Alaska Salmon Fishing Kiwis – Kenai and Brooks Rivers – Highly Regulated Fishing

Alaska Salmon Fishing Kiwis – There are king, silver, chum, sockeye and pink salmon – Highly regulated rivers

By Tim McCarthy

What will be of considerable interest to South Island salmon anglers are the differences between salmon fishing in New Zealand and Alaska. Alaska salmon fishing rivers are highly regulated to protect the salmon run and that appears to be where we are headed in Canterbury, New Zealand, with sweeping changes being made to bag limits. Here are some of the regulations that have been in place in Alaska for decades.

  1. The season bag limit for king salmon (Chinook) was just two fish.
  2. Stamps are purchased at the same time as your fishing license. 
  3. Fish & Game use a sonar device to count the number of fish passing over it.  When enough fish have passed the sonar station the season is opened.
  4. The whole thing is administered by telephone and radio so that changes to the regulations can be made even after you have bought your license in order to protect the viability of the fishery.  Emergency regulations are introduced during the season if goals are not being met.
  5. The Kenai River is one of the most highly regulated rivers in the world to protect its run of huge king salmon.

Whereas it has been permissible in New Zealand for an angler to take over 100 salmon in a season! Allan Burgess

The thought of travelling to Alaska conjures many images in one’s mind. Snow-capped mountains, wandering herds of caribou, rivers lined with gold. To me the real gold in Alaska is salmon fishing, but does the truth live up to the A myth? As more New Zealanders explore overseas looking for that new “Angler’s Eldorado,” does Alaska warrant the expense?

To understand fishing in Alaska you need to know a little about its history.

It started as a commercial fishery with huge sums of money made harvesting salmon. The sports fishing industry has grown over the last three decades to where it is now far more important to the Alaskan economy. This has been helped by a decline in the value of commercial salmon during the early nineties.

The problem is that these two industries are in direct conflict with each other, it is an uphill struggle for the evolving industry to take dominance over the established one. Politics once again rears its ugly head.

To try and please both Peter and Paul, Alaska Fish and Game manages the fishery. Once you have read the Fisheries regulation booklet produced annually you can appreciate how much time and money goes into the management for the sustainability of the salmon every year.

A fellow angler checks out the fishing prospects.

The main focus is put on reaching escapement goals by salmon into their spawning beds. Major rivers have sonar stations on them to record the number of returning salmon. Escapement goals are estimated prior to the season so any abnormal return to the required escapement goal is noted.

Emergency regulations are introduced during the season if goals are not being met or extra harvest by commercial interests are allowed if there is a surplus of returning salmon. An example of this is on the Kenai River. If the king salmon run is lower than what is the required escapement, anglers will have additional restrictions put on them. The river will be put on catch and release where salmon only over 52 inches can be kept, this will be approximately 65 pounds. No bait will be allowed and only a single hook can be used.

Left of the picture, Robert Schofield with his 60-pound Kenai River king salmon caught on the 1992 trip.

On the same river, if the sockeye salmon run is too low, the commercial industry will not be allowed to net off the river mouth and sports fishermen will have their bag limit reduced. The vice versa also applies when the sockeye escapement has been reached, bag limits are increased and commercial netters are given extra quota.

You may be surprised to know all this is done over the phone and radio. A 24 hour recorded message line operates giving sonar count numbers and any regulation changes.

In Alaska as in New Zealand, ignorance of the law is no excuse. If you break any new regulation, by not checking the recorded phone line, you are for the high jump. It’s a brave man indeed who starts arguing with a ranger who is packing a .45, even if you do have a Kiwi accent.

They tend to take these things fairly seriously in Alaska. I remember our guides face going very pale when he found out one of the guys did not have his licence on him. If we had been stopped on the river, not only would the client be fined, but also the guide, plus the guide being given demerit points that could lose him his operators licence.

With today’s pressure on the salmon resource by both commercial and recreational interests, this type of intense management by Alaska Fish and Game is vital for its long term sustainability.

So you want to go fishing in Alaska? What can you expect? As thousands of people fish in this state every year, do not expect to have the solitude experienced in the New Zealand backcountry, unless you fly out to the wilderness. Most rivers are more akin to fishing on the Tongariro River during July.

