Alaska Fly Fishing
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The bounty of Alaska is unparalleled in the world. Larger than life would be one way to describe the variety and richness the visiting angler is rewarded by its waters. From the Rainbow Trout and Char opening in the spring, through the onslaught of the various Salmon species throughout the summer, followed again with the Rainbows and Char in the fall, Alaska’s fishing calendar is ever changing. Here are a few of the highlights according to the seasons.
The Steelhead and Coho fishing of southeast through south central Alaska can be epic at the right time. The Situk River outside Yakutat is world renowned for Steelhead in spring (April & May). The Coho fishing on the Tsiu River is absolutely world class in late August thru mid September. Try topwater patterns for a real kick. Some or all of the other four Pacific Salmon species, King, Sockeye, Chum and Pinks flood nearly every river in the state during the summer spawning season.
One of the best ways to experience an Alaskan wilderness adventure is a float trip of five to 10 days on one of several wild, inaccessible rivers. Imagine drifting silently by wildlife seldom seen in its natural environment. Experience fishing so good that nobody will actually believe your fish stories.
But, if it is big Rainbows that truly get you excited, (my personal favorite as well), there is no better place on this planet to find them than the Bristol Bay region, in southwest Alaska. Some of the great rivers include: Naknek, Kvichak, Alagnak, Moraine Creek, Brooks, lower Talarik Creek, Copper River and American Creek.
Pound for pound, there is no other freshwater fish I have found that consistently fights like a hot Rainbow. Now add in the fact that these ŒBows commonly run over ten pounds, it is easy to understand why most guides and resident sport fisherman will prefer chasing Rainbows.
Every avid and novis flyfisher alike owe it to themselves to visit this great land at least once in their lifetime.
Basic Overview of a Fly Fishing Trip to Alaska
My ﬁrst ﬁshing trip to Alaska more than ten years ago got me hooked on the place, and I’ve been back at least once each season ever since. The main attractions Alaska holds for me are the seemingly endless supply of big, wild ﬁsh, the diversity and abundance of wildlife, and the truly remote surroundings — Alaska really is the “Last Frontier.” If you haven’t ﬁshed Alaska yet, you’re missing out on one of the greatest experiences a ﬂy angler can have.
All ﬁve species of Paciﬁc salmon inhabit the coastal waters of Alaska (there’s also a recently-discovered sixth species, a mega-salmon found in only one river in Siberia, but who ﬁshes there?). Paciﬁc salmon are native to the northern Paciﬁc basin, extending from northern California, up the British Columbia coast, and encompassing the entire Paciﬁc and Bering Sea coasts of Alaska south of the arctic circle (plus the Kamchatka Peninsula and other northern coastal areas on the Asian continent).
Paciﬁc salmon hatch from eggs laid in the gravel bottoms of their natal rivers, and live a year or more in freshwater before heading out to sea. Depending upon the species, they spend two or three years in the ocean turning into real ﬁsh, then return to their natal rivers en masse to spawn. Unlike Atlantic salmon and steelhead—which can spawn three or four times over successive years — Paciﬁc salmon spawn only once, in a process that inevitably ends in death.
Most Alaska rivers are home to more than one species of salmon; many rivers hold all ﬁve. Mother Nature, in her wisdom, staggers the runs so that no two species are present in peak numbers in the same river at the same time. Because runs overlap, however, it’s not uncommon to ﬁnd multiple species in the same river concurrently, and if you pick the right river and hit its “magic window” — like the upper Alagnak in the third week of August—you can bag an Alaska Grand Slam: all ﬁve species in a single trip.
In descending order of size, with their nicknames and Alaska state record weights in parentheses, here’s the line-up of Paciﬁc salmon:
- Chinook (“king”—97 lbs. 4 oz., also the world record)
- Chum (“dog”—32 lbs., also the world record)
- Coho (“silver”—26 lbs.)
- Sockeye (“red”—16 lbs.)
- Pink (“humpy”—12 lbs. 9 oz.)
Kings run ﬁrst, usually starting in June, followed in order by reds, dogs, and humpies. Silvers run last, beginning in late July on the south coast extending through October on the lower Peninsula.
A variety of physiological changes begin to take place as soon as Paciﬁc salmon enter fresh water to spawn. Within a few days their bright silver coloration begins to change. Kings turn fire-engine red with black tails (females’ tails turn white from scraping out the redds);sockeyes also change to bright red, but with olive-green heads; silvers morph into a darker shade of red with black backs; humpies change into dull copperbrown livery; and chums develop variegated vertical stripes in muted shades of red, black and green.
