Alaskan Trout Spey

It is no secret that Alaska produces some enormous Rainbow trout. Their size – and attitude – are often compared to European brown trout and are sometimes even confused with their ocean-run relatives. 

Usually, in the large river systems of the Kenai and Naknek, resident rainbow trout are confused with steelhead because these are rivers where everyone is hunting the elusive 30-inch rainbow trout! The theory is that these particular rainbow trout do not need to venture out to the hazardous ocean to grow into dominant river predators. There is enough salmon biomass to provide for a fat and happy year-round population of fish. 

Click to read ‘It’s All Trout Spey” to learn a growing body of scientific literature means for managing and pursuing both resident AND anadromous trout and how exactly one PNW-based conservation group is taking action. Photo courtesy John McMillan

Both of those rivers are also connected to large lakes where these freshwater trout can safely over-winter over feed on the millions of salmon fry that inhabit the lakes during the winter months, before switching to eggs and salmon flesh for the rest of the year. This isn’t to say that rainbow trout WON’T eat other things. Every year, some of the largest fish are caught on a patiently swung rabbit strip leech. 

Not always, but generally, in Alaska, rivers where steelhead are recognized are often smaller, more intimate fisheries. These rivers usually close at certain times of the year to protect the steelhead. A large rainbow trout, which can reach as much as 10-20 pounds, has often been hooked more than once before. They jump, bulldog, scrape their faces along the gravel bottom all to try and dislodge your hook and there is some controversy over which fish fights harder: an extra large rainbow trout or an average steelhead. 

Conversations of fishing rainbow trout in Alaska usually revolves around custom-painted beads or McFly Foam for tying glo-bugs. Fishing beads is as easy as matching the hatch, however, trout spey seems to be increasing in popularity and for good reason. 

During the “egg season,” trout lay behind spawning salmon and gorge on eggs bouncing downstream with the current. There are even stories of impatient trout and Dolly Varden smashing into salmon hens’ bellies to induce the egg drop. After the salmon spawn and die off, the trout feed on their flesh, and this is where trout speyers shine. Methodically swinging flesh flies, tapping the bottom of the river, can fool even the oldest smartest rainbow trout. A large, slow-moving meal that will not try and get away seems too hard for a hungry trout to pass up. The swing is very meticulous, and ensuring a straight swing is very important to the success of the flesh-swinging trout spey aficionado. 

Spey casting is a great option in the spring, while Alaskan rivers run high;  tannin-stained and darkened by winter silt buildup. As the willows begin to bud, Alaskan rainbow trout retreat to only the deepest, slowest waters preparing for their spawning season followed shortly by the smolt migration. Still thawing after a long winter, they require a slow presentation in the mornings but as the water warms in the afternoon, a sped-up swing can do the trick. Casting gently to the rhythm of the river, the trout spey produces a poem all its own. Accurate casting and precise presentations with short Skagit lines create a more tactical trout spey. Landing flies tight to cut banks to swing under an overhanging brush or skating a mouse along an overhanging log will often raise a semi-frozen Alaskan rainbow trout. 

Some anglers have been spey casting their way around Alaska for years and for others, it is a brand-new and exciting endeavor. It seems to be a natural progression for fly anglers as other, time-tested tactics become redundant, and we find new ways to spend our time and money. 

Sure, the single-hand 7-weight remains the jack-of-all-trades, the “Alaskan workhorse” of fly rods, 5-weight switch rods are becoming increasingly popular and for good reason. Anglers are realizing the versatility of the spey cast and the extra reach an 11-foot (or more) rod provides. It’s a fact – the spey cast has been fully adopted and modified to fit the needs of the Alaskan trout angler.

All photos by Oliver Ancans. You can see more of Ancans photography by following him: @olleyeh