Susitna River Alaska
Southcentral Alaska’s mighty Susitna River is the 15th largest river in the United States. Its surrounding land and many tributaries offer some of the most prized fishing and hunting grounds in Alaska readily accessible from Alaska’s population centers. The Susitna River, meaning “river of sand,” meanders through the traditional lands of the Dena’ina Alaska Native people and is rich with indigenous history.
The Susitna River and its tributaries are premiere sportfishing destinations, attracting anglers from near and far. Thousands of river miles offer valuable habitat for wild Pacific salmon, rainbow trout, Arctic grayling, Dolly Varden, and more. Notably, it’s the fourth-largest Chinook salmon producer in the state of Alaska, an accolade of increasing importance as we watch the abundance of the species continue to slip.
Ensure the Future Health of Rivers
In 1998 the Alaska Legislature recognized the immense value of the region by passing the Recreational River Act, which established mile-wide river corridors around Alexander Creek, Deshka River, Lake Creek, Little Susitna River, Talachulitna River, and Talkeetna River. The first management plan for the recreation rivers was adopted in 1991 following robust stakeholder input. The Susitna Basin Recreational Rivers plan was made to maintain important characteristics and ensure recreational access to these six rivers. This plan guides development, reserves water flows, and protects valuable fish-and-wildlife habitat. The management plan helps ensure the future health of rivers, which is critical as drastic watershed alterations such as the West Susitna Industrial Access Corridor are considered.
By direction of Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy, the plan is currently under review by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and an advisory committee representing various stakeholders. The scoping process for the management plan review was hosted in 2022 and proposed revisions are anticipated to come soon. By the time of publication, there could be a revised plan released to the public. Alaskans will get to comment on the proposed changes, and if the last couple years were any indication, recreational users will be turning out to defend it.
The Susitna Basin Recreational Rivers. © Kyle Albert
It is important that we are active participants in determining the future health of our rivers. Here’s what is at stake:
Little Susitna River – Tsałtastnu (no known translation)
The Little Susitna River is a clear, rushing mountain stream that drains the Talkeetna Mountains before flowing into Cook Inlet. The river begins with a class IV+ whitewater section through a canyon, before transitioning to a slow, meandering river in the lowlands.
The Little Susitna supports five species of Pacific salmon, rainbow trout, and Dolly Varden. The river can be accessed via car and boat, and is a popular spot for fishing, boating, hunting, kayaking, camping, snowmachining, dog mushing, and Nordic skiing. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) operates a weir to count Chinook, sockeye, coho, and chum salmon in the river.
Deshka River – Dashq’e Kaq’, “On The Bar Mouth”
The Deshka River runs from its headwaters south of Denali National Park to its confluence with the Susitna River. It is a clear, meandering river with mid-channel bars and riffles throughout. The Deshka is located in a remote setting and can be accessed by boat and floatplane. Its productive waters have long sustained the Dena’ina peoples.
The river supports five species of Pacific salmon along with rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, and Arctic grayling, but it is best known for its Chinook and coho salmon runs. It has historically generated the greatest Chinook salmon returns in upper Cook Inlet and it supports the largest silver salmon harvest of the west-Susitna tributaries. ADF&G has operated a weir on the river since 1995 that counts the annual returns of Chinook and coho salmon.
The Deshka is beloved by anglers, hunters, wildlife viewers, campers and boaters. In the winter months, you can often find snowmachiners and dog mushers traveling atop its frozen waters.
Talkeetna River – K’dalkitnu, “Food Is Stored River”
The Talkeetna River drains its namesake mountain range before flowing into the Susitna River. The swift, glacial river flows through a continuous class IV- to V whitewater canyon. The upper stretches are accessible by plane, and the lower section is popular with jet boaters and anglers.
The river contains five species of wild Pacific salmon, rainbow trout, Arctic grayling, and Dolly Varden. It is a popular place to fish, jet boat, kayak, raft, and camp.
Lake Creek – Hneh’itnu, “Upland Creek”
Lake Creek flows out of Chelatna Lake and into the Yentna River. The clear, swift river has two sections of class III- to IV rapids and several technical boulder gardens to navigate through. This remote river is accessible by floatplane or jet boat. The river supports five species of Pacific salmon, rainbow trout, Arctic grayling, and Dolly Varden. The river is a popular area to fish, boat, and hunt.
Talachulitna River – Tununiłch’ulyutnu, “River Where People Killed Each Other In Water”
The Talachulitna River winds from the scenic Tordrillo Mountains to the Skwentna River. It is a narrow, clear creek with sections of swift whitewater. The rainbow trout fishery here was one of the first in Alaska to be designated catch-and-release. The river is accessible via jet boat or floatplane.
The Talachulitna supports five species of Pacific salmon, rainbow trout, Arctic grayling, and Dolly Varden. The area is popular for whitewater kayaking, rafting, fishing, and hunting.
Alexander Creek – Tuqen Kaq’, “Clear Water Mouth”
Alexander Creek is a slow, meandering stream which flows from Alexander Lake into the Susitna River. Its class I waters are friendly to beginner boaters. This remote stream is accessible by plane or jet boat.
Alexander Creek supports five species of Pacific salmon, rainbow trout, Arctic grayling, and Dolly Varden. The system was once a highly productive Chinook and coho fishery, but invasive northern pike have negatively impacted native fish populations. Invasive pike are present in many Susitna Basin streams, but they have taken a particular stronghold in Alexander Creek as its slow-moving water is ideal habitat for them. ADF&G has a long-term gillnetting project to control northern pike on Alexander Creek to help replenish the salmon and resident fish populations in the creek and restore sportfishing opportunities.
These rivers offer some of the best fishing and boating experiences in the state and support a host of other recreational users. The advocates who spoke up for them and helped pass the Recreational Rivers Act gave a gift to future users. Now it is time for us to speak up and ensure future users enjoy the same scenic spaces, clean water, and wild fish. To learn more visit tu.org/susitna.
Trout Unlimited’s mission is to protect, reconnect and restore North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds. Learn about our work in Alaska by following @TroutUnlimitedAlaska on Facebook and Instagram. Marian Giannulis is the Alaska Communications Director for Trout Unlimited.