A Pilgrim's Guide to Deshka Kings
By Dan Bonney
You’ve probably already tried all the bank-fishing options for kings, hopefully with a little bit of success. But the only choices for inexpensive freshwater kings near Anchorage are in Ship Creek and during the weekend openings along the Parks Highway at Willow, Caswell, Sheep and Montana creeks. Easy access always means shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, especially when the run is in. Since none of these streams are monitored during the season, you are on your own figuring out run-timing and strength.
If you have access to a boat, pretty much any powered boat, the next logical step in your pursuit of freshwater kings should be the Deshka. While success rates vary with each year’s run, the Deshka provides a great location to avoid the hordes of bank fishermen and improve your chances of success for a high-quality chrome-bright king at reasonable cost.
Where to Go
The Deshka is one of the few fishable tributaries that feeds the Susitna from its west bank. A boat is required but a major multi-day expedition is unnecessary. The easiest access is from the Deshka Landing boat launch just north of the Willow town center. From Anchorage your road time will be about an hour and 20 minutes heading north on the Glenn and then the Parks Highway. Turn left off the Parks at the sign for the Willow State Recreation Site and then watch for a paved road to the left that will take you to the dead-end at Deshka Landing after a few more miles. Access to parking and the launch are gated but accessible 24 hours a day during the season. The landing charges a $30 daily fee for parking and launching. You pick up a ticket at the automated gate on entry and pay with a credit card when you exit.
Once launched, the run down the Susitna to the Deshka confluence is pretty straightforward. The trip downstream takes about 20 minutes, even with a small skiff with a 20 hp prop motor. But there are several areas that can be very shallow, less than two feet. If you stay close to the high bluffs and follow the undercut banks you will find the deeper channels. The most hazardous spots are where you have to go from the east- to west sides to pick up the outside of a curve. If you are new to the area the best bet is to follow another boat down the first few trips. When you see the cabin on the bluff dead-ahead you’ll know you’re almost there.
The final turn into the Deshka beaches several boats every year. Stick to the main channel of the Susitna until you get close to the bluff and then make a sharp turn north into the Deshka—don’t cut the corner. And make sure your motor is not locked down in case you get too shallow or bump a drifting log.
A jet motor makes the trip down easier and faster but it’s not required as long as you are content to fish within the first couple of miles of the confluence. Most folks fish in this area rather than upstream, even if they have the capability to go farther. The fishing at the confluence seems to be more productive without the extra effort of heading upstream. If you plan to fish upstream from the confluence, a jet is required since water depths dip down to less than two feet.
If you want to avoid the early-morning run up the Parks or to stay for more than a day there are campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis on the finger at the east side of the confluence. The Mat-Su Borough also maintains a few portalets, docking areas and fish-cleaning stations as long as they have the funding to do so. Don’t forget its June, near the water, in the woods with nearby marshy areas; that means mosquitoes . . . lots of them. On the water they usually seem bearable but on shore don’t forget the bug juice.
When to Go
Unique among the Susitna tributaries, the state operates a counting weir on the Deshka. Once it’s operating in late May, you can look at the fish counts and decide when to go. But the weir is located about seven miles upstream, probably two or three fish-travel days, from the confluence. When the peak hits the weir, most fish are already gone from the confluence. In an average year, a few fish will wander in as early as mid-May, but the best fishing at the confluence usually occurs sometime between the first and third week of June. With only two or three weekends in the window, it can feel like naval combat, so escape on a weekday if you can.
The state regulations and emergency orders for the Deshka change from year to year depending on run strength, but normally the Deshka is open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. The most productive time to fish is at the daily 6 a.m. opening. You want to be anchored up near the confluence and ready to go to maximize your chances for a relatively quick king. So if you plan your day-trip from Anchorage, you’ll leave town at about 3:30 a.m., get to the launch around 5 a.m. and get your spot at about 5:30. While traffic on the Glenn and Parks will be pretty sparse, you can bet that anyone you see is heading the same place you are.
Where to Fish
Most fishing at the Deshka occurs within a mile of the confluence with the Susitna. Once you turn north from the Susitna the water will remain opaque for about a quarter of a mile and then you will see the tannic-stained water of the Deshka mixing in. You can productively fish anywhere north of this visual line.
The Deshka is somewhat unique among king spots. The water is heavily stained, with very slow current and no deep channels that are obvious holding or travel lanes for kings. For the first mile or two, the depth only varies from about eight- to 12 feet. While everyone who has fished there before has a favorite spot to anchor up, it really doesn’t appear to make much difference where exactly you put the boat. Make sure you have an anchor onboard and a second anchor to hold your orientation is a good idea, even if it’s just a cement block on 20 feet of cord. Given the lack of current and channels, the kings seem to just mill around near the mouth, generally spread across the relatively flat and sandy bottom. Snags and obstructions are few and there is no obvious hotspot that screams “fish here.”
If you fish near the mouth, you should position your boat anywhere you have enough room to make long casts without crossing or fouling anyone else’s lines. As boats arrive in the early morning, you will see most locals circling and lining up in the middle of the river somewhere near the stairs leading to Mike and Mertz’s lodge on the western bluff. As long as you are in the mudless tannic water somewhere close to the mouth your chances will be equal to everyone else.
