By Troy Letherman
Set against a carrot-colored dawn, snappish morning air pulls fog from the river, punctuating an angler’s silence: less babble than burble, current breaking over boulders and gravel bars and lapping against the boat, oars at work. The labor is rhythmic—lift the weight, set it down. Lift. Drop.
Back-bouncing through one hole, then another, then through a long riffle, we make our way down the Kasilof as the early-summer sun burns through and the day begins to take a bluebird shape. Near the outlet of Crooked Creek, at the edge of the line between glacial and clear, the rig goes down and stays down.
It’s my first king of the year, a 25-pound chrome hen that scratches more than one of the itches that develop over the course of an Alaska winter.
This isn’t typically the type of fishing I prefer, working with bait and sinkers the size of my big toe, but then these are kings—and kings tend to make the rules. In fact, if I’ve learned anything about the Chinook salmon in Alaska, first would be that 50-pound fish are a lot rarer than some would have you believe. Second is you can only fish them when and where they show up. And last, personal preferences don’t mean much; the water and the fish decide the method.
The day before was spent back-trolling in an ultimately futile effort to turn an early-returning Kenai king. Not long after my Kasilof float, I hitched a helicopter ride across the inlet to fish the Chuitna, where I got to do it my way—floating lines and weighted flies—to the tune of more than a dozen hookups (which, it should be noted, was half as many as my fishing partner, who worked a Spin-n-Glo drift-fishing setup to truly outlandish success). Later that summer there would be more plug-pulling opportunities, more chances to hunt by fly, employing both single- and double-handed rods, and thankfully, more kings.
That last is the most important thing—in Alaska, chasing king salmon means a lot of different water and all kinds of techniques, but the payoff is always the same: large, powerful fish, thrilling battles and succulent fillets.
The least abundant of all the Pacific salmon, the Chinook has historically been and remains a fish of great importance to Native Alaskans and sport anglers across the state.
Returns occur along most of the southern and western coasts, from Dixon Entrance to Point Hope. The most popular fisheries are undoubtedly those found along the road system in the southcentral region of the state. The Kenai River, paralleled by the Sterling Highway for much of its length, receives by far the most angling pressure of any king salmon river, while the tributaries of the Susitna River, most of which intersect the Parks Highway north of Anchorage, also garner significant angling interest.
On the other side of the Alaska Range, outstanding fisheries occur in the streams of the Bristol Bay region and across the Alaska Peninsula, as well as the many tributaries of the lower and middle Kuskokwim River. For fly anglers, this is the place to start, presenting plenty of targets in often ideal water. The Karluk, Ayakulik and American rivers of Kodiak Island can also offer exceptional king salmon angling.
Though king salmon fishing is restricted in much of the freshwater angling environment in Southeast, the coastal streams near Yakutat are home to a few good to excellent returns. In the Interior, king salmon can be found in and below just about every clearwater confluence of the Yukon. The Gulkana, the Klutina, and most of the other tributaries of the Copper River also host significant Chinook fisheries.
And finally, near the northern end of the Chinook’s range, a few noteworthy returns can be found in drainages spilling into either Kotzebue or Norton sounds.
All of these regions are of colossal size on their own, and each plays host to several quality king salmon returns. Access varies, as does run timing.
As when fishing any anadromous species, timing is the most critical ingredient to successful king salmon angling. A group of fish can come in on a tide and shoot straight upriver, not holding and presenting anglers with many opportunities to make a presentation. An incoming tide can also be completely empty, while the next might bring hundreds of sea lice-toting chromers in from the sea. Or in some cases, fish can enter a river on the incoming tide, mill around during the slack period, then decide there’s something about the conditions they don’t like and retreat to saltwater again on the outgoing tide. Rarer yet, the salmon just might not return in any kind of numbers in a particular year. Whether high rates of interception, poor ocean survival, a change in environmental conditions or low brood-stock fecundity, blame is impossible to assign.
Upon entering saltwater, the majority of Chinook salmon stocks undertake extensive migrations, roaming over thousands of miles in the North Pacific and Bering Sea, while others, particularly some of the southeast Alaska populations, remain inshore for the duration. These so-called feeder kings can provide for year-round fisheries.
While at sea, king salmon experience rapid growth, often averaging a pound per month. As the Chinook continue to grow, they can feed upon larger and larger forage fishes, with ocean-going kings primarily preying on sand lance, pilchards, herring, smelts, sand fish, sticklebacks, and anchovies.
These fish will reach sexual maturity anywherefrom two- to nine years of age, which can result in great size variances among the fish of a single year’s return. Most Alaska fish return from three- to five years after leaving freshwater.
As a general rule, the fish entering freshwater earliest will travel the farthest upstream to spawn. However, the distances separate stocks travel will vary widely. The most obvious example can be found in some of the Yukon River populations bound for the river’s headwaters in Canada. These fish undertake the longest known freshwater spawning migration of any anadromous species, traveling from 1,500- to 2,000 miles to reach their spawning beds. In Alaska, most streams receive a single run of king salmon in the period from May through late July.
