Fishing For Alaska Rainbow Trout

Alaska Rainbow Trout

Alaska Rainbow Trout Fishing

The rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), is one of the most sought-after of all Alaska’s native sport fish. Serious anglers from the world over are drawn to fishing for Alaska rainbow trout. To experience the thrill of challenging the hard-fighting Alaska trout in pristine wilderness waters.

Rainbow trout occur as both freshwater residents and sea-run or anadromous rainbow trout. Sea-run rainbows are known as steelhead trout. Steelhead trout are much larger from feeding at sea and can put up a mean fight in the small streams they return to to spawn.

Rainbow trout are native to waters throughout Southeast Alaska then west to the Kuskokwim Bay. Rainbows can be found as far up the Kuskokwim as Sleetmute Alaska. The clearwater lakes and streams draining into Bristol Bay provide outstanding trout habitat. I was fortunate to spend several summers in Iliamna Alaska fishing the Newhalen river for big rainbow trout that live in Iliamna lake all winter growing large.

Rainbow trout occur naturally on the Kenai Peninsula, throughout the fresh waters of Upper Cook Inlet, on Kodiak Island, and in the Copper River drainage. Release of hatchery-reared Alaska rainbow trout has extended the range of resident rainbows to specific lakes and streams in the Tanana River drainage near Fairbanks. I caught my first rainbow trout on the Kenai River. It was feeding on something drifting down the river for 2 hours, but I couldn’t see what the rainbow was feeding on, so I tried every fly I had. I finally chose the right one and tied on a Griffiths Gnat and the Kenai River rainbow slurped it in on the first drift. I had some great times fishing the Kenai peninsula.

Markings of the Alaska Rainbow Trout  

Rainbow trout possess a streamlined salmonid form. Though body shape and coloration vary widely. These traits are reflected by habitat, gender and the age of the trout. The body shape may range from slender to thick. The back may shade from blue-green to olive. There’s a red or pinkish stripe along each side of the rainbow trout. It runs along the sides about the midline and ranges from faint to bright and radiant. The lower sides of the body are silver then fade to pure white on its belly. Small black spots dot the back. These dots are above the lateral line and on the upper fins and tail. 

In some locations, the black spots of adults may extend well below the lateral line and can even cover the entire lower side of the body. Rainbow trout are identified by 8 to 12 rays in the anal fin. A mouth that does not extend past the back of the eye, and the lack of teeth at the base of the trout’s tongue. River rainbows usually display a more intense pink or red stripe and the heaviest spotting than rainbow trout that live in lakes or a combination lake and stream life. Spawning trout will take on a brighter coloration but also will darken creating a beautiful look to an already beautiful fish.

Life of the Rainbow Trout in Alaska 

During late winter or early spring, with rising water temperatures, the adult rainbow trout will seek out shallow riffles with gravel within the clearwater stream. Spawning takes place anywhere from March through early July. This is dependent upon the location of the trout and how bad the winter has been. The female uses her tail to prepare a nest that is 4 to 10 inches deep and 12 to 15 inches in diameter. From 300 to 8,000 eggs are deposited in the nest then fertilized by a male. The nest is carefully covered with gravel to protect the redd to incubate the eggs.

Hatching takes place from a few weeks to as many as four months after the spawning ritual takes place. This is determined by the water temperature. Tiny trout fry emerge from the gravel alone to fend for themselves. Upon emergence, the small trout assemble in groups and seek shelter along the stream edge or lake shore. They feed on crustaceans, small plant material, and tiny aquatic insects and larvae. Rainbow trout fry live where they are born for the first two or three years then they move into deeper water of lakes and streams. In the deeper water the trout turn to a diet of fish, decomposing salmon flesh, salmon eggs. Once the trout are big enough they will even eat small mammals along the shoreline like shrews and mice.

