Thursday, September 16, 2021
Thursday, September 16, 2021
Before Kamchatka and Jurassic Lake landed on the fly-fishing travel landscape, there was no better place for really big rainbow trout than southwest Alaska’s Kvichak River.
This was “the land of the midnight sun,” “the great land,” Russia’s blunder and the United state’s major coup. Fifty-bazillion acres of natural resource wonderland that included the most remarkable wild salmon runs on earth, including Bristol Bay and all of its legendary rivers—the Naknek, Nushagak, Togiak, Egigik, Ugashik and Kvichak.
While you could catch salmon and rainbows on all of those rivers, the Kvichak stood out for what its rainbows were not—very few resembled the classic, heavily colored and spotted “leopard” ‘bows that Alaska fishing became most famous for. The Kvichak’s fish, instead, spent their time in Lake Iliamna, living an existence like that of their sea-run cousins, the steelhead. The Kvichak rainbows fed heavily on Iliamna’s bounty—smolt and lamprey eels and other protein-rich edibles—before migrating out of the lake and into the river each June. They were bigger than rainbows found elsewhere—up to 20 pounds—they were chrome-bright coming out of the lake, they were silver-sided, extraordinarily muscular, and they posted up at the heads of islands and other ambush points, sites set on massive salmon smolt and lamprey outmigrations from Iliamna.
Neither Jurassic or Kamchatka is on my plate right now, so when Jack Mitchell phoned in May and said three slots had opened at his lodge on the Kvichak, which rests on an island smack dab in the middle of the river’s prime trout water, and that I could grab them for a last-minute steal, I called a couple friends and booked a flight to Anchorage.
A day later our Lake and Peninsula shuttle landed in Igiugig and shortly after Season’s manager “Musky Dave” had our gear aboard a jetsled, headed three miles downstream to the lodge.
The lodge is open from June through mid-October. Anglers can tackle salmon all summer long, but it’s the river’s rainbows and the opportunity to swing for them with two hand rods and get that tight-line grab that really stands out in spring and, again, during fall.
You’re not going to see this lodge advertised in Travel & Leisure. It offers four double-occupancy rooms with single beds, and two common bathrooms with hot showers. It has a great dining room with views of the river flowing by, literally, just a few yards away. The kitchen is small but effective and a common area, separated from the dining room, is a great place to kick back on a couch, read a book, look out the window at the water and weather passing by, or drink a cocktail while reviewing the day with fellow guests. Fly tying? You bet. Bring a vice and twist ‘em up. A wader drying room and a fleet of 16-foot long Hog Island skiffs all equipped with 15-horse prop engines, round out the offerings.
The lodge is spartan but comfortable and efficient. But, to be honest, I didn’t travel from my home in Montana to the Alaska outskirts for a spa treatment. I could have been offered a deep tissue massage and a mud bath and I would have said, “Hell no, that’d be cutting into my rainbow time.” I was there for one reason—to fish hard in near 24-hour daylight, and swing up as many big, bright rainbows as I could, hoping that one or more might top out at 30 inches.
Before the trip I asked Mitchell why I should fish the Kvichak versus other Bristol Bay area streams and he said, “Because it’s about the best swing fishing anyone has ever seen, and if you don’t get your fingers out of the way the reel handle is going to bust your knuckles. These fish are different—every one you hook, you know it’s on from the first instance—they just rip. They hand you a new ass. They’re just like steelhead, maybe even better.”
It didn’t take us long to know these fish are different. They fought hard, jumped higher, and lasted longer than the trout we catch in Montana, and we were fishing 6 and 7-weight spey rods! The fish were located as advertised, at the heads of islands and in some of the scallops along the sides of islands. They ate the swung fly like they’d waited their entire lives for it, and they charged to the middle of the river in, like, two seconds, once you came tight on them. We caught a lot of fish in the 16-to 20-inch range and then, as the trip wore on, we started to see some giants.
