A Slice of Southwest |
Alaska Rainbow Lodge
Back in 2007, I decided to apply for a guiding position in Alaska. Little did I know, it would change my life on many different levels. For starters, this is where my photography career started. Thanks, Alaska! Secondly, I fell more and more in love with the state of Alaska each year that I guided. It’s just flat out incredible wilderness that fortunately has been mostly preserved and untouched. Funny thing though, up until two weeks ago I still hadn’t explored Southwest Alaska, specifically the Bristol Bay region, as I had guided further north at Unalakleet River Lodge – a much different operation than most in Bristol Bay.
A few months ago, I asked my pal David Leake to look into some new options for photography opportunities in Alaska, and we were fortunate to hook up with Texas native Chip Ferguson. Chip is the new owner of Alaska Rainbow Lodge (ARL) – a very established lodge on the Kvichak River. The goal of my visit to Alaska Rainbow Lodge was to explore their operation and see if it was fit for our travel customers. I’m happy to say, it most definitely was! My travel companion on this adventure was Tailwaters Ambassador Danny Frank, manager of Delta Trout Force. Danny is an incredible angler and has been a travel pal for a few years
Why Southwest Alaska?
I’ve always been intrigued (from a photography standpoint) by blood red rivers full of spawning sockeye, sharing fishing holes with bears, and of course massive rainbow trout. There’s also the adventurous addition of exploring this wilderness via float plane, which is similar to transportation in Kamchatka, Russia, only there you’re in a helicopter rather than an airplane. It’s the same rush. Fortunately, the fly out program at ARL is outstanding, allowing us to fly to a different river each day.
Even though it’s prime time rainbow fishing in September, I still aimed to capture as much variety as possible. Each evening we consulted with Bret (guide and pilot), and he scheduled us on a river he thought would provide something vastly different from the prior day. Here’s a breakdown of each river we fished…
Day One – Upper Kvichak (Quee-jack) River “The Flats”
For our first day on the water, we went for a short boat ride in ARL’s insanely comfortable Wooldridge boat. Seriously, the seats in this thing are like sitting on a cloud. Anyway, while the Wooldridge is an option, most guests will take a short 10-minute flight up river, unless everyone wants to fish the flats. As we approached the fleet of jet boats, the water became ever so clear, with a glacial blue tint to it. I was stoked. The game plan was, as you might have guessed … beads! For those not in the know, this is the time of year when sockeyes are building reds and spawning, so there are lots of eggs floating about. Rainbows key in on these eggs and ignore all other types of food, which takes out the concept of matching the hatch!
Rainbows in the Kvichak are big … really big. Just below the mouth of Illiamna Lake, these rainbows have traveled downstream in search of a fatty diet of eggs and flesh. A week prior to our arrival, a guest landed the lodge record, just over 34.5 inches. Insane. Our guide, Brian, was certainly the one to be with as he guides this river every day of the season (with the occasional break). He loves this river. He put Danny on a ton of fish that day (that’s right, I didn’t fish – I shoot the pics!), and he ended up releasing a nice 26-inch fish. Unfortunately, he lost a much larger fish on a jump that we estimated at least 29 inches (it dwarfed the 26-inch fish). All in all, an epic first day.
Day Two – Talarik River
Yikes. It was a wet one. Don’t go to Alaska without the best rain gear. I mean it. Don’t book a trip to Alaska unless you are prepared for at least a day or two of rain. That’s just the way it is up there.
A hop out of the plane and a short hike through the tundra is all it took to get to the Talarik. The Talarik is a super cool river (really more of a creek) that flows into Illiamna Lake. As with many tributaries, it’s loaded with sockeye and a ton of big rainbows. What’s different about the Talarik from the Kvichak is size. The Kvichak requires a lot of moving around to locate the fish, but the Talarik doesn’t require much movement at all. In fact, if you were so inclined, standing in the same spot all day would likely produce a constant flow of fish. But that’s pretty boring, standing in one spot all day, right?!
So, what did we do? We stood in one spot all day! HA! I know, I just said it would be boring. Given the fact that it was pouring rain and blowing 30 knots, I opted to watch the bears and a constant flow of 26- to 30-inch fish being landed. Danny insisted on switching it up a bit and tried to fish a mouse, which is always mesmerizing to watch. No fish on the mouse, but a flesh fly did the trick. It was a nice break from the mundane mending and watching a bobber routine. After a few sockeye, boom – a 28″ rainbow. Not too shabby.
I interrupt this program to bring you a special report … a sow and two cubs have just entered the area …
So, this was fun. As we watched these bears walk by us at merely 30 feet away, I realized that my underwater housing was up river on the bank. I placed it between the two groups I was photographing so I could access it faster. Distracted, I failed to get to it before the two cubs did. “Shit! They are eating the housing. Damnit, they are chewing on the dome. Bleep. Bleep. Bleep.” Despite the fact that $6,000 worth of camera gear was inside the mouth of a bear, it was actually quite comical. Luckily, due to a strong product by Aquatech Imaging Solutions, the housing was okay, as was the camera inside. The cubs also happened to get their paws on our Fishpond net as well, which smelled like fish. It was obliterated.
