How to Fish “Legally” in Alaska

Story By Alaska Wildlife Trooper Dan Gunderson

Alaska is a worldwide destination for fishing. If you plan on fishing kings on the Kenai River, grayling on the North Slope or trophy halibut in the salt, Alaska is the place. In order to keep these fisheries viable, however, regulations are put in place to allow these resources to be managed for all user groups. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) is responsible for producing the hunting and fishing regulations in Alaska. The job of enforcing those regulations falls to the Alaska Wildlife Troopers. As an Alaska Wildlife Trooper, and as someone who personally loves to hunt and fish, I have been able to experience fishing in Alaska from both sides of the badge. 

Voluntary compliance with the regulations is the goal, and although I’d rather give someone a warning for a violation, my contact with the public sometimes involves issuing citations, and less frequently, seizing someone’s catch. Most of the fishing violations I come in contact with are fairly simple violations, but the purpose of the regulation may be very important. Ultimately, it is up to you to know and follow the regulations.

Here are a few things you can do to help avoid getting a ticket:

Know the Regulations: 
Before you plan your trip you should study the regulations for the areas where you want to fish. Important things to know are seasons, bag and possession limits, gear and bait restrictions and closed areas. 

The ADF&G website is a great resource and the regulations are found at: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=regulations.main

Targeting halibut? Check out the current NOAA regulations at: https://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/fisheries/sport-halibut 

Discuss the regulations with your guide before booking a trip:
When talking to a potential charter or fishing guide, ask them what the regulations are for the area you are fishing. If their answers differ from your understanding of things, that might be a clue that they are comfortable playing fast and loose with the regulations. Someone willing to violate might be more apt to be unethical and maybe more willing to rip you off. If they know you have an understanding of the regulations, they will be less inclined to bend the rules.

Check the regulations before your first cast:
I always carry a copy of the regulations in my tackle box. You can also download them onto your iPhone.  I have a habit of double checking the regs before my first cast each day and it has saved me twice now from making an unintentional mistake. 

Know the Emergency Orders:
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game uses Emergency Orders (EOs) to further regulate fisheries and it is important to know their current status before fishing. EOs are on the ADF&G website and often posted at more common fishing spots. Before your trip begins you should check and see if anything has changed for the areas you will be fishing. These can change in the middle of a fishing season but are well advertised before they take effect. 

Ask questions but consider the source:
If you don’t understand the regulations for the area you plan to fish you can always call ADF&G or a local wildlife trooper office for an explanation. Alaska Wildlife Troopers have offices throughout the state and are very willing to answer your fishing regulation questions. You could also ask your fishing guide, other people who are fishing next to you or the license vendor. But just remember, the teenage kid behind the counter at the grocery store selling the license is probably not the person to rely upon.   

Pay attention to where you are:
I once happened upon a man fishing with a treble-hooked Pixee spoon in a nice hole filled with giant kings. Unfortunately, he was fishing in an area of the river that was single-hook only and closed to fishing for kings. If he would have looked around he would have noticed that there were a lot of people fishing a few hundred yards downstream on the other side of the highway. A lot of popular rivers are marked with signs indicating a boundary and often boundaries can be highways, railroad tracks, river confluences, etc. Spend a couple minutes just to make sure you are in the right area, with the right gear, at the right time. 

Pay attention to people around you:
Some of the more popular fisheries have nightly closures from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. If all of a sudden everyone leaves the crowded “combat fishing” stream, it may be because it just closed. The very first ticket I wrote was to an individual who ignored everyone around him and kept fishing well past a closure. If your river has a closure, set an alarm on your phone so you don’t make a mistake. After all, “time flies when you are having fun.”

If it seems too easy, it just might be:
A few winters back, after five minutes of hand-drilling through three feet of ice on a remote lake, I looked around thinking how nice it was to have the lake all to myself. I then noticed there was no one else fishing, no old holes, nothing. I pulled out my regulations and sure enough, the lake was not open….close one!  

