to the south. Pacific salmon runs dominate the entire ecosystem. The most common salmon of the 5 Pacific run species is the sockeye salmon (or “red” salmon due to their bright red color just before they spawn). The world’s largest sockeye runs are found in the Bristol Bay fisheries. In addition to feeding huge brown bears, the millions of salmon also fuel the growth of massive rainbow trout.
The prolific fisheries arise from the unique geography of the region. The ocean waters of the Bristol Bay to the north and the Gulf of Alaska to the south are teaming with life providing a substantial forage base for Pacific salmon at sea. The mainland geography offers the perfect blend of mid sized mountain ranges with thousands of lakes that interconnect with the rivers. When mountains are too tall in Alaska they result in huge glaciers and glacial runoff which produces turbid waters. The lower elevation mountains near the lodge still receive a healthy snowpack to feed the rivers but lack the massive ice caps that dirty rivers in the summer. The lakes are equally important in this region as they provide a safe haven for salmon fry and smolt before they leave for the ocean, as well as a winter haven for huge rainbow trout. Rivers that run straight to the ocean may harbor salmon runs but they are not as productive for trophy rainbow trout. This perfect storm of geographic conditions results in a fishery like no other on earth.
Our preferred dates when visiting the Bristol Bay Region is June, August or September. June fishing offers a mixed blend of options including dry fly fishing. This tends to be before the salmon move into the rivers so the trout will take a variety of offerings including mouse patterns and streamers. Sockeye salmon begin flooding into the rivers in July but it is generally not until late July or early August that the “egg drop” begins. Once the sockeye salmon move onto redds and begin laying eggs the trout begin gorging on the high calorie food source. This is also when the huge rainbows that spend time in the lake move in (including some massive fish over the 30” mark). When September arrives the trout are at the peak of their conditioning in thanks to the high calorie salmon fueled diet.
Intricate Bay Lodge
Intricate Bay Lodge is an Orvis endorsed fly out lodge located on the Southern shores of Iliamna Lake. The lodge has an ideal location in the heart of Bristol Bay country that allows for maximum diversity of fishing options. Iliamna Lake is the largest lake in Alaska and the rivers that feed it are home to the largest salmon run in the world. The big lake provides a safe haven for both juvenile salmon and massive rainbow trout to winter over and it is one of the best places in all of Alaska to have a shot at massive trout over 28” (including a few each year over 30”!). The lodge’s home waters are the legendary Copper and Gibraltar rivers which can be accessed by short flights less than 10 minutes which is a huge bonus: if weather is poor for flying both of these rivers can also be reached by boat. The lodge is also within 20 minutes of the Newhalen River, 30 minutes from the Iliamna River and 45 minutes from the massive Kvichak. The Newhalen is the lakes largest tributary and the Kvichak is the massive outlet river that runs to the Bay; both of these rivers harbor massive trout that are often silver and fresh from the lake. In addition to other lake tributaries like the Iliamna river the lodge is a short flight from Katmai National Park and fabled trout waters such as Funnel Creek, the Moraine and Battle Creek (to name a few). Finally, when conditions are right guests can also fly to the coastal rivers to target fresh run silver salmon on rivers such as the Kamischak.
The lodge caters to small groups of 10 anglers at a time (or up to 12 if it is an exclusive group) which is a great luxury. With 3 float planes, a large lake boat, rafts and numerous jet boats there are no shortage of options for the adventurous angler. In addition to the jet boats stationed at the lodge (for targeting the lower Copper), there are also numerous jet boats stashed at a variety of rivers including the middle Copper, Kamischak, Iliamna, Newhalen, and Kvichak rivers. This allows guests to fly to various destinations where they can then jump in a jet boat. For smaller rivers a fleet of rafts is available which are flown in on the larger Beaver float planes and then inflated with small generators on the river’s edge. Guests can expect to fish new waters on every day of the trip.
Once back at the lodge we enjoy a very comfortable structure that is newly built. After a fire at the old lodge a few seasons ago the owners opted to completely rebuild and left no stone unturned. Vaulted ceilings, a wrap around deck overlooking the water, large rooms and even a wood fired hot tub await anglers after a day on the water. Managing owner Brian Harry has assembled a great stable of fishing guides as well as a great lodge staff. We enjoyed first class meals all week prepared by chef Ryan!
