Into the Wild

Into the Wild

A fall float for Alaska’s leopard rainbows.

  • By: Grant Wiswell

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Into The Wild

A fall float for Alaska’s leopard rainbows.



There’s a moment during any do-it-yourself trip when you have to wonder, Am I ready for this? I asked just that as a floatplane that delivered me and a few friends into the remote Alaska landscape disappeared over the horizon. That’s when the reality of our adventure hit me—for six days we would have to be self sufficient while searching for big leopard rainbows on the upper Copper River, near Bristol Bay.

This was no straightforward wilderness float trip, because the river forced us to make two portages with hundreds of pounds of gear. Fortunately, the second falls, which drops about 30 feet, conveniently concentrated trout and salmon. With no clock-watching pilots keeping to a schedule, and with the ability to start as early in the day as we chose and fish as late as we cared, we followed our whims and caught big, wild rainbows to sizes you almost had to see to believe.



by Grant Wiswell


Fly Rod & Reel’s Angling Adventures 2013


September and October are my favorite months to fish for big rainbows in the Bristol Bay drainage. The cool, unpredictable weather discourages the faint of heart, leaving uncrowded rivers for adventuresome anglers. More important, this is the big-trout time of the year. Rainbows that pass the summer months in deep lakes now enter rivers to feast on salmon carcasses and eggs. If you are looking for a 30-inch leopard ’bow, unequivocally, late season is the time to go.

Bristol Bay’s rivers would be nearly sterile if it weren’t for sockeye salmon. Sockeye are anadromous, meaning they feed in the fertile ocean and then transport that energy back to Bristol Bay’s nutrient-poor streams. Their eggs and flesh provide the high-caloric diet that big rainbow trout require. While flesh flies and streamers brought fish to hand, we caught more high-flying rainbows by closely matching natural eggs with our painted-bead imitations. 




A DIY float is not the time to be lazy with camp chores. Bristol Bay is brown bear country—food must be kept in locked boxes, and dishes and utensils cleaned and stored properly. Each night we heard big bruins walking through camp, but our diligence paid off.

Because setting up and breaking down camp is a major chore, we camped at a central location and hiked up- or downstream each day to find fish. Mornings were chilly and the nights were star-laden.




DIY float trips are not easy to coordinate, but the rewards can be great. The rainbows we found on the Copper were big and beautiful, and marked with the classic “leopard” coloration. If you want to set up a DIY or fully guided float of your own, contact Alaska Rafting Adventures at, or Rainbow River Lodge at