Discovering Alaska

Discovering Alaska

How to up your odds of angling success in America's last frontier

  • By: Will Rice
I pulled out a well-used topo map the other day, one that covered a remote river in western Alaska. In tiny handwriting the map bears a set of GPS coordinates and a notation made in a spasm of hyperbole-"God's Hole." Hyperbole, certainly, but when I think of fishing in Alaska, it is that long gravel-bottom run that comes to mind. It was flush with spawning king salmon, and behind every pair hung a gang of naave rainbows and arctic char. Our nearest two-legged neighbors were many miles away, and that night we were serenaded by a pack of wolves.Most anglers' dreams of Alaska resemble that wilderness experience. Unfortunately, too many visitors discover another side of the state's fabled fishing. The Russian River, for instance, is Alaska's most popular fishery. It is ostensibly restricted to fly-fishing. But if you arrive at its confluence with the Kenai when the reds are running, you will find yourself standing shoulder-to-shoulder with an eclectic collection of people, most of whom are using rods suitable for tuna fishing to heave crude bucktails and large chunks of lead at hordes of sockeye salmon. Other people may discover that the species they hoped to catch is traveling on a different schedule, leaving the rivers essentially barren. Fishing in Alaska is good, but it is not uniformly good, and without some basic understanding of how it works, the odds of being disappointed go way up. Alaska is not only big, but it spans an incredible distance. The classic demonstration is to overlay a map of the state on a map of the lower 48. The tip of the southeast panhandle would touch Florida, the northernmost point hits Minnesota, and the Aleutians extend into California. Even at high latitudes, that creates a wide range of weather patterns and ecosystems. In addition to geography and weather, there is an unusually large (for freshwater) variety of species that will hit a fly. There are 10 prime flyrod targets that range from grayling, which may go 16 or 17 inches, to king salmon that often exceed 50 pounds. To complicate things further, most of these fish are present, or at least fishable, for only limited periods of time. Miss it by a week, and you're busted. On the other hand, when you are in the right place at the right time, the fishing can be everything that those outfitters' Web sites claim it to be. Rainforest or tundra, there is fishing throughout the state, so let's start with that. GEOGRAPHY: A fly-out lodge in Bristol Bay may epitomize Alaskan fishing, but it is not a trip available to everyone, and there are lots of alternatives. Fishing isn't the only reason for coming to Alaska, but a business trip to Juneau, or visiting relatives in Anchorage, provides plenty of justification to take along a fly rod. Some anglers come looking for large rainbows, or a chance at king salmon. Others want a chance to explore a landscape they will see nowhere else. You can find fishing to fit any of these scenarios if you know where (and when) to look. Each of the areas described here has a different flavor, but all have their charms. Southeast: Alaska's panhandle (Alaskans just call it Southeast) is an archipelago 500 miles long, rich with marine life. Long fjords cut into steep, heavily forested islands, ending in tiny coves with water that is perfectly clear, perfectly calm, the reflections of the surrounding mountains broken only by the disturbance of hundreds of pink salmon milling just beyond the outlet of the their natal stream, the taste of home in their mouths. Humpback whales, sea lions, and bald eagles abound. The Tongass forest of Southeast is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth. The area has a reputation as a great fishery, but that reputation is based primarily on deep-water fishing for salmon and halibut. With the exception of the spring steelhead runs in the Situk River, near Yakutat, there are no real destination streams that entice crowds of fly fishers-and that is much of its charm. There may be no drawing-card rivers, but there are hundreds of small streams that are full of pink and silver salmon, steelhead, sea run cutthroat, and Dolly Varden. There are fishable rivers accessible by road from almost every community in Southeast, and most places have a few water taxis that will drop you off at a stream mouth and pick you up at your convenience. Live-aboard charter boats are another option, anchoring off remote streams, and providing shelter when the rains come. And make no mistake, the rains will come. The Tongass is our northernmost temperate rain forest, and its towering cedars, hung with Spanish moss, provide ample testament to the basic weather pattern. Take rain gear, a 6-weight rod and a sense of adventure, and you will fall in love with Southeast. Locals' favorite trip: Rent a Forest Service cabin at the mouth of a salmon stream. Just make sure you time the run right. Southcentral and the road system: Fishing in the southcentral part of the state is defined by its accessibility. There are campgrounds full of tents and motor homes. Crowds of people, locals and tourists, vie for their share of