THE SURF: KODIAK’S NEW FISHING FRONTIER
Story and photos by JD Richey
From a fishing standpoint, Kodiak Island has it all—prolific salmon, halibut and rockfishing offshore and epic stream and lake action inland. While both the ocean and freshwater angles have been well documented, there’s a whole other aspect to the island’s fisheries that is completely untouched; a new frontier left to be explored…surf fishing.
Along the Kodiak road system, there’s an endless supply of sandy beaches, gravel bays and craggy shoreline for enterprising anglers to explore. Even more exciting, the surf zone plays host to a cool variety of species, so you just never know what you’re going to catch. Additionally, you can do surf fishing (or surf-fresh) combo trip along the road on your own without spending a ton of dough.
In late August, Tim Reilly and I stumbled onto the island’s surf scene quite by accident. We had been dispatched from Fish Alaska HQ to Kodiak to try to find something new and interesting to write about—no small task, considering the amount of articles that have been done on the area in recent years in various publications. After a couple days of catching a million chrome pinks and a few early silvers in rivers like the American, Buskin, Olds, Russian and Pasagshak, we had hit kind of a dead end. The fishing was spectacular, but from an article standpoint, it had all been done before.
Then, we made a breakthrough. Darlene Turner, the lovely and wonderful owner of A Smiling Bear Bed & Breakfast (where we stayed the first half of our trip) suggested that we go throw a couple casts off the beach behind her place on the southeastern shore of Monashka Bay before breakfast. Armed with a handful of spoons, Reilly and I hit the beach…and let’s just say we ended up late for breakfast. Bright pinks were cruising parallel to the beach and fat dollies were crashing into schools of candlefish just outside the surf line. If we kept the casts close to shore, we hooked salmonids, but when we would toss out further and let our hardware sink, all sorts of critters of the deep would grab on.
It was a light-tackle paradise and we caught small halibut, black and blue rockfish, Irish Lords, sculpin, greenlings, Pacific cod and some other unidentifiables. That morning, our focus for the rest of the trip changed. Our new mission: to try to uncover as much about surf fishing options in Kodiak as possible. Here’s what we found:
Since we were staying on the north side of town for another couple days, we decided to concentrate on the road system from the airport north. Each morning and evening, we’d hit the beach behind Turner’s place for more mixed bag action and then, by day, we check out other spots.
At the southwestern corner of Monashka Bay, we found Pillar Beach (at the mouth of Pillar Creek) to be loaded with humpies and assorted rockfish. While the creek mouth itself was very shallow and hard to fish, we were able to easily hike quite a ways along the rocky shoreline on the inlet’s north side. With pink and silver spoons, we caught as many humpies as we wanted and quite a variety of small rockfish as well.
Kings are available here earlier in the season, too. According to Alaska Department of Fish & Game sportfish biologist, Suzanne Schmidt, the ADF&G has a broodstock program in Pillar Creek and the kings start returning around the first week of July.
“It’s mainly a saltwater fishery,” she says. “The fish come in, nose around at the mouth of the creek and people can catch them off the beach with lures—mainly at high tide.”
White Sands Beach
At lunch one day, we wandered downtown and into Cy’s Sporting Goods and started asking about surf fishing. Cy suggested we give White Sands Beach a try. He noted that guys with spoons or white streamers can often hook pinks, silvers and halibut in there—which sounded just like what we were looking for.
Located at the northern terminus of Monashka Bay Road, White Sands Beach was aglow in sunshine when Reilly and I arrived and the powdery sand framed by towering green peaks evoked images of Kauai. As we took in the scenic splendor, a salmon jumped and we quickly snapped back into business mode and hit the water. In a couple hours of casting, we managed another 2.3 trillion pinks, one small halibut and no silvers.
The mouth of Monashka Creek also has an enhanced king run like the one just down the road at Pillar and Schmidt says the timing is about the same—hit it around the Fourth of July and you should be in business. Krocodile spoons, Blue Fox Super Vibrax spinners and herring fished under floats will all solicit strikes from kings here. Again, high tide is your best bet.
Mill & Mission Bays
Just around the corner from Monashka Bay near Fort Abercrombie Start Park is Mill Bay, which is another one of ADF&G’s enhanced fisheries. Instead of kings, however, coho are the target here. Schmidt says that the Department releases baby coho into a small lake above the bay, which swim down a tiny creek during high water and out to the sea. The creek is too small for the fish to swim up when they return as adults, so the silvers just roam around the mouth, providing a nice little opportunity for surf anglers in August and early September.
We checked out Mill Bay a couple times during our visit, but the coho didn’t appear to be in quite yet. As usual, there were plenty of humpies and sculpin to play with, however. A couple local anglers said that they normally do well here casting ½-ounce silver/orange Little Cleo spoons.
It’s the same story down at Mission Bay just northeast of Near Island. ADF&G releases coho smolt into Potato Patch Lake and then they return as spawning adults to the beach there. Again, surf casters who time it right can catch some beautiful coho there in the late summer and early fall.
