Fishing the Naknek River for Rainbows
by Jim Johnson
It had been a tough morning of fishing, with the sun shining brightly in a bluebird sky and a daybreak air temperature near freezing. Normally, early October is known as trophy rainbow time on Bristol Bay's Naknek River, but so far today, the fishing had been a little slow. As a change of pace, we had climbed into the jet boat and motored downstream to the shallow gravel bar known as the "rapids".
After parking the boat behind one of the many islands, we began wading one of the side channels, casting to the far bank. I was throwing a 300 grain sinking tip line on an 8 weight fly rod, with a large black leech attached to the end of a 4' leader. I was using an upstream reach-mend cast, angling my cast down and across.
After allowing a few seconds for the fly to sink, I began to strip the leech back with short, erratic strips. After only a couple of casts, the fly stopped suddenly and I instinctively set the hook low and to the downstream side. About that time, the surface of the river exploded and a huge silver slab of rainbow came completely clear of the water.
My first thought was "king salmon" - this fish was huge - but there were no kings still alive. This was easily the largest rainbow of my life. Certainly over 20 pounds. The battle was on.
While this rainbow was much bigger than the average Naknek fish, it was by no means the only big rainbow we caught this past summer. In one week in September, we landed a 15.5 pounder, a 14 pounder and many rainbows between 8 and 12 pounds.
Last spring, Fish Alaska Magazine picked the Naknek and the Kvichak as a tie for the best trophy rainbow fishing in the state of Alaska for good reason. The Naknek has a lot of big rainbows swimming its waters. Lots of big, smart rainbows.
There are a couple of reasons for the smartness factor. One is that, in Alaska, a big rainbow is an old rainbow and old rainbows have seen a lot of food in their life. They know what it is supposed to look like and how it is supposed to behave. Neither eggs nor flesh can swim across the stream, for example, and these fish know it.
The season starts with a bang in June. Huge rainbows move out of the lake into the upper river to spawn in April and May. After spawning, they come out hungry, and thankfully, they don't have far to go for food. The outlet of the lake is an ideal funnel, concentrating the millions of migrating salmon smolt along with a steady flow of migrating leeches. The rainbows take up station, waiting in ambush for the schools of salmon passing by, often attacking in a seemingly organized fashion, with a pack of a dozen or more huge rainbows herding a school of smolt to the surface and crashing through it over and over again.
This smolt migration slows down a little in late July and early August, but we still catch rainbows crashing smolt right up until the salmon start dumping eggs in mid-August.
This early season fishing is my son's favorite time to chase big rainbows, but it also sometimes frustrating fishing, especially for the fly fisherman.
There are basically 3 presentations that will consistently fool these rainbows.
The first method is to allow the minnow (or leech) imitation to swim straight downstream for as long a drift as is possible. Many rainbows seem to pick out their prey far upriver in this ultra clear water, laying on the bottom behind a rock or ledge in wait. This long drift can be accomplished by either using a strike indicator/bobber on a fly rod, light spinning or, maybe most deadly of all, a centerpin reel.
Another way to achieve a long downstream dead drift is to allow the boat to drift down with the current, using a sink tip or a shooting line. A spinning rod with light mono and a small jig has proven to be deadly for this method, with some of our guests last summer landing double digit numbers of big rainbows in an evening of fishing.
Choose a 2 to 4 inch minnow imitation in silver or white with a dark back, a Gummie Minnow, a marabou jig in white, black or silver, a swimming minnow (rubber minnow body) on a jig or weighted hook. A leech in black, olive, grey, cream or burnt orange can also be deadly.
My favorite early season method. This method requires the fisherman to wait for a school of rainbows to bust into a school of smolt. When they do this, there are huge explosions of water all around, as bows as big as 12 pounds crash wildly to the surface as they intercept the small salmon moving downstream past their ambush point. The trick is to throw your offering into the melee at the same time as the fish rips through, twitching the artificial to duplicate the look of a wounded minnow that barely escaped capture the last time through. Sometimes, one of these feeding frenzies can last for minutes, other times merely seconds, requiring quick and accurate casting to be successful.
This quick response to surface activity is much easier to accomplish with a spinning rod and a minnow shaped lure, but a fly rod can be a lot of fun as well. I chose a T-200 style sinking tip line for this fishing because of the ability to shoot a lot of line in a hurry, opening up more chances to get the fly into the mix, but, since these fish are right on top, a floating line works as well. In fact, if you can manage to keep the gulls and terns off of your fly, a surface popper works very well.
This is one of those things that has left me scratching my head a couple of times, but quite often the most effective fly will look nothing like a minnow, even though the rainbows are gorging on the real thing. Small to medium size leech patterns were deadly last season at times. We had a day in the rapids last August, well after the smolt migration is supposed to be over, when the bows were busting all over the surface and the hot fly was a #6 conehead woolybugger in black, with a little flash. A minnow imitation was ignored, while this fly was hit each time it was thrown near a bait ball.