the abundant runs of king, red and silver salmon. Do not expect to find solitude on any salmon stream touched by the road system that connects Fairbanks, Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula. But if you are willing to go midweek, and walk for 40 minutes or so, you can find uncrowded water for salmon and some excellent trout fishing. For those who are driving, Alaska begins when the Alcan Highway crosses the border from Canada. There is a bit of grayling fishing in those tannin-stained creeks, but it improves substantially in the lakes and outlet streams that border the Denali Highway, a hundred mile gravel road that cuts through the middle of the state to Denali National Park. Try the Tangle Lakes for some delightful dryfly fishing. By the time you reach Denali, the terrain is too high and austere to support much fishing, but as you drop down through the Susitna valley, salmon begin to appear, and with them, large numbers of local residents hoping to put in a winter's meat supply. The crowds can get a little raucous, but the fishing is good, and if you go upstream, there is always the possibility of catching a nice char or rainbow. South of Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula provides the state's primary playground. You can fish saltwater for silvers in Seward, pull sockeyes from the lovely gurgles of the Russian, or look for rainbows in the Swanson Lakes canoe chain. It can be crowded, but a strong herd mentality keeps most people bunched together. Walk a ways, and you can have some great fishing without an audience. The heart of this area is the Kenai River. Its milky turquoise waters are home to the largest salmon in the world, a strain of kings that regularly exceed 60 pounds. For a fly fisherman though, the prime targets are silvers, sockeye, Dollies and rainbows. It is possible to fish it on foot, but a boat will greatly improve your success rate, particularly for trout and dollies. The area's earliest fishing, limited to weekends, begins Memorial Day on the southernmost streams: the Anchor, Deep Creek and Ninilchik. The kings are running, and these are among the few king salmon rivers small enough to fish with a fly rod. The general season begins June 15, about the time the first sockeyes arrive, and salmon are the primary quarry through July. Streams like the Russian, the Kenai and Quartz Creek, offer good fishing for rainbows and char during August and September. If you are driving, don't just follow the crowd. There is some great fishing available if you do a little research on less popular alternatives. However, don't assume that every stream holds fish. Unless it has a salmon run and access to deep over-wintering water, it usually won't support trout or char. There are several guidebooks available that will tell you which streams hold fish. There are inexpensive options to fishing the roadside streams. The Gulkana, the Swanson River Canoe Chain or the Tangle Lakes all provide accessible canoeing or rafting possibilities. There are also short flyout trips that range from easy to difficult. An air taxi out of Anchorage, or one of the other towns, will fly you in for a day's fishing, or a weeklong float. Just make sure they understand that you are looking for fly-fishing water. Deep water and alder-choked banks mean that some of the remote streams are fishable only with gear or bait. A more remote option is to fish the "lost coast" east of Cordova. Big runs of silvers in shallow water provide some great opportunities to skate dry flies for big fish. Locals favorite trip: Float the Kenai in September for big 'bows. Kodiak: Fishing is Kodiak's lifeblood. Its stocks of crab and shrimp, salmon and rockfish make it one of the richest commercial fisheries in the world. And part of that bounty is available to the fly fisher. People wade its gravel-bottom streams for sea run Dollies, float tube its salt-chuck lagoons for silver salmon, and brave the world's largest carnivores for a shot at fall steelhead. Kodiak's image is usually linked to its eponymous bears, but the reason for their size is the myriad of salmon-rich streams that flow from the island's grassy slopes. There is a short road system that provides access from the town of Kodiak to popular river systems like the Buskin, the Olds, and the Pasagshak. All have good runs of silvers, pinks and Dollies. The best fishing is remote, accessible only by boat or plane. The Karluk and Ayakulik are the premier streams, with big runs of king salmon, silvers and steelhead. Other rivers provide excellent opportunities for silvers, sockeyes and dollies. Other islands in the Kodiak group, like Shuyak and Afognak, have their own, little-used fisheries. Much of Kodiak's fishing is focused on silvers, and in some rivers, fall steelhead. Silvers run later here than in most of the state, and the maritime climate keeps the rivers open longer in the fall, so the best fishing (unless you are after kings) is usually September and October. Be forewarned though: the weather in Kodiak is frequently bad, and by autumn, it is usually terrible. Take good gear. Locals favorite trip: Rent a car and explore the road system streams. Southwest Alaska: The Idaho-size area from the tip