Sockeye salmon fishing is an extremely exciting sport. Many anglers consider them the pound-for-pound strongest fish that swims in Alaska. It’s not uncommon for a 7-pound sockeye to make a mockery of the fisherman holding the rod. Imagine the speed and agility of a rainbow trout, ferocity of a coho, doggedness of a chum salmon and gravity-defying moves of a steelhead. Then roll them into one delicious fish, and you’ve got the Alaska sockeye salmon.
Sockeye salmon fishing can be challenging for anglers new to the activity. The predominant technique for catching this species is by flossing them. The idea here is that sockeye are swimming upriver near the bottom of the river and close to shore. Anglers can hook them in the mouth by running a leader attached to a fly into their open mouths. Rod, rigging and technique all come into play to do this properly. Done improperly, anglers often snag the river bottom or snag a fish. Sometimes they hook themselves or each other. So let’s avoid all that and learn the correct way to floss sockeye salmon.
Gearing up to fish for Sockeye
Our preferred technique is to use an 8- or 9-weight fly rod. We match it with a fly reel with a strong drag. Next we connect floating or sink tip fly line to a 5- to 10-foot leader. Then we add the weight and fly. In shallower, faster water, a longer leader is the better move. Use enough weight so that it bounces bottom every second or so, and does not snag on the bottom. That means using heavier weight in deeper, stronger current. On the Kenai and Kasilof, 1/2- and 3/4-ounce weights are common. Some anglers use pencil lead so they can better adjust weight for the run they are fishing. Flies are sparsely dressed and where legal, bare hooks are a good choice.
Where to Find Them
When choosing a spot for sockeye salmon fishing, gravel bars that border uniform runs are good choices. Sockeye often travel close to shore in as little as a few feet of water. So standing ankle deep on a gravel bar in front of a migration lane puts you in the ballgame. Since sockeye typically run close to shore, an angler doesn’t need to wade far into the water or cast far to catch them. In fact, it can be counter productive to sockeye salmon fishing to do so. Basically, an angler that wades too far out ends up pushing the migrating fish farther from shore.
Start by wading a few feet into the water from shore, strip out 10 feet of fly line and cast it straight out in front of you to the 12 o’clock position. The goal is to cast all the line so that you don’t have any fly line in your reeling hand and all the slack line has been cast. When you bump into a fish, you are now ready to set the hook. You’ll achieve a much better hook set with no slack in the line. Trust us, you’ll want a good hook set to stay pinned to a cartwheeling sockeye.
Sockeye Fishing Technique: How to Floss for Reds
Let the weight and fly swing down to the 2 o’clock position with the rod tip close to the water. Begin to sweep the rod towards the shore, with a steady pace that keeps the weight moving without snagging. If you feel any resistance anywhere in the cast, set the hook. If not, cast back to 12 o’clock and begin the next drift.
Sockeye generally return to natal rivers in late June and throughout July, with bright fish still available to sockeye salmon fishing enthusiasts into August in some runs. Wild sockeye salmon runs remain strong in Alaska, with fish runs numbering into the millions in many popular fisheries. Sockeye salmon are the favorite salmon to eat for many anglers, and they produce firm, orange-red fillets that are delicious and milder than a king or coho.
Popular Fishery: Kenai and Kasilof
The Kenai and Kasilof rivers are among the most popular destinations in Alaska for sockeye salmon fishing. Both rivers see substantial numbers of fish. Kasilof River sockeye run a little smaller than Kenai sockeye, with an average fish in the range of 6 pounds on the Kasilof and 7- to 8 pounds on the Kenai. As of July 24, the ADF&G Fish Count for the Kasilof reports 502,468 sockeye since June 15. The Kenai sees two distinct runs of sockeye, a small early run that arrives in late June and is mainly destined for the Russian River and a large second run that is spread throughout the Kenai. From July 1 through July 24 (second run), 444,520 sockeye have entered the Kenai. This run will continue into August; the 4-year average for the run (2019-2022) is 1,893,299 sockeye.
We’ve recently completed the “Soldotna Hardware How to Fish for Sockeye” video featured above and it shows you the details of gear, rigging and technique. You can see from our fish-catching footage that we love sockeye salmon fishing; see you on the river!