The principle is, I believe, that if you can't exactly match the size, movement and/or color of "the hatch", whatever the hatch might be, go with an offering that is immediately and almost unmistakably recognizable as food. Flies that fall into this category include a perfectly round egg imitation, a rubber legged surface bug, an upright winged generic mayfly imitation, a down winged caddis dry, a soft hackled nymph, a skating mouse, a fast moving streamer and a leech, among others. In the lower 48, if you added an ant imitation to this list, you would be pretty effective in virtually all situations.
But I digress. For this style of fishing, all of the same flies and jigs listed in the dead drift section will work. Maybe the deadliest choices are lures on a light spinning rod that can be cast a long distance and flash silver. These include Thunderstick Jr's, Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnows, Little Cleo's and Kastmasters - all in silver/blue, silver/black or silver/green. A spinner with a silver blade can work, but most spinners don't cast as well.
Many of the rainbows are lying on the bottom in 8 - 12 feet of water, waiting in ambush for a school of minnows to swim far overhead. These waiting fish will still take an offering that bounces off their nose, just like every fish everywhere. Free calories are rarely turned down. This can be accomplished with a fast sinking line and a large leech or sculpin, or with a spinning rod and a jig.
I think the most effective choices for this type of fishing will have a lot of action. Lean towards rabbit strip leeches, articulated marabou leeches, marabou jigs and sculpin. A slow presentation, with the imitation bouncing among the rocks, seems to be the most effective. Some locals also slow troll with minnow shaped plugs or dredge bottom with leeches on a 400 (or heavier) grain sinking tip line.
For all three of these early season methods, a 9' - 10' fly rod that balances with a 6 - 8 weight line is the best choice. I would want to have a WF floating line, a fast sinking tip and a Climax Zip line (or whatever shooting line you prefer).
I would also carry a 9' - 10' made to handle a 5wt for the smaller streams and lighter tippets, when needed.
If you are choosing a spinning rod, I would pick a 7' rod made for 4-8 pound line and a spinning reel that has a glass smooth drag. Alaska is no place for a cheap, rear drag spinning reel and old line. Load up at least 2 spools with fresh monofilament (one with 4 or 6 pound and one with 8 or 10 pound). If you have a 3rd spool, think about some 10 or 12 pound braided super line. When fished with a fluorocarbon tippet, braid becomes a deadly choice that maximizes feel and minimizes stretch.
Salmon Spawning Time:
Late season in Alaska is very easily recognized and is a completely different experience. It is marked by the start of the salmon spawning. Salmon runs in Bristol Bay are measured in the millions, with the eggs laid probably numbering in the billions, quickly overpowering any other source of food.
Rainbows, char and grayling begin switching over to eggs in early to mid-August. By late August, a few fish are dying and flesh can be an important source of food as well, but usually only in an opportunistic way. While it is certainly true that many fish are taken using leeches and sculpin during the egg hatch, it is NOT true that the bigger fish are only caught on these large offerings. I have heard this myth repeated by many expert fly fishermen over the 25 years that I have been fly-fishing for these late season trophy's, including several guides and lodge owners that ought to know better. The fact is that a big fish gets that way by always concentrating on the food source that can provide the most calories in while expending the least calories in that acquisition.
If lots of large food items are easily available then of course a trophy rainbow will concentrate on that food source - but so will the smaller and medium sized bows. If there is a steady stream of eggs being washed down a seam, so that all a fish has to do is open his mouth and inhale, then that is where that same trophy will be sitting. The only difference between where a 12 pound and a 3 pound rainbow will feed is that the 12 pounder will feed wherever he wants to and the 3 pounder will feed as close to the 12 pounder as the 12 pounder will let him. In other words, the biggest fish will generally get first choice on the best feeding lies, with the smaller fish competing for the next best spot, and so on.
When a trout gets selectively keyed in to one food source, they tend to get tunnel vision, concentrating almost exclusively on that source until it runs out. This is just as true during a heavy mayfly hatch as it is during the salmon spawn. I know we don't like to think about the fact that fish have tiny brains while they are outsmarting us, but the fact is that they do. They aren't capable of rational thought. Their tiny brains go through the same process each time an available food item shows up in front of them, comparing the item to a small list of traits. Each fish is looking at different traits, which is why a certain imitation will work for some and not all fish. The factors they have to compare are always the same, of course - size, shape, color, shine, movement, scent and taste.
Fortunately for us fishermen, most fish do not go through the entire list with each food item presented to them. If they did, a fly fisherman would never catch a fish. For a virgin fish that has never been caught, quite often a flashy color is all that is needed to trigger a strike. A flash of color can mean a wounded baitfish darting around, for example, and trigger the automatic predatory response. A round shape is also often enough, regardless of color. The primitive brain signaling to the fish that, since every round thing the fish has ever eaten in the past was food, all round things must be food. My kids started out using this sort of logic in their math problems, but it didn't take them long to realize the difference between 2x and x squared.