Getting to Intricate Bay
While it is possible to get to the lodge in one day, we prefer to break up inbound travel with a night staying in Anchorage at the Lakefront hotel. The Lakefront offers complimentary shuttles to both the international airport (ANC) as well as Iliamna air taxi. They also offer hourly shuttles to downtown Anchorage (10 minute drive). The Lakefront is located on the shores of Spenard lake which is home to the largest busiest float plane fleet in the world. As you enjoy a cold beer at the hotel bar or dinner in the restaurant float planes frequently take off or land on the lake. The next day we headed over to Iliamna Air Taxi. Iliamna Air generally flies Pilatus twin turboprop planes for the 45 minute flight to Iliamna village. After landing in Iliamna village we were greeted by the lodge pilots Marc and Brian who had a van waiting to drive us to the small lake where 2 DeHavilland Beavers awaiting to make the short 20 minute across the big lake to the lodge.
Day 1: Emerald Creek
Each evening the IBL guides post the fishing schedule for the following days. Typically anglers at the lodge fan out in numerous directions and then return each evening to share stories. On the first morning our group would be fishing waters including the Gibraltar, Kvichak, Emerald Creek, and Copper Rivers. In a week of fishing anglers rarely fish the same beat of water twice.
On my first day we headed with guides Nick and Sam. Nick stayed on the larger Gibraltar river while Sam lead us up the intimate Emerald Creek. Emerald is easily waded and falls into the “small stream” category. This is a quintessential trout stream with boulders, gravel riffles and placid pools. The stream is less than 20 feet wide and in any other place in the world you would expect to through a small dry fly and catch 10” brook trout in it. That was not the case here in Alaska as sockeye and silver salmon were packed in the creek along with a great supply of 17-25” heavy rainbow trout that had followed the salmon in to feed on eggs.
This type of water offers ideal sight fishing so there was no need for strike indicators. We rigged our 6 weights up with 9 foot leaders and 1X tippet to give us a chance to land the larger trout. This time of year the fish are focused on salmon eggs and the preferred rig is to imitate the eggs with craft beads that are often painted to match the exact color of the natural eggs in the river. The beads are secured onto the tippet with either a “bead knot” or a rubber “peg” that locks in place and then a small single hook is tied just behind the egg imitation. When the trout are fixated on eggs anglers must “match the hatch”. As the salmon begin dying off and the egg supply diminishes swinging egg-sucking leaches can also be extremely effective (September is the best window for this).
As we walked up the creek we took turns picking out large rainbows. The trout were in very shallow water, often behind groups of sockeye salmon, in hopes of intercepting eggs as they drifted down the creek. No weight was needed and I we were able to exclusively sight cast and pick out the largest trout. The most effective strategy was to make the cast about 4 feet upstream of the targeted fish and let it drift down to our side of the trout. Often you can watch the trout’s mouth and look for a “white flash” of its gums as it takes the egg. We like to try to drift the egg just to the side of the trout to require the fish to move one or two feet. If you can’t see the mouth of the fish you watch for the movement of the trout. Generally the big rainbows will slide over at an angler and then as soon as the stop their motion you set the hook (this is when they have intercepted the egg) - game on!
Most of the rainbows in Emerald are 18-22” fish although we did see a few in the 24” range. In a small stream like this even an 18” bow puts on a worthy fight. We love September fishing in Alaska since the trout are in amazing shape. After a few weeks of gorging on eggs they are chunky and incredibly strong. Even with heavy 1X tippet these hot rainbows can break you off as they head on blistering, tail walking runs. By the end of the day we lost track of how many big rainbows we fought and landed - an amazing first day!
Day 2: Copper River (middle)
The Copper River is hands down my favorite river in Alaska. It is big enough to float with either rafts or jet boats but is still small enough to effectively wade fish. The scenery is fantastic with mountain views on the upper and middle reaches. Wildlife is always abundant with bear, moose and eagle sightings common. The river is diverse with several different reaches to target (upper, middle and lower) to provide variety. The Copper is also quite productive and is one of the few in Alaska that also harbors decent insect hatches so rainbow trout tend to reside in it all season vs. only when salmon are running. On our second day at the lodge I was excited to see on the fishing schedule that Ben Kennedy and I were slated to fish the Middle Copper with Monte Becker.
Monte is hands down one of my favorite guides. We first began fishing with Monte at Magic Waters Lodge in Chile. He moved to Chile over 30 years ago after his tenure guiding in the Grand Canyon. Since Alaskan and Patagonian seasons are offset, Monte enjoys leaving the Chilean winter for 2 months each season to travel north to help guide at Intricate Bay. A more knowledgeable, patient and professional guide would be hard to imagine.
We access the middle of the Copper River with Monte via jet boat. The lodge has a unique permit on a small lake near the river called Fog Lake that allows them to have a buoy in the middle of the lake where a jet boat is tied off. A solar operated bilge pump automatically removes any rainwater. Fog Lake is a short but scenic 8 minute flight from the lodge.
