Story by Troy Letherman
Tucked deep into towering mountains, within a short kayak paddle of several tidewater glaciers and pushed snug against Port Valdez—a natural fjord reaching inland about 11 miles from Prince William Sound—there are few places in the world that can rival the sheer stunning beauty of Valdez, Alaska.
The town is one of the state’s busiest winter destinations, boasting the ideal landscape for snowmachining, backcountry skiing, ice climbing and its world-famous heli-skiing and snowboarding scene (the area receives more than 300 inches of snow annually, making it ‘the snowiest place in the U.S.’). In the summer, Valdez really comes to life, with locals and visitors alike venturing afield to hike, kayak, explore the glaciers and more. Sample the local cuisine, visit one of several shops pitching their authentically Alaskan wares and check out the oil connection—Valdez is where the Trans-Alaska Pipeline meets the tankers headed back through Prince William Sound.
At its heart, however, Valdez is a fish town.
With one of the most accessible harbors in Alaska, this town of 4,000 year-round residents offers a solid fleet of day-fishing charters, rental boats and facilities, tackle, accommodations and anything else needed to target Prince William Sound silvers, pinks, an expanding king salmon run, salmon sharks, halibut and rockfish. An aggressive hatchery program fills the waters of the small boat-harbor with pinks in July and silvers in August and September, and for those looking for a quick fishing fix, it can be red-hot from the bank at Allison Point near the hatchery and even off the downtown docks. It’s literally so convenient, you could order a latte on Fidalgo Drive, walk across the street and cast into the melee of silvers before your coffee cools.
The 1,000 nautical miles of Prince William Sound, which begin just beyond the narrows of Valdez Bay, act as a giant funnel, pulling hatchery and wild silvers, pinks, kings and halibut in from the Gulf of Alaska, depositing a fair portion of them at the docks along Valdez’ business district.Alaska’s first fish derby was held here in 1952, and every year since. Derby season 2018 begins with the opening of the Halibut Derby on May 19 and ends September 2 with the close Silver Derby. In between is the Halibut Hullabaloo, Women’s Silver Salmon Derby and Kid’s Pink Salmon Derby.
Before all that, though, you first have to get here.
For air travelers, the flight from Anchorage to Valdez is a mere 45-minute journey through the coastal Chugach Mountains. Visitors can also arrive by means of the Alaska Marine Highway, seeing more scenery and wildlife along the way. However, rare for much of the state, Valdez is connected to anglers in interior and the rest of southcentral Alaska by the Richardson Highway, which climbs around the waterfalls and glaciers near Thompson Pass to its junction with the Glenn Highway at the town of Glennallen.
To make this rubber-tire journey, drive north on the Glenn Highway from Anchorage, through Palmer, and then hang a right at Glennallen, turning onto the Richardson Highway; cruise past Copper Center and the turbulent salmon fishery where the Copper and Klutina rivers connect, perhaps taking an afternoon to cast for sockeye along the way. Then let one of the most scenic byways in Alaska take over from there.
The highway was first known to gold stampeders at the tail-end of the nineteenth century as the Valdez trail, which led to the tent city that had sprung up at the head of the bay. The route had been hacked through Keystone Canyon and over Thompson Pass by the men of Lieutenant W.R. Abercrombie, and soon after, the Army set about building Fort Liscum, located at the site of the present Alyeska Pipeline terminal. In 1910 the trail was upgraded to a wagon road under the direction of Gen. Wilds P. Richardson, first president of the Alaska Road Commission (ARC). By 1921 it was rebuilt and its name was changed to the Goat Trail. The eventual Richardson Highway diverged somewhat and was built along a stable route following the bottom of Keystone Canyon. ARC updated the road to automobile standards in the 1920s; it was hard-surfaced in 1957.
After the Richardson Highway was completed, the Goat Trail became obsolete and was abandoned, although today it can be used for hiking. The trail begins at a wood sign just past Horsetail Falls in Keystone Canyon (Mile 13.5). The trail twists and winds following the Lowe River and is passable for the first 2.5 miles.
For those who choose this option, the drive to Valdez is undeniably gorgeous, flanked at points by picturesque views of the 800-mile-long Trans-Alaska Pipeline and all along its route by the stunning peaks and valleys of the area’s mountain ranges. While driving the Richardson towards Valdez, there are several opportunities to cast in flowing water—and nearly all the scenery is postcard-worthy. First is the Tonsina River and then the Little Tonsina, one of the better roadside Dolly fisheries in the region. Between miles 43 and 50, the Richardson Highway parallels the Tiekel River, and despite the fact that the Tiekel isn’t a very productive stream (it’s blocked from the Copper River by a waterfall, which adversely affects the stream’s biomass), it is one of the most beautiful creeks in southcentral Alaska, offering small but pretty Dollies as well as a number of great places to pull-in, camp and relax for the night. There are likewise plenty of camp-worthy lake settings along the way, including Worthington, Blueberry and Thompson in particular, while just before arriving in Valdez anglers can drop in for some action on the Lowe River. Closed to salmon fishing, the Lowe does offer some seasonally strong fishing for Dolly Varden, especially anywhere its several clearwater tributaries meet the mainstem.
