Plan a Successful Alaska Salmon Fly-Fishing Trip

Plan a Successful Alaska Salmon Fly-Fishing Trip

By Brian Kraft, Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge, Kvichak River

Alaska's size makes forecasting its salmon runs a challenge; consequently a salmon fly-fishing trip there requires diligent planning. Alaska is big. I mean really big. If you took a map of Alaska and overlaid it on a map of the continental US, its North Slope would be touching Duluth Minnesota, SE Alaska would be in Jacksonville, Florida, and the Aleutian Chain Islands of Alaska would stretch all the way to San Francisco, California. The point is that with an area that large, salmon run timing will vary some from region to region and even within that region. For instance, there are rivers in Bristol Bay that will see Coho (silver) salmon that show up during the third week of July while other rivers in Bristol Bay don’t see Coho until late August. Thus, there is no exact fish calendar for all of Alaska, but I will give you general guidelines in this article. The biggest takeaway—do your research and ask a lot of questions of the operator when you are preparing to book your trip.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is a good place to start to find regional salmon run timing for planning your fly-fishing trip.

However, even this website can leave you with some uncertainty. For instance, they have Bristol Bay under one section. The Bristol Bay region is roughly the size of Colorado and Wyoming combined. Specific run times will vary within the region. Make sure when you talk to your lodge or outfitter you ask specific questions, particularly if you want to target a specific salmon run in their area.

The great news is that Alaska is in the fortunate position to have genuinely healthy salmon runs. Bristol Bay saw massive salmon returns this summer. We need to understand that as users of this bountiful and renewable resource, we must also be the protectors of it and everything that makes it special. We have perfectly intact systems that, with proper protection, will continue to produce these large runs of fish. Get involved. Orvis and Trout Unlimited have been leaders in conservation and protection efforts throughout Alaska.

Strategies for Fly Fishing Alaska’s Salmon Species

The three salmon species that will strike at your fly presentation are the Chinook (king), Coho (silver), and Chum salmon. Sockeye, although very abundant (Bristol Bay runs are in the millions) do not actually “strike” your fly. The Sockeye use the riverbanks for navigation to find their original reach of stream where they were hatched. They march upstream usually nose to tail and sometimes 5 wide. To catch them with a fly, the angler can use a floating line with a 9' leader with a weight about 3" from the fly. A cast is made a little upstream but outside of the line on which the fish are moving up river. With luck as you swing your fly through the line of fish you will hook one while it is opening and closing its mouth. You will accidentally hook a fish in the tail or some other part of the body. It is illegal to retain a fish that was not hooked in the mouth, so release it back into the water if you do “foul” hook a sockeye. Obviously the “strike” is not the draw here for anglers, but the line-ripping run after it is hooked sure is! Plus many people believe that the sockeye is the best tasting because of its high oil content. These are great fish to retain and either put on the BBQ or smoke them.

The First Alaskan Salmon to Arrive…the Mighty King

Chinook salmon, known by their Alaskan name of “king” are the first salmon to arrive in the freshwater rivers of Alaska. Some rivers will see a push of fish by mid-May, but the runs typically do not start in earnest until June and will continue through late July. Remember—do your research—find out when the best runs will be in your location when you plan your trip. Contrary to what many say, kings will definitely take a fly. However, most rivers in Alaska that have runs of kings on them are open to the use of bait. Thus, set your expectations accordingly when choosing to chase these prized fish with a fly.

It is best to be as close to saltwater as you possibly can, but still in the flowing river (not the tidewaters) in order to catch these fish when they are their freshest—this goes for all salmon. There is another reason for this—we do not want to be harassing and catching salmon that are on their spawning grounds. It is important for us to be conscious of where we are fishing for these salmon.

There are some great flies for kings. Usually the bigger the better. Imitating egg clusters is always a good start since for some reason salmon like to eat their own eggs. The “Fat Freddie” in peach roe, dark red, or orange works great. This is an egg imitation that is about the size of a walnut and should be tied on a size 2/0 to 4/0 hook. You can add weight to the flies by tying them with bead head eyes or simply by adding weight to the leader. Another fly I have had success with is an articulated black or purple egg-sucking leach.

You will want either a 9- or 10-wt. rod set up with sink tip line. The important thing is to be down in the water column where the fish are, but not dragging the bottom. Kings, although aggressive and strong, are not motivated to move up or down the water column to strike your fly. They will move sideways in the water column, but rarely will they move vertically. Be prepared to adjust the weight of your sink tip in order to adjust the level at which your fly is located. You do not need a long leader—4' to 6' is good and it should be 20 lb. class tippet.   

Hang on once you hook a king. These are strong fish and will rip into your backing quickly. Don’t be in a rush, but keep pressure on the fish. They will look for deep water and want to dive like a submarine. Be prepared to move down the bank if you are wading, or if you are in a boat be prepared to pull anchor and drift with the fish and make up line. Do your best to steer the fish towards shallower water to get them out of the current. These are big slabs and you are not only fighting a 30 lb. fish that is fresh in from the salt, but you will also be fighting whatever current is in the river. DO NOT remove the fish from the water unless you intend to keep it. Any king that is removed from the water must be retained per the ADF&G regulations.

