Alaska's Talkeetna River
By Jerry M. Wylie
A cold wind spilled off Sovereign Mountain that day. Chilled by the mountain’s mighty glaciers, the wind followed the valleys of Iron Creek and Sheep River to the Talkeetna, rippling the river’s silty glacial waters and moaning through the tops of tall cottonwoods. I lay in my warm sleeping bag and listened for the sound of rain on the tent. But the patter of rain did not come so I arose.
I unzipped the tent door, stepped into the chilly morning air and walked into a stand of willows to watch the river rush by. Any prudent piscator would have returned to the shelter of the tent and the warm sleeping bag, but I was here to fish and I would. A vibrant crescendo of class IV rapids less than a hundred yards distant spoke of violence on the water, but a thick stand of cottonwoods, birch, and spruce protected the channel where I planned to fish and the water there flowed unmolested by the valley’s air currents.
I could have waited to fish, for time was of no significance today, or tomorrow, nor the next day. I carried a harvest ticket for moose and a fishing license, so if I grew tired of fishing I could pursue North America’s largest ungulate. Camp was on a smooth sandy shore of the Talkeetna, between Iron Creek and Sheep River. The setup was warm and dry and I had a week to do as I pleased. Today I would fish. I built a fire, made breakfast, and then headed for the stream.
Thigh-deep water flowed through the slough, and although the water was tinted with glacial silt, I could see the forms of many salmon building redds and depositing eggs. The salmon were a mixture of pinks, chums, and a few silvers. An occasional flash of silver in the midst of the salmon revealed the presence of a feeding char, grayling, or rainbow trout. These latter were my target today and any one of the three would be okay by me.
I had contracted with Steve Mahay, owner of Mahay’s Riverboat Service in the town of Talkeetna, to drop my wife, son, and me off in this magnificent wilderness setting. Steve had suggested Mepps spinners in size one and two for the char and grayling so I rigged my ultralight spinning outfit with a size one Mepps and made my first cast. I am always optimistic about fishing and expected with the number of fish I’d seen this would be a snap. Three casts later the snap came! I hooked solidly to the dorsal fin of a hefty chum that didn’t like the feel of the hook. It made a dash for the main channel and immediately snapped my 6-pound test line. My spinner was now taking a free ride on the dorsal fin a chum. A disappointing introduction to the morning’s fishing on the Talkeetna but things did improve.
Undaunted I rigged another spinner and soon felt the headshake of a two-pound Dolly Varden on the end of my line. Throughout the day fish after fish attacked the small spinners. Most of the fish were char but several grayling and a few nice rainbow trout in the two to four-pound class were also landed. This was a typical day of fishing the Talkeetna in autumn, but spring and summer also offer great fishing on this river.
Once you leave the town of Talkeetna, camping is in unimproved areas. A few lodges and cabins have sprung up over the past twenty years but there is still room for camping along the shores of this 85-mile-long river. If you make it past Clear Creek, the area is practically wilderness. In early spring and late fall you may camp for days without seeing another human being. During the September combination hunting and fishing trip, six days passed before we saw another human. Then two moose hunters came down the river and stopped for a few minutes of chat.
I love the opportunity to escape society for a few days of solitude but what I love most about the Talkeetna is its fishing. Whether I am fly-fishing or spin-fishing I can always count on some action there. That is why I choose the Talkeetna in spring. When the ice starts breaking up and the days lengthen to about ten hours my longing for the taste of fresh fish and the need to cast a line provokes me to action. That’s when I make a call to one of the outfitters providing drop-off fishing on the Talkeetna River.
Outfitters usually offer several choices for drop-off fishing and I listen to their advice on where and how to fish. One early spring Mahay’s dropped my son Tony and I off on a rocky bar near the water gauging station. Snow and ice still covered much of the river’s shoreline but the fishing was good. I brought both a mini spin outfit and a one-weight fly rod. The one-weight wasn’t heavy enough to handle Woolly Buggers and alevin patterns so I started the day using small nymphs. After a long fishless period I hooked and released one small grayling then abandoned the fly rod for my mini-spin rigged with a size 1 spinner. The action picked up immediately. Over the next few hours I landed several nice 14 to 18-inch char. Most of my fish were released but I killed a couple of smaller fish for dinner. On a later spring morning I fished the same run with a 6-weight fly rod and cast purple Woolly Buggers with good success on Dolly Varden char.