Just a few miles from downtown Valdez, one finds Dayville Road, a 5.8-mile paved side road (with bike trail) that leads to shoreside camping, picnicking, fishing and scenic views along Port Valdez at Allison Point. The salmon—millions of pinks and silvers—are drawn here by the Solomon Gulch Hatchery. Even during the good tides of August and early September, when the runs are peaking, there is plenty of room to move about and cast, and all with the bay, the mountains and the city of Valdez presenting a quite impressive backdrop.
Once arriving in Valdez, there are half-a-dozen RV parks and campgrounds that cater to road-bound anglers, as well as nine hotels and somewhere around 30 B&Bs. There is also the small-boat harbor, where one can get serious about saltwater fishing.
Everything from half-day to multi-day adventures are offered from Valdez’s fleet of saltwater charters. Halibut, lingcod, rockfish, salmon sharks and depending on the time of year, the gamut of Pacific salmon are all available—just pick a captain, register for the derby and then at the end of the day, drop your catch by Fish Central to have it processed and kept frozen while you continue your stay.
For many of those in the know, Valdez is first and foremost a silver salmon destination, with Prince William Sound boasting both wild and hatchery silvers. Silvers arrive in Valdez Bay about the first week in August, peak at mid-month and run strong into September. Outside the narrows, anglers can begin the hunt for coho about the second week of July. According to local reports, most July fish are still out near Bligh Island, a 25-mile run from town, moving closer to shore as July progresses. In mid-July, in the Valdez area, anglers are zapping silvers in Jack Bay, Blackstone Point, Sawmill Bay, down through Bligh Reef and in Anderson Bay, Shoup Bay and Gold or Mineral creeks. Other productive spots are the mouths of Galena and Jack bays, Pt. Freemantle, Busby Island and the Anderson waterfall.
In late August, coho anglers head over to the hatchery water off Allison Point. By the third week of September silvers are crowding the breakwaters and docks downtown, and the shorelines at Allison Point and Esther Island.
For other salmon, the Valdez season takes off in June, the top time for the limited king fishery. Returning ocean kings begin moving into Valdez waters about mid-June, and according to ADF&G, the run is over by the end of the month. However, the first of the pinks begin to show in mid-June as well, and by the end of the month, humpy fishing is excellent. Good places near Valdez to try are Jack Bay and Allison Point in the eastern part of the sound. Bright, feisty pinks will continue to gush into Valdez waters from June into August and typically start winding down about the third week in August. A few sockeye and chum salmon will be mixed into the summer catch, but they’ll be gone by peak of the silver fishery in early September.
If you’re in search of bottomfish, the time to get started is even earlier, as halibut take an upswing in mid-May, with the early part of the season best for trophy flatfish. Small boat anglers target slabs in the northeast part of Prince William Sound at Jack and Galena bays, Port Fidalgo, Knowles Head and Bligh Reef. Bigger halibut are usually found farther outside near Orca Bay, along the north side of Hinchinbrook Island and around Montague Strait and Island, but these are long runs for small boats. Larger boats out of Valdez sometimes make overnight trips for halibut to the edge of the gulf.
Halibut action remains strong through July and August, slowing in September when the fish head for the deep water in the gulf.
Lingcod fishing in the area opens July 1 but is tightly regulated—always make certain to check current regulations for size and area restrictions. Rockfish anglers will find steady action kicking off in May and running through mid-September. The outer areas of Prince William Sound are particularly good. As with lingcod, the rockfish limits are tight and close care must be taken to ensure you understand and follow the regulations.
But regardless of species, and virtually any time of year, you can be sure a trip to Valdez will be well worth the effort, whether flying, boating or driving into town. The sheer size of Prince William Sound and the multiple species of gamefish available, combined with the fact that these areas often see less angling pressure than other big-name ports, makes Valdez an angler’s paradise. Everything else about the town—its accessibility, the endlessly spectacular scenery, the variety of excursions on offer and the amenities and services available—make it a must-visit destination.
Troy Letherman was editor of Fish Alaska magazine between 2001 and 2018.
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Fish Alaska.
Valdez Convention & Visitors Bureau
Valdez is one of the gems of the southcentral Alaska road system, whether you’re there solely to enjoy the area’s fishing or not. For travelers, your trip should start with contacting the Valdez Convention & Visitors Bureau. A quick tour around www.ValdezAlaska.org will show you seasonal and year-round highlights of the area, including points-of-interest, festivals and other local events, and the many fishing derbies. Here you will also find links to places to stay and eat as well as to a number of reputable fishing guides and charters who will help you get into the fish.
Totem Inn Hotel & Suites
Conveniently located in the heart of Valdez, close to the small-boat harbor, city center and shopping, the Totem Inn has guest rooms designed to fit any lifestyle or budget—from luxury suites to standard rooms and private Alaskan cottages, all at affordable prices. Also, make sure to build up a powerful hunger while out and about in Valdez, and then return to taste the menu at the on-site Totem Restaurant, where your day probably began with breakfast.