These kind of simple thought processes are the norm for unsophisticated fish that are rarely if ever pressured, or for smaller fish that have never been caught, but once a fish has been fooled a time or two, the brain starts getting a little more educated. All round items that it has eaten in the past proved not to be food, but all round items that were orange with white mottling were...or all that were 6mm were... or all that didn't have a curly shaped metal thing sticking out of them were food.
The reason that trout get selective is that the brain can only process a tiny amount at a time and if the brain is focused on one task - i.e. identifying the correct characteristics of the many eggs flowing by, it is often incapable of processing another set of questions about whether this white fluff coming at it is food or not. Once a source of food is identified and the characteristics chosen that make it food are decided on, the fish concentrates on picking out items that meet the criteria. "Round things that are sort of translucent in the sunlight are food" seems to be a common set of parameters. Some fish will take this to the next step and look for "orangish, mottled round things that are somewhat translucent in the sun, in the 6mm - 8mm size range and drift naturally downstream."
A fish that has been around for a while might refine this list to include features like "it must drift naturally downstream for a long distance before I eat it" or they might decide that "it can't have a squiggly metal thing in it or even near it". Being attached to a clear line that reflects sunlight might also be a deal breaker for a sophisticated fish. When a fish gets so paranoid that it bumps the offering with its nose to see what it smells and tastes like, we fly fishermen leave in disgust and find another fish to cast to.
Some species get to this point faster than others. Brown trout, for example, are more wary than rainbows, and seem to always look things over a little more carefully. In Alaska, the rainbows are a lot harder to fool than the char and grayling. Char can usually be fooled with anything round, regardless of color and size, and tend to move farther to intercept an egg imitation. Even char and grayling, however, get a little more particular after they have been caught and released a couple of times.
That is a long way of saying that a fisherman in late season in Alaska has to be very aware of the food sources available in any specific area and if you aren't catching fish, don't be afraid to keep switching offerings until you start.
If kings are spawning, start with a large egg imitation - at least a 10mm size, but most often a 12mm or even larger will produce. Carry a variety of colors, from pinks to oranges to creams and make sure to include a good number of mottled plastic beads. For a change of pace, fish a plastic bead in front of a leech, minnow or flesh fly.
When pinks are spawning, use an 8mm egg in the same colors, with the 10mm as your back-up choice. Same choices of flies behind the egg, with the additional choice of a maggot.
When fishing behind spawning sockeye, a 6mm egg is your 1st choice, with an 8mm egg as a strong second option. Even a 10 and 12mm will sometimes work, especially in discolored water. I love to fish these in front of a small maggot, but any of the choices listed above will occasionally be hot.
In very clear water, the fish can watch these egg imitations float downstream for a long distance, so a good drift and an invisible tippet are critical. Most fishermen don't realize this, but the reason why adding a streamer or leech behind the bead can sometimes greatly improve the number of hits, is because the egg now has an excuse for not drifting perfectly downstream - from the trout's perspective, it moved erratically because it was in the mouth of a swimming minnow/leech.
If your line of choice is a sink-tip, the egg/leech or egg/sculpin combo is your best bet. It is almost impossible to get a natural downstream drift with a sinking line without some swinging motion. Some sink-tip fishermen have had luck in the past throwing big flesh flies, but I have no doubt that the fish are taking them as a cream colored leech.
The best dead drift on a fly rod is achieved with a Zip line (shooting line), as little weight as it takes to tick the bottom and a fluorocarbon tippet in the 3x to 4x range. Choose the longest rod you can fish singlehanded that has a soft tip to cast a light weight and protect light tippets and a powerful butt section to control big fish. I like a 10' to 11' rod in the 5 to 7wt range.
An expert with a strike indicator can do almost as well in fast water and arguably better in slow flows. Again choose the longest rod you own or can cast all day and use fluorocarbon tippets. I like the same rods - a 10' - 11' rod for a 5-7 weight line, although here is an application where a two-handed or switch rod might be a great choice. The longer the rod, the easier it is to mend a lot of line and the easier to cast a long leader hanging below an indicator. Just make sure the spey rod is soft enough in the tip to avoid breaking the light tippets needed to fool these smart fish.
If you own a long drift rod, this is a great situation to break it out. I have watched anglers have a field day with both long (9' plus) spinning rods and centerpin rods (11' - 14'). In both cases, the anglers were fishing plastic beads on light tippets, either bottom bouncing or under a bobber. We tried it ourselves a couple of times with both types of gear and caught rainbows almost at will. On the spinning rig, we tried bottom bouncing with light braided line and found it to be deadly - we could feel every bite and bounce of the weight and could cast a mile.
I almost forgot to follow up on the huge fish I had on at the beginning of this story - I lost it on the first jump. We saw the fish swimming around the shallows a couple of days later at it still looked huge. Maybe we'll land it next year.