Day Three – Upper Branch River
I was pumped when we landed on the Upper Branch. It looked exactly like the river I guided on! Tons of trees, tundra banks, log jams … all providing for a fun jet boat ride and interesting fishing. Eagle factory? Me thinks yes. “Oh, there are seven! Hey, there are another three. Oh look, six more on the island going to town on dead sockeyes.” There were eagles everywhere. It was incredible. I could have photographed eagles all day if that was an option.
We were told that the Upper Branch would have a smaller sized rainbows than the Kvichak and Talarik. This wasn’t an issue, as we aren’t picky. If you can only enjoy a fishing experience by landing big fish, I don’t think fishing is for you. Big fish are a bonus, but it’s all the fish in between that are the adventure in getting those bonuses.
Upper Branch was actually my favorite day of the trip. Yes, the fish were smaller, but wow, they were strong and beautiful. The rainbows on this river were leopards – the prettiest strain of rainbows out there. It was a slam fest all day long. Every third drift was a hook up. I actually picked up a rod for once and got a few, including a 22-inch male rainbow that was absolutely perfect.
We topped our day off by focusing on drifting downstream with no engine noise to capture some bald eagle images. Luckily for us, there were a billion bald eagles flying around everywhere. More like a swarm of bees if you catch my drift. I keyed in on two particular eagles that were nearly adults. They were taunting one another – one perched at the top of a tree, one swooping in with claws open. It was the most incredible eagle encounter of my life, and I feel blessed to have witnessed it.
Day Four – Kamishak River
This was our longest flight of the week but absolutely worth it. Flying just south of Illiamna, we passed over Kukaklek Lake and onward to “the pass”. The pass is the shortest route to get to the Kamishak, but it’s notorious for causing pilots to turn back due to visibility or severe winds. We had perfect weather though. We flew over Battle Lake and landed shortly after that. We fished light as we had to carve out time to fix a jet boat that had a hole in it. Don’t worry, normal paying guests would never be expected to deal with this.
I asked for variety so we got variety. The Kamishak is better known as a coho and Dolly Varden fishery, as rainbows are non-existent there. It was a nice change throwing streamers for silvers. Danny also picked up the bead rig a few times and got a few Dollies in the 25 to 27-inch size. We ended our day sharing the bank with a massive boar (male bear). He kinda freaked me out because he was so big.
Flying home Danny and I both spotted an incredible (super clear) river from the air. I asked, Bret our guide, “Which river is that?! We must fish there tomorrow!” It was the Battle River. Incredibly clear and stacked with spawning sockeye, it was likely that the rainbows would still be there.
Day 5 – Moraine River
As you can see, we didn’t make it to the Battle. The winds weren’t in favor of a safe landing for ARL head pilot, Ken. But it’s great to know that safety trumps a fishing spot! A select few lodges DO make that risk, so if you’re willing to toy with your life for a fish, be my guest and visit that other lodge.
The Moraine it was! This river is just on the other side of the range from the Battle, but it seemed equally as beautiful. It was another short hike up the tundra alongside a huge bluff overlooking the river, and it offered a stunning view. Our mode of transportation on the Moraine was a super handy packable raft made by NRS. I badly want one now! All day we hopped from pool to riffle to pool. (Like the Talarik, the fish are big and don’t require a ton of relocation to find them.)
My guess is that the average fish caught that day was in the 22-inch range, topping out at 26 inches. They were little footballs with a far different shape than all the other fish we had been catching. And as you could probably guess, beads were the name of the game for Danny and Ben (the guide – yes, we forced him to fish).
We also found ourselves hanging out with bears most of the day. In total, I believe there were four different sows, all with at least three cubs. They fished, we fished. Nothing to worry about. What sticks in my mind about this river were the views. They are endless. Next time, a tundra walk is in order.
Day 6 – Upper Kvichak (Quee-jack) River “The Flats”
We decided to tackle the flats again. We knew there were massive fish to be caught. Remember the 34+ inch trout I mentioned? Yeah, they were there. We repeated the same strategy from our first day, hunting up pods of sockeye and fishing below the group. The water consisted of deep pockets, seam lines, and fast runs. While we caught plenty of fish, that illusive 30-inch mark that Danny was looking for remained uncaught. Until next time …
Hospitality or Bust
People, including me, are always saying that the guides, food, and lodging can make or break your trip. Even if the fishing is great, the trip can go sour if those other elements don’t come first. Having traveled around the world, I’ve experienced just about everything from the worst to the best, and I can attest that the best experiences are those where fishing is followed up by exceptional hospitality. I’m truly grateful to the entire staff at Alaska Rainbow Lodge for such an incredible experience. The comfort of the lodge, quality of food, and awesome guides made the trip so much better for Danny and me.
If you’re looking for small to big fish with some furry river pals alongside, Alaska is your place. Want to get taken care of after the fun? Alaska Rainbow Lodge is your final destination.