By Chris Santella
Anyone who loves rainbow trout—especially outsize rainbows adorned with “leopard spots”—has fantasized about casting a streamer, mouse or egg pattern across the fabled rivers that flow into Alaska’s Bristol Bay.
Nourished by the eggs (and flesh) from tens of millions of sockeye salmon—and the reproductive aftermath from legions of king, chum, pink and silver salmon—these rainbows grow to steelhead-size proportions. Because of these factors, there may be no better place anywhere in the world to catch a 30-plus-inch rainbow in a river. And when you throw in the Last Frontier’s scenery and wildlife, you end up with an experience that falls, rightfully, into the trip-of-a-lifetime class.
Depending on when you fish for these rainbows during Alaska’s relatively short season (June into October), you also might catch a variety of salmon. Kings are especially attractive for their large size and because they are present early in the season when rainbows are as aggressive as they’ll be all year. In addition the region supports Dolly Varden and grayling, and these are encountered on numerous streams.
There are a number of fine lodges that can provide a rewarding Bristol Bay adventure, but culling the herd may seem like an impossible task, especially when several thousand dollars—or more—and a lifetime of memories are on the line. Realizing this, we’ve taken the guesswork out of it and vetted three prime lodges that offer everything any angler could hope for. We selected these lodges because all have established track records, excellent locations, fine flight-safety records, flexible fishing programs, meals you might expect at your favorite Manhattan or Santa Monica bistro, and thread counts that are sure to provide a great sleep . . . even if you’re not exhausted from landing a dozen or more 20-plus-inch rainbows in a day. Each lodge is unique and appeals to anglers of different stripes.
With a little planning this winter (and perhaps a little saving), come spring or summer you might find yourself in a de Havilland Beaver cruising above grizzly bears and moose before touching down on a pristine river where the rainbows seem to have waited their entire lives to take your fly. This may be a once-in-a-lifetime trip for you and your family, and we want it to pay dividends.
One planning note: The earlier part of the season is sometimes overlooked by anglers. All of our experts agree that June can provide some of the most dynamic fishing of the year.
The Holman family has hosted anglers from a site on the Kvichak River north of the village of Levelock since 1975, when Jack Holman—then a schoolteacher—purchased 160 acres from an aging Norwegian fisherman who wintered there. Through the years No See Um Lodge has evolved from a few simple cabins to a full-service facility that accommodates 12 anglers a week between three riverfront cabins—one with four bedrooms, a lounge and a bar; and two single-bedroom structures, all with en suite bathrooms. The cabins are connected by a boardwalk to the main lodge, where patrons can enjoy a sauna and hot tub.
Holman’s son, John, grew up at the lodge, began flying and guiding in 1994, and now operates No See Um with his wife, Kari. The lodge has nearly 90-percent repeat clientele. One guest, in fact, has come for 26 years, and many come twice a season.
While large trout are the norm at No See Um, 2016 was a particularly good year. “The food supply was incredibly rich in 2016,” John Holman said. “We were seeing fat trout in the spring and in incredible numbers. It didn’t look like they’d suffered a hard winter. We had an enormous salmon return this year, too, and with all the food the salmon provide in the system, we expect the spring of 2017 to be equally prolific.
“The Kvichak was high throughout the season,” Holman added. “This, combined with the salmon returns, brought a huge number of big trout from Lake Iliamna into the river. We caught more 27-to-32-inch rainbows in 2016 than we have in the last 10 years.”
In the 1970s anglers fishing the Kvichak often kept large fish and had them mounted. The Holmans have pictures of fish resting on a bathroom scale that weigh more than 20 pounds. More recently, the biggest rainbow landed (and released) at No See Um was a massive 34.5-inch-long brute with a 22-inch girth. That fish came to an egg pattern on the Kvichak.
Though the Kvichak—which is the primary outlet of Lake Iliamna and is used by millions of sockeye en route to their spawning grounds—abuts the lodge, No See Um focuses much of its angling efforts on other waters. Flying out each day, visitors fish a number of streams in Katmai National Park, including Moraine Creek, American Creek, the Battle River, the Kulik River, the Brooks River and the Alagnak River. The Copper River, Talarik Creek, Egegik River and Ugashik Narrows are also fished. The average flight time to these waters from No See Um is 30 minutes.