Skeletal changes also occur. The males of all species develop pronounced jaw kypes, and chums Chinook Salmon (spawning male), Oncorhynchus tshawytscha Chinook Salmon (female), Oncorhynchus tshawytscha
30 grow four huge canine teeth. Sockeyes develop a signiﬁ cant spinal arch or hump, but it can’t compare with the prehensile hump of the lowly pink.
Each species of Paciﬁc salmon has its unique attributes, but all of them are worthy ﬂy quarry. Due to their size, kings are the hardest salmon to land. And because they favor deeper water, they’re also the hardest to hook. That being said, the ﬁrst Paciﬁc salmon I ever landed was a 60-pound king that ran us a half mile downstream in an hour long battle, every detail of which remains as vivid in my mind today as it was on that beautiful August morning in 1994. That ﬁsh was the third king I hooked that morning—the ﬁrst one parted my half-ass backing knot and made off with my ﬂy line; the second one broke the only 10-weight rod I brought on the trip.
At the other end of the size spectrum is the ubiquitous humpy. Ranging from two pounds (small females) to seven or eight pounds (large males), humpies run every other year—odd-numbered years in some rivers, even-numbered years in others (your outﬁtter can tell you if it’s a “pink year” on the rivers you plan to fish). What humpies lack in size they make for up in numbers—schools of several thousand are not uncommon. They’re also aggressive little suckers that whack ﬂies with abandon.
The second largest of the Paciﬁc salmon, chums average 8 to 14 pounds, with plenty of specimens over 20 pounds. Chums are also aggressive—too much so at times. They are wicked ﬁghters noted for powerful runs that can give you the mother of all line burns and put you into your backing in the blink of an eye. Chums will turn on you when being handled, trying to plant those 3/4-inch canine teeth in your nearside forearm. Chums require your undivided attention at all times.
Except for their two-tone paint schemes, sockeyes are otherwise unremarkable. Legend has it that they are the most difﬁ cult of the ﬁve species to take on a ﬂy, and that blue is the only ﬂy color that really works. Having caught hundreds of sockeyes over the years—not one of them on a blue ﬂy—I discount this legend out of hand. An Alaska legend you can take to the bank, however, holds that brown bears really, really like sockeyes. When the sockeyes run, so do the bears, chasing their favorite food source 30, 40 and even 50 miles upstream. Wherever you ﬁnd concentrations of sockeyes, you’ll also ﬁnd plenty of bears.
And then there’s old Oncorhynchus kisutch, the regal silver, my favorite brand of Pacific salmon. Running virtually neck-and-neck with sockeyes in average size (8 to 12 pounds), very large silvers (over 20 pounds) are more common than many Alaska veterans believe. Most like the Atlantic salmon in its propensity to jump, the silver is the “leaper” of the Paciﬁc. The largest silvers we’ve found are in two small, relatively short rivers: one at Yantarni on the Paciﬁc side of the Peninsula, and another on the Bering Sea side of Unimak Island, the easternmost of the Aleutians. Both rivers offer chrome-bright, green-back silvers just yards from the surf that routinely tip the scales at 20+ pounds.
A great way to break in a new guy is to park him over a couple hundred humpies the ﬁrst morning out—by lunch time he’ll be feeling like an old Alaska hand, professing his desire to move on to the “real salmon.” For the afternoon lesson in humility, ﬁnd him a pod of kings hanging out in the eddy at the downstream end of an island. Rig him up with a big, heavily-weighted, krystal bugger (purple always works) on 20-pound mono with a 4- or 5-foot sink-tip made from Cortland lead core line. Have him cast across the pod upstream of the lead ﬁsh, letting the ﬂy and sink-tip bottom out before starting sharp, 1-foot strips with 2- or 3-second pauses between strips. When he hooks up, as he surely will, tell him to hit the ﬁsh hard a couple of times to set the hook, then just sit back and watch the making of a big-ﬁsh ﬂy angler. After three or four hook ups, he may have learned enough to actually land one!
With salmon so proliﬁc in Alaska, it’s easy to forget that this is also the land of world-record trout. Rainbows, steelhead, arctic char, Dolly Varden, lake trout and grayling are all abundant in Alaska—there are even some cutthroat and brook trout, although their range is very limited.
