Alaska Fall Fishing Trips
Fish Alaska magazine Editor Troy Letherman describes seven world-class trips to take this September.
As autumn matures, days get shorter and termination dust settles atop most Alaska mountains, another change occurs as well, this one beneath the surface of the state’s many productive trout streams. On the banks and in the water of these once busy rivers eggs from the summer’s salmon spawn continue to drift past hordes of hungry rainbows and Dollies, and just when the egg frenzy subsides the decaying remnants of thousands of salmon carcasses breathes new life into the food chain.
It’s a great time to be an angler in Alaska.
Preferring September and October, for the fast action, the big, fat fish, and the reduced number of anglers on the water, my Alaska fishing has always increased once the calendar turns to the ninth month. Rather than use vacation days chasing salmon all summer, I save up for September and then hit all my favorites. From road-system day-trips to fly-outs to the lodges of Bristol Bay, there is no shortage of fantastic options. Here are some of my favorite fall getaways.
1. Bristol Bay Rainbows
As anglers have long known, Alaska ranks as one of the world’s great rainbow trout destinations. There are places to go for big fish—really big fish—and there are places to go for lots of fish. Sometimes, it’s the same place: Bristol Bay.
Getting here isn’t easy; the travel involves a flight from Anchorage across the Alaska Range to either one of the region’s small village hubs (King Salmon, Dillingham, etc.) or directly to one of the many sport-fishing lodges that provide access to some of the best trophy trout fishing on the planet. From there it’s just a matter of getting on the right waters, but those are many: Moraine, Funnel, Alagnak, Kulik, Naknek, Kvichak, Talarik, Copper, American and on down the line.
While a do-it-yourself adventure is certainly a possibility, the easy answer to solving the Bristol Bay rainbow riddle is to call one of the area’s most respected lodges and go from there. For me that means Alaska Sportsman’s Lodges, Angler’s Paradise Lodges / Katmailand, or Rainbow River Lodge.
2. Kenai Peninsula Steelhead
“Someone should probably swing a fly by that rock,” said good friend and fellow writer Greg Thomas, pointing towards a giant, stream-diverting boulder that shouldered a short but relatively deep pool. A few seconds later, we were heading downstream, Greg’s rod bowed to the steelhead found holding right where he’d guessed it wouldbe.
It was only the second fish in a day rapidly nearing conclusion, a bright, blue sky and ivory cloud kind of day, the afternoon light further emboldening the amber and gold milieu of a southcentral Alaska fall. Numbers didn’t matter, though, and they shouldn’t. Rather success had been bestowed upon our adventure the moment wader and water first met, wrapped tight in the loops of a first cast, a parting gift from the summer now past. Just to be fishing was enough—to be fishing for steelhead, freshwater’s most hallowed son, was almost too much. Friends—the conversation, the laughs, cold beers and fine cigars, a variety of depraved and sometimes heinous deeds accomplished deep in the dark of night—completed the package.
Well, nearly completed, for none of it would have been possible without the place, already home to a plethora of well-remembered outings but still a destination many see as little more than the swathe of coastline separating the kings of Kenai from Homer’s halibut.
Part of the Anchor River’s allure lies in its intimate nature, as the river is as user-friendly as any other stream in the state. Though it’s primarily a pocket fishery, anglers can still expect to find a decent variety of angling conditions on the river, with perhaps a boulder garden, a deep outside pool, and a series of long, medium-depth riffles all occurring within a hundred yards of each other. This is classic do-it-yourself water, easily reached and easily fished, with very little guided effort taking place. However, it’s basically a small, coastal stream, and as such, the Anchor is susceptible to blowing out of shape during periods of steady rain, slight and tea-colored one day, a raging torrent of chocolate the next. In the early fall, low conditions can also adversely affect fishing opportunities, with both the water and the fish spread thin.
As far as consistency goes, the Dollies probably provide the steadiest action on the Anchor. These are sea-run fish, departing in the spring to take up offshore feeding routes throughout the summer. They begin to return in the late summer, coming in on the tides—and sometimes going back out—before moving upstream to their spawning beds. The river’s upper stretches also hold a decent population of resident rainbow trout, but it’s the sea-run versions of the rainbows that are responsible for the bulk of the autumn angling, with the action usually picking up sometime around mid- to late September and improving through the month of October. Early on, it can be best to fish steelhead on the tides, setting up station on the best beats of holding water along the lower river. Later on, when the fish are more democratically deployed throughout the system, anglers can hike much of the river corridor and fish miles of quality water in a day. Currently, catch-and-release-only regulations apply to both steelhead and resident rainbow trout on the Anchor River.