If you have a jet motor and wish to avoid the hordes of boats down at the mouth you can head upstream and search for a productive-looking spot. About two miles north of the confluence, the Deshka picks up a bit of velocity while losing both depth and width. There are few obstacles other than numerous shallow runs to navigate. Upstream the best spots to fish are the most obvious: outside bends of the river and the occasional deeper channel. Unfortunately, the Deshka is not wide and in most places there is only a single navigable lane for jet boats to move upstream. If you try to anchor up or back-troll anywhere upstream you will likely only invoke the ire of those attempting to head farther upstream.
How to Fish
Given the relatively calm water and casting requirements at Deshka, you may be tempted to go with a light setup. But the most common way to lose a fish is when it wraps around someone’s anchor line or motor. With the number of boats fishing the confluence this is very possible.
A medium-heavy spinning- or casting rod with 17- to 25-pound-test mono is about right; light enough to cast all day but enough to hopefully control the movement of the fish. The margin of safety of slightly heavier line may allow an anchor line-wrapped fish to be recovered with a bit of luck and skill.
Since you will be making long casts with many others, I would avoid the super-limp braided lines that are a royal pain to get untangled when you inevitably cross lines with other pilgrims. Perhaps due to the stained water color, the kings don’t seem to worry much about line visibility. I like to use a high-visibility line so my neighbors can see where I’m casting and where the fish is going. Hopefully, they can avoid casting over me or lift their anchor if a fish decides to visit them. And don’t forget a net that can handle a king up to a maximum of 50 pounds.
You likely will not catch a king that size but it is possible. The average size of Deshka kings seems to have gone down over the last few years from an average of 30 pounds to 20- to 25 pounds. On occasion you may see or catch a serious fish over 40 pounds, but most believe that the larger fish are not returning to the Deshka. It is possible that they may be early scouts enroute to streams farther up the Susitna just poking their noses into the first available clear water.
Terminal tackle will depend on what methods are allowed and which you choose to use. If the run is strong enough, bait, cured salmon roe, may be allowed. If so, it is probably the most effective method. With little current, you can float your bait down about seven feet under a bobber or rig to drift just a couple feet above the bottom. A three-foot leader above an ounce weight with a corky or Spin-n-Glo, to float the bait up just a bit off the bottom, should do the trick. If you are fishing bait, position your boat so you have enough room to put your bait halfway between you and the boat downstream.
At least in recent years the runs have not been strong enough to allow bait, so you need to resort to chucking hardware. At the confluence, the water depth is an almost constant eight- to 10 feet, so as long as you can get your lures down at least six feet you will be in the king’s target zone near the bottom. The Blue Fox Vibrax rigged with a single hook in size 5 or 6 seems to be the most productive and you’ll see almost everyone using them if bait is not allowed. The most productive color seems to vary quite a bit but it usually comes down to what most people are using. Some believe bright colors on overcast days, and darker colors in bright sunlight, works best. If everyone sees the first fish caught on neon yellow, lots of people switch to that.
Honestly, I don’t see much difference in the catch rates between colors as long as there is some flash in the blade and you fish it within a couple feet of the bottom. To maximize your odds make your cast to vacant water, take out the slack and count to four to let the spinner drift to the bottom; then retrieve very slowly, just fast enough to keep the blade spinning, keeping it near the bottom. Often the take is very subtle, feeling almost like your lure is starting to float towards your boat or up to the surface. SET THE HOOK!
The other popular and productive piece of hardware to chuck is almost any version of single siwash-hooked Wiggle Wart or hot shots. Since the larger sizes ‘swim’ at about eight feet, a standard, relatively fast retrieve will put the hook in the target zone. For some reason, the kings tend to be more aggressive here and nothing more than a good, solid hook-set is required.
With the relatively uniform and snag-free bottom, trolling your hardware can also work. As long as you’re going slow enough to keep your lures down, divers are unnecessary. If you decide to troll you probably want to stay a bit farther upstream from the confluence. Trolling through the gaggle of boats where everyone is casting hardware in all directions is not the best way to win lots of friends on the river.
About two miles up from the confluence at the rivers first bend to the east, the river becomes more of a classic stream. If you have a jet you can access this area, but there is generally only one lane for boat traffic to pass, not enough space to sit in the deepest channel and back-bounce or back-troll. If you fish upstream, the approved method is generally to beach your boat on the shallow inside of a curve and cast across the likely-looking deeper channel that is along the outside bank.
Arriving at the confluence before the scheduled opening, you will likely see a few kings roll while you wait for 6 a.m. Once the casting starts, you should see a few fish caught right away. If so, you likely will have a pretty good day if you stick with it. If there are lots of folks fishing and you only see one or two fish in the first hour, you might get lucky if you put in lots of hours. Or you can head for an ice cream in Houston and come back in a couple of days.
After the Catch
The standard limit of one fish per day and two in possession usually applies—once you take a fish you are done for the day. Normally, there are cleaning tables on the east side of the river near the confluence. If not, your best bet is to gut the bled fish on the boat and get it on ice whole. While the run back up to Deshka landing only takes 30- to 40 minutes, it’s not a bad idea to have a cooler with ice on board. While you might hook up on your first cast at 6, others on your boat may have to flog the water till mid-afternoon.
Ice and snacks are available at the Deshka Landing store but it’s usually a 9-to-5 operation, so take your ice up with you. With only a couple hours from stream to home in Anchorage, an iced whole fish will keep perfectly and you can fillet and package with clean running water back at home—or even better, steak it while the grill is getting up to speed.
Dan Bonney of Eagle River has fished the Deshka for the last 15 years and prefers his king steaked, 1 ½ inches thick, grilled with nothing but salt and pepper, served with a squeeze of lemon and a little butter.