That’s a good thing because one of my friends, a lawyer, didn’t think the fishing was up to snuff. During a discussion around the dinner table, after a guest had just described getting completely destroyed by a big rainbow earlier that day, the lawyer said, “I just got to tell you that your claim about these fish being the hardest fighting rainbows ever is a bunch of bullshit. The fish we catch on the Blackfoot and Clark Fork in Montana fight just as hard.”
There was silence and then laughter, and the next day the lawyer was eating crow, to his credit admitting that he possibly, possibly, could have spoken too soon. We were at the dinner table, a couple Alaska Ambers and bottles of wine floating around the table, when the lawyer said, “Ok, so I hooked this big rainbow on my 8-weight spey rod today and it just worked me over, just kicked my ass. For a while I didn’t know if I could land it. Thing measured 23-inches but it was a rocket. I don’t know what a 26 or 28 would be like. So, you guys might be right after all.”
One morning I walked downstream from the lodge and fished some good looking water with no return, before Mitchell picked me up in a boat. I told him I wanted him to drop me off in relatively heavy flow, at the top of the next island. Mitchell did so and secured the boat while I braced myself against the current and stripped out line, ready to make my first cast. That’s when the rod yanked down and I lifted up, only to feel—nothing. I flipped the Dalai Lama to the right and another rainbow quickly smacked it. Strike two. I turned to Mitchell and shouted over the river, “Did you see that?” but I already had my answer—Mitchell was shaking his head, a frown on his face, an arm extended and a thumb pointed down. I flipped him off, then made another cast. Near the bottom of the swing I came tight to a good one.
After a few jumps and a few runs into heavy current, I had a 23-incher in the net. There was no way to shoot photos while holding a spey rod, a net, and a boat in heavy flows, so one of the brightest rainbows I’d ever seen slid back into the river captured only by Mitchell and my eyes. We hi-fived before Mitchell said with a grin, “Nice fish. But don’t flip me off again.”
The next day I was wade-fishing one of the Kvichak’s hundreds of channels, in an area called “the braids.” I was working behind one of my friends, so I waded out deep, trying to cover water he hadn’t reached. Somewhere along that run the line tightened, a fish launched out of the water and repeated that act about six more times in about 10 seconds—rapid fire takeoffs and landings. I was hollering, laughing, yelling, “Did you see that?” while trying to keep the fish fast to the fly. A few minutes later a 24 slid into the net, this one as chromy as the others, just heavier and a little longer. My friend and I admired the fish and I said, “This right here is what we came for.”
During a week on the Kvichak we caught rainbows to 25 inches, saw fish that pushed 30, got more efficient with our fishing each day, and saw tons of wildlife, including a grizzly bear, a couple moose, scads of ducks and shorebirds, along with Arctic terns that severely molested us whenever they deemed us a threat to their nests.
Mitchell has fished the Kvichak in fall and spring and said each has its advantage, but he reiterated that during fall the fish are at their peak size and fitness, having gorged all spring and summer on smolt, lamprey eels, mice and voles, salmon eggs and salmon carcasses.
“They start chasing leeches and Dalai’s again during fall and it’s just madness,” he said.
There are a few advantages to fishing at Mitchell’s operation versus staying at other lodges on the Kvichak. First, you’ll pay about half the price of the other lodges. Second, Mitchell’s is on an island and surrounded by water. You can walk and wade several nearby braids, all loaded with rainbows and grayling. So if you want to get up early and fish, you fish. If you want to stay out late and fish, you fish. You’ll sacrifice some luxuries when you stay at Mitchell’s, versus the higher-end lodges, but you’ll get a great deal, throw to the same mega-rainbows the other lodges target, and you’ll do so for as many hours in a day as you please.
A few fall dates are available for 2021, including at press time the weeks of September 26-30 and September 30-October 5. For spring 2022 the weeks of June 7-12; June 12-17; and June 17-22 are open.