A special aspect of the No See Um program is that each group of four anglers and two guides has a dedicated floatplane that stays with it through the day.
“Since we have a low client-to-aircraft ratio,” Holman said, “we generally don’t do ‘drop-offs.’ You’re not left waiting for airplanes. And if the first spot your guides decide to visit isn’t fishing well, you can fly into a different river to locate better fishing.
“I take pride in the kind of commitment our guides bring to the job. We really care if people are catching fish to their maximum potential. These guys are not just going through the motions.”
Holman also takes pride in the lodge’s long safety record. “My dad handed down his knowledge and experience,” he said. “He flew 35 years and never once had an accident. We never err on the side of ‘I’ve got to get to Point A or B.’ We go with the safest option.”
Holman’s favorite time to chase rainbows is the first week of the season. “The trout are very aggressive in June,” he said. “They’ll take streamers and fry patterns recklessly. If you throw out a mouse, they’ll attack it like they’ve been waiting eight months for the chance. As the temperatures warm, we’ll see enormous hatches on some rivers. People don’t expect that in Alaska, but the river will be blanketed in mayflies or caddis when the sky is overcast and the temperature is right. The fish feed mostly subsurface, so nymphing can be very productive, right through July. Once the salmon start dropping eggs, the trout ignore insects.”
Mousing can continue to produce fish through the egg-dropping months, though with less frequency.
While giant rainbows are a focus at No See Um, there are many options for anglers hoping to tussle with salmon too. “We have boats on the Nushagak and Alagnak that can provide incredible king fishing from mid-June through July,” Holman said. “We can target them within a few hours of being in the salt. Those rivers also have strong runs of chums and silvers.”
Back at the lodge, the No See Um staff provides a very high level of service. “We have many people who return to work here every year,” Holman said, “and they have a deep well of knowledge.” Attention to detail extends to meals, where guests might tuck into blackened halibut with tomato jam sauce and asparagus, flank steak with spaghetti squash and king crab, and/or filet mignon.
If guests haven’t had enough fishing by the time dishes are cleared, they can hit the beach in front of the lodge, though most prefer to kick back in the gazebo overlooking the river for an after-dinner drink or perhaps to play a game of horseshoes with the guides.
No See Um Lodge, 907-232-0729
Tikchik Narrows Lodge sits on a spit of land where Tikchik Lake meets Nuyakuk Lake, on the eastern edge of the 1.6-million-acre Wood-Tikchik State Park. The site was selected in 1969 by Alaska angling pioneer Bob Curtis, who frequently flew guests to the spot when he and his wife operated a lodge on the Wood River. (Migrating salmon bunch up here at the “Narrows” and drop eggs that attract large rainbows, Dolly Varden, lake trout, Arctic char and grayling.) Bud Hodson, who guided at Tikchik Narrows in the late ’70s, acquired the lodge in 1986 and has operated it as a fly-out camp ever since. The camp can accommodate up to 22 guests each week in seven comfortable two-room cabins.
“I can honestly say that the fishing here is as good as it was 30 years ago,” Hodson recently said, just as his 2016 season was winding down. “Thanks to the catch-and-release ethos, the rainbows have maintained their historical size, abundance and distribution. Seventy-five percent of our clientele are repeat guests, and we’re now seeing our third generation of families—men who first came as teenagers who are now bringing their own kids. We try to treat every guest like they’re a best friend, not like we’re their butler.”
Anglers at Tikchik Narrows have access to nearly all of the rivers in the western Bristol Bay region, including the famed Nushagak and Togiak drainages, the Wood River and Tikchik Lakes systems, and the Kulukak River. Naturally, the fishing program offers tremendous diversity.
