The flesh-eating rainbows of Alaska

Many places make the dubious claim of being the "sport-fishing capital" of this or that species of game fish, but for trophy rainbow trout there's an obvious champion with no competitor: Alaska. And no billboards making the proclamation are required. Anyway, there aren't many roads where you're going-mostly just paths through the alders made by the largest brown bears on Earth.

Plan your trip for a week anytime from mid-August through September. That's when tens of millions of sockeye salmon, also called "reds," swarm up the rivers of the Bristol Bay region a couple of hundred miles southwest of Anchorage. These smallish salmon-along with several other species, including the aptly named king or chinook salmon-are the nutrient-rich foundation for the one of the planet's greatest wild cycles of life.

In this grand natural scheme, the brightly colored, fine-spotted rainbow trout are bit players. They are camp followers. They swim after and wait behind the spawn-ripe salmon, gorging on countless little orange balls of protein filling excavated clean-gravel pockets and countless more loosely awash in the water column. Some are even herders, boldly chasing spawned-out and dying salmon many times their size for a piece of decaying salmon flesh. Yes, our regal Alaskan rainbow, pride of the species, is a cannibal.

"It's a real spectacle," my friend Mike Mercer said. "Dead and decomposing salmon carcasses provide a final, major, late-season protein-grab for the trout, which rip and tear at these moldy cadavers, picking them clean like so many hyenas at a water buffalo barbecue." Mercer is an international travel specialist with The Fly Shop in Redding, Calif. He has fished all over Alaska for a quarter-century and knows trout in the Last Frontier as well as any angler.

Mercer advised understanding exactly what you're looking for in an Alaskan adventure and then doing your homework. Search Web sites of lodges and work through a reputable booking agent. Ask questions about accommodations, food, guides and the nature and scope of the fishing. Although Alaska is huge-one third the size of the lower 48 states-premium fishing destinations are sometimes narrowly defined. "If a true wilderness experience is important to you," Mercer said, "I wouldn't recommend spending your $6,000 fishing from a jet boat on, say, the Moraine River. Sure, there are lots of big trout there, but you'll be shocked at the floatplane traffic."

If you're new to fly fishing, Mike suggested, try fishing egg patterns in close on a nine-foot rod rated for five-weight line in August on a remote wilderness river such as the upper Nushagak. The scenery is gorgeous. You'll see eagles and bears and other wildlife. And you'll be fishing in solitude over plenty of wild rainbows of one to five pounds. More experienced anglers may wish to target larger rivers such as the Kvichak or Naknek for rainbows as large as a dozen pounds.

"The upsize lake fish start coming in early September and keep running into October," Mercer said. He casts a giant five-inch Flesh Fly on a nine-foot rod with a seven-weight sink-tip and strips back the tan rabbit-hair streamer in long pulls. "The fish aren't as plentiful, but there's always the chance for a 10-pounder," he said. "They're chrome-blue, like steelhead. I love those big Alaskan rainbows!"

Dillingham: 6,400-ft runway
FBO: Alaska Cargo Services, (907) 842-2400

ILiamna: 5,086-ft runway
FBO: Crowley, (907) 571-1278

King Salmon (via Anchorage): 8,501-ft runway
FBOs: Egly Air Haul, 907-246-3554; PenAir, (907) 246-3372

Recommended Lodges:
Egdorf's Nushagak Camps and Royal Coachman Lodge, Dillingham; Rainbow King, Iliamna; Rapids Camp and Royal Wolf, King Salmon

Booking a Trip:
The Fly Shop, 4140 Churn Creek Road, Redding, Calif. 96002, (800) 669-3474,

Background Reading:
Alaska Fishing: The Ultimate Anglers' Guide by Renè Limeres, Gamble at Iliamna by Ted Gerken, Leaving Alaska by Grant Sims, Red Summer by Bill Carter, Top Water: Fly-Fishing Alaska, the Last Frontier by Troy Letherman and Tony Weaver

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