Rainbow River Lodge

Reviewed by Scott Richmond

My first experience with Rainbow River Lodge was in 2006 when nine of us did a one-week self-guided raft trip down American Creek. The lodge provided the rafts, camping gear, and air transportation.

We didn't stay at the lodge, but we made a quick stop there and got a tour, followed by a great lunch. The facilities--tastefully appointed log cabins with heat, lights, running water, hot showers, flush toilets, and comfy beds--were reminders of what we wouldn't have for the next week as we camped on the river. My next thought was, "My wife would like staying here." My second thought, "I'd like it too!"

So I vowed to return someday. Three years later, I fulfilled that vow. And guess what? My wife liked it a lot. And so did I.

Location, Location, Location

Rainbow River Lodge is on the Katmai Peninsula, near Lake Iliamna. Iliamna is a huge freshwater lake that is the engine powering so much of the fishing in Alaska's Bristol Bay.

Scores of rivers flow into Iliamna, and several more exit the lake and run to Bristol Bay. Sockeye salmon return to the tributary rivers in massive numbers, then spawn and die. Their fry hatch in the spring and drop into Iliamna for rearing. They head for the ocean when they reach smolt size. Other salmon are also in the rivers, but the sockeye are the dominant salmon species.

Rainbow trout and char (dolly varden) thrive on a diet of sockeye fry, sockeye flesh, and sockeye eggs, as well as a few insect species. Rainbow River Lodge is on a lake that is connected via a slough to the Copper River, the first catch-and-release trophy trout river in Alaska. Plus, it is in prime position to reach many of the area's other rivers.

Facilities

Facilities include log cabins that sleep two to four people each, plus a main dining lodge. Overall, the lodge can accommodate up to 12 guests. All the buildings are of recent construction and top-notch quality. A generator supplies electricity 24-hours a day. The guest cabins have TV and VCR, and the lodge has internet access.

Breakfast is served buffet style, lunches are prepared for on-the-water eating, and dinner can include anything from crab to steak to halibut. Every meal was excellent.

The cleaning and serving staff were quietly efficient. The lodge has 15 people on the staff, which means there's more than one staff person for every visitor.

Owner/manager/pilot Chad Hewitt stays all summer, and his wife and two young daughters are with him. This gives the lodge a homey, family feel that is quite pleasant. I know my wife appreciated it, as did the other female guests.

Guides

Guides can make or break a trip to Alaska. If the guides don't know their stuff, then your experience will be less than ideal regardless of how great the facilities are. I found Rainbow River's guides to be outstanding. More importantly, so did my wife, Barbara, who doesn't fly fish very often. She knocked off two hours early the first day, but after that she fished all day every day. I attribute that enthusiasm to the excellent guide staff. Of course it helped that she was catching lots of big trout.

There is one guide for every two anglers. All the guides have several years of experience in Alaska. This is a major advantage. Some lodges recruit a bunch of young guys, many of whom don't come back for a second year. That means you can be the guinea pig for some whippersnapper's first year of on-the-job-training. But all of Rainbow River's guides were very experienced, both in Alaska and with the lodge. They knew their stuff and were patient, personable, good teachers, knowledgeable about the fisheries. I couldn't have asked for anything better.

I especially appreciated the good care the guides took of the trout, and their respect for the fishery. There are lodges where guides are encouraged to grab a spawning sockeye and spill the eggs to chum-up some trout. You'll find none of that among Rainbow River's staff.

I also found the guide staff to be very willing to make sure we got the kind of fishing we wanted. The first day, after a full day of trout fishing, my guide took me out on the local lake for a couple more hours of pike fishing because I'd never caught a pike before. And he found me some fish.

Services

Rainbow River Lodge maintains two De Havilland Beavers for fly-out fishing. Each plane accommodates up to six anglers and guides. In addition there are several jet boats; some are at the lodge and some are scattered around at other rivers.

The lodge also has several rafts. One day, Barbara and I were flown to a small lake, where a raft was unloaded and pumped up. Then we floated out to the river and had a great float with many fish. The only other company we had was a large grizzly bear that we passed on one stretch.

The mix of plane/jet boat/raft means you have many options for fishing. If there are too many people at one spot, take the raft down the river or fly to another location. If it's too windy for flying, you can take a jet boat up the Copper River.

That's a major advantage for Rainbow River Lodge. Some lodges rely on their airplanes to get you to the fishing, and if the weather's bad you end up spending the day in the lodge playing cribbage--and you're not getting a refund for bad weather days!

Fishing

Fishing depends on the season. You can always get rainbow trout that average 17-18 inches, with many bigger. Salmon are available depending on the season. Except for sockeye, all the salmon fishing is fly-out. And there are pike close by--in front of the lodge, if that's close enough for you! Grayling are another option for a fly-out day.

The season begins in mid-June with rainbow trout fishing; at this time, the trout are taking sockeye fry and small lamprey eels. By late June/early July, king salmon and sockeye become available in some rivers, and the trout are receptive to dry flies. August/early September is time for silver salmon; by late August, most trout are focused on sockeye salmon eggs.

The Bottom Line

There are three ways to use Rainbow River Lodge's services:

  1. Stay at the lodge (most expensive)
  2. Guided one-week river float-and-camp (medium price)
  3. Self-guided one-week float-and-camp (lowest price)

I've now taken advantage of two of those services, and I recommend them to anyone seeking a quality fly-fishing experience in Alaska.

That's not just my opinion. My wife had a great time, too. Let me tell you, there are lodges up here that are just aren't suited to most women--lodges where forty guys sit around boozing it up every night, smoking cigars, and telling dirty jokes. Some people like that kind of a fishing trip. I don't, and Barbara really doesn't.

There were two other couples during our week. One couple was from Colorado. This was their eighth Alaska lodge trip but their first to Rainbow River. They agreed that Rainbow River was the best experience they'd had.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).