Still, salmon run times are not static events. The peak of a run can change from year to year, sometimes differing by as much as two weeks from previous years’ returns, especially when a season coincides with drastically altered environmental conditions such as unseasonably warm weather or flooding. In the end, close study of the historical run-timing data for a drainage should put an angler close to a return’s peak dates, but unfortunately, an element of luck plays at least a small part in even the most well planned trips.
In southcentral Alaska, king runs usually occur from late May through late July. The Cook Inlet area generally begins to see the first fish in about mid-May, with scattered reports of fish being taken from the lower reaches of the Little Susitna River, the Kenai and the hatchery-enhanced Kasilof River during the month. Most runs peak in mid- to late June, continuing on into July. The second and larger return of Kenai River kings typically reaches its peak in late July.
For southwest Alaska, the first kings are customarily seen in early- to mid-June, with the run picking up steam by the first two weeks of July and then tapering off by the end of the month. Most years, for instance, the height of the large Nushagak River return occurs in the last week of June or first week of July. The returns to the Karluk and Ayakulik rivers on Kodiak Island usually show peaks from mid-June through early July and in the first half of June, respectively.
In the northernmost extreme of the Chinook’s range, runs begin in mid-June and continue through mid-July, typically peaking somewhere near the first of the month. In the Interior, kings enter the Yukon River in June and reach the Canadian border by mid- to late July. The tributaries of the Copper River see their best Chinook angling from early- to late July.
In southeast Alaska—not counting feeder kings—Chinook salmon in the saltwater intercept fisheries are typically present in catchable numbers from mid- to late April through mid-July, with the months of May and June representing the prime fishing times. Where king fishing is permitted in freshwater, namely the Gulf Coast streams near Yakutat, peak times usually occur during June.
Methods & Means
Once timing is right, understanding migration corridors and the staging and resting points favored by Chinook will pay dividends to any angler.
First, it’s smart to look for signs of fish before committing. Like other Pacific salmon species, Chinook in freshwater will often roll and allow anglers an easy opportunity to isolate their position. However, if good numbers of fish aren’t visible in the water or showing themselves on the surface, there are still a few characteristics one can seek out that are typical of quality salmon haunts.
For the most part, kings will be found moving and holding in the main channels of rivers. Chinook will also be found at greater depths than other salmon, often making cut banks or river bends where the channel is deeper premium lies. Deep, slow pools are also magnets for holding fish that use the areas to rest and recuperate from the rigors of their migration. Tailouts, ledge pools, eddies, the edges of sloughs and the currentseams created by large boulders and islands provide additional intercept points. Areas near a confluence with a tributary stream are usually another sure bet, as salmon will hold among the cleaner, more oxygenated flows of the creek mouth, where they can both recuperate and flush sediment from their gills. Upriver, kings will also hold beneath a tributary stream in which they intend to spawn, ostensibly waiting for the conditions to be just right or for their eggs and milt to ripen before commencing upon the final leg of their freshwater journey.
In any of these situations, Chinook salmon holding in a specific area are precisely what the angler should be seeking, as these are usually rested and more territorial than moving fish, making them much more willing to strike.
As far as the best specific fishing conditions—beyond the water—the early and late hours on overcast or windy days are hard to beat, as king salmon are very sensitive to light and seem to prefer bad weather and the quiet hours of the day for most of their activity. That is why so much more surface rolling is seen very early in the morning and during the lingering hours of Alaska’s midnight sun.
Tactics, of course, vary by water condition, but also by means available to the angler—meaning mostly whether fishing from shore or boat.
For boat anglers, some popular methods include boon-dogging, back-bouncing, back-trolling and down-trolling, while bank anglers rely primarily on typical drift-fishing principles to find success, tossing spinners, spoons, jigs, plugs, roe rigs or flies and using the angle-of-presentation, plus various amounts of weight, to present offerings in the right place. Precision is everything at this stage, as a lure, fly or bait must approach fish at a controlled speed and depth, usually passing within inches of its face.
The Major Fisheries
Most of the Southeast panhandle—from Dixon Entrance south of Ketchikan to Cape Fairweather, which sits along the Gulf of Alaska coast between the community of Yakutat and Cross Sound—is restricted to fishing for king salmon in freshwater, though there are sporadic opportunities for freshwater anglers to chase kings; these occur when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game uses emergency orders to open select areas to the harvest of hatchery fish. Some of the more typical openings include Pullen Creek near Skagway, Blind Slough near Petersburg, Sawmill Creek near Sitka and a few roadside streams around Juneau.
The area from Cape Fairweather northwest to Cape Suckling, which includes the Yakutat Forelands, is open to freshwater sport-fishing for king salmon, and several clearwater systems—the Situk, East Alsek, Italio, and Akwe rivers being most the prominent—present good to great opportunity to find fish in a remote setting. Purely judging by numbers, the Situk River is the most prominent of these streams, offering annual total returns estimated to be from 1,500- to 10,000 adult fish (most runs are in the 2,000- to 5,000-fish range).
Moving into southcentral Alaska, home to Alaska’s largest city, its most extensive road system and more than half the state’s total population, there are plenty of quality king fisheries—including the planet’s best trophy destination—but here there is also plenty of pressure to go around.
