Imagine giant schools of silvers cruising across a sheltered bay to produce surface “V’s” large enough to be made by a pack of seals, migrating reds bouncing off your ankles or kings so plentiful a morning is spent catching-and-releasing 25 pounders. Combine these fishing experiences with the infusion of energy that comes with long summer days, short nights and the mesmerizing brilliance of northern lights and you have summer in Alaska. But who needs sleep when there are fish to be caught?
This article is about the myriad of opportunity for salmon fishing in Alaska and a range of experiences for those of you who have put off a trip to the “last frontier” for far too long. The choices are endless, from bank fishing to guided river trips to 5-star bay-front lodges. At the risk of not doing justice to all possible scenarios, here’s some of what this lower 48 state angler has learned from personal experience over the past 15 years, most of which you won’t find in a glossy brochure or fancy web site. Because financial outlay is always a factor, I have ordered four possible adventures from low to high in terms of cost.
Adventure 1- On your own ($)
A road trip can provide the ultimate adventure if you have the time, do your homework and manage expectations. For example, you will be at the mercy of the weather and likely to experience a high degree of combat fishing. While it’s essential to bring your own gear, plan to pick up pointers (and more gear) along the way.
A relatively easy road trip is to fly to Anchorage, rent a car and camp on the Kenai River where you can take the ferry across to the Russian River to “line” reds. I have friends who do this every year in July. They struggled with method first time out but are now veteran combat fishermen who come back with a box of fresh sockeye salmon filets.
Five years ago, I met my son-in-law Will and friend Bob at the Seattle Airport. We flew to Anchorage, rented a car and drove to Talkeetna on the longest day of the year. The next morning we blasted 7 miles up the Talkeetna River to Clear Creek on Mahay’s Jet Boat Shuttle Service (800-736-2210) where we limited on early-run kings. The rest of the trip was spent bank-fishing with congenial locals on Willow Creek and the Little Susitna River. We saw northern lights and came home with a box of fish.
Equally memorable was a road trip taken with my teenage son Matt to the Anchor River (Kenai Penninsula) where we camped for 3 days in early September. The first two days were spent drifting roe for mint-bright coho just in from tidewater and hiding from the rain in our small tent. The third day involved casting spinners for coho from Homer Spit with the weekend crowd. Besides what we spent for gas, rental car, campground fees and food, the biggest splurge was a $4 shower at a gas station/laundromat. We flew home with only four salmon and too few photos, but as my son said, “It’s hard to capture the moment.”
Adventure 2- Meet up with a guide someplace ($$)
Sometimes you might only have a day to steal away. Either from a business trip or during a family vacation, in which case you can easily buy a guide for all or part of a day. Think of it as renting a boat and gear with a personal chauffer knowledgeable in techniques and locale. There is a huge advantage to fishing out of a boat, particularly on the Kenai River where bank access is limited. This scenario has worked to my advantage several times. For example, I have fly-fished beads under a corkie for trophy rainbows, “walked the dog” using fresh roe for silvers and, just this year, “lined” for reds with yarn flies on a 3/0 hook.
The Kenai is an easy travel destination, approximately 2 hours from Anchorage. This large glacial-fed stream is considered to be three main sections: upper, middle and lower with powerboat use limited to the lower 50 miles. It’s not difficult finding a guide once you figure out what kind of experience you want. Alaska has a plethora of licensed guides (See http://www.alaskafishing.com/guides to find one by region. Many guides from Oregon, Washington and Idaho go “north to Alaska” every summer. Ask around. Find someone who has tried a trip that sounds interesting and get a recommendation. Plan to spend $175 to $200 for a 4 to 6 hr guided trip and up to $300 for 8 to 10 hr trips.
Adventure 3- Stay at a lodge that provides one or more meals and a boat ($$$)
The beauty of this scenario is having a base to fish when you want, how you want and where you want. Doing so does require more than average knowledge (i.e., pick the right time) and skill (i.e., having the right tackle). Still, this experience provides more of a sense of adventure and satisfying fishing experience than watching someone bait your hook.
I experienced a successful version of this adventure recently. Four of us rented a 1-room cabin having four single beds, a full kitchen, a bathroom with shower and a chest freezer. To get there we took a float plan from Ketchikan to Thorne Bay (ProMech Air; 800-860-3845) on Prince of Wales Island. A friend met us at the dock and drove us to Whale Pass. We fished in a shallow bay for silvers returning to a terminal hatchery having no problem filling our 6 fish per day bag limit.
The price for this self-guided trip at Flyquest Adventure Lodge (818-212-7580) in 2013 was $165 per day. It included a 3-course dinner, 14 ft skiff with motor and crab pots. Similar priced packages providing opportunity for salmon, steelhead and halibut are available at several other communities on the Island. After adding up airfare, food, gas and libations, my total cost was about $400 per day.
