Bristol Bay King Salmon Fishing:
Story and photo by Marcus Weiner
My fishing partner and I have spent the last three hours hooking one chrome sockeye salmon after another, landing one in five and relishing the hot, crystal-clear June day that promises endless sunlight and a non-stop procession of fighting-mad red salmon. After each one is hooked, an immediate battle ensues as these supremely acrobatic fish do whatever they want against our 8-weight fly rods and reels. Knuckles are bruised, arms are sore, and backs are aching from the relentless attempts of these indomitable salmon to spit our flies.
The next cast begins as the previous hundred have, but what happens characterizes the difference between king salmon and their four cousins. Midway through the drift, the fly is slammed by a larger fish, which proceeds to turn and head downriver at an alarming rate. My reel protests loudly as it spins at rpms approaching that of a Dremel tool and I know that I have hooked a king. I take off running downriver in an attempt to stop the beast, but trying to stop a Volkswagen with dental floss will prove impossible. In the peak of the scramble downriver, I step into a deep hole and fall face first into four feet of water. At this point the king is around the corner and within the blink of an eye, my line snaps, I am completely spooled and of course, soaking wet. Anglers watching chuckle and nod their heads in understanding. Combine the size of the fish, Alaska’s swift rivers, and the ability of the king salmon to humble anglers, and you have the recipe for a lifelong obsession to catch Chinook.
In Alaska the Chinook salmon is more commonly called king salmon, and there can be no doubt why. It’s not uncommon for these colossal beauties to weigh in at over thirty pounds, with the rare fish tipping the scales at seventy pounds and even approaching triple-digit status. Throughout history the king salmon was held in spiritual reverence by Native peoples. We have our own way of showing our modern reverence as Alaska has made it the state fish. Anglers journey from all across the world with hopes of engaging in a battle with one of these sovereign kings and the reasons are plentiful. King salmon provide a formidable challenge due to their size and strength; they also are the least abundant of Alaska’s Pacific salmon species, making a catch even more valuable. Yes, we all love a good challenge, and the Alaska king salmon is the supreme challenge.
A king’s impressive size can be attributed in part to their longer life span as compared to other semelparous species. A king salmon will reach maturity at anywhere from four to seven years and therefore is the longest living of the Pacific salmon. As each year spent in the ocean results in substantial growth, there are wide size variances among kings depending upon the age at maturity. Their scientific name (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) comes from the Greek words onkos (hook), rynchos (nose), and tshawytscha, the common name of the species in Siberia. This makes perfect sense, since males develop hooked noses or upper jaws. King salmon originate in both North America and Asia and are found today in their native areas along the Pacific Rim from the Sacramento River Basin in California to Point Hope, Alaska, as well as from the Anadyr River area of Siberia south to Hokkaido. Chinook were the first Pacific salmon to be transplanted to other parts of the world; however, the only noteworthy successes were in New Zealand and as recent reports have suggested, in areas along the Pacific coast of Chile.
During spawning, the female must choose an appropriate location, usually in deeper waters with the proper current flow and gravel bed in which to deposit her eggs. She’ll rapidly pump her tail to create a redd in which to lay the eggs, after which she will use the same technique to cover them. A female can lay anywhere from 3,000 to 17,000 eggs; however, three fish for each parent would be considered a good reproduction level.
Biologists have discovered that king salmon develop a strong sense of smell at a young age, which it is presumed will later help them identify their natal stream. These remarkable salmon can detect one drop of water from their natal stream mixed in 250 gallons of sea water. However, since salmon are known to take long journeys of up to 3,000 miles during their ocean lives, it’s not exactly known how they find the mouth of their home stream. Scientists believe that they have the capacity to utilize magnetic and celestial orientation as well as a circadian calendar. It is known that they have 300-degree vision, which enables them to see in all directions except directly behind them.
Once a king reaches maturity it will return to the mouth of its home stream. Upon the journey upstream, it will often hold in tidal water or at various tributary mouths for several days, waiting until conditions are right before journeying upstream. Water flow, temperature and wind conditions all may affect how long they will hold in one location. For obvious reasons this can greatly benefits anglers, however, this behavior is unpredictable and dependent upon many variables.
