Bristol Bay: The Big Picture
Bristol Bay is a large inlet on the remote easternmost shore of the Bering Sea. Framed by 8 major river systems, "The Bay" is home to the world's largest sockeye salmon run, and some of the greatest freshwater fly angling to be found on the planet. Located 280 air-miles southwest of Anchorage and accessible only by boat or plane, the Bristol Bay region covers roughly 55,000 miles of varied terrain, mostly soggy tundra. Bordered by the Kilbuck-Ahklun range to the northwest, the Taylor mountains to the north, and the Aleutian Range to the southeast, the region is home to some of the largest lakes in Alaska, including Lake Iliamna, at over 1,000 square miles of surface area.
The rivers of Bristol Bay are of mostly lake-origin, with a few glacial-fed systems as well. The lakes of the region serve as filters and flow regulators, making most of the systems flow clear with fairly consistent volumes throughout the summer months. The lakes also serve as prime nursery areas for juvenile fish, as well as overwintering grounds for many native fish species. The rivers of the bay region are low-gradient with mid-speed flows and very few abrupt elevation changes as they flow from the tundra to the sea. Many of the rivers have braided sections where the flow divides into several smaller channels, sometimes continuing for many miles before coming back into a single channel.
With salmon runs totaling close to 50 million fish, the Bristol Bay region is the state's second largest salmon-producing area, but what makes it exceptional is the 44 million sockeye salmon that return every year and the hordes of giant Rainbow Trout that eagerly await them. In addition to the sockeye and rainbows, the four other species of salmon run in the region as well. The region's waters are also home to lake trout, grayling, arctic char, Dolly Varden and pike. Almost all of the fly fishing in the Bristol Bay region is conducted in the middle and upper portions of the river systems, as well as in the numerous lakes. Limited access combined with a 30+ foot tidal range and low-gradient topography make estuary fishing a poor choice when compared with the other options the region provides.
The Bristol Bay region concentrates some of the largest salmon runs into a fairly small area, and where the salmon run, the bears are not far behind. Home to some of the densest seasonal concentrations of brown bears found anywhere in the world, the region offers a great opportunity to view these magnificent creatures as they chase and feed on salmon in an attempt to put away as many calories as possible during their short season of abundance. Fishing and camping around bears is not without its risks, and while salmon runs and fishing results can often be predicted, bears can not. The U. S. Forest Service (USFS) and U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have a tremendous amount of information on traveling and camping safely in bear country, and we strongly recommend reading this and getting a clear understanding of the essential practices.
Fly Fishing in the Bristol Bay Region: When & Where To Go
Spring: April and May
April signals the beginning of the ice-out in the Bristol Bay region, with lake inlets and outlets thawing during the lengthening spring days. The die-hard angler can have some success at this time, but by late-May, ice-out is complete in most of the lower elevation lakes and fishing can begin in earnest. Rainbow trout, lake trout, Dolly Varden, grayling, and pike are available in many of the region's lakes, and these early season fish can often be tempted with leeches, sculpins, minnow flies, and more traditional nymphs. We recommend Dolly Llama's, Sculpzillas, Alaskan Sockeye Fry, and the AFFG Predator Rainbow Fly Selection.
PLEASE CHECK YOUR REGULATIONS. The ADF&G regulates opening and closing dates very tightly in the Bristol Bay region. Many of Bristol Bay's rivers are entirely closed to sport fishing from April 10 - June 7 to protect rainbow trout during the spawn.
April and May are also times of very fickle weather in the region. In a single day, one might encounter bright sunshine and balmy 60° temps, a howling northerly with a 30° blizzard, and a soggy, drenching westerly rainstorm. Pack accordingly, and be prepared with layers of warm clothing topped off by a sturdy rain jacket.