As you are targeting a migratory fish be prepared for some slow fishing if you have missed the run. Be prepared to put in the time on the water as you never know when the next run is coming up the river. But if you time it right, the fishing is out of this world.

If you want to have a crack at putting a 70 pound plus king salmon on the games room wall, the Kenai River is the place to try.

Alaska has five different salmon species returning to its rivers every year. These are king (Chinook), silver (Coho), chum, sockeye and pink. Pinks return in far greater numbers every even year. You can often fish for more than one species in the same river as their runs can overlap. To get a grand slam you need to land all five species. The variation of targeting different species adds a lot more enjoyment to your trip to Alaska. My most productive fishing there has been for chum and pink salmon.

Bill Jones 50-plus-pound king salmon from the Kenai River,

As your other half will tell you, timing is everything. Runs into individual river systems can vary by only a week or two each year, so you need to know what time to be there to coincide with it.

One way to resource this information is Anthony J. Routes book Fly fishing in Alaska. Another way is to look on the internet.

I have found late July and early August to be the best time as all five types of salmon can be found returning home then. As you are going into Autumn at this time of year the weather is usually settled but do take good wet weather gear. The insects are past their worst then, which is a real bonus.

My interest in fishing in Alaska grew from an American friend who regularly fished at the Brooks River in Katmai National Park. My father took a group there in 1989 and I joined him on a return visit in 1992. On this trip, we spent six days at Brooks but also fished six days on the Kenai River.

I returned to the Kenai Peninsula with a group of anglers again in 1997 and 1998. During these trips, I have experienced some fantastic fishing but also some very hard fishing. One thing you can be sure about when salmon fishing anywhere is that you are targeting a migratory fish. Alaska is no exception.

Sometimes they are in the river in huge numbers and other times only a few will return. The old cliche ”You should have been here last week”, is a little harder to swallow when you have flown from the bottom of the world to the top. But as our guide said after a tough session on the Kenai “Fishing is like sex, when it is good, it’s fantastic when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good”.

Alaska Salmon Fishing 1992

Our party met in Auckland to be greeted by a six-hour delay. Both the All Blacks and Kiwis lost while we waited, so our trip could only get better. After changing planes at Honolulu we overnighted at San Francisco. After another plane change in Seattle, we finally arrived at Anchorage. Here our party split into two groups of seven each, with my father Brians group first fishing Brooks River and mine going to Kenai, where we would spend six days fishing.

After arriving at Jack O’Neil’s camp on Monday and unpacking our gear, we went and brought our licences and king salmon stamps which are issued for the Kenai River. As non-resident anglers, we paid a higher licence fee – a great idea that should be introduced into New Zealand (this has since been introduced). 

The Kenai River is one of the most highly regulated rivers in the world to protect its run of huge king salmon.

Guides can only operate on the river between 6.00 am and 6.00 pm. The limit is two kings per season, only one per day, hence the stamps on your licence. No one can fish by boat for kings on a Monday and guides are not allowed to fish on Sunday.

King numbers entering the river generally build upon these days and we were told 2000 had crossed the sonar station over the last 36 hours. Our anticipation for the morning was high and even after a few beers, it was tough getting to sleep.

After rising at 4.30 am, we arrived at the boat ramp at 5.15 am. We still had a half-hour wait to get the boat in the water. With plenty of fresh salmon coming in, the queue to the ramp was about a kilometre long. It seemed like half of Alaska was out to have a crack at them.

We were fishing out of boats as the Kenai is a big fast river and most boats were the same basic design – 20 foot long, flat bottomed and powered by a 35hp motor.

After launching the boat we were off, powering down river weaving between the other boats. We stopped about six km above the river mouth at the top of a good looking hole. The method we were using to fish for kings on the Kenai is called boondogging or back bouncing. This involves using a sinker to keep you fishing on the bottom where your mainline and trace join. The trace is two feet long to a spin glow lure with two hooks, one trailing five inches past the lure. The top hook has a nylon loop that secures a clump of eggs. Using salmon eggs is a real eye-opener the first time for your average Kiwi fisherman.

The boat is kept side on to the current by the guide as you drift downriver. You can feel a constant ticking as your rig bounces on the bottom about 30 yards behind the boat. The rods we were using were a tippy medium action spinning rod, designed specifically for this type of fishing. The line was 25-pound mono on a Shimano 100 high-speed reel.