Age of sexual maturity will vary between such factors as the density of the population where they live, the productivity of the aquatic environment or availability of food, and the genetics of the area rainbow trout. In the wild, females and male rainbows will mature around 6 years old. However, some have been found to be mature at 3 or 4 years of age due to these circumstances. These factors also determine spawning frequency which can be annual to once every three years. There have been rainbow trout found to be spawning at 11 years of age.

Fishing for Rainbow Trout in Alaska 

Fishing success is typically greatest in late spring after spawning and fall. Rainbow trout are aggressive feeders and strong swimmers willing to hit a wide variety of lures, baits, and flies. Weighted spinners, wobbling spoons, and bait, such as salmon roe or shrimp, are the angler’s choice when using conventional gear. In some of the larger rivers, plug fishing has become popular because it can be an effective method to fish deep fast water that is not easily fished by other methods.

When fishing for rainbow trout in big waters like lakes and rivers, baitcasting gear can be great to use. However, when angling in small creeks and streams, throughout the Alaska range, spinning gear is a must for the short accurate casts that are needed to get your lure or bait to the trout.

Fly Fishing for Alaska Rainbow Trout 

Fly fishers find that streamers, muddlers, and egg patterns fished near the bottom work well. Numerous patterns in a variety of colors will work. In some of Alaska’s clear water rivers during mid-summer, traditional dry flies such as various stone and caddis fly imitations often produce good catches. While salmon are spawning fly fishing enthusiasts employ egg patterns to enjoy what many consider to provide the best rainbow trout fishing of the year.

Alaska manages rainbow trout fisheries for the health of the species and for a diversity of recreational angling experiences. Wild trout are abundant over most of their range, but daily bag limits and size limits are conservative. Artificial lure-only regulations are used to reduce mortality from angling, and heavily fished waters are often closed to trout fishing during the spawning period. This further protects the rainbow trout during this vulnerable time. Specific trout waters have been designated catch and release trophy trout waters. They have maximum size limits to help enhance the quality of the fishing experience or preserve an abundance of large fish.

Probably the most fun way to fly fish for Alaska Rainbow Trout is by waking a mouse pattern across the surface. Mice find their way into the water more often than you might think and a big Alaska rainbow trout can’t refuse a protein-packed meal like a fat little mouse. Don’t expect the little rainbows to chase a mouse. While you can get a few smaller rainbow trout with a mouse pattern, more time than not it will be a big one.

Working the shoreline is the most effective presentation. Get your mouse up close to the bank and let it drift along as close as possible. If a mouse falls into the water it will be near shore and big rainbows know this. Rainbow trout have excellent eyesight and will travel a good distance to gobble a mouse. However, keep in mind that they do have a narrow window of vision check out this great article about a trout’s window of vision. Keeping this in mind your drift needs to be within this window of vision for the trout to see your mouse fly. This is why keeping your mouse fly close to shore, when fishing for Alaska rainbow trout, will get you more strikes because the trout that are hugging the shore will have an even smaller window of vision overall and it gets smaller as the water depth decreases.

Big rainbow trout in Alaska don’t swim around chasing everything that moves as the smaller trout do. Big trout will hug the shore, especially on those bright sunny days, and they will stick to some sort of cover when available. Of course, there are times that you might catch big Alaska rainbows in open water. Usually, this is only because there is no cover available where they are finding plenty of food. In Alaska food is the primary concern after the spawn. With the narrow seasonal opportunity to fatten up for the winter.

Alaska rainbow trout will move a great distance to take a fly, especially something as healthy as a mouse. You have to get the mouse into the trout’s window of vision and unless it is in a great spot and gorging on some type of hatch that’s going on or a lot of salmon eggs drifting downstream, it will come and get your mouse fly.

Covering water is key to fishing for Alaska rainbow trout when using the mouse pattern in Alaska. While Alaska is home to many large rainbows they aren’t behind every log or in every run. If you present your mouse with a good drift along the shoreline and allow for the waking swing at the end then move on to the next spot. Covering water is the best way to raise several big rainbow trout in a day. If you focus too long on a likely-looking run and there isn’t a rainbow either willing or big enough to take your mouse then you are truly wasting your time.

