Fly Fishing in Alaska
No angler—especially a first-time visitor—is prepared for the vastness of Alaska. At 371 million acres, the state needs to be broken down by species or by season in order to assemble any sort of meaningful game plan.
Most trips to the state will require a minimum of two flights from the Lower 48, and sometimes three. But when you finally arrive at your destination and begin making those first few casts, you will realize that the $7.2 million we paid the Russians for Alaska in 1867 was the greatest bargain our government ever got.
All five species of Pacific salmon are found in Alaska, along with some of the best rainbow trout fishing in the world. Depending on location, fly fishermen can also expect to find arctic char, Dolly Varden, lake trout, arctic grayling and northern pike, all of which can be caught on a fly from June through September.
We’ll just focus on the salmon and rainbows here.
These mighty fish average between 20 and 25 pounds, with the biggest ones often exceeding the 50-pound mark. Their size alone makes them the region’s most heavily pursued salmon species, with many anglers looking to fill their freezers back home. Kings usually show up in fresh water around the second week of June, giving anglers a large window in which to target them.
One of the best places to fly-fish for kings is at Hoodoo Sport Fishing Lodge (hoodoofishing.com) out on the Alaskan Peninsula, just east of Cold Bay. Few other places in Alaska can match the combination of a small river and big fish that comes together here. On many stretches, it is entirely possible to hook several kings in a day—then return to the lodge with sore arms from those wonderful, head-throbbing battles.
Cohos are the salmon species most willing to hit a surface fly. This trait, along with a tendency toward acrobatics when they’re hooked, has made silvers the most desired salmon for many fly-rodders.
Silvers are by far the most aggressive of the Pacific salmon, with their ferocious nature making them an easy target at times. In the later part of the Alaskan summer, anglers can almost always find fresh silvers just in from the salt—hungry fish eager to eat almost any type of skated surface pattern. If the surface fishing is slow or the fish are simply not looking up, then the best way to target these fish is with large, brightly colored streamers.
There are hundreds of great coho rivers and lodges in Alaska, but one of the best is Bear Bay Lodge (bearbaylodge.com) on Lake Aleknagik, in the Bristol Bay Region. The nearby Nushagak has the largest run of king salmon in Alaska, but come August and September, the “Nush” and Togiak rivers both boast impressive runs of aggressive silvers. Also, as if the beauty of these rivers weren’t enough, the Togiak tends to get a larger strain of silver. So if you’re looking to land a coho bigger than 20 pounds, the Togiak is one of the few places to do it.
By far the most numerous of all the Pacific salmon species, the Alaskan sockeye returns to the rivers and streams each summer by the millions. In southwest Alaska, anglers will see thousands of sockeyes during a week of fishing. This inevitably leads to great debates about whether or not they actually eat flies. While numerous examples support both sides of this argument, most people who have spent time in Alaska believe that sockeyes are not a primary target species.
Since the spawn of sockeyes—generally late June to early August—coincides with many other species’ being in the river, anglers will often target other fish. But if sockeye is what you’re after, head to Brooks Lodge in Katmai National Park (katmailand.com/lodging/brooks.html). Even after you’ve caught rainbows, grayling, northern pike, char and other species found here, sockeyes still give you a legitimate shot at a salmon.
Chum salmon usually run upstream with the kings in most river systems, and they are a great species to target on a fly. When present in strong numbers, chums will readily take a well-presented streamer pattern and give you a tremendous fight, bulldogging up and down the river. As with silvers, you can often enjoy great sight-casting opportunities, along with aggressive chases and explosive strikes.
Averaging 8 to 13 pounds in most systems, chums are exceptional targets on a fly rod, and one of the great places to fish for them is at Alaska Sportsman’s
Lodge (fishasl.com), along the Kvichak River. This lodge is one of the most famous in Alaska, boasting breathtaking views of the Kvichak, some of the world’s biggest rainbow trout and all five species of salmon, including the musclebound chum.