|Alaskan Fall Rainbows|
By Mike Cole
September was the month that I lived for as a guide in the Bristol Bay area, the month that I knew I would see some of the largest and meanest rainbows on the planet. Rainbows that were fat and full bodied from an entire season of gorging on salmon fry, sculpins, mice and eggs. Rainbows that hit a fly so hard you would swear they got a running start from 50 feet up river just so they could hit it at full speed.
In Alaska, September is the month when you can feel the first breath of winter. In the Bristol Bay/Illiamna area, the leaves on the cottonwood and birch trees turn a golden yellow and the tundra changes into a sea of crimson red. The first of many nightly frosts come and the snowfall is not far behind. The moose start to rut and the bears are fat and happy from filling their bellies with salmon and berries. Millions of sockeye salmon are spawning and dying, repeating and completing the cycle of life that has been going on longer than I can imagine. September is the month that dreams are made of.
September also is the month that the big rainbows drop out of the ocean-like lake known as Illiamna. As Alaska's largest inland body of water, and one of only two places on earth to have freshwater seals, Lake Illiamna boasts some of the largest and meanest rainbows on the face of the earth. The Kvichak River (pronounce kwee-jack) is Lake Illiamna's outflow and come September it is THE place to be in Alaska for trophy rainbows.
These are two of my favorite September Kvichak memories.
"The Big One That Got Away"
The Kvichak is the kind of river that a guide doesn’t just show up as an “all star.” Everyone pays their dues and I was no exception. At the lodge I worked for, only the most experienced guides went to the Kvichak. It took me a season before I found myself guiding that river. The section of the Kvichak that fishes best in September is heavily braided and some of those braids run mighty skinny. Running a prop was a little nerve racking; it’s not a good thing to use a company boat as a roto-tiller when clients are present.
The second time I was assigned to guide on the Kvichak, I got to fish with a father son duo. The father, Tom, worked with a very large, well known investment company. He pretty much retired when the company’s stock shot through the roof. He really wanted to connect with his son and the outdoors. He thought a fishing trip to Alaska would be a great way to do this. His son Tom Jr, in his early twenties, was a city boy who could have cared less about this trip, but he seemed happy to be spending a little time with his father.
Being that this was my second time guiding on this massive river that has an endless maze of braids, I decided to not venture too far. I had taken a liking to this one particular braid, not because it was fishing amazingly well, but because it was deep enough that I knew I could get up and down it with out spinning my prop into a rounded nub of aluminum. Neither of my clients were great casters, so I had them both fishing out the same side of the boat where they could just make a short cast and mend out a lot of line. I would then jockey the boat to get the right drift.
Dropping into this particular braid was a little tricky. Too far to one side and the current pulled the Jon boat over the fish. Too far out the other way and the main current wouldn’t allow the boat into the braid. I botched the first couple of drifts. But we managed to land a few fish in the 16-22” range. Nice fish. I should mention that fish of this size are considered small, really small, on this river. On my third drift I hit it right. The boat slid out of the main current about 40 feet from the deep bank and both bead rigs drifted perfectly covering different water. I was concentrated on where I wanted the boat to drift when my attention was caught by a loud splash. I looked up to see Tom Sr's rod doubled ever. Then off to my left I saw a chrome magnet in the 12- 14 pound range come flying straight out the water. The 'bow shook its head side to side so hard that I could hear its gill plates slapping like someone was clapping their hands right next to me.
At this moment it occurred to me that Tom had no clue what he was doing. He had the rod straight up and he was leaning his back into the fight like a gymnast getting ready to do a back spring. I started to say “bow the rod to the fish,” but I was too late. This time the monster leapt at us like Carl Lewis doing the long jump. It happened so fast that poor Tom didn’t have a chance. With him pulling on the rod and the fish launching at us, all of the slack line landed on Tom’s left arm and behind his neck. Before I could do anything to help clear this line, the fish turn and shot off in the opposite direction. It sounded like a .22 went off as the line snapped and just like that the fish of Tom’s dreams bitch slapped us.
“Holy Shit Dad” shot out of Tom Jr.’s mouth. I looked to the bow of the boat and Tom Jr. just pointed at his father. Tom Sr. was white as a ghost. Several minutes passed before he spoke. When he did muster up the strength to talk, he asked me what he did wrong. I automatically answered “what didn’t you do wrong?” I heard an “Ohh!” from Tom Jr. and I realized that I probably just crushed this man’s ego. Then with a chuckle I said, “Tom, you really want to know what you did wrong? You hooked THAT fish, that is what you did wrong.” Both Tom and Tom Jr. got a laugh out of this as we all knew a fish story had been born. A story that lives on today as the one that got away.
"The One That Didn’t Get Away, But Did"
The majority of my first season was spent on one river, living at a remote spike camp. Clients were flown in from the lodge in the morning and flew back out in the afternoon. The last week of the season I was brought back to the lodge and finished my days there. As an “Atta Boy” thank you, my head guide scheduled himself, my roommate Sam and me to pull the motors and put away our Kvichak boats for the season. This takes all of an hour and we had all afternoon to do it. This meant that our fearless leader was taking us fishing. Sam and I were two lucky dudes as any one of the other guides would have killed to be us that day.
