Alaskan Salmon Fishing, Kenai Peninsula
David Maddock-Jones and wife Julie take a very successful working holiday to Alaska. They land a few beauties on their Alaskan Salmon Adventure!
Kiwi anglers will find some of the methods employed by the Alaskan Fish and Wildlife Authority to conserve the salmon fishery quite interesting. Measures like a five-fish season bag limit, some rivers close to urban centres being opened for only two or three weeks per season, and so on.
Many of us dream of fishing sweetwater in remote regions of the world for piscatorial powerhouses such as Alaskan salmon, bass, steelhead, perch etc.
My wife Julie and l were fortunate enough to spend a full year in Alaska incorporating the full three-month summer, free of work commitments to dedicate largely to fly-fishing.
The Americans, particularly the Alaskans, are proud of the majestic, wild and untamed nature of the USA’s largest state. It’s about three times the size of New Zealand though far less accessible, only about 15% has any form of roading system. The isolated regions demand the use of light planes equipped with floats or tundra tyres, boats, pack animals or for the very fit and masochistic, extended backpacking. But there is fantastic fishing to be had for a brief, fast and furious periods on waters close to the major road systems.
Julie and I lived on the Kenai Peninsula a hundred kilometres as the crow ﬂies south of Anchorage. The “Kenai” is known as Alaska’s playground and with good reason. During the summer the population explodes eightfold as tourists from the lower 48 and other parts of Alaska stream in from mid-May through into August. Though some terrific Steelhead fishing is enjoyed from mid-March (My first Alaskan fish was a 4.5 kg sea-run rainbow on April fools day) it is the mighty king salmon which attracts the hordes.
The Kenai River boasts the largest King or Chinook salmon in the world. This is the same species of salmon we have here in New Zealand’s South Island. Each year two major runs of fish occur, the second containing ﬁsh averaging 20-22 kg. The fish are of course on their pilgrimage to spawn and the closer they are intercepted to the ocean the more pristine their condition. Alaskan salmon encountered in the salt or within a day or two of entering the fresh are at the peak of their existence.
Their entire lives, in fact, have been dedicated to the preparation of this journey. If I sound a little melodramatic so be it. But any sports fisherman worthy of the name would surely be moved when witnessing this magniﬁcent animal for the first time. On many occasions, we watched 10-15 kg ﬁsh crashing their way up small streams in rapids so shallow the backs of the fish were plainly exposed. Inspirational stuff.
So. To the fishing. The overwhelming majority of fishing for kings is done using bait, usually salmon eggs. Yes, that’s right, a great glob of orange salmon eggs on a 5/0 hook. Whether river fishing from a boat or the shore the method is the same. A small spinning ﬂoat fitted with ﬁns sits right down on the bait. This keeps the bait off the bottom and the spinning action reputedly acts as an additional attractor. A lead is fitted 60 cm up the line and the angler should be able to feel this weight bounce along the bottom as he casts up and across the stream and keeps a tight line as the rig bounces back down with the current.
When fishing out of a boat the idea is to drift downstream unimpeded with the same rig bouncing along the bottom out the stern of the craft. When the drift through a good piece of water is completed the boat is motored back up and drifted through again.
Unpowered but very sturdy rowboats are also used for one-way trips along accessible stretches of the river. In the more isolated parts of the state, inﬂatables are ﬂown in and dropped off with fishermen for week-long wilderness trips. A friend of mine recently had such a trip interrupted on night three of an eight-day ﬂoat by a pair of 150 kg Brown bear cubs who decided they really liked the taste of the raft. The trip was finished right there 200 km short of their destination. They sure got to know that stretch of the river well. Fortunately, Alaska’s bush pilots are used to these sorts of hiccups. They made it back none the worse for wear.
This bait bouncing ﬁshing was exciting but fly ﬁshing in the smaller streams was mind-blowing! The customary technique is to use a sinking or sink tip line and simply ﬁsh downstream with a large, gaudy wet ﬂy. Many people use a split shot 60 cm up the leader to ensure the ﬂy is close to the bottom but in the smaller waters, this is not necessary. ln fact a ﬂoating line can be quite adequate.
Our ﬁrst attempt was on a creek south of our home on the opening weekend of the season. If I live to see the moon populated I’ll never forget my ﬁrst hookup on a King. I was ﬁshing the head of a pool which looked awfully ﬁshy, an Alaskan was also fly ﬁshing at the tail of the pool a mere 20 metres away. I watched him miss three fish in the space of ten minutes so I felt sure my chance would come. It came.
Often salmon will take a ﬂy quite tentatively, but it is certainly possible to have your stick wrenched from your grasp if you’re taken unawares. The aquatic locomotive which snaffled my “Egg sucking leech” and raced downstream had me stumbling, fumbling and on the backing, in the time it takes to open a beer can.