A big Alaska rainbow trout will move on a mouse if it needs it. If he has a full belly and a good amount of food coming to him it will not expend the energy to chase it. A trout knows when it needs to expend energy and when it is better off sitting in a pool getting fat on whatever else is in the drainage. Keep moving with this pattern and you will rise more strikes throughout the day for sure. Fishing for Alaska rainbow trout with a mouse is one of the most exciting way to catch rainbows in Alaska.

Catch and Release Rainbow Trout

Because of conservative regulations on many Alaska waters, anglers should practice catch and release so they live to fight again. When gently released this will help maintain a healthy and fishable population of Alaska rainbow trout.

Tips on Catch and Release for Trout

  • Land trout quickly if possible.
  • Handle fish gently while supporting the head and tail.
  • Keep trout in the water when possible.
  • Keep fingers away from gills.
  • Carefully remove the hook.
  • Revive trout by moving it gently back and forth in the water before releasing it.

Where And How To Fish For Alaska Rainbow Trout

The Alaska rainbow trout swim naturally throughout Alaska and offer the angler many options in which to choose. The many clearwater streams and lakes provide the perfect habitat for both wild and hatchery trout alike. There are many stocked lakes in Alaska that provide excellent opportunities to catch bragging size rainbows. More times than not you just might have the lake to yourself. Some of these areas are catch and release so check the regs for verification. The rainbow trout is one of the most sought-after sport fishes in the world and attracts serious anglers from around the globe. The attractions are obvious if you’ve ever had the privilege to tangle with one and witness its raw power and undeniable beauty. To many anglers, the rainbow remains one of the most majestic sport fish in which to pursue.

Early spring means warmer water and the awakening of the trout from its long winter nap. They will slowly make their way into shallower water to prepare for spawning. It’s at this time that the rainbow trout devours any morsel of food that comes near it. I don’t have to say this is a great time to be on the water.

The Alaska rainbow trout becomes very active. When water temps hit a range of between 52 and 60 degrees the Alaska rainbow trout begin to dazzle anglers and spectators alike with their arm-numbing runs and spectacular aerial displays. This time frame could range from mid-April to mid-June. When the water temperature reaches a certain level the female will fan her tail to clean away sediment. This creates a nest of clean gravel. An Alaska rainbow trout redd can be from 4 to 12 inches in depth and 9 to 16 inches in diameter. The female may deposit anywhere from 700 to 7,000 eggs. The male rainbow trout fertilizes the eggs and covers them with gravel. They remain unattended from a few weeks to four months depending on the weather that season.

The newly hatched fry emerges from the gravel and seek stream debris or protected lake shores for shelter. There, they will remain, for two to three years, feeding on plant materials, small insects, and their larvae. Finally, the few that survive the move to more open areas to feed on much larger prey. This prey can range from small fish and insects to rodents that find themselves in the rainbow trout’s feeding lane.

Fishing for Alaska rainbow trout is awesome and the reason it is among the top-rated sport fish in the world today. Alaska Fish and Game do their best to protect and preserve this much sought-after species with conservative bag limits. Catch and release and closures during peak spawning protects the Alaska rainbow trout. If your intentions are to eat an Alaska rainbow trout please consider a stocked lake in the area. There’s usually more fish and they are often easier to catch, fight just as hard and taste just as good. It is imperative to release native rainbow trout. I hope you will agree. This gives generations to come a chance to see one of God’s true gifts to us all.

Marabou Muddler For Alaska Rainbow Trout

marabou muddler
Marabou Muddler circa 2003. Ken McBroom

The Muddler Minnow was first created by Don Gapen of Anoka, Minnesota in 1937. The muddler minnow was created to imitate the sculpin. wikipedia  The difference between a Muddler Minnow and the Marabou Muddler Minnow is the material used in the wing. It’s tied using sections of turkey feathers for the wing. While this wing contributes to the silhouette of the fly, it doesn’t add to the action of the pattern. The wing of the Marabou Muddler, however, gives this fly lots of pulsating, life-like action.

