How to Catch Sockeye, Alaskan-Style

Red salmon, aka sockeye, are among the most delicious gamefish in Alaska. The red, firm flesh can be prepared countless ways, and any and all end with a delectable meal. Fresh from the grill, hot or cold-smoked, ground into burger or eaten raw dipped in wasabi and soy sauce, many salmon-lovers dream of the long days of June and July when they can enjoy fresh sockeye. I personally had a ritual in my early days of angling Alaska where I’d make a run to the Russian or Kenai after work, land some sockeye and then race back home to catch a few hours sleep before the next work day. Later that evening, after lathering the salmon in a spice-and-citrus combo and quickly searing the fillets on a hot grill, I’d pack up the fish and eat it on the ride back down to the river. A little manic you might say, but those were good days.

So as a fly- or conventional angler, the only thing that stands between you and a tasty pile of wild Alaska sockeye is the fact that these fish rarely strike a lure or fly. I won’t proclaim that it never happens, and some anglers state fervently that the correct sparsely-tied fly can turn these otherwise lockjawed salmon into striking, but I am not a believer. After spending countless days plying waters around the state, I’ve only seen but a rare few instances when chrome-bright sockeye ate. Spawning sockeye are a different story, and sometimes it is hard to get them to stay off a fly or bead when attempting to catch other species.

For most of us, sockeye are caught using a technique called lining. Simply put, the fish swim upriver tight to the bottom with their mouths opening and closing. The trick is to find the right type of water, and to present the lure where the leader is at mouth level. When done properly, the sockeye will bump into the leader and attempt to move away and get the leader out of its mouth. As it swims off, the line comes tight and the hook buries into the corner of the salmon’s mouth.

When done improperly, the line either does not drift at the right depth—i.e., it floats over the top of the fish or too much weight is used and the drift is often interrupted by snagging bottom. The other way that the technique is improperly employed occurs when anglers actively yank the line through the water during the second half of the drift, often with the rod at a 45-degree angle to the river (rather than perpendicular); then the fish are snagged in places other than the mouth. The end result is an uncontrollable fish that is being unnecessarily stressed and even injured; in some cases, anglers are injured as well, when the hook and weight eject from the salmon and are sent on a crash course towards the angler.

Reading the Water

I look for moderate flows within sockeye migration lanes, which are often close to shore. When sockeye fishing, do not wade too deep.

Another good location to scout is funnel points where fish are forced into narrow openings or come up from deep, slow pools into moving water. Too slow of a flow will find the fish holding in place, which makes it nearly impossible to hook them in the mouth, and current moving too fast will make it difficult to keep the lure in the strike zone. Proper flowing drifts see the weights bumping bottom about every second.

Critical gear for success includes polarized glasses for spotting fish and analyzing river structure.

Gear and Rigging

Anglers use bait-cast and spinning rods in the 8- to 20-pound range and 7- to 9-weight fly rods to catch red salmon. Pound for pound, these are among the toughest fish that swim in Alaska waters, so don’t be afraid to go a little heavier than you’d expect to handle an 8-pound fish. If fishing in angler-laden waters, such as the combat zones around southcentral Alaska, opt for heavy. It’s not uncommon to see anglers using king gear—rated 15- to 30-pound and 10-weight fly rods in these places where an angler can’t afford to let a sockeye run.

I typically use an 8-weight fly rod, and start with a 4-foot butt section of 20-pound leader that is tied with a nail knot to a floating fly line. Next, I’ll attach a 4- to 6-foot section of 10-pound tippet with a blood knot. I’ve found over the years that I catch more fish when I have a longer tippet and in some cases I will extend it to 8 feet when the salmon are spooky. I use 10-pound test so that if I accidentally hook a sockeye someplace other than the mouth, I can easily break the tippet. And for both my sake and the fish’s, I break it off as soon as I realize it’s foul-hooked.

Above the blood knot, I will crimp on the appropriate amount of split-shot for the weights to touch bottom about every second during the drift. When the flows are stronger, I may opt for a rubber-core sinker that can easily be attached and removed from the line when the flow dictates more or less weight.

Flies are sparsely tied and should have a slim profile in the water. Popular patterns include the Montana Brassie, Sockeye Lightning, Red Hot and Sockeye John in sizes 2-6. In my opinion, it’s all about not spooking the fish, so I’m more likely to use less-gaudy patterns and colors, and in fact, I often use a flesh fly, which looks like salmon flesh washing down river and does not push the sockeye out of the zone. Plus, it provides a secondary benefit as an attractor for rainbows, Dollies and grayling. There’s nothing like picking up some bonus species when fishing Alaska. 

Making the Drift

Start by making a roll cast at a 45-degree angle upriver. Immediately throw an upstream mend in the line to help the fly quickly sink. Point the rod tip at the drifting fly and follow it downriver with the rod parallel and low to the water. If at any point in the drift the line hesitates, snap the rod vertically, setting the hook hard. In many cases, the hesitation will come from the weight hanging up on a rock or branch in the river, but in other cases, the hesitation comes from the tippet hitting an open-mouthed fish. If it’s a fish, you will immediately appreciate why anglers target sockeye with rod and reel, as the ensuing battle will be explosive. And you will also realize why I stress a hard hook-set, as sockeye display a great tendency to throw hooks. It also confirms why an angler should use super-sharp, strong hooks and that they should be sharpened about every 15 minutes. Bouncing the fly along the river bottom will cause the hook point to dull, and it’s very difficult to adequately stick a sockeye so it can be landed when the hook is dull.

Landing the Fish

One thing you will realize when fishing sockeye is when a fish is properly hooked in the mouth, it can be controlled a lot easier than one snagged in the body. Fighting a snagged fish can result in a broken rod, or in the weights and fly ejecting from the fish when the line is at full tension, which usually results in a projectile that is very dangerous. I was fishing on the Talkeetna River when an angler continued to snag fish and muscle them upriver. I talked to him and tried to coach him on the proper technique, finally settling on explaining that he should at least keep the rod low to the water so that if the hook were to come loose it would not become a hazard for the rest of us. Fifteen minutes later, I felt a searing pain as his hook came loose 50 feet downstream and the split-shot struck me just above the left eye. I still have a scar, and it took all of my willpower to not give him one, too.

Sockeye are extremely powerful fish pound-for-pound and have an amazing ability to come unbuckled. In order to successfully land a sockeye, one must keep a tight line, until the salmon jumps, which is frequently. At this point, the successful angler will drop the rod tip and take some of the tension off the line so that the fish does not break the leader while thrashing its head. It’s the equivalent of “bowing” to tarpon.

You’ll often find that sockeye will make blistering runs once hooked. Keep steady pressure and once the salmon stops its run, apply pressure opposite the fish with the rod at a 45-degree angle to the river. Sockeye will make several runs, and each time the salmon runs and then is battled back to the angler, it is tiring and closer to being landed.

Anglers will either land the fish by having a fellow angler net the sockeye or by backing the fish into the gravel. This is often the time that sockeye come unhooked, so if you are landing the sockeye without a net, back the fish into the shallows and keep its head facing towards you, applying steady pressure. The fish will often beach itself. Remember that fish cannot swim backwards, so once you have it moving towards the shore, continue to help it but apply just enough pressure to not snap the leader. With practice, this becomes easier to do.

Then, use your honed filleting technique, find your best recipe, fire up the grill and enjoy!