Gibson Cove/St. Paul Boat Harbor
Driving southwest out of downtown Kodiak on Rezanof Drive, we were compelled several times to pull over and cast to the countless humpies we could see jumping in all directions in the boat harbor. Everywhere we stopped, giant black rafts of pinks were holding near the gravel shoreline and they were super responsive to 1/8-ounce pink marabou jigs, pink hootchies and small Dick Nite spoons in, you guessed it, pink. As a nice little bonus, we also caught a few nice silvers mixed in with all the pinks. It was an amazing fishery…all within sight of downtown and the Coast Guard docks.
Buskin River Mouth
There were a handful of fresh silvers in the Buskin River on our trip, but it seemed that the majority of fish were being taken down in the estuary and the mouth. There’s plenty of access to the lower river and delta via the Buskin River State Recreation Area just north of the airport. You can park about 200 yards up from the mouth and cast spinners to fish milling around in the estuary or don some waders and work the beach area for staging fish in the salt. I hate to sound like a broken record, buthigh tide is the time to be here.
Anton Larsen Bay
Okay, so just for the sake of taking a really cool scenic drive, the trip over the mountain to Anton Larsen Bay (on Anton Larsen Bay Road) is well worth the time. There’s not a ton of shore fishing to be done out there, but the road runs along the western edge of the upper bay for a couple miles and it’s one of the rare opportunities to get your gear into some deeper water. There’s a nice steep rocky bank near the boat launch that we pulled some rockfish off of with swimbaits and you could probably hook a couple small halibut in there with some effort.
Mouths of Sargent Creek & Russian River
During the second half of our Kodiak stay, we switched base camp to the Eider House Bed & Breakfast in the Bell’s Flats area south of town, where we were again treated with great hospitality and food (the fresh crab was to die for!). From there we figured we could explore the road system’s southern end. Sargent Creek runs right through the Eider House’s back yard and since it was full of salmon, we decided to make the nearby mouth of the creek our first stop on the second phase of our surf fishing mission.
There’s a nice little pullout and parking area by the bridge and easy access right down to where the creek and Russian River meet the saltwater of Women’s Bay. At high tide, there’s not a whole lot of room with which to work, but there are hundreds of yards worth of gravel flats to cast from when the tide ebbs. On both tides, we caught more pinks than we could count, but couldn’t manage any other species.
Both the Russian River and Sargent Creek get modest coho runs and the trick here is to just invest some time and hope you eventually hit it when a pod of fresh fish is moving in.
Middle Bay/American River Mouth
From what we could tell, the American River was the largest drainage on the road system and therefore, worthy of some extra investigation. It’s a bit of a hike from the road bridge down to the beach, but once there we found schools of coho and chums mixed in with enormous schools of bright pinks. Like usual, the pinks went gaga for our marabou jigs and we quickly found out that the silvers liked them equally as well.
Compliments of the ADF&G, the American also gets a run of hatchery kings every summer and beach casters come down with hardware in July to target the fish in the salt as they start to return to the river. The fish typically go 20 pounds, but 30-plus-pounders aren’t out of the question.
This is also the place some local folks target big halibut off the bank. The flatties follow humpy schools in towards the beach and anglers with specialized tackle can sometimes hook fish over 100 pounds. The best way to do it is to rig up with at least 80-pound braided line and stout rods with high capacity reels. Bait up with cut bait and cast out as far as possible. To increase their chances of getting their bait in front of a halibut, some creative anglers carry their baits 100 yards or more out into the bay on kayaks and then paddle back to shore and wait for a bite.
For anglers with off road vehicles or ATV’s, Saltery Cove is worth a trip. From the American River Bridge, it’s about a 15-mile ride on a dirt road down to the cove, which is in Ugak Bay. In addition to the usual humpies and silvers, shore casters can also get into red salmon in mid to late July. The Saltery River gets over 30,000 reds annually, so the fishing in the middle of the summer can be very good.
Another good enhanced coho fishery exists at Mayflower Beach, which is located right where the road first hits the upper end of Kalsin Bay. The ADF&G runs the same program here as it does at Mill and Mission bays and some decent silver fishing can be had off the beach in August and early September.
Kalsin Bay/Mouth of the Olds River
Kalsin Bay was probably the most prolific surf spot we found on Kodiak. The beach was absolutely loaded with pinks and just beyond were nice schools of leaping, staging silvers and chums. Though we caught some fish on chrome spoons, most of our salmon of all varieties came on pink marabou jigs, 1/8-ounce pink squid jigs or Kodiak Custom Tackle’s G.I. Skirt Spinners. And if we ever reeled too slowly, bottomfish of various sizes and colors would gobble up our lures.