“Each evening we ask the guests what they’d like to do,” Hodson said. “Everyone’s personality is different, and we have many different options to offer. In the early season there are some tiny streams where we can target 30-to-40-pound kings or sight fish to rainbows. Or we can take anglers near the salt to fish for kings that are just entering fresh water. Some of our blue-ribbon trout rivers that used to turn on in July are now quite good in June—a result of global warming. These rivers have slightly warmer temperatures and are lower and have clearer water. As a result, you can fish them with nymphs and even dry flies. On some waters you’ll catch a high volume of 22-to-25-inch fish; on others you have a legitimate shot at 30-plus-inch rainbows, though you won’t catch as many.”
The largest rainbow a Tikchik guest has corralled taped 36 inches; kings pushing 60 pounds have been landed as well.
With four planes and 40-plus boats scattered around the region, Tikchik’s seasoned guides cover a great deal of ground—and water—and are able to position clients on fish wherever and whenever the fish are present.
“I have four camps where the guides stay and live on the river,” Hodson explained. “This allows us to fish a lot more water. One example is our upper Nushagak Camp. The guides can boat 30 minutes upriver to meet a plane and fish down to camp. Or from that upriver location they can boat up one of the tributaries. Or the guides could start at camp and fish downriver all day, having the anglers get picked up [by plane] downriver. Or they can boat downriver 30 minutes, have the anglers fly in downriver and fish down from there. This allows us to fish four to five different beats in a week and maximizes our angling time.”
In addition Tikchik has exclusive or semi-exclusive rights to fish several river sections, including a five-mile stretch of the Togiak.
Tikchik Narrows also operates an overnight camp on 15 Mile Creek at the confluence of the upper Nushagak. This camp accommodates four anglers three nights a week, and “each guest stays in a two-room tent with a private bathroom and running water,” Hodson said. “Food and beds are the same as at the lodge. Guests fish 20 miles down and are picked up by plane at the end of the day.”
If guests want to squeeze in some extra fishing at the end of the day, the Narrows in front of the lodge can be quite dynamic, especially in the early season. “Sometimes you’ll see flocks of Arctic terns working bait from above, with rainbows and dollies frothing below,” Hodson said.
While trophy rainbows are always a possibility while fishing out of Tikchik, late July through September seems to produce the biggest fish most consistently.
“In June a lot of the rainbows are feeding on baby salmon,” Hodson said, “so we predominantly swing streamers. Coming into July, when the salmon begin spawning, it really becomes a bead show. Mouse patterns will still work, though not as well. But if anglers have caught 30 or 40 rainbows in the morning on eggs, they’re usually happy to switch over and catch four or five fish on mice. Mousing for rainbows in the 25-inch class can be very good on one of the exclusive stretches that we fish.”
Another attractive option while fishing with Tikchik is a king salmon/rainbow combination, offering the best of both worlds.
“The Nushagak has an earlier run [about two weeks] of sockeye than the other rivers,” Hodson said. “So we can be fishing beads for trout [to match the sockeye spawn] in the upper reaches and also be fishing for fresh kings in the lower river the same week.”
Whether fishing kings near the salt or rainbows upstream with painted beads, mouse patterns or streamers, Tikchik guests also can look forward to fine shore lunches that (you guessed it) often feature fresh salmon. Masterful dinners await, as well, including an all-you-can-eat king-crab feast with filet mignon.
Tikchik Narrows Lodge, 907-243-8450
Intricate Bay Lodge sits near the center of Lake Iliamna, which is a major destination for the millions of sockeye salmon that help make Bristol Bay North America’s most exulted rainbow trout region. Brian Harry, a seasoned Bristol Bay guide who acquired the property in 2011, was dealt a difficult hand at the end of his second season in the form of a fire that left the lodge in embers.
“When I went to the investors who had staked me,” he said, “I told them that putting up a tent camp would probably be the best way to get their money back. But these people were proud and wanted to do things right. So we drew up plans to build a brand-new lodge.”
Harry quickly assembled a team and landed at the property as soon as the snow subsided in spring 2014. Working 20-hour days (as late spring and summer allow in Alaska), they were able to complete the structure—which has carpeted guest rooms with private baths, Wi-Fi and an in-deck hot tub—in 106 days . . . and still managed to host 90 happy and successful guests that season.