Once landing and loading up in the jet, Monte navigated us across the lake and into a small slough that connects the lake to the river. With the low water year the slough had just become navigable again and we were excited at the prospect of exploring some water that had been previously unreachable earlier in the season. After a short but exciting jet up the winding river we stopped at the head of a large pool where a long riffle dropped off into deeper water. Within minutes we began spotting big rainbows that moved back into their feeding positions where the shallow gravel dropped off into the deeper run. It didn’t take long for the action to heat up as we watched fish move to intercept our presentations. The riffle above the run was filled with spawning sockeye salmon and the big trout were greedily intercepting free drifting eggs that escaped the redds. Big fish were regularly moving up into the riffle in just a foot of water as they aggressively fed.
The highly active trout in shallow water made for some terrific sight casting. When the rainbows moved in close I was often able to watch my egg underwater drop right to the fish. On longer casts I switched my focus to the largest trout and watched for their movement. These trout were feeding so aggressively they would nearly always move to the egg. Typically they would turn slightly while dropping downstream until they intercepted the presentation. As soon as they grabbed it you would either see the whites of their gums flash when they opened their mouth or simply see their entire body realign with the current signaling that it was time to set the hook.
We enjoyed fast action and were able to focus on the largest trout we spotted. The results were impressive as we lost track of how many fish over 20” we landed. We spent about 30 minutes to an hour at each run and then ran the jet to a new location. Our final stop of the day was a long gravel float. It was shallow enough that you could wade across at any point. The slower current allowed the big rainbows to cruise and we slowly walked down the 200 yard run casting to big bows. This felt more like bonefishing than trout fishing, good stuff!
Day 3 - Kvichak River
The mighty Kvichack River is home to the world’s largest salmon run. The Kvichak drains the massive Iliamna Lake before running out to the ocean so basically every salmon that run up the Copper, Gibraltar, Newhalen, Iliamna, Talrik, etc all come through the Kvichak first. The mighty fishery is one of the best locations in the world to have a legitimate shot at true 30”+ trophy rainbow trout. One of the very interesting aspects of fishing the Kvichak is how its water levels are impacted by wind direction. Iliamna lake is so large that the prevailing wind direction can “mound” the water up on one side of the lake or the other. The last time I had fished the river a storm had stacked water up near the mouth producing much higher than average flows. On this trip the river had just receded after a similar event but was back to normal levels. The high water from the week before had brought some fresh fish in from the lake. These big lake fish tend to be chrome in color and are very, very strong.
We fish the Kvichak a bit differently than the other waters in the region due to its immense size. Generally a group of 4 anglers flies to the river when visiting the Kvichak along with 2 of the guides. The lodge has 2 jet boats permanently located at the river so once the float plane lands we break up into groups of 2 anglers per jet boat. The big rainbows tend to follow the sockeye and chum salmon as the fan out on large gravel flats where they spawn. These gravel riffles are often several hundred yards long. The best way to target the big rainbows is to jet to the top of the run and then cut the engine and drift back down using oars to control the drift. There are also some braided channels on the river that we were able to enjoy fishing.
Although the Kvichak rarely produces the same volume of hook ups that we enjoy the smaller tributaries, it does offer the best chance of the week for a truly massive trophy rainbow. Both of the groups that had made the 45 minute flight to the river earlier in the week had returned with stories of massive fish that broke off as well as photos of some really big fish in the 26-27” range that were landed. Needless to say were excited to have our shot at these monster rainbows.
Due to the size of the fish in the Kvichak, the guides generally bring 10 foot 8 weight rods along (vs. the normal 9 foot 6 weight preferred on the other waters). The extra length and backbone help control drifts on big water and the 8 weight helps give guests a better chance at fighting huge trout.
We spent the day with head Liam and Casey. Liam is the head guide at IBL and spends his winters guiding in Chilean Patagonia. Casey had worked the previous year for a lodge based on the Kvichak. Richard and Sherry also joined us this day and we swapped guides at lunch. Ben and I teamed with Liam in the morning and Casey in the afternoon. We enjoyed a great day and split time between long floats on large main channel runs and smaller side channels that we got out to walk and wade. We found success on both the main river and the side channels and managed to net over a dozen rainbows by the end of the day including a few in the 24-25” range that the Kvichak is famous for. We spotted a few true leviathans while floating that looked to be in the 30” class. These huge rainbows dwarf the sockeye and chum salmon when you spot them and are a sight to behold!