As with all anadromous species, king salmon stop feeding upon entering freshwater. How then can we fish for them? It’s not clearly understood why salmon will bite during their migration upstream, however, theories have included that they bite out of frustration. This seems a reasonable suggestion considering the arduous journey, inability to eat, waiting to spawn, and all to be followed with inevitable death. Popular belief is that they will not move to bite, but will only do so if it’s placed directly in front of them, requiring no relocation on their part. This lends itself to the overall allure of catching a king, the challenge of that which is difficult to obtain.
Now that you have a sense for the biology and allure of the king salmon, where do you go to catch one? Most anglers who have traveled to Alaska have heard of the Kenai, undisputed champion of rivers that hold big Chinook. Many anglers have plied the saltwater of Cook Inlet from Ninilchik, Deep Creek, Anchor Point, and Homer or those of the many feeding lanes found throughout southeast Alaska from recognizable ports like Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, and Wrangell, all in search of sea-bright kings. Many Alaskans can speak of the strong runs of powerful kings moving through the Susitna Drainage to rivers and creeks like the Alexander, Deshka, Willow, Montana, Sheep, Talkeetna, and Yentna. Let’s not forget Kodiak and the many opportunities to intercept Chinook around the Emerald Island or Prince of Wales Island and the short ride to open water and migrating fish.
Our focus in this piece will touch upon one drainage often discussed as the best producer of king salmon in all of Alaska—the famed Nushagak—and continue across a portion of Alaska more commonly noted for its ridiculous returns of sockeye and proportionately huge rainbow trout—Bristol Bay. From the Togiak River in the west, to the Naknek River on the southeastern border, we will discuss four drainages that offer the best possibilities for king salmon.
Bristol Bay Region
What is commonly referred to as the Bristol Bay region is a series of waterways—typically lake and river system—that really need no introduction. Long known for its prolific runs of sockeye salmon (numbering in the tens of million) and for its trophy trout population, anglers from across the globe travel here to fish in grand style. For Bristol Bay, the first kings are customarily seen in early to mid-June, with the runs picking up steam by the first two weeks of July and then tapering off by the end of the month. Unlike many waterways that anglers target across Alaska, most of the Bristol Bay drainages are sparkling clear and devoid of glacial influence. This allows for an even more heart-pounding adventure as you try to put your lure in front of that log-sized salmon that is clearly visible through your polarized lenses. For purposes of this article, our goal is to hit the major rivers in which anglers fish Chinook, including the Nushagak, Togiak, Alagnak, and Naknek. This is not meant to be a comprehensive article, but rather a good starting point to choosing which major drainage suits your needs.
The Nushagak River might well be referred to as the king among king salmon rivers. At 275 miles long, it offers spectacular Alaska scenery, from rugged mountains to free-flowing tundra, as well as unparalleled diversity of river characteristics and nearly every fish species one might seek in Bristol Bay. And while the Nushagak has earned a reputation among anglers for the quality of everything from salmon to trout to Arctic grayling, many travel from around the world for one very big reason, 100,000 or more resplendent Bristol Bay king salmon—per year. 2004 saw an estimated 225,786 king salmon return to the Nushagak, and the early-season forecast for 2005 is an astounding 243,000 fish (these estimations refer to the river’s total return and include all the fish harvested by commercial, subsistence, and sport fisheries before the kings reach the ADF&G sonar station. In 2004, 116,400 Chinook were enumerated at the sonar).
Impressive in both size and diversity, the Nushagak River stretches towards Nushagak Bay and Dillingham, serving as drainage from a vast area stretching from the Lake Clark area to the Tikchik Lakes. Two of the larger tributaries of the mainstem Nushagak are the Nuyakuk and Mulchatna rivers. As a result of the vast array of tributaries and braids of the river, the Nushagak offers geographical diversity, which nicely complements the number of species and culminates with endless opportunities for anglers. The upper arm of the Nushagak, most of which is off-limits to king fishing (above Harris Creek), is paralleled by the Mulchatna River to the east. The best king fishing can be found below the convergence of the Mulchatna and upper Nushagak, where deeper waters provide good holding places. Much of the sport fishing for kings takes place in the lower river.
