Kodiak Island article by Fish Alaska Staff
Magnificent Kodiak Island: Fishing Overview
Kodiak Island, also known as the Emerald Isle, conjures thoughts of fertile, fish-filled waters, lush mountainsides, and of course, the iconic Kodiak brown bear. Situated in the Gulf of Alaska about 250 miles from Anchorage, separated from mainland Alaska by Shelikof Strait, Kodiak Island is approximately 3,590 square miles, making it the second largest island in the United States. The island’s population lives in the city of Kodiak and the six remote villages around the island which include: Old Harbor, Karluk, Port Lions, Ouzinkie, Larsen Bay and Akhiok. The majority of the population lives in Kodiak and along the accompanying road system.
The greater Kodiak Island Archipelago is comprised of 16 main islands, and 25 islands in sum, which create a wonderland of protected bays and islands for the intrepid angler and hunter to explore. Climate is generally mild by Alaska standards, with winter lows rarely going below 0ºF and summer highs rarely eclipsing 75ºF. Average annual snowfall is about 6 feet, with an average precipitation of 70 inches. It’s the mild, reasonably wet climate that keeps the Emerald Island verdant.
Kodiak is culturally rich and steeped in history, beginning with the indigenous Alutiiq people for whom Kodiak is their native land. By the mid-1700s, Kodiak was explored by Russians and by the late 1700s the first Russian settlement was established in Three Saints Bay by Grigory Shelikhov. History shows that the Russians did not treat the Alutiiq humanely, and all but enslaved them to hunt and trap fur. With the 1867 Alaska Purchase, Kodiak became part of the United States.
Commercial and sport fishing are two important industries in Kodiak. Additional industries include government, transportation, military and tourism. The US Coast Guard base situated in the city of Kodiak is the largest base in the United States, and is home to several cutters as well as an Air Station that is comprised of multiple types of helicopters including the MH-65D Dolphin and MH-60T Jayhawk, in addition to the fixed-wing HC130J Hercules aircraft.
Wildlife in the Kodiak Archipelago is diverse and abundant. Marine mammals that you might encounter include orca, gray and humpback whales, Dall’s porpoise, Steller sea lions, harbor seals, and sea otters. Land-based mammals present include Sitka black-tailed deer, bison, Roosevelt elk, caribou, mountain goats, foxes, and brown bear. Bird species are abundant and over 200 species inhabit the area. Bald eagles and puffins are two of the common birds that typify Alaska and are present in abundance around Kodiak.
Fish species include all five species of Pacific salmon, halibut, lingcod, rockfish, Pacific cod, rainbow trout, steelhead trout, Dolly Varden and Arctic char. Excellent opportunities to catch fish in both the freshwater and saltwater are present throughout the Archipelago.
Generally speaking, king salmon angling is at its peak in May through July in the saltwater. Common methods of catching saltwater kings include trolling with downriggers using flashers and herring, spoons or hoochies; jigging metal jigs that imitate baitfish like needlefish, candlefish and herring; and mooching plug-cut herring. The saltwater surrounding Kodiak Island holds ample stocks of baitfish, and king salmon that have not yet reached sexual maturity—feeder kings—can often be caught year-round by anglers willing to put in the time. On average, mature kings range from 15- to 40 pounds with an occasional bigger fish caught, and feeder kings average 5- to 25 pounds.
As July rolls around, pinks, chums and silvers are present in the salt and can be targeted with similar trolling tactics. By early August, silvers become the main salmon attraction for the remainder of the summer season. Coho (silvers) can be very aggressive in the salt and are easily targeted by trolling hoochies or spoons like the Silver Horde Coho Killer behind a Hot Spot 11-inch flasher. Downriggers are an integral part of the program, allowing anglers to effectively place lures at the depths at which coho are feeding. Pinks range from 3- to 8 pounds, chums from 8- to 20-plus pounds and coho from 6 to 20-plus pounds.
Bottomfish in Kodiak saltwater include halibut, lingcod, many species of rockfish and true (Pacific) cod. Halibut are targeted by fishing bait on or near the bottom or by jigging lures. Common baits include herring, salmon, cod and octopus. When fishing bait, anglers will employ stout rods capable of fighting fish that can exceed 200 pounds, reels with substantial drags that can house 300 yards of 80-pound-test (or larger) braid, heavy-duty leaders commonly called gangions that are essentially 200-pound-plus test paracord, either circle or j-hooks that are 10/0 to 20/0, and either a fixed or sliding weight that has enough mass to keep bait on or near the bottom, depending on tides. Usually the weight is 1- to 3 pounds. Halibut jigs like the Kodiak Custom Bottom Fish jig, P-line Halibut Drop jig or Kalin’s Big’N Leadhead jig with a 10-inch Big’N Grub are examples of proven bottomfish lures. Jigs in the 16-ounce range are a good starting point.