Day 4 - A Rainy Day on the Lower Copper River
Shortly after returning from the Kvichak on day 3, a strong storm system started rolling in. By dinner winds were over 50mph and strong rains arrived by late evening. The following morning we were still socked in with heavy rain and wind. The guides and pilots recommended playing it safe and sticking with local options that we could access by boat (the lower Gibraltar and lower Copper). We opted for a lazy morning at the lodge which was well deserved after a few days of hard fishing. By late morning the wind dropped off so a few of us decided to give it a try. Tom and Ben headed out with guide Monte while I recruited guides Nick and Sam to come with me to do some fishing while I photographed. We made the 10 minute run across the lake staying in the protected lee of several islands to the mouth of the river. After an adventurous serpentine jet boat run upstream we stopped at one of the most productive runs on the lower system. The river was already on the rise with the heavy rain. While it wasn’t fully blown out the clarity was a little off so the guys did some blind fishing. Nick was working a trout spey setup while Sam was putting a Euro-nymph rod to work. With the steady rain I left most of the camera gear in the case and decided to play with an underwater housing to keep my setup protected. Nick and Sam managed to land several small to medium sized rainbows but the fishing was a little off with the rising water and the bigger fish managed to elude us this day.
Day 5 - Gibraltar River
What a difference a day makes in the weather. Just as fast as the storm moved in it cleared out. If the Copper is my favorite Alaskan River, the Gibraltar is a close second; but only because it has less variety and a shorter run than the Copper. This small, clear fast paced river is the second “home river” at Intricate Bay Lodge. The fishing zone of the “Gib” starts at Gibraltar lake where it then makes a short 5 mile run to Iliamna lake. In between the river is a nearly perfect Alaskan fish factory with a blend of We hopped in the beaver in the morning for the short flight to Gibraltar Lake and then geared up to hike down the river. In the past we have always floated this river by inflating small NRS rafts at the lake and then floating to the mouth where the lodges large lake boat was waiting. With the lower than average flows floating all 5 miles resulted in more time pulling the rafts through skinny spots than fishing so we opted to just hike down from the lake to fish the upper 2 miles which has no shortage of spectacular water and huge rainbows. The “Gib” is home to a late run of sockeye and the river was still packed with the fire red salmon. With so many sockeye in the system it was especially helpful to spot the trout visually. Thankfully the large lake upstream filters out all sediment resulting in crystal clear waters. Although the big rainbows are amazingly well camouflaged compared to the sockeye and silver salmon, with a careful eye, we were still able to spot them regularly.
An abundance of salmon generally equates to an abundance of brown bears and this was certainly true on the Gibraltar. As we flew into our approach we spotted several bears on shallow riffles and a few minutes into our hike down the river we quickly ran into several more. Over the course of the day we would enjoy some world class bear viewing as multiple groups of bears came to the river to catch and easy meal. Watching these huge animals fish is mesmerizing. Each bear seems to use a different technique. Some casually walk up side channels and then pounce on fish in shallow water. Others station themselves in the middle of a riffle and let the salmon come to them while the wait as still as a statue, only to explode with a rush as they charge the fish are close. We even watched one bear lying in the water along a bank with his head under water. He appeared to be watching salmon with his eyes below the surface to locate them before quickly scooping them up in his mouth. Once a bear grabbed a fish they made short work of devouring them, often they would pull the fillets right off of the bones leaving only a head and skeleton behind. Luckily these big bears are so focused on the salmon they show zero interest in the other fisherman on the river.
In between bears we certainly found some red hot rainbows. The rainbows were well fed with sagging bellies and each fish exploded after the hookset. Seeing the trout in advance proved a huge advantage and we were able to observe their behavior to see if they had turned on our egg presentations. With so many eggs in the river the trout often get selective with some fish focusing on freshly laid eggs which are often bright tangerine color, while others prefer older eggs that are washing down the river which tend to turn more of a peach color. When large trout refused a presentation often switching colors would result in an eat.
Day 6: Iliamna River
On our final day I was on the schedule to sample the Iliamna River with Richard, Sherry and Ben. This was a new river for me as well as a new species: Dolly Varden. The Iliamna is a river that requires technical expertise on the jet boat with shallow channels and downed trees. We teamed up with guides Casey and Liam again for the adventure. Both guides were excited for the prospects of visiting the “Ily” after the recent rains. They had predicted the river would be up after the recent storm but hopefully cresting or dropping. They had made a trip to the river 10 days before and the fishing was tough due to huge runs of sockeye in the system and they speculated that the fish may have been gorged on eggs. The guides hoped that the storm may have flushed some eggs out of the system to make the fish a little more aggressive with fewer natural options and were also excited about the prospects of getting higher up the system with the increased flows. The Iliamna River is enters on the far east side of the lake and is spectacularly beautiful. The medium sized river is larger than the Copper and Gibraltar and is surrounded by tall mountains. After a 30 minute flight in the beaver we landed at the mouth where the lodge keeps two jet boats stationed for the season. The best fishing grounds are further up the river and we spent about 45 minutes on an adventurous jet ride upriver navigating narrow channels and avoiding down timber. As we warmed the engines up on the lake we spotted several harbor seals in the lake. Iliamna is the only lake in the world that is home to a population of freshwater seals thanks to the massive salmon runs it hosts which provide ample food. The seals bobbed their heads up and showed as much curiosity towards us as we displayed toward them.
