Rainbow trout are heading down from the Naknek Lake into the river to spawn, and a handful of fishermen from around Alaska are taking advantage of this short fishery.
Ice crunches as Heath Lyon, co-owner of Bear Trail Lodge in King Salmon, directs the launch of a jon boat off the ice shelf that lines the Naknek River. The ice covering the river broke up in late March, just in time to get in some trout fishing before the river’s spawning grounds are closed to angling April 10 through June 7.
The bow of the boat rises into the air. Ropes tie it to a truck that is backing slowly toward the river. As the stern touches open water, the boat stands at a 45-degree angle to the ice shelf. The fishermen ease it off the 18-inch ice ledge, and it enters the water with barely a splash.
Space is limited as the Bear Trail Lodge takes four to six guests a day on the river for a fishery that lasts about 10 to 14 days. To give more people a chance, the lodge limits trips to three or four days. Nanci Morris Lyon, Heath’s wife and the other owner of the Bear Trail Lodge, says that once anglers get a shot at this trip, they usually rebook their dates right away for the next year. It’s been five years since they have had any turnover.
“This fishery gives people the opportunity to fish over pre-spawn rainbows that are migrating out of Naknek Lake down into Naknek River to spawn,” says Morris Lyon. “The only rainbow trout in these waters of Alaska that spawn are very, very large.”
Mark Huber is a retired corporate finance professional from Anchorage. He has fished for spring rainbow trout with the Lyons for more than a decade. It is the prized trout lurking beneath the surface that often top 30 inches that keep him coming back.
“They’re beautiful,” says Huber. “They’re big, and they’re trophy rainbows that Alaska’s known for and the Naknek is known for. There’s nothing like them in the world.”
The five fishermen split between three boats, each with a guide. They have a long day in front of them.
“You’ll fish down through a run on the river,” explains Huber. “It could be anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours or three hours in some of the bigger runs. We’ll finish through that and then jump back in the boat and go to another location. We may fish three, four, or five different spots over the course of a day.”
The Naknek is low and skinny, walled in on both sides by ice shelves, evidence that just a few weeks ago, it was completely iced over. Heath Lyon is guiding Young So, a painter who lives in Anchorage. So sits in the bow of the boat. Lyon navigates the boulders, and after ten minutes, he kills the motor. He and So hop out. As they wade the river, the water rises past their knees.
So moves into deeper water, and, with smooth motions, casts his line far ahead of him. It sweeps down river. Chunks of ice float by as he waits. So slowly walks down river, recasting every now and then.
Twenty minutes go by before his rod begins to bend. Lyon scoops the rainbow up gently in a net, and they measure it. Coming in at 27 inches, this one is not the fish So is after. He is aiming for one over 30 inches.
Over the course of the day, over three different fishing spots, So catches upwards of a dozen trout. It isn’t until 5:30 p.m. that he gets his big break, a 32-incher.
Lyon takes So’s picture to put on the wall with the other guests who have caught trophy sized fish this year. This one, like all the rest, slips back into the current.
The day goes long. The party takes advantage of the late sunset and stays on the water until about 9 p.m. Mark Huber didn’t catch of the biggest fish of day, but he is happy with the ones he did land.
“They’re just the most gorgeous fish,” he says, laughing. “I call them prom dates. You catch them, and you admire them. Then you let them go. They’re hard to come by like prom dates too. It was quite a day to be on the river.”
Soon thousands of fishermen from around the world will descend on this and the many nearby rivers. But on this day the group from Bear Trail Lodge and a handful of local guides are the only ones the only ones fishing the Naknek along with the bald eagles and mergansers.
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