After a hectic chase downstream of 500 metres, the ﬁght terminated when the ﬁsh swam or rather crashed through and under a log.
Undaunted I returned and repeated the process but with only a 200-metre gallop along the bank. After ﬁve “practice hookups,” I ﬁnally landed a lovely 9 kg buck ﬁsh. Euphoria. They are a magniﬁcent looking creature, bright silver along the ﬂanks, very dark over the dorsal region with black spots on the tail and one of the hardest blackest mouths I’ve ever seen. The body is more torpedo-shaped than a trout and the tail slightly more forked.
Julie then foul-hooked a fish in the dorsal fin and after a crazy ten-minute struggle she carefully manoeuvred the 12 kg dynamo into the shallows where I was able to ﬂick the 1/0 hook out with a pair of pliers. Fifteen minutes later, after another energy-sapping chase, I defeated another ﬁsh, perhaps a kg heavier than the ﬁrst. It was carefully released to resume its journey upstream.
But the best was yet to come. Julie again. Not only does my wife look great, cook up a storm and hike with the best of them, but she can also fish in a word, 16 kg of silver muscle, 7 kg tippet on an 8wt Fenwick fly rod she bought me for a wedding present. As the yanks would say WHOA! In the stream, we were fishing this is a big fish and on a ﬂy rod quite an achievement. This fish, fortunately, chose not to run far but fought in fast, short surging runs, always upstream. On several occasions, it simply hung in the current for a minute or so gathering itself for another sprint. (I told Julie it was one of the fish I’d hooked previously and taken the fight out of, she promptly told me what I could do with my opinion.) Well, that was the bag limit for the day, one each and I was tired.
Rather than continue catching these noble fish (Julie) or run up and down the bank chasing them (me) we began the 2km hike back to the car. I’ve had easier tasks than carrying those fish through the brush, up and over hills and across rapids, like the last time I did a Triathlon! But boy what a brace and grilled on a barbecue they were magnificent time and again.
The Alaskan Fish and Wildlife authority carefully monitor the numbers of fish entering streams each year. On the more popular rivers, electronic fish counters record each individual salmon. Thus, bag limits may vary from year to year or even during a particular season. Some streams such as the one in the story are only open for two or three weekends per season as these smaller waters near population centres are obviously more fragile than more distant or expansive rivers. The king season usually commences around mid-May and closes late July though this can vary from district to district depending upon the habits of fish in particular river systems.
The kill limit for the full season is five Kings which I believe is generous. That’s an awful lot of meat. We chose to kill two fish each and that provided many fabulous meals. A non-resident fishing license will set you back about $50 US for a full season (1995). People who tell you licenses and access fees are outrageous in the USA haven’t been to Alaska. But airfares, now that’s another matter.
Fish are also artificially stocked in some regions. There are even some terminal fisheries which have been artificially created in locations which offer no spawning facility for fish but provide easy angling conditions for novices. Certainly controversial from a purists perspective.
Tackle Required for Alaskan Salmon Fishing
People interested in travelling to Alaska to fish for Kings will need quality spinning or ﬂy tackle. Balanced 6-10 kg outfits using big bait casters or thread lines work well, long casting is not necessary. A 9-12 wt fly outfit is best including a quality reel with a good drag. We destroyed the drag systems on two cheaper reels in very quick time. Following her success with my Fenwick, we bought Julie another heavier rod the following day for fear of stretching our luck with it too far!
As far as ﬂies go salmon prefer something with a bit of ﬂash. Tinsel, marabou, fluorescent pinks, greens etc are the materials commonly used. Gaudy saltwater flies also work well. The Flash ﬂy, Mickey Finn, Slasher, Woolly Bugger, Leech are good too. Bucktail Streamers are commonly tied, generally employing additional ﬂashy materials where deemed appropriate. Any rainbow ﬂies in large sizes would be fine I’m sure. We tended to use smaller hook sizes than many fishermen. Penetrating that tough mouth was easier with a size 2 or even 4 rather than a 2/0 or 3/0). On occasions, fish were willing to have a go at a smaller, less imposing fly after having ignored a larger one. This was particularly so in bright conditions. I never used anything lighter than a 6 kg tippet. Short leaders are the norm, 2.5m for ﬂoating lines, 1.5m for sinkers.
Warm clothing and wet weather gear are of course essential though you can expect some warm sunny days in June or July. The 18-20 hours of daylight will provide you with plenty of fishing time.
There are a multitude of sportfishing guides operating all over Alaska and if you are operating within a limited time frame then I would recommend utilising the services of a reputable outfit. These are available from a basic half-day to a three week fully catered extravaganza, as luxurious or as spartan as you desire. This Aussie even worked as a guide out in the back blocks for a time. But that’s another story.