It took an hour of flying over incredibly flat tundra to reach the river. The Kvichak’s sheer size and clear blue waters were breath taking. I remember thinking to myself “where do you find trout in open water like this?” Then we reached the bottom of the braids. Most of them had a few wads of red sockeye spawning and other braids were top to bottom masses of blood red as the sockeye were so thick that a person could walk across them. We flew in low over the gin-clear water and the bottom could be seen in all but the deepest runs of the main river. As the shadow of the plane glided over the water, wads of salmon would scatter and spread as if being pursued by a large eagle. In amongst the red soldiers were dark torpedo-like ghosts that would spring for the depths at speeds two to three times faster than the sockeye. These, my friends, where the ghosts of my dreams. Large bows, some of them easily in the realm of that mythical 30 incher, some larger.
I couldn't believe that below me flowed a river with trout so big you could spot them from a plane. I couldn't wait to sight fish a bead rig for these bad boys. But then I had a moment of self doubt. Would the beads I had used all season work on the Kvichak? The answer came quickly. As we unloaded our stuff from the plane, Wally said, “ I hope you boys brought some flies, because today we are swinging.” That’s when I noticed his two handed Spey rod.
“Shit!!! No beading?” I thought to myself. We were going to swing leeches, sculpins and flesh. I hadn't done much swinging before and the only flies I had were some small flesh flies. Luckily, Sam had his leech and sculpin selection with him. He tossed me a tan #4 McCune’s Sculpin. I rigged my rod with a heavy sink tip, slipped a bead onto my line and turned my sculpin into an egg stealing sculpin. At the time I hadn’t fished sculpin patterns in the fall and had little faith in them. There were salmon spawning out there, which meant eggs. What were we doing fishing sculpins?
Wally had a few specific braids that he wanted to fish. The braid he picked had only a few salmon visible which was ideal for swinging. After positioning myself, I pulled as much line as I thought I could cast. The one thing I knew was that a bow could have been sitting anywhere out there. I kept the first couple of casts short with no results. Then I let it fly. Standing waist deep, I started swinging for the fences throwing the longest casts I could. After a half hour of throwing bombs, my shoulder started to hurt. I started to daydream and then mid swing I felt something. It almost felt like the fly ticking off of the bottom. I continued the swing with a couple more ticks and nothing. The fly swung out and hung for several seconds when I remembered being told steelhead and big rainbows like to hang below the swung fly and pounce on it when the time is right. I pumped the rod hoping to coerce the fish into striking. I was looking down at my reel when the line on the reel went from yellow to blaze orange.
Before I even thought about setting the hook, the fish was in the air cart wheeling like a mad circus performer. I started to yell at Sam, but the fish was dancing in front of him before I could open my mouth. I heard a “holy shit” and then giggling as he got his line out of the water. Sam jumped on shore and headed towards me to help. Sam started to offer words of advice but I barely heard him. I had tunnel vision and getting this beast of a fish to the beach was the only thing on my mind. I was so focused that I almost forgot to enjoy the fight. I took a deep breath, looked around and grinned. I was fighting the biggest trout of my life on river like no other. Damn I felt good.
After awhile the fish threw in the towel and came in slightly on his side. Sam marveled at the beauty and size of the fish and all he could say was “holy shit.” I indicated for him to grab my camera, which he did. The plan was for him to tail it and then to trade off to me so I could get my bragging rights photo. I dropped my rod tip and Sam slowly slid his hand toward the fish. As soon as his finger touched the zombified fish it burst to life.
Sam instantly let go and threw his hands back to get out of the way, but it was too late. As the fish swam off, my rod went slack. “I’m sorry man!!!” came flying out of Sam. But I didn’t care. I didn’t care because I had just caught the biggest rainbow I had ever seen. Sam continued to apologize and I just started laughing. Did that just happen? I was floating on cloud nine. “Who cares about a picture, “ I told Sam. “Did you see that? I mean, not to sound like a little schoolgirl, but Oh My GOD!!! That fish was on freakin’ steroids!”
Then I stripped in my slack to check my busted leader. To my surprise the fly was still there. I stared at the hook for a couple of seconds trying to comprehend what I was seeing. The hook had a perfect ninety degree bend to the left and then another back to the right. The hook looked like some one had used two pair of pliers to make some sort of snake. Even crazier was the fact that the hook hadn’t bent out at all. If I didn’t know that the hook was normal before, I would have been looking for the person that had pulled the prank, but the prankster was the fish.
I sat down and watched Sam fish. On his third cast, another silver bullet shot out of the water. Sam’s reel started screaming. A few minutes later he had 27 inches of Kvichak love in his hands. “I love this river, “ he exclaimed. I seconded this and gave him a high five like all men do when they conquer their domain.
“Beautiful fish” I told him.
“Not as big as yours,” he told me.
“Yeah, but we have proof of yours.”
“You have proof too,” he said laughingly. And I did have the fly.
Wally came ambling up just in time to see us release Sam’s fish. He congratulated Sam on his fish and then Sam and I told him of my fish. The one we had but got away. Wally said, no picture, no proof, razzing us a little. Then I showed him the fly. “How in the hell did that happen?” All I could do is point at the river and chuckle. We hopped in the boat and headed back to the plane to do what we were sent there for: work. On the long flight back to the lodge, all I could think was “I cannot wait until next season.”