If you’re in Valdez, chances are you’re there to sample the area’s phenomenal outdoor-recreation opportunities, and for that you’ll need to be outfitted properly. Just stop at The Prospector, where the friendly and knowledgeable staff will handle all your needs. For everything from fishing Prince William Sound to skiing Thompson Pass, The Prospector has full lines of clothing, footwear, outdoor equipment and fishing gear.
Eagle’s Rest RV Park and Cabins
Located at 139 East Pioneer Drive right in the heart of Valdez, Eagle’s Rest is one of our favorite campgrounds in the entire state, and owners Jeff and Laura Saxe provide such a great service and have created such an exceptional family atmosphere that many of the fellow campers you’ll encounter are repeat customers, coming back to Eagle’s Rest and Valdez year after year. The full-service park is situated right in downtown Valdez, close to shops, museums, the small-boat harbor and local grocery stores. Making things even handier for your visit, Eagle’s Rest is also a ticket agent for glacier cruises, kayaking, rafting and fishing tours in Valdez.
Valdez Fish Derbies
If you’re visit includes plans to fish, you’ll want to make sure you have purchased a derby ticket before dropping your first offering into the deep. Home to Alaska’s oldest fish derby, Valdez offers more than just the Halibut and Silver Salmon derbies (highlighted by $15,000 cash prizes for the largest halibut and silvers of the year), witnessed by the growth in popularity of the Women’s Silver Salmon Derby and Kid’s Pink Salmon Derby. Check out ValdezFishDerbies.com for all the schedules, entry rules and prizes; then head to Valdez and buy that ticket.
Valdez’s one-stop shop for everything a visiting angler might need, Fish Central offers charter reservations, boat and fishing rod rentals, custom fish-processing, FedEx shipping, tackle, bait, ice, an on-site fish market and more. Located conveniently right on Harbor Drive, make Fish Central a big part of your next trip to Valdez and you won’t come home disappointed.
Shark Tooth Charters
For the best in Prince William Sound saltwater angling, book your next outing with Shark Tooth Charters. Offering all-inclusive charters for silver salmon, halibut and salmon shark, Captains Mike McDaneld and Dave Pope, each a longtime Valdez operator, will put you on the fish anytime of the season, fishing aboard the 34-foot Dawn Treader. Call today to plan your 2018 trip on these fabled waters.
Best Western Valdez Harbor Inn
Located on the picturesque waterfront of Valdez Harbor, the Valdez Harbor Inn offers superior accommodations with a wide range of onsite amenities and services. In each spacious, modern room, you’ll enjoy high-def cable TV, premium pillow-top beds, high thread-count linens, free high-speed Wi-Fi, a fridge, microwave and more. You can also choose from options such as in-room whirlpool and/or harbor views. The acclaimed onsite restaurant and lounge offers stunning views alongside the fantastic cuisine and cocktails.
Alaskan Adventures Unlimited
Experience the trip of a lifetime while fishing Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska aboard the Halibut Grove or Valdez Pearl with Alaskan Adventures Unlimited. View humpback whales, orcas and Stellar sea lions while pursuing barn-door halibut and trying to win up to $15,000 in the Valdez Halibut Fishing Derby. Clients who fish with Captain Mel Grove and Alaskan Adventures Unlimited will also have great opportunities to catch trophy-class lingcod or the ultimate-fighting salmon shark.
The Fat Mermaid
Featuring great food and a lengthy list of beers on tap, The Fat Mermaid also offers spectacular harbor views, making it the ideal spot to end (or start!) your perfect day in Valdez. Fuel up with a hearty breakfast before heading out for the day’s adventures, or relax and unwind with a cold one while watching the sun set across the marina, enjoying the atmosphere and ambience of an authentic Alaska restaurant and bar while recalling all the highlights from your day.
Offering a wide variety of services to suit any traveler’s needs, Valdez Outfitters makes it their mission to take care of you while in Valdez and beyond. If fishing is your plan, they offer a complete array of salmon charters, while also providing Alaska Photography Workshops and a Valdez, Alaska, Sightseeing Tour. Group sizes are small with Valdez Outfitters, so each individual gets plenty of attention.
Valdez Saltwater Adventures
Seasoned Alaska visitors already know the experience, knowledge and passion exhibited by your charter operator means the most in ensuring a great trip, and this is exactly where Captain Will Everett, owner and operator of Valdez Saltwater Adventures, excels. Fishing aboard the 34-foot Bold Eagle, guests receive first-class service and have a range of options, whether enjoying a single- to multi-day combination fishing trip, targeting halibut, salmon, lingcod, rockfish, and salmon shark, or venturing into Prince William Sound for a memorable sightseeing and photography excursion.
Lady Luck Charters
For your next Valdez fishing excursion, improve your chances by fishing aboard the Lady Luck. Offering guided salmon and halibut charters all season long, as well as Sitka blacktail deer hunts and remote drop-off service for hunters, Lady Luck Charters operates a pair of vessels, both featuring heated cabins, heads and all-around fishing decks. Catering to individuals, small and large groups, you can be sure all your needs will be met when making this call.