On the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula, between the communities of Soldotna and Homer, a triad of clearwater streams cross the Sterling Highway en route to Cook Inlet. The two southernmost, the Anchor River and Deep Creek, support native stocks, while the king salmon returning to the Ninilchik River are a mixture of wild and hatchery fish (the Chinook stocking program has been in effect on the Ninilchik since 1988).
Traveling towards Soldotna, the next Chinook salmon fishery encountered is the glacial Kasilof River, which also supports a mixture of hatchery and wild fish. Just a few more miles up the Sterling Highway, the Kenai River supports one of the largest and most intensively managed recreational fisheries in Alaska, sustaining through kings alone in excess of 100,000 angler-days of fishing effort annually. Chinook salmon returning to the Kenai River are managed as two distinct runs, early and late, which typically peak around the second week of June and again in late July.
Directly across Cook Inlet exists a few small, sparsely visited coastal watersheds that can offer excellent opportunities to entice ocean-fresh fish. Some solid performers include the Kamishak River across from the town of Homer and the Kustatan River of Redoubt Bay. The McArthur and Chakachatna river systems of Trading Bay and the Beluga River to the north also provide chances to target kings. Between these three flows the Chuitna River, a small freestone stream that hosts a substantial Chinook return with fish of above-average size not out of the ordinary.
Two notable urban fisheries soak up most of the pressure in or near Anchorage—Ship Creek, which flows through downtown, and Eklutna Tailrace, a hatchery return just up the Glenn Highway. Continuing north along the Glenn and then Parks from Anchorage one finds the king fisheries of the Northern Cook Inlet Management Area, covering some 23,000 square miles of southcentral Alaska and dominated by the Susitna River watershed. Eighty-eight streams in this region are known to contain spawning populations of Chinook salmon, but just 17 of these drainages are responsible for over half of the production. Highlights include the Talkeetna River and Clear Creek, Montana Creek, which is intersected by the Parks Highway and is followed by Willow and Sheep creeks and the Little Susitna River as the road continues towards Anchorage.
Away the Parks, a significant Chinook fishery occurs in the Deshka River, while Lake Creek, the Talachulitna River and Alexander Creek each offers fair to excellent opportunity.
On Kodiak Island, the Karluk and Ayakulik rivers support the only populations of native Chinook, with the kings returning to the rivers from late May through mid-July, while hatchery-enhanced runs on two road-system streams, American and Olds rivers, have only gained in popularity in recent years.
The second largest river in Alaska, the 800-mile-long Kuskokwim has long been of great importance to Native Alaskans, but it’s the many clearwater tributaries that take the attention from visiting sport anglers. The Holitna, Aniak, Kisaralik, and Kwethluk rivers all feature strong runs and excellent water for the wading angler.
Another sure highlight of the region is the Togiak River, an exceptionally scenic tundra river flowing through the heart of the over four million acres contained within the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness. The sport fishery commences about the third week of June with the arrival of the first sea-bright Chinook (the Togiak historically averages approximately 36,000 returning kings per year) and is usually concentrated in the lower 20 miles of river. Also of note are the Kanektok and Goodnews rivers, both of which present solid numbers of fish in extremely user-friendly water conditions (particularly for fly anglers).
The Nushagak River hosts one of Alaska’s largest Chinook runs, with average returns between 75,000 to 100,000 fish or more and with several lodges and tent operations set up to cater to the visiting angler. There’s also a king run or two of note in Katmai country, with the best combination of numbers of fish and fishing opportunity existing in the Naknek and Alagnak rivers. Farther south lay the remote rivers of the Alaska Peninsula, which include documented stocks on the Chignik, Sandy and Meshik rivers.
The fifth largest watershed on the continent, the Yukon, dominates the interior section of Alaska, but due tothe remote nature of most clearwater spawning tributaries and the long migrations the salmon undertake, less Chinook angling than one might think actually occurs in this region. Only in the Tanana Valley is there sufficient road access to allow noteworthy sport-fishing effort.
The best king salmon angling to be had in the interior area of the state, however, occurs farther south in the region dominated by the massive Copper River. 40 king salmon spawning streams have been identified throughout the Copper River drainage, with the Gulkana River supporting the most significant sport fishery. Over the past few years, the Chinook sport fishery on the Klutina has dramatically increased and it now rivals the Gulkana.
North of the Yukon River, there is still plenty of opportunity to hunt Chinook salmon in their native waters, but beyond some effort expended in the Unalakleet River drainage, sport fishing for the species is fairly rare. King salmon streams in the area begin in Norton Sound and range north, generally thinning along the Seward Peninsula, which almost touches Siberia, until they end in the Chukchi Sea and Kotzebue Sound.
In the end, fishing kings in Alaska is about the fish. The destinations are almost endless—from sparkling clearwater fisheries like the Togiak or Kanektok, to the big, open tundra waters of the Naknek or Nushagak and on through the prolific road-system streams of Southcentral, eventually the scenery and the varied water conditions and the differing tactics fuse into a single idea, of our singular pursuit. The first of the salmon to return to Alaska each year, it’s hard to argue the kings aren’t also the best.
Troy Letherman is editor of Fish Alaska magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.