Our first morning was great and on a rising tide the lines went out at exactly 6.00 am. They had only been in the water two minutes when Roger hit the first salmon. After a short fight, he dropped it and out the lines went again. Another two minutes passed and Roger hooked up again. Almost simultaneously Peter was hit by another salmon. This time both fish were landed and released, one 40 pounds and the other 35 pounds.

During the morning six-hour trip, we hooked eleven salmon and landed six. We kept two, one a 32-pound bleeder and the other a magnificent 51 pound fish caught by Roland. This salmon put up a great struggle, taking 25 minutes to land. We returned to camp at midday where the morning’s catch was weighed and photographed. Several salmon caught by another party was also brought in, one being a huge 64-pound fish.

During the previous days, the main sockeye salmon run had entered the Kenai River. Over the next week up to 100,000 salmon a day would be crossing the sonar station on the lower river.

Jim and Joe had spent the morning fishing the Kasilof River and brought in two smaller kings. Their jaws dropped when they saw the size of the salmon strung up. They got even a few days later, Joe with a perfectly proportioned 48 pound male and Jim with an absolutely chrome bright female of similar size.

During the previous days, the main sockeye salmon run had entered the Kenai River. Over the next week up to 100,000 salmon, a day would be crossing the sonar station on the lower river.

After lunch, we drove to a section of the river above Soldotna that was accessible to fish for sockeye. With these fish having just entered the river, they were still bright silver and averaged 6 to 8 pounds.

A large sockeye run is a wonder of nature every fisherman should experience. One of the sockeye characteristics is that they migrate upstream close to the river bank and even in the glaciated waters of the Kenai you could see them. That afternoon they were swimming past nose to tail, three abreast in a run that lasted ten minutes. Once that run had passed another would arrive shortly after.

Most people flyfish for sockeye. The exact definition of this is quite liberal. The anglers we observed used medium spinning gear, a weight and a fly. I think the South Island term for it is scratching [sic].

Having fly rods with us we soon found swinging a bright, sparsely tied wet fly on a sinking line reasonably effective. Pound for pound the sockeye is considered to be the hardest fighting salmon by many. The fish we caught and lost certainly proved this to be true.

The first one I hooked I had to bust off after it ran 100 yards downstream and I could no longer follow it. The second broke my rod as I tried to stop it from doing the same as the first.

Jack put on a great barbecue for us that night – fresh sockeye and halibut from Cooks inlet. My first day fishing on the Kenai River is one I will never forget.

Fishing for the kings tapered off during the week with a no bait, catch and release restriction being imposed on Thursday. This did not affect us as we were only keeping trophy fish if lucky enough to get one – salmon over 52 inches were still allowed to be kept.

A silver salmon from Polly Creek.

Our group landed 26 kings during our stay at Kenai, with Helen having the best catch rate even though she only fished a few trips. Including Brian’s group, who fished the following week, the total catch was 57 kings, with the largest salmon being 68 pounds.

On Sunday we travelled to Anchorage where we overnighted. Anchorage is a lovely garden city similar to Christchurch.

Monday we flew to King Salmon where we took a floatplane to Brooks River in Katmai National Park. Here we stayed in tents, having our meals in a nearby lodge.

Brooks is famous for its other fishermen – the 1000 pound furry kind. If you have seen a photo of a brown bear catching a salmon in its mouth on top of a waterfall, it was most likely taken at Brooks. We would often have a dozen bear encounters every day while fishing there. After a couple of days, the novelty wore off as when they entered a hole you were fishing you would have to move out. Park rules did not allow you to stay closer than 50 yards of a single bear or, 100 yards if there were more.

At Brooks, we fished for sockeye, rainbows and grayling. We used the down and across technique for sockeye and dry flies took both rainbow and grayling. Nymphing small Glo-bugs was particularly effective on the rainbows as they feed on the drifting salmon eggs.

The Brooks River is quite short and connects two lakes so the water is gin clear. For the sockeye to reach here they have already travelled well inland and had begun to change colour as they approached their time to spawn. It was hard to believe the bright chrome sockeye we caught on the Kenai River was the same salmon we were catching at Brooks. Some looked like reef fish as their bodies were fire engine red and heads were Kelly green. They were very aggressive and took the fly well.