As you drive down the hill towards the head of Kalsin Bay, you’ll see the Kalsin Bay Inn on your left. You can pull in there for a burger or a beer and then take the dirt road down to the beach. In a 2-wheel drive rental car, you can only go a few hundred yards, but with a 4X4, you can run the whole length of the beach from the Inn to the mouth of the Olds River. The whole beach is worth investigating and only gets better for silvers into September.
The mouth of the Olds River is also a great spot for kings in July as yet another one of the ADF&G’s hatchery runs comes home. The Department plants 80,000 Chinook smolt here and, when those fish come back, they are susceptible to Buzz Bombs, Krocodiles, herring and spinners pitched into the surf.
One of the Kodiak locals we met called the Pasagshak River the “Kenai of Coho.” He said that the fish there have as big an average size as anywhere in the state. Indeed, the river and Lake Rose Tead just upstream are known for producing lots of silvers in the high teens and low 20-pound class. But what if you’re there a bit early in the season like Reilly and me?
Well, you head down to the beach and try to hit some early silvers as they sniff around the mouth of the river. As with most spots on the road, access to the lower Pasagshak and mouth couldn’t have been better. There’s can’t-miss parking lot about 100 yards upstream of the mouth and it’s a quick jaunt down to the water from the car.
The usual suspects—pinks—were stuffed by the tens of thousands in the Pasagshak proper, but the silvers were few and far between. So at high tide, we threw our waders on and walked out past the sand bar at the mouth and started casting Blue Fox spinners into the 2-foot surf. Soon, a school of silvers materialized out of the depths and we immediately swung and missed on a couple grabs. Eventually, one stuck for me and I ended up landing and releasing a chrome brute that was probably 20 or 22 pounds.
About as far south as you can go on the Kodiak road system lies Surfer’s Beach, a beautiful stretch of sun-drenched—when we were there, at least—sand with a perfect right to left break (yes, they do surf here). From the road above, we could see tons of birds working schools of bait just off shore, so we made a stop and took a few casts. With about a 4-foot shore break, our light gear was a bit under gunned, but it was obvious that there was plenty of aquatic life around. In addition to the birds crashing, there were whales out a quarter mile and seals cruising the surf. Additionally, a few tiny creeks that flowed across the beach were stuffed with humpies.
While we didn’t get bit, we inquired about Surfer’s Beach back at Cy’s that evening and he told us that silvers making the right turn around Narrow Cape hug the shore along the beach. Judging by all the baitfish around, halibut there would also be a very strong possibility if one were outfitted with some heavier gear.
In the summer months, some of Kodiak’s best saltwater king fishing occurs in Chiniak Bay and off Cape Chiniak. Trollers take the majority of the fish hooked in that area, but there are a handful of folks who catch kings and halibut at nearby Buoy 4 in kayaks launched off the beach. Technically not surf fishing, but the next logical step.
TheChiniak Highway runs along the shore from just past Kaslin Pond (great for float tubing for silvers later in the fall) to the Chiniak Lake trail. At places like Myrtle Beach, Roslyn Beach and the Cape, you can get down to the water and try your hand at a mixture of silvers, pinks, chums, kings, dollies and bottomfish—depending on the time of year.
Starting in April and running into June, you can venture down to just about any creek mouth on the road system and find hungry dollies in the salt. The fish position themselves just offshore of the streams and feast on out-migrating salmon smolt. Judging by the number of spawning pink salmon we saw, there’s plenty of food for the char. Small silver Kastmasters and Krocodiles on spinning gear or white or silver streamers on fly gear can produce non-stop action.
For beach casting, Reilly and I both rigged up with 9- to 9 ½-foot medium-light action rods (spinning and casting) and spooled up with 20-pound braided line topped with a 10-foot section of 12-pound fluorocarbon leader. For silvers, chums, humpies and dollies, we found 1/8-ounce pink, purple and orange marabou jigs to be deadly, along with 1/8-ounce squid jigs in pink, firetiger and fluorescent red. Assorted spoons and spinners in chrome/orange, chrome/blue and hot pink also fished well.
I also managed plenty of willing biters on pink, black and purple bunny leeches fished on a dry line and No. 7 fly rod.
When we were targeting bottomfish, 3- to 5-inch white/black swimbaits combined with ½- to ¾-ounce lead heads were the ticket. As noted earlier, however, the bottom dwellers had no problem sucking down the stuff we were using for salmon, too.
There’s plenty of lodging in Kodiak, ranging from fancy lodges to motels. We changed things up this trip and stayed at bed & breakfasts, which turned out to be a great option. Great meals, reasonable rates and excellent inside local knowledge are some of the benefits of staying at a B&B. Both A Smiling Bear (907-481-6390; www.asmiling bear.com) and the Eider House (907-487-4315; www.eiderhouse.com) were excellent base camps.
You can pick up a car at the airport from Budget (907-487-2220) and the rates were surprisingly affordable.
• Kodiak ADF&G (907) 486-1880
• Mack’s Sport Shop (907) 486-4276
JD Richey is a contributing editor for Fish Alaska.