of the Alaska Peninsula to Kuskokwim Bay has four tiny towns and thousands of miles of the best fishing waters in North America. Tens of millions of sockeye salmon pour into the waters of Bristol Bay and the surrounding areas, creating a food source for rainbow trout that average 20 inches and often run to 30 inches and better. Flyrodders can wear themselves out on king, chum and silver salmon. On many streams, grizzly bears are more prevalent than other fishermen. Given a single choice as to where in Alaska to fish, most fly fishermen would quickly pick one of the many areas in Southwest. There are dozens of truly spectacular rivers here-rivers like the Naknek, Lower Talarik and Kvichak, where a 30-inch rainbow is a real possibility; rivers like the Nushagak or the Alagnak, where you can take 40-pound kings on a fly rod; rivers like the Kanektok or the Goodnews, where you can float from the headwater lake to the ocean, with the only permanent settlement is a small Yu'pik village near the mouth. There are three distinct areas in Southwest-the Alaska Peninsula stretching south, Bristol Bay itself and, to the west, Kuskokwim Bay. The Alaska Peninsula, south of Becharof Lake, and the Aleutian chain to which it connects, divides the cold waters of the Bering Sea from the (relatively) warm flow of the Japanese Current. It is a place of impressive weather. The Peninsula's windswept grasslands provide a backdrop for some of the world's most remote salmon and char fisheries, with large runs of kings, silvers, and in a few rivers, steelhead. There are no rainbows here, but for someone who likes to catch big, tough fish under true wilderness conditions, the Alaska Peninsula will fill the bill. Alaska's signature fishing area is certainly Bristol Bay. This is a land of elegant lodges and omnipresent bears, rivers speckled with spawning sockeyes, and stunning mountain backdrops. It has arguably the best rainbow trout fishing in North America. Sockeyes, kings and silvers are also available. Three large rivers, the Naknek, the Kvichak and the Alagnak, drain its huge lakes. All three offer shots at double-digit rainbows. Sockeyes move into the lakes' small tributary streams and the trout follow them, providing great opportunities for sight fishing. There can be a couple of weeks of good trout fishing just after the season opens on June 8. Salmon dominate midsummer, and coho fishing continues through August. Fishing for rainbows peaks when the sockeyes are spawning and dying-from mid August to October. Farther west, beyond the massive Nushagak drainage and the beautiful Wood River system, are the rivers of Kuskokwim Bay. The Kanektok, the Goodnews and a handful of other lesser-known streams provide an opportunity to drift from their mountain headwaters to the ocean, sampling char, trout and salmon from gravel bar campsites. Far less crowded than Bristol Bay, floating one of these rivers will provide an opportunity to see Alaska untamed. Wolf and bear tracks mark the riverbank mud, and caribou clatter along the ridge tops. For those who prefer more comfort, a few outfitters run riverboats upstream from tent camps situated along the lower stretches. The trout are not as big as Bristol Bay, but they are beautifully marked and deeply spotted, earning the name leopard 'bows. There is good fishing for silvers and kings in most streams. It is possible to do an unguided trip to parts of southwest Alaska. Rafters with wilderness experience can find rivers to float, and there are a few do-it-yourself places that will provide a room and a boat. These are not easy trips, though, and for most people, a lodge or guided float trip is the better option. Prices for Bristol Bay operations run from $2500 to $6500 per week, depending largely on the transportation provided by the outfitter (those elegant old Beavers are an expensive airplane). It is pricey, but if you want to see the Alaskan fishing you dreamed of, this is the place to go. Locals favorite trip: Spend a week floating the Alagnak or the Kanektok. Northwest Alaska and the Arctic: In a Supercub, a plane just big enough for two people and equipped with big "tundra tires," you can fly for hours without seeing a person, following small clearwater streams with visible arctic char the size of steelhead. This is tough country, but the harsh weather has created a flowing beauty. There are few rivers in this vast area that have the reputation to draw any but the very committed, but the pure wildness of the arctic provides sufficient reason to explore it. At these latitudes, there are no rainbows, and the cohos and kings reach only the edges. However, there are arctic char that occasionally reach 20 pounds, sheefish and trophy pike. There are abundant grayling and some big lake trout. Try the tributaries of the Noatak for big char, and the Kobuk drainages for sheefish and pike. Trip tip: Float the spectacular Kongakut for char and grayling and discover why environmental groups are fighting so hard to preserve the pristine nature of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. CAVEATS: It may be stating the obvious, but Alaska is different than other fishing destinations. Here, in no particular order, are a few things to