We had six days of awesome fishing although the insects gave us a hard time on most days. There is a little guy over there called a white sock who I am sure is related to the West Coast sandfly.

Brooks River is an area worth visiting, not just for the fishing – the scenery is pristine and the wildlife straight out of National Geographic. If time permits, a visit here is worth considering while in Alaska. We left Brooks on Sunday and met Brian’s group in Anchorage airport. From there it was back home after a very memorable trip.

Alaska Salmon Fishing 1997

On this year’s trip, our destination was twelve days at Jack O’Neil’s camp on the Kenai Peninsula. Changes in National Park policy meant it was no longer possible to stay at Brooks.

Our party of five consisted of David Scott, Iohn Farrow, Bill Campbell, Kevin Peak and myself. We arrived on Monday ready for fishing kings on Tuesday. Unfortunately, things were going to be a little different this year.

The sockeye run had come into the Kenai River prematurely and all at once. With the king run also being early the Fish and Games escapement goals were being reached earlier than normal so the commercial netters had been given extra quotas for sockeye.

While the netters target sockeye there is a large by-catch of kings. This meant that by the end of the king season there were few fresh salmon entering the Kenai River. In five days targeting kings, we landed only five fish. As any fisherman knows, fishing isn’t great all the time.

On this trip, I had scheduled two days of halibut fishing and two trips across Cooks Inlet to fish for chum salmon and dolly varden at Polly Creek. These trips proved to be our saviour.

Halibut is a saltwater fish that look very similar to a flounder, the main difference being that Halibut grow to over 400 pounds. Halibut are generally deepwater bottom-feeding fish but move into shallower water at certain times of the year.

Jack operates two halibut boats, 28-foot alloys, powered by 200 hp ocean runners.

Our first trip out was skippered by Dale and after a thirty-minute run out of Clam Gulch, we dropped anchor in about 150 feet of water.

The tackle was standard groper fishing gear with 80-pound dacron. With the huge tides in Cooks Inlet, you could only fish for a short period on either side of slack water, otherwise, it was impossible to keep your bait on the bottom.

Although we did not catch any large halibut, or barn doors as they call them, it was great to finally get into some fish. Most were about 10 to 15 pounds with David getting a nice one just under 50 pounds. This fish fought well so it would be interesting to see how well a 100 pound plus fish would fight.

Some skippers shoot the bigger halibut before bringing them on board and after seeing David’s fish flap around the boat I can see why.

We used a pilchard type bait so if you did not hook up on the first run you had to change bait. I think a piece of good old New Zealand squid would do the trick nicely. Halibut fishing tends to be a fair bit of hard work as your sinker can weigh up to three pounds.

The following day we set off across Cooks Inlet to a small stream called Polly Creek. This took one and half hours in the halibut boat but it was worth it as our first day there was the best fishing of the trip.

We were targeting chum salmon with dolly varden thrown in for a bit of variation. Chum salmon were put on earth for fly fishermen to catch. They are aggressive so they take a fly well and fight like Tyson trying to get at Holyfield’s ear.

The sound of your fly line ripping through the water with a chum on the end of it is just something else. Chum salmon average around 8 pounds with our biggest landed being 16 pounds – the record is over 20 pounds.

Dolly varden are like a small trout with pink spots and with Polly Creek being gin clear you can sight fish for them easily. The best method to catch them was to strip a small egg sucking leech pattern in front of them. They gave a fair fight for their size, usually about 3 pounds, but more importantly, they gave your arm a rest after battling with the chums.

By the time we had to leave we had landed over 100 fish between us. On the way home I decided next year we would have to camp at Polly Creek for a few days.

The following day we drove to Anchorage for a bit of shopping and sightseeing. This is a beautiful three-hour drive over Tumagin Pass. That night we decided to head back to Polly Creek the following day.

Unfortunately, the morning dawned a little breezy and although we started our trip across the Inlet we were turned back by the weather. Cooks Inlet can be a very nasty piece of water and warrants a great deal of respect. We spent the afternoon fishing out of drift boats for silver salmon on the Kasilof River.

David landed the only fish, about 6 pounds, and with the netters still operating, few salmon were able to enter the river. Tomorrow we would try to get to Polly Creek again.

We were greeted by a fine calm morning and had no problem crossing Cooks Inlet this time. The fishing was superb and we landed about the same amount of salmon as the first day. Five tired, sunburnt anglers arrived back at camp that night and after a huge dinner and a few beers sleep came very easily.