Rainbows and steelhead are lumped together as a single species in the ofﬁcial Alaska record book, so its not clear which flavor of rainbow the 42 lb. 3 oz. state-and-world-record ﬁsh was. Rainbows are more abundant than steelhead, prospering everywhere salmon are present. These egg-gobbling machines sit in behind spawning salmon, waiting for errant eggs to come their way. While most rainbows are taken on egg patterns bounced along the bottom, many bigger fish are suckers for salmon ﬂies fished down and across, and mouse patterns swum out from the banks in the evening and after dark.
Arctic char and Dolly Varden trout are also two different species frequently lumped together. So similar in appearance that even ﬁsheries biologists are hard pressed to tell them apart, the only deﬁ nitive behavioral difference is that Dollies spawn in rivers, while char spawn in lakes. Both of these strikingly beautiful opportunists are salmon-egg fanatics, sitting in the wings waiting to dart in ahead of larger rainbows to snatch eggs washed out of the redds. Most ﬂy anglers ﬁsh for Dollies with egg patterns, but these ﬁsh will try to gobble up any offering that comes their way, from dry ﬂies to big, ﬂashy salmon ﬂies. While most will be measured in inches, 3- to 6-pound specimens are not uncommon—the Alaska and world record for this abundant ﬁsh is 27 lbs. 6 oz.
Alaska’s dry-ﬂy champ, however, is Thymallus arcticus—the arctic grayling. Abundant everywhere in Alaska except the Southeast, the most remarkable feature of this ﬁsh is its huge, ﬂowing dorsal ﬁn. This slow-growing species—a 12-inch grayling is ﬁve or six years old—spawns in April and May. Grayling will take virtually any dry ﬂy, but they’re complete suckers for a size-12 or -14 hairwing royal coachman (a Royal Wulff with a white hair tail). A 20-inch grayling is a trophy ﬁsh, probably tipping the scales at over four pounds (the state record grayling is 4 lbs. 13 oz.)
The lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush, actually a char) is the largest of all lakedwelling salmonids—the Alaska record ﬁsh was 47 pounds. Slow growing and long lived, the laker’s deeply-forked tail and irregular light spots are its most distinguishing features. Fly anglers can take them on sinking lines and minnow imitations; early and late summer present the best opportunities.
The sheeﬁsh (Stenodus leucichthys) is the world’s largest whiteﬁsh—the Alaska and world record is 53 pounds. Sometimes referred to as “Alaska boneﬁsh” (the big ones being “Alaska tarpon”), this hard-ﬁghting ﬁsh has bright-silver sides with no markings. They can be hooked with egg patterns and bottom-dredging nymphs, and catching a good-sized sheeﬁsh will make you a “compleat” Alaska angler. The very same northern pike found in Canada and the northern United States is present in Alaska. The ever-increasing numbers of this unauthorized transplant are a source of concern for some ﬁsheries managers, but for the rest of us it’s there to enjoy in many Alaska lakes.
Standard pike ﬂies with wire bite guards will take these voracious predators, which can run to 40 pounds—the state record pike is 38 lbs. 8 oz.
Catch & Release
Most ﬂy anglers are strict catch-and-release practitioners, but in Alaska it’s not uncommon to see that rule bent—and in the case of German anglers, who are infamous for killing every ﬁsh they touch, twisted completely beyond recognition. Curiously, many conservation-minded outfitters seem to be “fully booked” whenever a German party inquires, but it still doesn’t hurt to ask who else is going to be in camp during your stay.
The catch-and-kill debate notwithstanding, there’s no getting around the fact that fresh salmon are damned good eating, and even the most sincere proponent of catch-and-release angling can succumb to the temptation to kill a salmon (or two, or three) for table fare. In recognition of this human weakness, and following a short lecture on the importance of catch-and-release in sustaining salmon abundance, we let each new guy choose one injured ﬁsh for dinner. Kings, sockeyes and silvers are the best eating, and pinks aren’t bad. But forget the chums—the nickname “dog” salmon comes from the Eskimos’ disdain for their taste, relegating this species to sled-dog fare—as well as any salmon that has started to change color. And don’t even think about eating a rainbow or steelhead!
