The Alaska Rainbow Experience

If you like to think pounds versus inches, get to Bristol Bay in August or September and swing up a beast with a spey rod.

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Most anglers believe that Southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay region holds the best collection of trophy rainbow trout streams on earth, and they are probably right.

Alaska’s most unique set of rainbow trout waters rests just 250 miles southwest of Anchorage, meaning anglers could fly from the West Coast in the early morning and fishing in the Great Land that afternoon or evening. No need for tent camps here; the Bristol Bay area offers dozens of quality lodges offering big ‘bows that range between 19 inches and 20-some pounds. If your goal is to catch a wild rainbow stretching past 30 inches, Bristol Bay is the place to be.

Staying at one of Alaska’s premier lodges means access to boats and floatplanes and the ability to fish several streams in a single day, or to park a plane on whichever river is fishing best and stay there all day. All day during Alaska’s short summer season often means 20 or more hours of daylight and the chance to see northern lights pulsing overhead after midnight.

Bristol Bay rainbows are abundant and large, but that doesn’t mean they are complete pushovers. They can get picky, especially when food is in abundance, which it often is on big rivers like the Naknek, Kvichak, Nushagak and Togiak. The buffet begins in May or June when out migrating salmon smolt exit the regions largest lakes and head downstream to the saltwater. Big rainbows follow that same path, smashing smolt near the surface. At this time spey rod enthusiasts can swing up big rainbows on patters that match smolt and freshwater eels.

As June progresses salmon arrive and rainbow trout post up behind these fish to feed on drifting salmon eggs. At times, literally, anglers may see thousands upon thousands of sockeye salmon swimming upstream, sometimes just beyond their wading boots. This abundance is not lost on the region’s brown bear population—salmon are the brown bear’s most signifiant protein source and they spend summer roaming the riverbanks, looking for these fish. Anglers interact with these animals, the bears mostly minding their own business with anglers moving out of the way when needed (sometimes just yards away from these massive, 300 to 900-pound beasts).

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