In 2004, from where the Nushagak and Mulchatna converge and downstream to the bay, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game allowed for king fishing between May 1 and July 31. The limit here was two per day, two in possession 20 inches or longer, only one over 28 inches, and an annual limit of four kings over 20 inches taken from the Nushagak / Mulchatna drainage. For kings under 20 inches, the limit is five per day and five in possession. From the Mulchatna confluence upstream to Harris Creek, the regulations were essentially the same with the exception that the season ended on July 24. If you’re going without a guide, be certain to check for last-minute emergency regulations put into effect by ADF&G.
Though the kings can begin arriving as early as May, the largest runs generally occur in the latter half of June and the beginning of July. The run times can differ slightly each year depending on many variables, and much like the weather, there’s not yet a way to make an accurate forecast. With the astounding number of kings migrating, even as run times vary, you’re not likely to be disappointed anytime between late June and early July.
With the Nushagak’s reputation for kings, you may arrive expecting ease in locating them, and if you go with a guide this is likely the case. Going it alone could prove slightly more challenging. Guides have the distinct advantage of being familiar with the river geography and most importantly, watching as the fish migrate to understand where they are from day-to-day. If you do choose to go it alone, keep in mind that kings generally hold in deeper waters (especially on brighter days). They tend to move in surges, which results from the effects of the tide when they first enter the mouth of a river, much like a stoplight affects surges of traffic on a highway. Look in obvious places such as along the edge of a slough, a backwater, shallow bar crossings, and side channels. If you locate fish rolling along the surface you can safely assume there are probably more nearby. Compared to other rivers in Bristol Bay, the Nushagak is relatively accessible. Commercial flights, such as those offered by PenAir, are available to take you from Anchorage to Dillingham, and from there you can reach your destination by boat or floatplane. Guides, lodges, and camps are abundant, especially during king season, due to what this river has to offer for so many anglers, a virtually guaranteed experience of a lifetime. Keep in mind that much of the middle and lower Nushagak runs through Native and other privately-owned land, which might require a land-use permit through the Native corporation for that area. Therefore, if you want a do-it-yourself trip, you’d be wise to do your homework ahead of time on camping restrictions as well as the current fishing regulations.
The Alagnak River was the first in Alaska to be designated (the upper 56 miles) as a National Wild and Scenic River (NWSR) by the National Park Service. This designation is given to selected rivers that ” possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values.”
The Alagnak River, sometimes called the Branch River, does not in any way fail to measure up to all the attributes contributing to this designation.
Two hundred and fifty miles southwest of Anchorage, the Alagnak River is a major draw for anglers seeking world-class Bristol Bay king salmon, due to its size and the number of kings spawning each year. Equally impressive as the run of kings is the dramatic variety of other species that are abundant here, including Alaska’s other four species of salmon, trophy-sized rainbows, Arctic char, Dolly Varden, lake trout, and Arctic grayling. The mix of geographical landscapes provides spectacular scenery along with diverse river characteristics from good wading waters and sandbars to wide swift water suitable for boat fishing for kings. The Alagnak really does have it all.
The crystal-clear Alagnak flows from its two lake sources, the Kukaklek and Nonvianuk, and runs 70 miles through a broad range of awe-inspiring Alaska landscape to spill into the Kvichak Bay. Located within Katmai National Park and Preserve, it’s these lake sources that serve as a filter and control, giving the river its spectacular clarity and controlling the volume, which makes for more consistent river conditions. Plentiful gravel beds combined with the clear water make this river ideal for spawning salmon, and for anglers as well.
For phenomenal Bristol Bay king fishing, hop aboard a powerboat and head straight for the lower sections of the river, where the water runs deep and the kings are acclimatizing to the freshwater as they enter the mouth of the Alagnak and begin their journey upstream. From below the section known as the braids down to the mouth of the river is where the best king fishing is to be had, and plenty of it. There is a mix of shallower waters and sandbars along with the deeper waters typical of Chinook.
The Alagnak River is fairly accessible to reach due to its reputation, which has resulted in a plentiful number of guides, lodges, and air-taxi services. Several commercial flight companies, such as PenAir, offer service from Anchorage to King Salmon, where a floatplane can take you to various points on the river. Many trips begin at Nonvianuk Lake; however, when on a specific mission for kings, you should choose to go directly to a more suitable location on the lower section. There’s a wide choice of guide services, lodges, and camps covering the full spectrum of services.
Open season for kings in 2004 on the Alagnak River was May 1 to July 31, and quantities were limited to three per day, three in possession, and only one over 28 inches. The king salmon limit for the season was five. Regulations state that if you plan on releasing a king, then at no time can you remove it from the water.