There’s really no need for barbed hooks in Alaska. Barbed hooks have to displace more tissue than their barbless counterparts, making them more difﬁcult to drive home in the bony mouths and jaws of spawning salmon. Barbless hooks penetrate quicker and deeper, and as long as you keep sufﬁcient pressure on the ﬁsh they hold just ﬁne. But most importantly, they do far less damage to the ﬁsh—both going in and coming out—increasing the likelihood that it will, in fact, achieve the principal purpose for which it exists—procreation.
Experience may be the best teacher, but we humans generally learn best when the lesson is delivered by a 2×4 between the eyes. The two kings I lost before ﬁnally landing that 60-pounder provided several valuable lessons—between the lost line and the broken rod, about $600 worth—that have served me well wherever I fish. The quickest way to frig up your great Alaska adventure is to show up without the right stuff . . . or not enough of it. There’s no place in the ﬁshing world where gear gets trashed as fast as it does in Alaska, and replacing lost or broken stuff is rarely an option.
In the rod and reel department we consider the minimum kit to include 5-, 8- and 10-weight rods (at least two of each), plus two reels for each line weight, loaded with plenty of backing and floating or sink-tip lines.
Bring plenty of tippet material in every size from 5X to 40 pound, plus a spool of Cortland lead-core line to make up short, loop-on sink tips, with some extra backing and a bottle of Super Glue to seize the loops. Leave all your braided loop connectors at home, and brush up on your big-ﬁsh knots, but keep knotted connections to a minimum (and hit each one of them with a drop of Super Glue for extra insurance).
You’ll go through more flies your first few days in Alaska than you ever thought possible, so bring two or three times the number you would otherwise think necessary. A variety of gaudy, weighted ﬂies in orange, purple, pink and fuscia—including krystal buggers, popsicles, eggsucking leeches and flash ﬂies—will take care of the salmon, while a good selection of egg patterns, from glo-bugs to bead eggs, in a variety of sizes and in various shades of pink, orange and fuscia will keep the big trout happy. Also bring lots of spit shot, ranging in size from small to jumbo, plus a bunch of generic dry ﬂies and attractor patterns for the graying. One pair of breathable waders with a repair kit will probably get you through the week, but backup waders are always a good idea. A waterproof/breathable ﬁshing jacket with hood is a must, as are multiple layers of ﬂeece under-wader and under-jacket garments, plus several pairs of gloves. A full-size multi-tool with pliers, wire cutters, knife blade, ﬁle and screwdriver bits is absolutely indispensable.I almost always bring more stuff than I use, but almost never wind up needing something I left behind.
Bristol Bay water float trips
Expert fly fishing guides for trout and salmon on the premium waters of Alaska’s Upper Kenai River
by Andrew Brunette
Article by Mike Malone
info about the Copper River eco system in PDF format
Listing of Alaska-fishing guides, charters, lodges and resorts broken down by region
Five spots where world-class fishing meets the blacktop (or at least the gravel.)
Broken down by region and species
Articles about each region by Alaska.com
Tired Arms and Stunning Views
Federal subsistence laws grant rural residents priority, but the state says all Alaskans should have equal access to fish and game
by species and region
Listing of guides
a good site providing lots of info on Alaska fishing
Great cyber guide to fly fishing the last frontier
Trout (and marital) bliss on the Upper Kenai
Marine boat fishing is the major angling activity in the Juneau area
Article/Excerpt from Frank amato Publications River Journal
outdoorsdirectory.com: Ketchikan area
find info on king salmon in this region
general info on Alaska outdoors
fish of prime interest include steelhead, King salmon, halibut and coho (silver) salmon
Article on sight casting for King Salmon
check out the best saltwater fishing times in the Sitka
Southcentral Alaska offers the widest variety of saltwater fishing and inland fishing in the state.
What to expect in southeast Alaska
sportfishing the Togiak info in PDF format
Alaska state government fishing info
Forum on fishing Alaska-not all fly fishing
Alaska Fishing Guides and Charters Directory
Fish the creeks and rivers of the upper Matanuska-Susitna Valley and Denali State Park.
purchase Alaska fishing maps
From fellow arm chair anglers
Reports-not necessarily fly fishing
Report Directory broken down by region
Good for when you don’t have online access on your trip
Up to the date water flow reports for Alaska rivers
175 South Franklin Street , Juneau, Alaska 99801 907-586-3754
117 Lower Mill Bay Road, Kodiak, Alaska 99615 907-486-3900
475 Rainbow Ct.Homer, AK, 99603 (907)235-7671
101 Lake Street Ste. B Sitka, Alaska 99835 1-877-747-7301