Summer brings the salmon runs. Mid-June to early July is usually a good time to go for kings and sockeye. If you don’t mind sharing the water with others, Clear Creek, a clearwater tributary stream about ten river miles above the village is a great fishing destination. This is a good place to catch all of the Pacific salmon, rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, Arctic grayling, and an occasional whitefish.
On a recent two-day outing in early June my stepson Rob Biehl and I fished the Talkeetna drainage in the Clear Creek area and enjoyed some fine fishing. The mainstem was very fast and turbid but some feeder steams and sloughs were clearer. On our first day we landed several Dolly Varden in the two to three-pound range, several grayling, and a few rainbow trout up to 18 inches.
I was using a 5-weight rod and it worked great until I hooked something big. The big fish jumped twice and flashed silver in the bright sunlight. I thought I had hooked a huge Dolly Varden and managed to turn it into slow water after a couple of minutes. The fish made three runs in the slow water and I thought it was tiring when suddenly it made another sizzling run that took it into the fast moving midstream current. The fish headed downstream in the fast water and the 5-weight didn’t have the backbone to turn it. With all my line and half my backing out, the fly pulled loose and I didn’t lose any equipment. I suspected I had hooked an early-arriving sockeye.
About mid-morning of day two after connecting with Dolly Varden, rainbow trout, and whitefish Rob hooked and landed a nice sockeye confirming our suspicions.
I have caught several king salmon near the confluence of Clear Creek. Being there at the right time is critical to catching the salmon and precise dates are nearly impossible to predict. One late June day I went there with my brother Bob and his son-in-law, who were visiting from Georgia. We camped at the confluence and fished for one full evening and an entire day, landing only one small jack king between the three of us. On another late June trip to the same place my son Tony, friends Joe Rollins, Jim Stockman, and Joe’s son Robbie and I limited out with five kings in just a few hours of fishing.
If you are interested in silvers, pinks, and chums, late summer and early autumn is the time to go. The Clear Creek confluence is usually crowded but upriver from the confluence there are numerous side channels and sloughs to the mainstem that provide some good action for these salmon. On even-numbered years the pinks jam some of the side channels so heavily that it is nearly impossible to cast without touching a fish on your retrieve. Silvers often pile up in eddies and sloughs to rest on their journey. These areas are where I concentrate my casting when fishing for silvers.
Sockeye fishing is difficult but if you find a good run and concentrate on shoals and riffles while the fish are moving up you will probably find success.
The Talkeetna is born in the mountain range of the same name. It is not much of a river in its beginning. Small streams of melting snow and ice trickling off the face of the Talkeetna Glacier join in mass at the base and start the river’s flow. From there it flows through valleys and over flats, braiding itself around wooded islands, gaining always in volume and speed until it becomes a broad, tumultuous river pushing relentlessly over a bed strewn with log jams, rocks, and gravel.
Rapids occur frequently during its 85-mile course and some are in the class III and IV category. The river swells during the melting season and then falls during freeze up. During the thaw the river carries tons of glacial silt causing the river’s color to become dingy brown. Navigating the Talkeetna is not easy. Without a jet unit on your boat it is nearly impossible. In the braids it is easy to take the wrong channel and find yourself in big trouble. I know from first-hand experience.
The river is usually open and ice-free by early May. Fishing starts as soon as the ice is out and continues until freeze up. The months of June, July, and August provide the best fishing for the salmon runs. If you are after the sockeye or king salmon, time your trip to be on the river in late June and/or early July. Pinks, chums and silvers hit the river in August and continue into mid-September. Pink and chum salmon runs are larger in even-numbered years.
Rainbows, Dolly Varden and Arctic grayling are available from ice-out until freeze-up. These three species may be found throughout the Talkeetna but grayling are more numerous in the middle and upper reaches.