Just say no to snagging: 
Fish caught in freshwater must be hooked in the mouth. A popular misconception, especially on the Kenai and Russian rivers, is that as long as it was hooked in the head or nose it is legal. You never know when the person fishing next to you is an undercover Trooper or just a concerned citizen with a cell phone. Keeping a fish hooked elsewhere than the mouth is a good way to get a ticket and lose your fish. There are “lots of fish in the river;” let that one go and catch one legally. 

Immediately record you catch:
The harvest of certain species must be “immediately” recorded onto the back of your license. The list of species that must be recorded are listed on your sport-fishing license. Bring a pen and remember that new for 2017, halibut need to be recorded as well in some situations.  

Party fishing is forbidden in Alaska:
A lot of Lower 48 states allow anglers to pool their catch and everyone fishes until they reach a boat limit. Some call it “party fishing.” In Alaska, party fishing is not legal and the fish is counted toward the daily bag limit of the person who first hooked it. Thus, you can’t hook fish for other people and they can’t hook fish for you. When planning allowable harvest levels, ADF&G biologists recognize the human factor in sport-fishing. Sometimes a person isn’t great at fishing or they are too seasick to fish. The fish they don’t catch are part of the fish that survive to produce more fish. Halibut stocks in particular have seen considerable restrictions lately with slot limits, annual limits and days when you can’t fish. This is in part due to party fishing, which results in charter boats always coming back with their limit, regardless of who caught the halibut. 

Another reason why party fishing is not allowed is because of ethical considerations. Imagine you have always wanted to catch a certain fish, say a lingcod. You pay for your flight up to Alaska, hotel, rental car, etc. You drop the $350 or so for a day of guided saltwater fishing. Your boat gets out to the lingcod grounds and people start catching fish. All of a sudden your guide says, “Okay, time to reel up, we have our limit of lingcod,” but you haven’t caught one yet. Or, the one you caught was too small and had to be released. I’d be upset. I know because it has happened to me a couple times. For me it was okay because I was gathering evidence during an undercover investigation but even then it was frustrating. 

Don’t let someone else get you in trouble.

Sport-fishing guides are required to record your name and fishing license on a logbook that lists what species are caught, released and kept. They are submitted to ADF&G, which uses the data to track harvest levels, fishing pressure and other data. If the guide is allowing party fishing, over limits, keeping undersize or oversize slot limits, you could be “on the hook” for something you didn’t know was a violation, or in some cases, didn’t even do. Keep track of what you catch by taking a picture of each fish you catch on a charter. That way when you are done you can make sure the guide records the correct number of fish you caught and released. The photos also protect yourself should you need to prove you didn’t intentionally falsify a logbook or go over a limit.  

Removing fish from the water:
Sometimes fish intended to be released may not be removed from the water. Once, I was watching a group of guys fishing for kings on a particular day when the river was catch-and-release only. They tied into a monster. After a long battle it was finally netted and roughly drug to shore where it was thrashing and beating itself on the rocks and gravel while they dug the hook out. They got their “hero shot” photos then it was gently and reverently lowered back into the water for some ethical, legal, conservation-minded photos. They then released it, bleeding from the gills back into the water. It was tough to watch.          

Remember to check when your license expires: 
If you purchase a non-resident fishing license you can choose a 1-day, 3-day, 7-day, 14-day or annual license. Set an alarm on your phone so you don’t make a simple mistake. These licenses expire at midnight on the last day that the license is valid. If you are fishing at 6 a.m. the following morning, you don’t have a valid fishing license. 

Finally, the Alaska Wildlife Troopers are looking for good men and women to help patrol Alaska and protect the amazing resources in the state. Being an Alaska Wildlife Trooper is one of the most rewarding jobs out there. If you think you have what it takes to “rise to the challenge” and represent the best of the best, you can apply on line at http://dps.alaska.gov/AST/recruit/   

I hope your fishing is Alaska is fun and legal! Best of luck!