To add more variety to your days, a nearby pair of lower peninsula streams, Deep Creek and the Ninilchik River, also host returns of steelhead.
3. Kenai River Rainbows
For decades, the upper Kenai River was heralded as one of the state’s best trophy trout destinations, but as is the pattern for fisheries that experience a significant increase in pressure, this stretch of river has seen a decrease in the number of trophies caught. However, according to ADF&G biologists, there may not be as many twenty-four-inch or longer trout in the upper Kenai, but the overall numbers of fish are actually increasing, a critical statistic for a river where roughly 43,000 trout are caught-and-released every year. For the bigger fish, the middle river is the section now favored by anglers and the rewards can be plentiful. Take a recent fall excursion of mine, for example. In one stretch of river, which my friends and I worked for fewer than two hours, we landed countless nice-sized Dollies and modest Kenai trout, as well as six rainbows oftwenty-five inches or more, two stretching the tape to thirty. It was about as frenzied a period of trout fishing as I’ve ever experienced, producing more big fish than I’ve ever seen in any other single day.
The Kenai parallels the Sterling Highway, but it’s a mighty river and the fish are notoriously nomadic. My strong recommendation is to dial up a guide service that specializes in trout, such as Alaska Drift Away Fishing, and to go from there.
4. Parks Highway Silvers
For anglers, the Mat-Su Valley presents manifold alternatives, offering both roadside and remote access to all five species of Pacific salmon, plus resident rainbow trout, Dolly Varden char, grayling, northern pike and more. There is good to excellent lake fishing throughout the valley, which boasts the most aggressive stocking program in the state, with more than 90 area lakes stocked with rainbow trout, grayling, Arctic char, landlocked coho and Chinook salmon. However, it’s the tributaries of the Susitna River—most of which intersect the Parks Highway between Wasilla and Denali National Park—that garner the most interest. And despite the occasional crowds, anglers willing to get off the beaten path can still find fantastic angling mixed with a true wilderness setting on many of these clearwater streams.
Beginning in the runoff from massive glaciers in the eastern Alaska Range and flowing some 200 miles south to Cook Inlet, the Susitna River is one of southcentral Alaska’s most significant and consistent fish producers. Most of the fishing opportunity is centered in clearwater tributary streams, almost all of which already carry healthy reputations among the Alaskan angling crowd. Trout anglers, especially, enjoy the Susitna drainage for its easy access, good rainbow potential, and the ability to get away from the really big crowds. Several of these streams—the Deshka, Little Susitna and Talkeetna rivers, Montana, Willow and Lake creeks in particular—carry equally large reputations when it comes to coho salmon.
As with the other species of Pacific salmon, perhaps the defining characteristic of the southcentral Alaska angling environment for coho is the amount of effort that’s expended. Without a doubt Southcentral is the most heavily fished area of the state, and during the height of the runs, it’s doubtful an angler can find a roadside salmon stream without bumping into at least a few fellow anglers. But while the Kenai contributes an average of about one out of every five coho salmon harvested in sport fisheries in Alaska, despite the attention and the acclaim, the Susitna—not the Kenai—is the most prolific coho producer in Southcentral.
But the mainstem Susitna is much too large and silty to provide for quality fishing along most of its length, leaving the best opportunities concentrated in the many clearwater tributaries of the system. Most of the Parks Highway streams offer good coho angling during August and early September, especially for those willing to use a raft or jet boat to access the lonelier stretches of water. Highlights include Willow, Little Willow, Sheep, Montana and Caswell creeks. Once again the Little Susitna is an above-average producer, as is the Talkeetna River system, though bank opportunities are limited. For more remote action, Alexander Creek sustains a healthy coho population. The creek’s mouth is typically the most productive spot, in some years providing silver action to rival almost any other locale in the state, with salmon heading upstream to spawn in the Susitna’s other clearwater tribs pulling into these docile, iron-tinted waters for brief recuperation.
The glacial Yentna system also receives a solid run of silvers, which can be best fished in the numerous clearwater sloughs and tributary mouths that dot the drainage. Further upriver on select tributaries, namely Lake Creek, the coho action canbe fast and furious.