The silt-laden Talkeetna doesn't look like it would be a major source for anadromous fishes but it is. The Talkeetna and its tributaries annually host thousands of all five species of Pacific salmon. Chinook, silver, sockeye, chum, and pink salmon all spawn in the Talkeetna system. The Talkeetna also has some great Arctic grayling, Dolly Varden, and rainbow trout fishing.
There are dining and lodging facilities available in the city of Talkeetna. Unimproved camping is permitted along the river but users are encouraged to camp in previously used areas to maintain the wilderness setting.
Except for the lower end of the river just above its confluence with the big Susitna River, the Talkeetna can only be accessed via boat, floatplane, or hiking. The exceptions are a private road and a public trail that heads up on the north end of an unimproved road on the east side of the Talkeetna Airport. It is a rough three-mile hike into the gauging station and the river has high banks and difficult approaches in that area.
Grayling are fun to catch on lightweight gear and a rod of 1 to 3-weight is suitable for most grayling fishing. Rainbows, Dolly Varden and pink salmon can be landed on lighter rods but I prefer a 4 to 6-weight if I am targeting them with flies and a mini-spin outfit if I am using spinners. Most of the fish I catch are Dolly Varden in the 10 to 20-inch category with an occasional larger fish. The rainbow trout and grayling I hook can also be handled with a 4-weight.
For the sockeye and silvers I use an 8-weight and for kings a 9-weight. For the most part fish in the Talkeetna are not leader shy and any leader and tippet combination appropriate for the rod weight can be used. The early spring fish are not leader shy and I usually use a 2X or 3X leader tippet.
Useful Fly Patterns and Lures
My fly box will contain a variety of streamers (including white, black, and purple Woolly Buggers), some Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear patterns in size 12 and 14, and at least a dozen alevin patterns. Any black stone pattern, including the Bitch Creek or Montana Stone are effective, as are Girdle Bug, Prince Nymph, Zug Bug, and Insult. For dry-fly action try Royal Wulff, Adams, Pale Morning Duns, Hairwing Caddis, and Griffith’s Gnat, matching the hatch where appropriate. May and early June fishers should take along some patterns to imitate alevin and smolt. Alevin patterns and streamers like the Mickey Finn, Woolly Bugger, and Muddler Minnow work well. Autumn fishers should have some egg patterns in their box. Glo-bugs, Iliamna Pinkies, and Battle Creek flies are all effective.
For char, trout and grayling I like size zero and one Mepps and Vibrax spinners. When targeting smaller salmon I use size two and larger spinners or 5/8-ounce Pixie spoons. For king salmon I use heavy Pixies or Spin-N-Glos. Sockeyes seldom hit spinners or spoons and a bucktail streamer fly tied on a size six heavy hook is my choice for that species.
The Talkeetna is a glacial river and does not host a lot of insect life. There are midges and mosquitoes hatched in sloughs, and the clear streams that feed into the Talkeetna have mayfly, stonefly, and caddisfly hatches on warm days from May through September. Clear Creek and Fish Creek can provide some hot action with dry flies at times.
The Talkeetna is a cold-water stream and it remains cold throughout the summer. Early in the season I wear heavy neoprene waders and heavy socks. As the water warms in August I usually switch to lightweight waders but still wear the heavy socks. Like any Alaska stream, bring plenty of fresh water or a means to purify water and lots of insect repellant and/or head nets for the mosquitoes. Rain can come during any month in Alaska so be prepared with good raingear. Spring and fall have some hard chill mornings and layered clothing is recommended. A GPS and a handheld radio or cell phone are also nice to have.
Wolves, bears, moose, and caribou utilize the habitat along the banks of the Talkeetna, as do bald eagles, gulls, and many other birds. Beavers and river otters are often spotted in the river or along the banks. Of all the animals, moose and beavers are the most often seen.
Jerry M. Wylie is a regular contributor to Fish Alaska. His last feature, on Alaska’s grayling, was published in the November 2004 issue.