The Marabou Muddler has another great benefit. The thing that led me to tie the Marabou Muddler over the standard Muddler Minnow was the fact that the fly seemed to give you a split second longer to set the hook. Before the trout could spit it out. The marabou will stick in the fish’s teeth making it difficult to spit out.

I noticed this while fishing for Coho salmon. I could see the Coho spit out a slick fly or even a metal Daredevil spoon without any trouble. However, when using a marabou fly I saw the Coho trying to spit the fly out of its mouth. However, it would get stuck in its teeth because of the fluffy feathers. It gave me time to set the hook. These observances were made in shallow clear water. I watched to see how a Coho engulfed the fly or spoon in the many logjams in Southeast Alaska. I made a note and have never used turkey feathers since. It has a  slick texture and Marabou works as well or better for what I use them for.

I always used this fly in lakes while float tubing in Alaska. It is a great imitator of both surface insects as well as subsurface minnows. Fishing the muddler slowly will allow it to sink just under the surface. Fishing it fast will let it ride high on the surface. Applying a dab of fly floatant will make this fly a dry fly. When twitched on the surface it can create explosive strikes from below. The marabou pulsates ever so gently in the water and can trigger strikes even while it is just sitting motionless so let it rest a few seconds if that’s what the trout wants. Experiment with retrieves for the one that the trout are looking for that day or even that hour.

I spent my last day in Alaska one summer on my favorite rainbow trout lake and they were not biting. The rainbows refused to strike. Not a single rise. I was fishing my marabou muddler exclusively because it had worked so well throughout the season. I might have got some bites if I’d tied on a bead-headed woolly bugger or black manuka. These had been my go-to flies during ice-out, but I’m stubborn and I wanted my last day to be with the muddler because I love the strikes that it produces.

I covered every inch of this lake, finding myself in the back corner of the lake. This was water I had never fished before. Only because I had never made it that far back in my float tube. There was never a need. I always caught plenty of trout in the front section of the lake. I was enjoying the calm day in my float tube even with the lack of trout activity. Floating peacefully in my float tube, I enjoyed my summer sausage and smoked oysters with crackers as I waited. There was also a couple of Alaskan Ambers in the side pocket to wash it down. While enjoying my lunch I turned while in this back corner of the lake and there was Denali Mountain in the distance. It seemed to be just a mile away in all its glory.

I had fished on this lake, that’s actually more than 60 miles from Denali Mountain, for several years and never knew it was even visible from the lake. Imagine my surprise. Now the mountain is not visible all the time from any distance. I have had friends and family visit me in Alaska and never see Denali. It has to be clear not only where you are but also at the elevation of the mountain or you can’t see it. This day was special. It was crystal clear all the way to the mountain 60 miles away and it was spectacular. Just as I noticed Denali in the distance the wind began to blow and I put away my lunch and began casting to the newly found pocket in the back of this great Alaska lake.

Not to get overly dramatic, but the next several hours in my float tube were nothing short of amazing. The trout had been laying low all day, and the days are long. It had been at least 12 hours on this lake without a bite when this happened. The rainbow trout were annihilating my marabou muddler. Every cast was interrupted with a strike. The water was clear. The sun was casting the perfect light on a perfect ending to another great summer in Alaska.

The only thing I wish I had done in my younger days in Alaska was to take more photos. By far this fly is my favorite. Partly because of this day, but also because of many other days too. The marabou muddler was a part of many other memorable Alaska rainbow trout experiences.

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About Ken McBroom 216 Articles
Ken McBroom is an accomplished outdoor writer and photographer. Growing up in Lynchburg Tennessee allowed him many opportunities afield as a boy and young man. Later in life, after Desert Storm, Ken’s wanderlust took him to Alaska to live and work and experience the last frontier. Married now with two beautiful children, Ken now calls Kentucky home where he continues to communicate our American outdoor traditions and the lifestyle it offers.

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