Our final morning was spent doing another halibut trip. No large halibut were caught but we came home with our limit of two each, several around 25 pounds.

The boat has a large live tank in it, so once the boat’s limit is taken, you keep fishing and swap any larger halibut for smaller ones already kept. Since halibut do not blow up coming to the surface the released fish were fine and our guide assured us this was common practice and quite legal.

That afternoon we left Kenai and started our long journey home. Although the fishing on the Kenai River had been very disappointing, the days spent at Polly Creek had made the trip.

Alaska Salmon Fishing 1998

This year’s group consisted of four Kiwis and three Poms. I was accompanied by Brian Battell, Tim Leftbridge and David Scott, who was returning for another crack. We were joined at Jack O’Neil’s camp in Kenai by Ivor Patterden, Stuart Mac and John Sale, who flew from England.

I had been checking on the progress of the salmon run up the Kenai River before we left New Zealand via a Fish and Game website on the internet. Things did not sound too good as numbers were not reaching escapement goals and the river had been put on catch and release regulations. The one bonus of this was that no commercial netting was being allowed.

We spent the first five days fishing for kings and as no bait was allowed, most of the time was spent trolling flat fish with a paravane. We landed about four kings on each of the first two days, averaging around 40 pounds. There was an increasing number of salmon entering the river each day so things were starting to look a little brighter.

On the third day, a large run of pink and sockeye crossed the lower sonar station. Although the fishing for kings was still slow, we had plenty of action fly fishing from the bank for sockeye and pink. Pink salmon are also known as humpies because when they enter the freshwater a large hump develops on their back making them look like a camel from out of the sea.

On Friday afternoon David had an incredible time with the kings. We had booked a double trip that day and as the fishing had been slow in the morning, the rest of our group did not want to take their spot.

David went alone and with an American angler from the camp, they hit a fresh run of kings coming in on the tide. They hooked over a dozen, landing nine between them. Several salmon were between 55 pounds and 63 pounds, just short of the 52-inch size limit. David was absolutely fizzing when he returned to camp.

The next day we took the boat to an island in the lower Kenai River and on a rising tide we fly fished for pink, sockeye and the odd silver salmon that had started to turn up.

In five hours we landed well over a hundred fish between us. This is what you travel halfway around the world for.

That year we also chartered a plane to fly us across to Polly Creek. Here we camped for two nights and had great fishing for chum and dolly varden. At one stage each of us was hooked up on a chum in the same hole, fish and lines were going everywhere. I managed to grab the video and shoot some footage of us which came out great.

A day’s halibut catch.

The rest of our trip was spent fishing from the banks of the Kenai and trying to get out into Cooks Inlet halibut fishing. Unfortunately, the weather turned bad so it did not eventuate.

Our party departed Alaska exhausted and fished out, all having achieved a grand slam and very pleased.

Alaska is a long way from New Zealand and to travel there is the dream of many salmon fishermen. As an environment to fish in, few places can match it for its sheer beauty or its potential to catch large or lots of salmon and it is this unique charm that sees anglers often fish Alaska more than once.

My experiences there have shown me both the good and bad sides of Alaska salmon fishing but as with many fishermen from around the world, it has me sincerely hooked. Roll on next year.

This post was last modified on 15/03/2024 11:46 pm

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  • This year the King Salmon run is non existent which has major concerns to the State of Alaska and local guides. I have a friend working in Soldotna and they are trying to figure out why the runs have been so poor these last two years. On a better note the Sockeye run has been tremendous. My friend caught his limit, 5 fish in 20 minutes last week. I hope one day to get back and catch a Salmon in New Zealand it's on my "bucket list."

    • Hi Authur, it is interesting that the decline of the king salmon fishery in Alaska appears to mirror that here in New Zealand, which suggests a more universal problem like rising water temperatures. You are lucky to have more than one species of salmon with the sockeye filling some of the gap left by poor returns from the kings (Chinook). Unfortunately, here in New Zealand, it is the king salmon or nothing. The steep decline of the South Island's once magnificent salmon fishery has come as a shock to many anglers. Hopefully, these things go in cycles and the fishery will recover so you can come to New Zealand and tick catching one off your "bucket list."

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