Several of our nation’s largest bodies of freshwater reside in Bristol Bay’s trophy trout region. These lakes are nature’s rearing pens for millions of native sockeye salmon juveniles. Adult sockeye spawn in the tributaries of these lakes, and soon after their eggs hatch, the young fry migrate downstream to the lake. They’ll spend up to three years there (one or two for most) before migrating out to sea. That is, if they don’t get eaten first.
The bulk of the rainbow trout in these systems are lacustrine, or of the lake. They spend a great deal of time in the lakes chasing and chowing on the abundant sockeye protein snacks. (I’m not sure exactly how to say this, but here goes). In the process, these piscivorous demons become wicked mega awesome explosions with fins. (I still don’t feel like I’m getting my point across.) I’m trying to say that these trout are the fastest, strongest, hottest fish that I’ve ever witnessed hooked in freshwater. And I’ve spent most of my life chasing steelhead.
There are two lakes and their outlet rivers that host (by far) the most impressive trout; Naknek Lake / Naknek River, and Lake Illiamna / Kvichak River. Like steelhead and salmon the rainbow trout in these lakes are anadromous, but in this case the migrations occur wholly within freshwater. In addition to the spawning migration, the trout migrate from the lake to the river twice to feed. Once in the spring to intercept sockeye smolt on their way to the sea (this one often becomes combined with their spawning run), and once in the fall to take advantage of the spawning salmon. I’m nearly convinced however, that in the latter case these rainbows are so piscivorus that they are there more for the small fishes that are there for the salmon eggs, than they are for the eggs themselves.
That’s when we get ‘em.
Now I’m not saying that these trout are hotter than all the steelhead that I’ve seen, just most of them. Steelhead are extremely varied in their hotness. They vary from slugs to absolute devil fish. Nearly every Naknek or Kvichak fish is a devil fish.
Soon after a short flight from Royal Wolf Lodge where I work, I’m pacing up and down the middle of a gravel island, my heart feels like it’s going to pound out of my chest. I’m shaking my hands and blowing air through puckered lips as I watch my two angler’s speycast large streamers into the Kvichak’s heavy flows. I’ve got a guy on each side of the island. I look like I’m watching a tennis match from the net as I anxiously watch for a hook up. I can’t stand it, I want to yell “Take more steps!”, but I don’t, they’re taking plenty. There’s a hook-up and I sprint the nearly hundred yards to get there as fast as I can, so that I’ll miss as little as possible what is surely going to be an epic battle. I get there and the fish has already run out over a hundred yards of backing and jumped several times. Out of breath, I witness several more runs of fifty yards or better and a bunch more jumps. I can see that it’s not a big one, maybe twenty four inches or so, and I calm down a little.
Naknek and Kvichak fish get big, real big. Indeed, there’s been several fish taken from the lakes in excess of twenty pounds. You couldn’t realistically expect something like that, but fish from twenty eight to thirty two inches aren’t uncommon. The perfect outfit for this game is easily the Sage 7136-4 ONE (I just want to say that these spey rods are aptly named, they really are the ones), a Sage 6012 reel loaded with two hundred yards of thirty pound backing and a Rio Skagit Max 550gr shooting head. I think that this is such a perfect outfit that I have two identical set-ups. I rig one of them with a ten foot sinking heavy Skagit MOW tip and the other with a twelve and a half foot sinking heavy Skagit MOW tip.
Flies? Well, you know the cliché.
Scott O’Donnell is a Sage Ambassador and steelhead fly fishing and spey casting instructor on The Northwest’s premier steelhead rivers with Mike McCune. At the forefront of the Skagit Style of spey casting Scott and Mike are responsible for the Skagit style lines that have been dominating the spey market and the wildly popular Skagit MOW Tips. They’re world renowned for their unparalleled teaching abilities and they’ve been making people better casters and anglers for over twenty years.