Fish are often intercepted by the end of June, and the run peaks in mid-July. Chinook runs sizes on the Alagnak have been indexed annually by aerial survey; the 1999 to 2003 average count was 4,366 and the 2004 count was 6,755 fish.
As one of the only road-accessible king fisheries in Bristol Bay, the Naknek River provides a unique combination for a Bristol Bay destination, joining phenomenal fishing with ease of accessibility. Three hundred miles southwest of Anchorage, the Naknek River is easily reached by taking a PenAir or other commercial flight from Anchorage to King Salmon. Each summer the community of King Salmon experiences a flood of arrivals that turn this sleepy town into a teeming fishtropolis.
Ironically, the Naknek River is less crowded than some of its neighboring rivers, which boast higher run numbers, when in fact the Naknek has a lot to offer. According to Jason Dye, Area Management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Naknek has recently experienced consistently large volumes compared to historical runs. Best estimates are that king salmon runs are somewhere near 5,000 per year.
The Naknek River drains Naknek Lake and flows 30 miles west to drain into Kvichak Bay. The dazzling emerald-colored Naknek Lake stretches well into Katmai and sits among volcanic mountains. A maze of other notable rivers and lakes dump into Naknek Lake. Fishing is open from June 8 through April 9 on most of the upper river. However, the best king fishing, usually done from a boat, takes place far below the lake on the lower part of the river from the mouth of Big Creek down to Paul’s Creek, where it meanders through vast tundra. In all flowing waters of the Naknek drainage, king fishing is open from June 8 through July 31 with unbaited, artificial lures only. In all flowing waters upstream from an ADF&G regulatory marker a half-mile upstream of Rapids Camp, including all waters within G-mile of all lake inlet and outlet streams, only unbaited, single-hook artificial lures may be used. Daily limits on king salmon are three per person, with one over 28 inches. Keep in mind that no king fishing is allowed on King Salmon Creek or Paul’s Creek. In Big Creek, upstream of the ADF&G marker at Peon Hole king fishing is limited to catch-and-release. Chinook are fishable in mid-June, reach peak by mid-July, and stay decent until the end of July when the season closes.
The river is a thoroughfare for many types of fish, including all five species of Alaska’s Pacific salmon, rainbow trout, Arctic grayling, and Dolly Varden. Arctic char, lake trout, and northern pike can be found within the Naknek Lake system. Resident fish reach huge proportions by combining the surplus of food generated by the large salmon runs with the almost ocean-like rigors experienced by surviving in such a large lake and river system. It’s not by accident that the Naknek is a world-class destination for rainbow trout.
There are varied options concerning lodges, guides, hotels, and boat rentals in the town of King Salmon, covering the full range of luxury and price. From do-it-yourself lodges on the river to hotels, guided daily fishing, and full-service lodges on the river that combine local fishing with short fly-outs to nearby hotspots, the Naknek has a fishing opportunity for everyone.
Beginning in Togiak Lake, the 70-mile Togiak River runs through the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge (TNWR) to Togiak Bay. A 90-minute commercial flight from Anchorage to Dillingham puts you at the staging point for a 40-minute flight to the river. At its top end, the river runs clear and is well suited for wade-fishing. On the lower stretches, the deep and winding Togiak is better suited to boat-fishing Chinook.
King salmon runs average around 25,000 fish and span from late June to late July. Chinook fishing was open from May 31 to July 31 in 2004 with a daily bag limit of three per day, with two over 28 inches. Other species found within the Togiak include the other four species of Pacific salmon, Dolly Varden, Arctic char, Arctic grayling, rainbow trout, and northern pike.
There are a combination of services available on the river but the most common is a tent camp. There are a few permanent facilities and several spike camps from nearby Bristol Bay lodges. Do-it-yourself float trips are possible, but will require planning and permitting from the National Parks Service and the Togiak Natives Ltd.
No matter which river you choose to target Bristol Bay king salmon, you will be blessed with varied scenery, wide open spaces, and outstanding fishing. From the variety and voracity of the resident species available to the huge numbers of returning salmon, you are sure to feel the fight of many powerful Alaska gamefish in your journey to Bristol Bay.
Marcus Weiner is publisher of Fish Alaska magazine.