Hunkering down beside a fallen Sitka spruce, my felt-sole shoes dig into the gravel bottom of Alaska's American Creek -- one of the last great havens for trophy rainbows. Beside me hunkers 31-year-old Derek Botchford, head guide for Ron Hayes' Alaska Rainbow Lodge.
Caught working a drift through classic post-salmon-spawn holding water
Through his polarized sunglasses, the British Columbia native studies two lavishly spotted native rainbow trout -- each about twenty-five inches -- foraging in a cauldron-like pool across from us. At my feet lies enough fly line for a cast; the small of my back tightens in anticipation. The warm sun and the whooshing of the unassuming creek are hypnotic, and my mind wanders across the snow capped peaks of Katmai National Park's Walatka Mountains stretched out in the distance.
"Put a cast upstream from them!" directs Botchford, snapping me out of my trance. I had been reading up and practicing my casts back home but am now faced with the ultimate test. Botchford, who has fished these sapphire waters the last ten seasons, continues to observe the leopard-like trout, which are zeroing in on anything that drifts by. I raise my right arm slowly, gently cradling the fly line in my left. Struggling for balance, I begin false-casting my White River 5-weight, hoping I don't spook the fish in the process. "Okay, drop it," Botchford whispers. "Now wait...wait...." The larger of the two rainbows spots my purple starlight leech drifting by after a proper mend. "Get ready..." Botchford's voice is tense. My bloodsucker tumbles along the bottom and disappears. "Hit it!"
When I respond, my perfectly paired White River CV2 reel sings as the mammoth trout thrashes to the surface, the leech firmly locked in its jaw. The magnificent fish makes several acrobatic leaps before muscling downstream and taking me into my backing. "My first Alaskan rainbow!" I holler emphatically, now pursuing the fish on foot.
Without question, "America's Last Frontier" remains one of the world's great angling destinations, and American Creek, nestled on the rim of Katmai National Park, beginning from Hammersly Lake in Southwest Alaska, is a thriving and sustainable rainbow fishery. Far from the maddening crowds, the glacial water of this isolated and unspoiled creek -- accessible only by floatplane -- is a hidden jewel definitely worth discovering.
A gorgeous American Creek rainbow
At roughly 32 miles long, the meandering creek provides a pristine, nutrient-rich environment as well as an exhilarating photographic encounter with a virtual barnyard of bald eagle, brown bear, caribou and moose. The "American," as it's simply called, is divided into three sections: the Upper, Middle and Lower, and all are exceedingly narrow, averaging several feet deep and only a dozen or so yards wide -- but don't let the diminutive size fool you. Surrounded by a dense boreal forest that offers fishermen complete tranquility and privacy -- important elements that bring guests back time and again -- the American is a trout fisherman's dream, featuring some of the most productive fly-fishing imaginable.
As most anglers know, a useful measure of any trout experience is how often one can locate and catch fish. At the American, this happens a lot, and the phenomenal guides at Ron Hayes' Alaska Rainbow Lodge will put you on fish throughout the day.
Recently, outdoor photographer Kevin Guthrie and I spent seven days at Hayes' renowned lodge, sampling this incredible fishery. Throughout our visit, we were invited by Botchford and seasoned guides Brandon Sharp, Ryan Phinney and Matias Heiwsen to fly fish the Upper and Lower American, along with neighboring creeks, rivers and streams -- and we caught and released dozens of trophy rainbow in every locale.
Perfect Katmai color
Often using the sun and bright sky to our advantage, Botchford and his team would lead us along miles of undulating -- and at times impenetrable -- marshy bank to sight, stalk and cast to magnificent trout holding in gin-clear water. Sight-fishing is extremely productive in Alaskan rivers and creeping up on a trophy rainbow sure gets your adrenalin flowing.
For hours, we would scan the water for brownish-gray shadows, strategically position ourselves as close to the edge as possible, make a full cast in front of the fish, and land dozens of hefty rainbows after well-fought battles. The trout ranged from twenty to twenty-seven inches, although fish over thirty inches are reported every season. With so many impressive fish in the American and neighboring rivers, it's easy to get spoiled, and after the third day, we found ourselves aggravated -- not by the relentless mosquitoes -- but landing rainbows less than eighteen inches -- a memorable catch in any other river, particularly in the lower forty-eight.