Lingcod prowl the rocky pinnacles around the island. They are steely-eyed predators with big teeth to match a nasty attitude. Similar jigs as those mentioned for halibut are the go-to for lingcod. Due to the toothy nature of their smile, a short section of steel leader is worth considering in your tackle box. Lingcod are the largest member of the greenling family and are as delicious on the plate as they are fearsomely ugly.
Rockfish are abundant around the island and some of the common species include dark, black, dusky and yelloweye. They are voracious feeders and will attack small jigs that resemble baitfish. Dark, black and dusky are smaller, average about 3 pounds, and are generally found in fairly shallow water, sometimes suspended well off bottom. Yelloweye are larger, average about 10 pounds, and are deepwater dwellers that stay near the bottom. Try a 6- to 12-ounce lead head jig with a grub tail to latch into yelloweye.
Pacific cod are an often-overlooked species, thought by many to be a nuisance species or bait. However, Pacific cod are delicious, abundant and willing to bite. Consider adding them to your target list statewide.
Kodiak has several early sockeye runs that begin in early or mid-May and several others that begin in late June. Kings begin to move into river systems in late June, and both sockeye and kings and can be found into August. Pink and chum salmon begin to migrate into the rivers by late July into early August, and coho salmon begin to move into rivers by late August. Of all the salmon species in Kodiak, silvers get the most attention in freshwater.
Sockeye salmon range from about 4- to 8 pounds on Kodiak Island. As plankton eaters, they are not aggressive biters. Most anglers use fly rods with floating line and sparsely tied flies. Similar flies are the norm for conventional anglers.
Chum are not given the respect they deserve. They will strike a swinging fly or lure, and will also hit either streamer or lure on the strip and retrieve. When in doubt on color, go with pink.
Pink salmon are often eager to eat anything that gets close. Small streamers, spinners, spoons and jigs will all work.
King salmon are taken on big, bright streamers, egg patterns, spinners, jigs, spoons and plugs.
Silver salmon are abundant and the main event for most anglers heading to Kodiak to target salmon. In freshwater, coho eat flies and lures with abandon, until they get lockjaw. At that point it helps to have a range of lures and flies to reignite the bite. Twitching jigs pitched and retrieved into deep pools is often a deadly method. Try floating flies when approaching undisturbed fish and you may get one to bite on top!
One of the species found in many rivers and streams around Kodiak is the ubiquitous Dolly Varden char. These anadromous char go to sea in May and return to streams throughout the summer and fall to spawn and overwinter. While in the ocean they are silver-colored with light orange spots. As they enter freshwater, they become a green color and their spots turn orange/red. When spawning time approaches, they become brilliantly colored (more so in the males, which also develop a hooked kype) with red, black and white bellies, black gill covers, brightly colored orange/red spots and orange and black fins with a white edge. These fish are voracious eaters, and in the fall, they are reliably found behind salmon staging to spawn. At that time, a dead-drifted bead or egg pattern will get bit. This species is a great choice for beginning and advanced anglers alike, are often present in large quantities, and offer a great fail-safe plan should the salmon you are targeting not be present.
Arctic char look very similar to dollies and in most places are pretty difficult to tell apart, though often have larger pectoral fins and fewer, larger spots than dollies. They are found in most of the large drainages on the island, particularly those with lakes and have both resident and anadromous varieties. They are often caught in lakes in the late summer or fall following spawning sockeye. A couple places they are targeted on occasion are Saltery, Karluk and Red lakes.
Rainbow trout are both native to Kodiak Island and have also been stocked in numerous roadside lakes. Presently, 14 road system lakes are being stocked with rainbow trout.
Steelhead trout are a highly sought-after gamefish and Kodiak offers several solid opportunities. These anadromous fish live in the saltwater until they return in September through November to spawn and overwinter, returning to the sea in the spring.
Road system angling in Kodiak provides many opportunities to catch salmon, char and trout. In general, rivers and creeks on the road system are intimate and manageable with pools, riffles and gravel bars that are easily fished.
Red salmon are found in the Buskin, Pasagshak and Saltery rivers, with the largest population by far in Saltery. These hard-fighting salmon are excellent table fare.
King salmon have been stocked in several places on the road system: Salonie Creek, and both the Olds and American rivers. While not found in abundant numbers, kings make an excellent addition and make it possible to catch all five species of salmon in the road system freshwater. In late July/early August, ambitious road system anglers can attempt to land all five in a single day.