After the long jet upriver we stopped on a long gravel bar at the head of a swift rapid. Liam quickly spotted a large pod of char. These were big fish! The char were holding in slower transition water as the riffles entered long runs. Most of the fish were in 3-4 feet of water. This tends to be holding water vs. feeding water and they did not look like they were actively feeding. We were likely the first anglers in several weeks to make it this far up river and we knew these fish hadn’t received pressure most of the season. We worked hard to entice the big char without much success. We tried both drifting eggs as well as swinging leaches to no avail. Suddenly our goals were adjusting - “we need to at least get one!”
After working hard on the first group of fish we jetted down to the next promising run where we found several more big dollys. All in all there were probably 20 big fish stretched in a line over the 100 yard run. On my second cast I suddenly connected as a huge fish ripped line off my reel. Just as quickly as it started my line went slack as the hook pulled out. Filled with renewed hope we continued plying the water and I quickly hooked into a second big fish. I was impressed with how strong these fish were and how well they fought. Again I came out of the race on the losing side as this fished wrapped around some downed timber and broke off. As I was licking my wounds I heard a whoop downstream and turned to see Ben’s rod doubled over. His luck held out and Liam successfully scooped the big Dolly into the net. As the rest of the day unfolded we enjoyed continued success. Each run seamed to give up 2 or 3 big char. The fish appeared to still be full from gorging on eggs and they weren’t moving far so we had our best luck with spotting the big fish in advance and then making a precise drift right to the trout. After playing with different amounts of split shot to ensure we got to the right depth we managed to get some good hookups throughout the day.
Although the Iliamna is best known for its big char, Ben also managed to hook into a heavy, well fed rainbow as well that took him deep into his backing. Although the day started slow it certainly heated up as we progressed into the afternoon and when it was time to turn back to meet the pilot we all had managed to put several big fish in the net. A great way to end a great trip!
Other Rivers Fished By Our Group
Moraine Creek Report
On two of the days small groups flew into Katmai National Park to target a few different reaches of the famous Moraine Creek. I didn’t have a chance to make it to the Moraine on this visit but all of the groups that flew over there reported great fishing. Normally the Moraine is floated in a raft but with the lower than normal flows they opted to land on a small lake and make a short hike to the river to target a reach that had several good holding pools with big trout. It sounds like that was the right call as the guys reported steady action throughout the day on over-sized. The Moraine is also one of the world’s best locations to view big brown bears and on each visit several bears were observed. The small river is about 1000 feet higher in elevation than the Copper and Gibraltar and as a result the sockeye run there occurs a bit earlier. Most of the sockeye were already out of the river, but the big trout were still there. The fish of the day was a huge 28” rainbow landed by Mark Dake. Mark has his good buddy Tom Stark to thank for the fish as Tom spotted it and made a few casts in advance before inviting Mark to take a swing.
The Newhalen River is the largest tributary of Iliamna Lake. It enters from the north and the mouth is close to the small hamlet of Iliamna village. The lodge keeps a jet boat parked here. Like the Kvichak the Newhalen is so large that it is best targeted by float fishing from the jet boat. There are only a few miles of water upstream of the lake that can be effectively fished from the lower reach before large rapids are encountered. This water is home to some large silvery rainbows that are reminiscent of Kvichak fish. During our week at the lodge only one group sampled the Newhalen. Drew and Brett headed to the river on day 5. Drew seemed to have the hot hand for big fish this week and had managed to net a few nice fish over 24” fresh from the lake.
Some places in the world are exceptionally unique and must be experienced first hand to fully appreciate. Such is the case for Alaska’s Bristol Bay Region. The scale of the landscape, the grandeur of the wildlife and the staggering productivity of the fisheries have few equals. If you can’t have a great time fly fishing in Alaska it is probably time to hang up the fly vest and take up golf. A special thanks to a great crew of anglers on this trip, it was truly a pleasure to share an amazing week with some amazing people. An equally big thank you to the entire staff at Intricate Bay Lodge for working hard to make sure the trip went off smoothly; we really appreciate the hard work and even more importantly the smiles!