Strategies for Fly Fishing Coho (Silver) Salmon

The Coho are amazing fish and an excellent target for fly anglers in Alaska. These 10-18 lb. fish are just plain mean! They will aggressively strike your fly and then go on many real line-ripping runs as they let you know how upset they are that you hooked them! These fish will also attack a top water fly (poppers) as you strip them in. Imagine seeing the wake of a 12 lb. dime bright fish that is less than 24 hours in from the ocean as he chases your fly! Just don’t pull too quickly—let him have it and then set the hook.

You will want to cast upstream and across the river. As the fly sinks and moves into the fish you will want to strip in line and give your fly movement up river. The silvers will chase your fly so strip in a little and let it flutter, then strip in some more. The strike will happen.

It is not uncommon to find yourself fishing to a pool of holding Coho salmon. As they move upriver, they will slide into a back eddy pool or an area of reduced current to rest. They will go after the first flies presented and you will be able to actually take a few out of the pool. But be prepared to sit and enjoy the scenery for 10-15 minutes after you catch a few out of one pool. Or be willing to leave those fish and move to find more fish that have not been stirred up. But don’t worry, those fish that you did stir up will bite again. They just need a few undisturbed minutes and they are right back on the bite.

You will want to use an 8-wt. rod with either floating or sink tip line. You can use the floating line and a 9-ft. leader (0X) with a weighted fly in most instances. Anything purple, pink, red with some flash gets them going. I like the size 2 Egg Sucking Leach for Coho the best. Make sure the fly is weighted. You can also use a sink-tip line if you want. Just realize you will not typically be fishing as big a water as you were for Kings and thus do not need as heavy a sink tip.

Bag limits vary greatly even within watersheds, so make sure you know the regs before you start keeping Coho. There are even a few rivers that do not allow you to fish—even catch and release for any species—after you retain your bag limit. If the limit is three, you can keep fishing until you retain that third Coho, then it is game over for the day. Make sure you are aware of all regulations. Your guides will know the regulations and be glad to explain to you what you can and cannot do.

Fly Fishing the Underrated Alaskan Chum Salmon

Would you be interested in catching a 15 lb. salmon that is just in from the ocean that would aggressively strike your fly and then put up a good fight? How about if I told you that you could catch 20 of these fish on a good day? Sounds pretty good right? Well, that is the chum salmon for you. The chum does not have near the reputation or allure that the kings, silvers, and sockeye do when people think of a fly-fishing trip to Alaska. But I will tell you; I have had plenty of clients spend a day chasing and catching chums who have expressed how enjoyable that fly-fishing experience was.

Any size 2 weighted purple, blue, chartreuse, red, orange furry buggy looking fly will work. That’s what’s great about this fish, they are not picky. You will be standing on the riverbank as you fish for these—typically you will be on the inside of a sweeping cut bank that has some holding deep pools across from where you are standing. Somewhat the same as fishing for silvers—cast upstream a bit and across and then strip the sinking fly, letting it flutter and sink a bit after each stripping motion. The strike will be unmistakable. Hopefully you have a massage therapist back at the lodge to help with the sore shoulder and arms after your successful day of catching chums. They are heavy and strong. I recommend an 8-wt. rod.

The chum salmon meat is a pale pink and does not hold the same rich flavor as the kings, sockeye, and silvers, so most people simply catch and release this species. However, if you do keep some for the BBQ, you will want to make sure you only keep the brightest of chums. The meat will be softening quickly and if you see any of the calico type stripe color starting to appear you will want to release the fish.

Pack the Right Equipment for Your Alaska Fly-Fishing Trip

Putting together equipment for a fishing trip can seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. One of the most important things to remember when going to Alaska is to be prepared for variable weather. Given today’s lightweight layering options and breathable, waterproof outerwear, you can create a very comprehensive and flexible clothing list with just a few of the right strategic pieces. The other part of the equation is your fishing gear. A conversation with your outfitter or lodge owner is the first step, but you can also go to our packing list to see our comprehensive gear and equipment recommendations for Alaska fishing trips. Find the right gear, the right clothing and the luggage you need to carry it.

Salmon Conservation in Alaska

While we face more and more declining wild salmon fisheries through the Pacific Northwest, Alaska fisheries still remain relatively healthy. This is due to the fact that the systems are intact and have very few industrial projects that would contribute to their decline. We as a fishing society must realize that we utilize a fragile resource and it is our job to do things that proactively ensure that future generations can enjoy fishing. Get involved by contacting Trout Unlimited.

Brian Kraft owns two lodges in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska. Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge is on the Kvichak River near Lake Iliamna and Bristol Bay Lodge is on Lake Aleknagik near the Wood-Tikchik state park. Both lodges are Orvis Endorsed. He has been in the Alaska lodge business since 1994.