5. Quartz Creek Dolly Varden
Sometimes I am just looking for something a little different, say a relaxing day on a small stream with no other angler in sight. Quartz Creek on the Kenai Peninsula fits that bill.
Quartz Creek feeds Kenai Lake and lies just off the Sterling Highway about eight miles west of the Seward Highway junction. It can be accessed from the Sterling Highway, but I prefer to take Quartz Creek Road to either the Quartz Creek Campground or the Kenai Lake boat launch; from there it’s less than a half-mile walk around the beach to the mouth of the stream. The boundary between the brilliant blue waters of Kenai Lake and the clear freshwater runoff of Quartz Creek provides excellent foraging habitat for natural populations of Dolly Varden and rainbow trout in the fall.
Fishing is fantastic through September, and the easily wade-able stream is packed with riffles and runs, pools, logjams and cut banks, all of which invite the fly. By late September, many Dolly Varden will have left Quartz Creek, but rainbow trout remain to feed on pieces of rotting salmon carcasses.
6. Mat-Su Rainbows
As most Alaskan anglers already know, the tributaries of the Susitna River provide excellent opportunities for native rainbow trout. The aesthetics are pure—trout don’t grow in ugly places, after all, and this area even boasts some of the state’s best traditional nymph and dry-fly action—numbers of fish are typically excellent and average sizes are strong. One just has to adjust slightly his or her feelings on what constitutes a trophy Alaska rainbow.
Unlike the fisheries of Bristol Bay, the Susitna tributaries don’t have the luxury of sockeye returns that number into the tens of millions, which when combined with the temperature-modulating lakes of that region, produce resident trout of reliably ridiculous proportions. However, for roadside fisheries, streams like Montana and Willow creeks consistently put out a number of large trout each year, with a few fish that can push the magical ten-pound barrier, while other Susitna tribs, like the Deshka, currently enjoy thirty-year highs in terms of the health of the fishery.
Getting off the road, as many as 10,000 fish are caught and released annually in both Lake Creek and the Talachulitna River, where fish tend to average between 12- and 16 inches.
Of the road system streams, rocky, clear-flowing Willow Creek probably garners the most interest from rainbow anglers, in part due to its reputation for producing fish of above-average to trophy size and also because of its popularity as a manageable day-float. Although, since the Willow is a rapid-runoff stream with plenty of sweepers and logjams, floaters should use caution. Montana, Sheep and Goose creeks also produce consistently for trout hunters and occasionally pump out fish in the 24-inch class.
Though it’s seldom fished, the section of mainstem Susitna between Devil’s Canyon and the confluence of the Talkeetna and Chulitna rivers can produce amazing results as well. In this area the river is heavily braided, full of logjams and submerged rootwads, but the scenery is unparalleled for this region of Alaska and the fish rarely bothered. The best time is typically in the fall, after the big river has cleared some, providing good visibility.
For fall fishing, Mat-Su bound anglers will find large concentrations of fish near the mouths of the rivers where all the food is available, mainly the accumulation of salmon eggs and flesh drifting downstream.
7. Day-Trip Grayling
In the upper stretches of the mighty Susitna, and in fact all along its course, grayling abound, usually utilizing the massive waterway for over-wintering and then spawning and feeding in the hundreds of clearwater tributaries that branch off to both the east and west. Indian River and Portage Creek are both good possibilities for anglers, as are west-side Susitna tributaries like the Tyone River and Alexander Creek. The upper reaches of the Chulitna River and its own many tributaries (Coal and Troublesome creeks especially) also host significant populations of grayling. Another significant Susitna tributary, the Talkeetna River, offers excellent fly-fishing for the species in its feeder streams, most notably Clearand Prairie creeks.
Of course, the streams closer to the population centers are popular for more reasons than their proximity to a maintained road. The Deshka River hosts a healthy grayling stock in its upper reaches. Montana and Sheep creeks, accessible via the Parks Highway, can also offer plenty of room to anglers targeting Arctic grayling. Additionally, a healthy knowledge of the grayling’s life history patterns will greatly aid the Sheep Creek angler, as the fish will begin to stage in the stream’s mouth section during the fall, waiting for dropping temperatures to induce the final leg of their winter migration into the Susitna. Hundreds of fish will pile into the area in late September and the early part of October, long after most anglers have quit fishing the stream, and fly fishers can generally time their arrival for a late afternoon mayfly hatch that sends the fish into a near feeding frenzy.