While fishing out of Intricate Bay Lodge, anglers fly or boat to some remarkable streams where rainbow trout stack up behind sockeye salmon. After a “tough” day of fishing, guests swap stories in the new lodge while enjoying feasts that include fresh salmon and king-crab legs.
“I think there was a time when a Bristol Bay operator could get away with a rougher lodge,” Harry said. “The mentality used to be, ‘It’s just a place to lay your head.’ Now people are accustomed to being treated in a certain way, and no expense was spared in this property.”
Intricate Bay is smaller than many Bristol Bay lodges, maxing out at 10 clients per week. That was part of Harry’s overall game plan. “We want it to feel more like you went to your buddy’s camp than a lodge,” he said.
One of Intricate’s best features is its proximity to the Copper and Gibraltar rivers, where Intricate’s anglers spend a good deal of time. These two systems can be reached (at least in part) by boat via Lake Iliamna—a big plus if heavy weather blows in and grounds floatplanes. The Copper is a pleasant size: big enough for jetboats, yet small enough in most places to be waded. (It also has the distinction of being Alaska’s first fly-fishing-only, catch-and-release river.) The Gibraltar is a short river, roughly seven miles long. Both have many rainbows in the 22-to-26-inch class, and bigger fish are found each year. And later in the season both are generally clear enough to permit sight fishing to big rainbows when the egg drop is on.
“The lower beat on the Copper is only a 15-minute jetboat ride away,” Harry said. “The Gibraltar is a little farther, but we have a cabin cruiser that takes guests to the mouth, where there’s a jetboat waiting to take you upriver.” The middle and upper reaches of the Copper are also fished by Intricate Bay anglers. These stretches are reached by float plane (each roughly a 10-minute flight) and fished from either a raft or a jetboat. Guests also can float the length of the Gibraltar by flying into Gibraltar Lake.
“When I first started fishing this region,” Harry said, “the Gibraltar was my favorite. It was so easy. Those lake rainbows would move in, and you could throw anything at them and they’d eat. Now I prefer the Copper. Once you learn its subtleties, it always produces . . . and it’s very satisfying.”
When conditions permit, flying a bit farther afield is also an option. The waters of Katmai—including the Moraine, Battle and American rivers—rest within easy striking distance. The Kvichak, Newhalen and Talarik are also available. And these rivers offer good options for catching salmon along with big rainbows.
“If guests want to fish for salmon,” Harry said, “we can target kings, silvers, pinks and chums on the Kamishak, Nushagak and Alagnak rivers and enjoy a huge sockeye run on our home waters.”
Thanks to the excellent rivers that can be reached by a boat, Intricate Bay can offer anglers a weeklong package (six days guided fishing—three fly-out/three by boat) for a very reasonable $6,000.
Each segment of the Intricate Bay season has its angling appeals. September may be the best time for anglers targeting trophy trout, as the rainbows have had three months to gorge themselves on salmon fry and sockeye eggs. August generally serves up the most prolific numbers, as the trout hone in on the eggs. Harry likes June best for good reason: “After seven or eight months with little food,” he said, “the fish are very aggressive. You can fish big Stimulators, fry patterns, leeches and mice. You can have success however you want to fish.”
Fishing with a mouse can be effective through July, Harry said, but once the egg drop begins you don’t have much of a chance. “The fish just aren’t looking up at that time,” he warned. The lodge’s biggest rainbow in 2016 was 32 inches long and taken on the Copper, sight fishing with a bead.
Guests eat well at Intricate Bay. In addition to the inevitable surf-and-turf dinner, the kitchen produces bacon-wrapped caribou medallions, an excellent rack of lamb and, if guests are game, a pizza night. “It’s a little break from some of the richer meals,” Harry explained. “We’ve had guests from New York say it’s better than any pizza they’ve ever had at home.”
Intricate Bay Lodge, 907-571-1757 or 412-527-9346