On several occasions, we stumbled upon some remarkably stubborn trout and had to rely on just the right pattern and presentation to imitate the proper food and tempt the fish into striking. It's moments like these when Hayes' experienced guides make the difference between convincing a fish and frightening them away.
In the American, a size 6 purple starlight leech with a 3/0 split shot and durable 10-pound fluorocarbon lured many fussy rainbows out from under submerged timber and leafy overhangs. A size 14 bead-head Prince nymph is another pattern we found extremely effective. But when the rainbows weren't interested in our creature imitations, we would switch to a 6mm pink pearl bead to simulate a fresh sockeye egg, or tie on a size 8 flesh fly to mimic a hunk of salmon tissue, as these seafood-craving rainbows follow and feed among the spawning sockeye. During our daily outings, we also realized a large indicator positioned four to six feet above our patterns helped to eliminate false sets. As soon as the indicator hesitated or stopped, we set the hook. If the indicator completely disappeared, the trout had already inspected, sampled and refused our enticement. For those thrilling moments when we detected the tantalizing swirls of rainbows rising to slurp a late lunch, changing over to a size 10 Stimulator guaranteed a take nearly every time.
Not all the rainbows went for beads
A short twenty minute flight from American Creek, Ron Hayes' world-class Alaska Rainbow Lodge is perched at the edge of the Kvichak River in the Iliamna area of Bristol Bay. From June through October, the river-based fly-out lodge -- with its impeccable service, culinary extravaganzas, top-notch bar, quality tackle, ample river boats and float-equipped aircraft -- is best known for bringing together trout fishermen who travel the globe in search of the finest fly-fishing guides, extraordinary fishing and the most breathtaking settings in the world.
"We're a small, 16-guest lodge specializing in fishing the wading streams of Western Alaska," say owners Ron and Sharon Hayes. "During your stay you will be looked after by our friendly and dedicated team who always ensure your individual needs are known and met."
Personally, we found Alaska Rainbow Lodge to be the ideal place to get away from it all, while being surrounded by some of the finest rainbow trout fishing on earth. And with nine qualified river guides and three commercial instrument-rated float plane bush pilots, including Hayes himself, trophy leopard rainbows aren't the only species targeted. Throughout the summer months, Alaska Rainbow Lodge will actively pursue Arctic grayling, char, Dolly Varden, lake trout, northern pike, all five species of salmon -- chum, king, pink, silver and sockeye -- and the illusive sheefish.
Curious about the sheefish -- a species unfamiliar to us -- we inquire about them. Hayes, who has been guiding in Alaska since 1957 and has racked up 27,000 hours flying in the wilds of Alaska, agrees to take us out for the day. The seventy-nine year-old suggests we team up with sheefish expert Rocky McElveen of Alaskan Adventures, located an hour and a half north on the Holtina River.
Author with a respectable Holitna River sheefish
Not long ago, sheefish were valued as subsistence food for Inupiat Eskimos and their sled dogs. Today, the sub-arctic species is considered a premiere sport fish throughout Alaska, ranging from 15 to 50 pounds.
A member of the whitefish family, the sheefish is nicknamed the "Tarpon of the North" due to its silver-scaled streamline shape, elongated head and deep cavernous mouth.
In Alaska, sheefish are anadromous and abundant, particularly in the Holitna River where they arrive every June through October, following schools of Chum and Sockeye salmon from the Bering Sea. But unlike salmon, sheefish continue to feed while navigating upstream to spawn.
Voracious eaters by nature, sheefish gorge themselves on smaller fish, and are attracted to shimmering objects. For those who are inclined to take a sheefish on a fly, like we are, a White River 10-weight rod and CV2 reel with a bright Mylar streamer does the trick. Should the sheefish be foraging near the bottom, seek out the deep channels, slow water and back eddies, and make casual retrieves with sinking lines and baitfish patterns. In the Holitna River, two things are certain: the sheefish are large, and they are plentiful, which makes them a thrill to target.