Leopard rainbows and what's what
Southwest Alaska Native trout
There are a lot of subspecies of trout in The United States of Amerrrrrca and we are so blessed to have some amazing public access out there! The Kanektok and Goodnews Rivers in Southwest Alaska's Togiak National Wildlife Refuge are both public streams that only require the logistics and outdoor prowess to access. For us as a commercial operator - as the Outfitter - we are privileged to be one of less than 10 outfitters in the entire wilderness system who possess a permit to operate on these cherished waters.
Within this refuge exists some of the largest spawning grounds for Sockeye Salmon known to humans - and this habitat is able to sustain an INCREDIBLE population of rainbow trout. More specifically a variant of Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) known as a Leopard Rainbow Trout. These Rainbows would most closely be related to the most specifically pure genetic strain of trout from the original landmass that would have been Russia and Alaska. Nothing to do with any of the lower 48 rainbows...
Obviously the "leopard" is referring to the spots. The pictures do none of these prizes justice; not only for the colors but for those spots.....they're everywhere! They're in their mouths, deep in their throats, all over the gills and inside the gill rakers - saturated in their branchiostegal rays (more on that), across their eyes and all the way to the tips of their tails. They truly are a specific variant that is easily identifiable in person especially.
Leopard Rainbows are also identified by some of their other physical traits - if you notice in the above two shots specifically there are quite large "jowls" much like the ones reserved for Foghorn Leghorn or lifetime politicians. This jaw pocket is usually seen on larger browns in our tailwater systems here in the Southeastern United States - but these rainbows in Alaska definitely develop quite the mouthful!
This pocket and obvious physical difference with "normal" rainbows is probably due to their protein intake. These leopards are just like their Serengeti counterparts - they ain't eating flies to get that big - they're eating MEAT! These residents of the woods spend their Spring migrating amongst the ice breaks to find their spawning partners along with feeding voraciously on the forage within. Juvenile rainbows, various smolt from all the migratory species, multiple species of sculpin, and 7 species of rodents make up their "early season" diet before the salmon start to show up in big numbers. All of these menu items require a predatory behavior and tools - hence the bigger stature and jaws.
Combine this diet with an incredibly short growing period (less than 5 months) and you get a trout that is genetically designed to grow grow grow! Once the salmon start to move in the leopard's diet starts to transition to another source of protein in the salmon eggs. Once the salmon are done spawning and they are dying in the river system at an incredible rate the leopards then transition to ANOTHER source of protein in the rotten flesh of the dying salmon. It may sound strange but it is a sight to behold! 10,000 trout a mile for 100 miles feeding on all that forage and eggs plus the very visual aspect of mouse and flesh fishing is magnificent. It truly is a fly anglers paradise!
The State of Alaska tagged over 200 leopard rainbows within the Kanektok River system and radio-surveyed them up until as recently as 2009. The initial data suggests that these trout are not only "resident" / they barely go in to the ocean and when they do they were studied to go to the very next watershed in The Arolik (and in most cases actually returned to the Kanektok) so scientifically they would not be considered a "sea run" species. The scientist team really wanted to see what the migratory habits of the trout were and they essentially uncovered the fact that there are SO MANY rainbows that they have subdivided the varaint species. This results in not only a Leopard Rainbow - but an "Upper River Kanektok Leopard Rainbow Trout" and a "Lower River Kanektok Leopard Rainbow Trout." The trout after ice out essentially find their Summer stomping grounds / some go up some go down and some stay in the middle. The most dense portion of the population being in the "middle" (20 miles from the lake to 20 miles to the Ocean).
In our experience it seems that the bigger older more colored up trout end up eventually checking the lake out they go so high up the system. Combine that with the mega population in the middle to lower river and the opportunities we have in The Refuge that other outfitters do not have is incredible. All of the pictures in this blog post were taken INSIDE the refuge.
We consider ourselves to be Rainbow Hunters - a skill and trade that was passed down to us from previous outfitters and guides who became as addicted as we are to the passionate pursuit of these leopards!
We have some open slots on the Goodnews River in 2022. We are currently booked on the Kanektok River until 2023. The time to book your dream leopard rainbow trout trip is NOW! We can lock you in on 2021 rates that will not change... These 2023 dates will be filled by the end of this Summer. With over 85% return rate our guests who get to experience it this year will most likely fill those slots -
Our team of seasoned guides can show anyone at any skill level this majestic place and we look forward to sharing it with you!
Give us a call at (828) 386-6216
Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Or swing by our shop in Downtown Boone at Boone's Fly Shop