Pink salmon can be found in most road system rivers and are the most numerous salmon species on Kodiak. Angling is often done on ocean beaches like that found at the mouth of the Olds River, where pink salmon are dime-bright. Many ocean beaches on Kodiak allow anglers to wade on shallow flats and intercept pinks in prime condition.
Chum salmon are the second largest salmon on Kodiak Island and are found in most road system rivers.
Silver salmon are the main draw for road system anglers heading to Kodiak. Traditionally, about 1/4 of the run has entered rivers by the beginning of September and the vast majority have entered by the end of September. Popular road system locations include the Buskin, Pasagshak, Olds and American rivers, as well as Saltery, Roslyn and Salonie creeks. Stocking efforts over the last 35 years have also established sport fisheries at the beaches of Mill Bay, Monashka Bay, Mission and Pillar Creek. Lake Rose Tead, Kalsin Pond and Buskin Lake are three spots on the island where float tubes and small boats can be employed to allow anglers to access coho. Catching one in a float tube is extremely fun.
Dolly Varden anglers will find they have plenty of options that include: Buskin, Saltery, Pasagshak, Olds, and American rivers, as well as Roslyn, Salonie, Monashka, Pillar, and Chiniak creeks.
Steelhead trout can be found in small numbers in the Buskin, Miam and Saltery rivers. Rainbow trout have been stocked in the following road system lakes: Abercrombie, Island, Dark, Big, Lilly, Lee, Caroline, Aurel, Cicely, Dragonfly, Horseshoe, Heitman, Bull and East Twin.
Remote fisheries around Kodiak Island can provide explosive action for all the freshwater species on Kodiak.
Red salmon can be found in large numbers in rivers including the Karluk and Ayakulik, and these would be among the best choices for remote sockeye fishing on the island. The Karluk deserves noteworthy mention as it receives two runs of sockeye that last throughout most of the summer. Also worth considering is the Dog Salmon River and Frazer Lake.
Pink salmon can be found in just about every trickle of water around the island.
Chum salmon are found in most flowing waters around the island. Rivers like Dog Salmon, Karluk, Sturgeon and Uganik will have chums in fishable numbers.
King salmon are native to both the Karluk and Ayakulik rivers. Runs have been depressed over the last decade, but both rivers, when open to Chinook angling, are dynamite options for anglers.
Silver salmon are abundant in remote Kodiak fisheries. Anglers that target these acrobatic, high-flying salmon will enjoy the battle and gravity-defying moves that silvers often display. Best options for remote freshwater anglers include the Ayakulik, Karluk, Little and Uganik rivers, and Olga, Zachar and Spiridon bays.
In all, ADF&G has identified 16 remote steelhead rivers on Kodiak. The best chance to catch one is in the Karluk River, which has an average annual return of about 8,000 fish. The Ayakulik, Frazer, Dog Salmon and Litnik rivers are all good options.
Dolly Varden can be found in most major systems around the island including Karluk, Uganik and Ayakulik.
When on Kodiak Island, it’s fairly common to see brown bears. Kodiak brown bears are among the biggest in the world and are a curious and intelligent animal. They prefer to stay away from people, but are commonly sighted on both road system and remote rivers where both anglers and bears are looking to catch salmon. Be bear-wise; give them plenty of room, don’t approach them, make noise to announce your presence, keep a clean camp, don’t feed bears, break off fish if a bear approaches and throw salmon carcasses back into the river rather than leaving them on the bank. Click here for more information.
For those that want a chance to view bears, consider a visit to the Kodiak Brown Bear Center on Karluk Lake. The facility is operated by Koniag and offers visitors a comfortable and luxurious location to view these amazing creatures.
For those that want to get out and explore, there are plenty of opportunities. Kayaking, wildlife viewing, whale watching, ATV excursions, and visiting places like the Fort Abercrombie State Historic Park are all options. Several air taxis provide aerial tours.
Museums and cultural attractions abound in Kodiak. Consider visiting the Alutiiq Museum, Kodiak History Museum, Kodiak Maritime Museum and Kodiak Military History Museum. Stop by the Discover Kodiak offices and learn more about what’s going on across the Emerald Island.
Hunting for Sitka black-tailed deer, mountain goat, brown bear, Roosevelt elk, bison and caribou are available on the island. A range of guides, outfitters and support services are available to help hunters.
The Emerald Island is a jewel in the Alaska landscape for anglers, hunters, and outdoor adventurers. From roadside fisheries to remote expeditions, visitors to Kodiak will not be disappointed.
Find recommended Kodiak Island lodges, charters, businesses, and more here.
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Fish Alaska.