How To Catch Naknek River Rainbows

Naknek River rainbow trout are among the largest and strongest rainbow trout in Alaska. Nanci Morris Lyon has been guiding on the Naknek and other Bristol Bay streams since the 1980s. As such, she’s very familiar with the Naknek’s exceptional rainbow trout fishery. In this video, she describes the gear she uses for Naknek River rainbows, the flies, provides tips on where to fish the Naknek, playing big Naknek rainbows, and discusses how to release big rainbows and the importance of doing so.

Nanci prefers 9- to 10-foot single-hand rods, 7-weight or larger, and two-handed rods 6-weight and up for Naknek River rainbows. Keep in mind that the Naknek is a big river; casting far is often helpful, and often it will be in windy conditions.

Since the Naknek River is large and the rainbows can be gigantic, large arbor fly reels with a smooth drag are recommended. Reels should have plenty of backing and all connections between backing, running line, shooting heads, etc. should be checked prior to your trip.

Most big Naknek River rainbows are caught while fishing sinking-tip fly lines and swinging flies. Most Naknek angers using two-hand rods opt for a Skagit head, and attach the appropriate sink-tip for the conditions. A variety of sink-tip lengths and weights are employed, depending on the run you’re fishing, depth, current speed, and water clarity. It is helpful to have some split shot on hand to help get your fly down if the sink-tip you’re using isn’t quite getting your fly into the zone.

20-pound rainbows are sometimes caught on the Naknek River, so your leader needs to be up to the task. Nanci uses a leader comprised of 1.5’ of 30-pound mono, 1.5’ of 20-pound mono, and a tippet of 12- to 15 inches of 15-pound mono. Her husband, Heath, uses a 2.5’ length of 20-pound clear Maxima for his leader. The fish are generally not leader shy, but they are rather toothy. You want to play them hard so you can bring them to hand in a reasonable amount of time.

Nanci tends to use three different types of flies. They all have a few things in common. First, they’re big. Second, they’re articulated to provide the swimmy movement Naknek River rainbows seem to prefer. Her favorites are a big black leech; sculpin patterns in olive, black or brown or combinations of these colors; and flesh flies. She uses various weights of cones or barbell eyes on these patterns to match the depths she’s trying to fish. For all these flies, she suggests using at least size 2 hooks to ensure a solid hook-up.

Where to find fish on the Naknek River can be a daunting task. Though you can “do-it-yourself,” hiring a guide will greatly shorten the learning curve and get you into fish more quickly. 

Since Naknek River rainbows run large, it’s important to let ‘em run if you want to land them. Keep the line tight, but don’t try to stop them. Keep the pressure on them with a low rod angle, don’t let them rest, and start looking for a spot to land the fish. Work your way to it, then stand your ground and work the fish to you. Ease the fish into soft water to net it. 

Big, Naknek River rainbows are special. It’s important to do the best we can to ensure the fish we land are given the best possible chance of surviving the encounter. Wet your hands before handling the fish. Keep your fingers out of the gills. Support the fish with your hands under its body, cradling it. Keep it in the water until the photographer is ready to snap the picture then lift it a short ways out of the water or partially out of the water. Hold your breath during the photo shoot—the fish will be essentially doing the same if it’s not in the water. Once you’ve got your photos, place the fish with its head pointed into soft current and cradle it until it swims away on its own. If we all take care of these fish, chances are the population will stay healthy.

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