Adventure 4- Full Meal Deal ($$$$)
The ultimate adventure might be to stay at a fully- guided lodge having some or all meals provided. As an example, consider the following amenities advertised by The Lodge at Whale Pass: “elegantly rustic and inspired compound, gourmet dining, spa treatments, massage, yoga, hot tub and sauna”. Sound luxurious? You bet! Adventures of this type start at around $1000 per day (not including airfare and tips). This might be the one to save up for taking your wife along if for no other reason you can fish past dark with a clear conscience while your wife visits the spa.
I experienced a modest “two meal deal” (i.e., breakfast and lunch included; dinner on your own) adventure at a small bay front lodge in Sitka one June. We tagged out on 20 to 30 lb kings every day with mooching gear then went offshore for “barn door” halibut. Need I mention that I worked so hard at catching fish that I needed a massage (and got one) on Day 4? The cost for this trip (anglingunlimited.com) was about $2300 for a 3 day, 4-night trip (not including airfare) with discounted rates available for early/late season and large groups.
When to fish is the million-dollar question. In general, here’s the Alaska Salmon and Steelhead Calendar for inshore waters:
Pinks and Chums: July-August
And by all means, don’t forget about rainbows, Dolly Varden and Arctic grayling, also available in Alaskan streams and lakes most of the year.
However, as for any fishing trip, the devil is in the detail. Every river has a run or two of salmon that returns at a fairly predictable time. It is imperative you check ADFG Division of Sport Fish web sites for specific info on run timing and regulations in your region of interest. Find out when peak run timing occurs before you book your flight and reserve a place to stay. The last thing you want to hear is “They should be in any day now”, or, “You should have been here last week.”
Planning Your Trip
One place to start would be with a copy of The MILEPOST. This 800-page trip planner and travel guide is updated annually with info on lodging, recreation, roads and services along the Alaska Highway and within Alaska, Northwest Territories and Canadian Provinces. Consider that getting to many locations requires a floatplane after landing at a major airport. Other areas might be accessible only via a regional ferry or jet boat.
By all means, get on the Internet to research your adventure. I have found the Plan It Alaska and ADF&G Recreational Fishing Series quite informative. Most reputable outfits also have a website. However, do not believe everything you read. Make a list of questions and ask them twice. Consider the overall cost of airfare, lodging, food, gear and rental car. How much time does it take to get there and back? How much time you will spend fishing versus riding in a boat or driving (i.e., Is significant run time involved or are you 5 minutes from fishing?) Are their facilities for processing, freezing and shipping your catch?
Check airline schedules carefully (and updates) to make sure you can get from one place to another without sitting on a hard bench all day or getting stranded overnight. Also factor a day on either end of your fishing trip for travel. Thus, a 4-night trip will take 5 to 6 days (Break the news to your wife on that part after she agrees to the 4-night trip), yielding only 3 days on the water. Once your schedule is fixed, buy your license on-line from the ADF&G website.
Regional sportsman shows also provide a great opportunity to talk to lodge and guide outfits face-to-face. But do your homework before signing on the bottom line! Don’t be enamored by smiling blondes and photos of 60 lb salmon. Check cancellation policies and calculate all costs.
Consider bringing three rods of which one should be a fly rod. For my last trip, I packed a 7-weight fly rod with sink tip and floating line, a medium-heavy bait-casting rod and reel and a light-weight spinning outfit. I managed to get all three rods in a 5-in diameter tube that I carried on the plane. Alternatively, invest in a travel case holding multiple rods and reels. Worst case is you have an excuse to use it again (and again). My reels, fishing gear and stocking foot waders were stuffed into a larger checked bag. Note that felt wading soles are not allowed in Alaska.
Expect to be harassed by biting insects while on the water, not limited to mosquitoes, black flies and midges. Insect repellent is essential to any trip to Alaska. Long-sleeved shirts, rain gear, a hat and netting may also be required to combat these overzealous pests.
Hopefully, you will come home with fish to brag about. Fish boxes, over a range of sizes from 10 to 50 lb capacity, are readily available to ship catch home. You will, however, have to pay $20-25 per box as checked luggage, (and potentially multiple times) if traveling via a floatplane. The best way to manage your catch is to filet and freeze all fish prior to shipment. Hard frozen filets will keep up to 24 hrs in a fish box. You can also ship fish with dry ice or blue ice where available (but not crushed ice). While passing out factory-canned salmon caught in Alaska to relatives at Christmas may sound great, you will come out ahead buying canned salmon at Costco.
It’s no stretch to say Alaska’s rugged landscape operates on a grand scale with fishery resources easily an order of magnitude larger than those found in the lower 48 states. To capture the experience, do you camp, stay in a no-tell motel, or live it up in a fancy lodge? Do you hire a guide or do it on your own? In the end, it comes down to how much you are willing to spend and what you hope to get out of the trip. No matter which venue you choose, however, each visit to Alaska reminds me of what a wilderness adventure can be. Bringing back a cooler full of fish is merely frosting on the cake.