bear in mind if you are planning a trip: Timing and seasons: Everything operates on the salmon's schedule, including fishing for trout and char. Each species arrives at a different time, and the runs vary a bit between drainages. Timing is everything for salmon. The best trout fishing occurs during and after the salmon spawning. Rivers that are predominantly king or chum streams will usually have good trout fishing a few weeks earlier than sockeye streams. There is very little late spring fishing, except for kings. Regulations: Alaska's fishing regulations are the most complex in the country, with almost every major river system subject to different rules. To make it even more confusing, salmon are managed by emergency order, which means that the regulations literally can change day-to-day. Pay attention and always check on the current status of the regs. Weather: The bears get the press and the bugs are bad, but in the end it is the weather that will get you. There may be warm days in mid-summer, particularly inland, and you can get some really snotty storms even in July, but for the most part bring gear that is appropriate for cool, wet weather. August and September are prime fishing months, but the weather really begins to deteriorate. You will want serious raingear (preferably Gore-tex) and pile shirts and jacket. Alaskan Expectations: I go expecting some wet weather, perhaps a high adrenaline moment caused by a bear or other hazard, and a few hours of pure magic. I am rarely disappointed. Delays, inefficiencies and occasional discomfort are routine and just part of the experience. Choose a trip that is within your physical limitations and, if you are not used to walking on uneven terrain, do a couple of cross-country hikes to get the feel of it. Perhaps the best suggestion is to leave your work at the office, accept the fact that there are other fishermen on the river (they weren't there in your fantasies), and appreciate the opportunity to fish one of the most special places on earth. UTIMATE ALASKA The quintessential Alaskan fishing trip is undoubtedly a week at a Bristol Bay fly-out lodge. At a cost of over $6000, though, it is definitely a high-end vacation. Why does it cost so much and what do you get for your money? Purely in the interest of editorial accuracy, I recently spent a few days at Jack Holman's No-See-Um Lodge, one of the oldest and most respected operations in the Bay. After 20 or so years of fishing Bristol Bay by chartering air taxis and sleeping in tents, I was curious if the price difference bought more than a hot shower and someone else's cooking. One thing it buys is flexibility. A very marginal weather report cancelled our opening day flights. Like many of these lodges, No-See-Um is located on the banks of a fine rainbow river. A half-hour run in a boat put us into the braids of the Kvichak, and although the weather was lousy, everyone did well. Those of us who stuck it out through the afternoon rain caught some "nice fish" (the guides apparently don't think anything under 25 inches merits more than just a "nice fish"). We got another lesson the next day when we headed for Moraine Creek, one of my favorite streams. The rain had blown it out, though, so John, our pilot, went through his checklist like a quarterback with no pass rush. We first flew over three rivers that he knew would be running clear. All of them seemed too crowded for him, so he skimmed a few tundra-covered ridges and landed at the headwaters of a tiny stream that I had never seen before. We had it to ourselves, except for a couple of well-mannered bears. This was almost purely sight-fishing, and having a guide for two guests ensured that we were all working actively feeding fish. Although I have spent a lot of time in the somewhat arcane practice of fishing behind spawning salmon, these guys had a few rigging variations that dramatically improved my ability to fool the fish. By the end of the day, we had all surpassed the "nice fish" category. So the fishing is good, but how do fly-out lodges justify the cost? Well, those beautifully maintained old Beavers run about a half million dollars apiece. For 10 or 12 guests, that usually means three planes, plus a fourth used for resupplying the lodge. Most lodges fish 20 to 25 different rivers over the course of the season, and many of those require a boat. Jack keeps over 30 boats and motors pulled up on riverbanks throughout Bristol Bay. Experienced pilots, guides and a top-notch chef are not cheap. Given a four-month season, the economics quickly become obvious. Does that mean that a fly-out lodge is the best bet for everyone with the requisite disposable income? Not necessarily. Many of the streams accessible by plane require a bit of walking over the tundra and some moderately difficult wading. If your idea of a strenuous fishing trip is floating the Bighorn in a drift boat, there are some fine, less expensive lodges that can provide the Alaskan version of that type of experience. Other people may prefer to skate dry flies for silvers, or spend their week chasing king salmon. But if you are looking for rainbows, and have the money and the energy, it would be tough to find a better alternative anywhere.