Early Summer: June and July
June is the peak month of the downstream migration of the salmon fry, and where these abundant swimmers go, predators follow. Dolly Varden, lake trout, and rainbow trout often key in on lake inlet and outlet streams during the fry migration, and these locations provide an excellent fishing opportunity. Some of our favorite patterns are Thunder Creek Minnows, Stinger Clouser Minnow, and the Willie Nelson leech.
June also heralds the beginnings of the salmon run in Bristol Bay. Towards mid-June the sockeye salmon run begins, first in ones and twos, then trickles, then hundreds, followed by thousands of fish streaming upriver. Regarded as the most picky of Alaska's salmon species, sockeye can be enticed with small, sparsely dressed patterns fished deep. We recommend the Sockeye Lightning, the Copper Swan, and Montana Brassies.
Where the sockeye run, the rainbows are never far behind. As the reds get closer to their spawning grounds the rainbow trout begin to intermingle with them, eagerly awaiting the egg-drop that usually happens in early to mid-August. These early trout can be had with a wide variety of flies, so be sure to have some traditional trout nymphs and dries like the Micro Mayfly and Flashback Pheasant Tail, as well as a good selection of beads in early colors. Streamers and Leeches can also work well during this time, so be sure to have some Exasperator Sculpins, Mr Hankey mouse patterns, and S.T.S Leeches. Don't be surprised if you happen to run across grayling or char when fishing for rainbows, as they follow the sockeye as well.
June and July are also the months of the king salmon and chum salmon, and with each passing day the run builds until its peak in early July. The rivers of the Bristol Bay region seem to be custom-made for the two-handed rod enthusiast, with long, mid-depth runs that have very even flows. Rapidly catching on in many watersheds of the region, Spey fishing for king salmon could be considered the ultimate challenge, with ocean-fresh fish regularly running into the 40lb+ range eager to eat flies on the swing. Choice patterns include Stinger Prawns, Pink Rockstars, and Guide Intruders in various colors. The last day of July marks the official closing of the king salmon sport fishery in Bristol Bay.
Late Summer: August and September
The sockeye have all turned bright red and are now paired up for their spawning acts. At this point in their life-cycle, these fish are no longer an angling prize and should be allowed to spawn in peace. However, the rainbow trout that congregate around the sockeye during this time should be considered fair game. The spawning season is a "match the hatch" situation, and in this case the hatch is sockeye eggs. Be sure to carry a wide selection of beads in many colors and sizes, as the fish can get exceptionally picky during this time. As the spawning season progresses into September, the early sockeye start to die and the rainbow trout can often be seen tearing at their carcasses, rolling about to rip off long strips of flesh. As the die-off continues, flesh flies in ginger, off-white, and two-toned with pink or orange hues are often the key to success. Try Barely Legals, Dolly Llamas, Chokers, and Lady Flesh. As with early season, there will always be some Dollies or char mixed in among the spawners as well, so be prepared for a little variety.
There are fishable numbers of coho by the end of the first week of August. The silver run is in usually in full swing by mid August and continues into late September and even October. Coho are responsive to many different groups of flies, and the angler-in-the-know will have a wide selection. This will include top water patterns like Popper Wogs and Poly Wogs, Streamers such as Clouser Minnows, Flash Flies, Dolly Llamas, Hareball Leeches and Coho Kryptonite, and Jig Style flies such as the Jig Spanker, Kilowatt and Megawatt. Techniques for silvers will range for stripping streamers on a floating line to dead-drifting patterns like Dolly Llamas.
End of the Season: October
By October, much of the fishing is over for the year as the salmon have mostly died off following the spawn. The first snows of the year begin to fall in October, and by the second week, temperatures rarely exceed 40° during the day. The one shining light of the late September-early October period, however, is the trophy rainbow trout season. The late season represents the last opportunity for the trout to forage for the long winter, and they feed ravenously on the decaying flesh of the spawned-out salmon carcasses. Large articulated flesh flies and "dead" beads are the go-to combinations for rainbows during the late season. Barely Legal Flesh, Lady Flesh, and Articulated Flesh can get you into the trout of a lifetime!