My first trip to Alaska began with the simple goal of catching salmon on the fly. The silver (coho) runs can be excellent, so some friends and I planned around southeast Alaska silvers. In the months ahead, I studied fly patterns and techniques intensely. Much of the information suggested pink flies were a sure bet, so I selected a bunny streamer with articulating action and dumbbell eyes as a good starting point for a variety of situations. Of course, I filled a large fly box with various shapes, sizes, colors, and patterns, just in case the pink bunny streamer didn’t cut it.
My first morning on the water dawned overcast with light rain. As the dark sky brightened lazily to dim white, I could hear salmon in the river below. Fish were powering up through a riffle, making their first upstream push of the morning. Trembling with anticipation, I scrambled to the nearest downstream run and began a phenomenal nine-day tour of slinging flies and battling salmon.
Timing the Salmon Run
Salmon are anadromous fish, meaning juveniles hatch and rear in fresh water, then migrate to the ocean to mature before returning to their natal freshwater stream to spawn. Adult fish returning from the ocean is generally referred to as a “run”.
Silver salmon run in southeast Alaska, June through November, but this doesn’t mean that fishing for silvers is equally good across the months. Anadromous fish runs are characterized by a bell curve of fish density, temporally across the run. August and September are the best months to fish for silvers in southeast Alaska, with mid-August being the best, in my experience.
Fishing the peak is ideal as salmon are at their highest abundance providing the greatest catch opportunity, but the peak can also vary slightly among rivers. On my most recent trip, one river was thick with silvers the entire week, while an adjacent river was seemingly past peak with a large proportion of fish high up the river and few fish coming in.
Speaking of the run bell curve, you can plan a trip around several species. While a few runs overlap, you will likely only hit the peak for one species. Check out the Alaska Game and Fish website for more information on run timing at http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=fishingsportfishinginforuntiming.main.
Weather and Stream Conditions
Weather patterns can play a role in salmon upstream migration from salt to freshwater. While salmon species will always run the same time of year, water temperature, river flow, and precipitation can affect when fish enter the river and how they migrate. For example, on my first Alaska trip, the weather was unusually dry for a few weeks prior to my arrival, but rain followed my flight, causing the rivers to swell. As a result, a slug of silvers poured in over the following few days. While silver fishing is always good in August, this was an unreal experience I may never luck into again.
Prepare for rain. Expect at least fifty-percent of your time will be casting under showers. Intensity can vary greatly with light and variable rain being the average condition. Stream levels may fluctuate, but at no time has turbidity been problematic for me, and higher flows seem to provide better fishing.
On sunny days, about three hours morning and evening fish the best. Once the sun rises high, beating down on the rivers, the silvers all but shut down until evening.
Air temperature is moderated by the ocean and is relatively stable. Expect highs in the sixties, and possibly the seventies on sunny days.
I built my first switch rod specifically for salmon; a Rainshadow eight-weight. I spooled a mid-arbor reel with 150 feet of backing and a floating line with a built-in shooting head. Typical spey-type line set-ups with a monofilament running line and separate shooting head work best in my opinion (my go-to for salmon and steelhead). The shooting head is ideal for roll-casting or a “snap-T” spey cast along a brushy shoreline. The snap-T is simple and effective when you need some distance. I recommend checking out a YouTube video as a tutorial, but a roll cast will suffice in most situations.
Don’t’ have a switch rod? A single-hand rod can accommodate a roll or snap-T cast sufficient to fish the smaller southeast Alaska streams. I recommend an intermediate sinking line, but a weight-forward floating line would work as well. Skip the tapered leader and tie up about four feet of eight-pound fluorocarbon (my go-to leader for streamers). This will give your fly the best action, and the fluorocarbon is tough as nails.
I carry a spare rod at all times because it’s easy to get excited and careless with big fish. While I have yet to need a spare rod (knock on wood), it’s foolish to embark on any destination trip without one. I don’t even hike into the backcountry without a spare three-weight.
Pack waders and rubber-sole wading boots. Alaska banned felt-sole boots in 2012 to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species. I have wet-waded in Alaska, but with the cool air and rain, waders are more comfortable option.
A light rain jacket and sweatshirt is all I pack for warmth, but don’t just take my word for it. Everyone has a different tolerance to environmental conditions. Pack as you would to endure cool, damp conditions for long hours.
Recall that I read up on pink streamer patterns, yet carried a backup supply of different flies. I always recommend a backup supply, but having plenty of only a couple patterns is a better strategy. The pink bunny streamer with dumbbell eyes that I mentioned above turned out to be a slam dunk. I started my first trip with six and rounded out the week with one tattered, torn, barely fishable fly left. I limped along a day or two with a pink and orange substitute to ensure I had one pink bunny streamer for the last day and it cost me fish. You will break a few off in the brush and foul hook a salmon or two with no hope of ever seeing that fly again. Don’t take less than a dozen each of your best patterns.
The fly pictured here is an example; a solid pink marabou streamer with a couple strands of tinsel tied in. Marabou or bunny strips provide life-like, fluid motion in water. I tie all of my bunny and marabou streamers on a straight shank with no hook. Before placing any material on the shank, I tie up a red, #1 or #2 trailing hook on thirty-pound braid and dab superglue the length of the shank. The trailing hook gives the fly better action and improves hooksets compared to a rigid hook.
Tip: If you don’t typically tie trailing hooks like this, practice and test them before completing your flies for a trip. If the braid is not properly secured, the trailing hook will pull straight off the back of the shank. If you don’t tie flies or don’t want to try the trailing hook, no sweat. A fly tied on a standard hook will work just fine. If tying your own, I recommend a #4 – #6 Daiichi 2220 streamer hook.
How to Fish
Fishing is simple. I target runs and actively migrating fish, and here is why. You can find small falls on about any stream in Alaska. Fish stack up in the pools below as they try to pass the falls. Pester these fish and catch a few, and they are likely to shut down in a hurry. Conversely, catching fish as they migrate eliminates problems with putting off the bite as fresh fish move by almost continuously.
Just roll the fly out and strip it back. Silvers are aggressive and actively chase the fly. You may be able to sight cast to fish as well. When sight casting, you may need to fish the streamer erratically depending on fish behavior.
We’ve all seen fly fishermen cast to saltwater species on TV where they get the fish’s attention, then vary the speed of the strip (typically speed it up) to make the fish commit. If a silver is coming, but appears to be only half interested, strip a bit faster, then pause the fly. Ninety percent of the time the fish will charge in and inhale it on the pause.
Bottom line: If you are fishing a strong run of silvers, you will catch fish. It doesn’t have to be too technical, and you don’t need fancy gear. A regular single-hand rod and floating line will work, but you will want a heavier weight rod. A five-weight can land a lot of the salmon you will catch, but foul hook a fish or luck into a big boy and you could be reaching for your spare.
Seek Out a Trophy
The majority of silvers are in the low to mid-twenty-inch range and between five and ten pounds. At the end of the day, your tired arms will remind you of the great fishing. But you can run across bigger fish and even spot them on occasion.
Peering out from under my hood through the rain in the soft light of dawn, I stood precariously perched atop a small boulder, ready to roll. It was day five. I had landed a number of decent silver bucks in the ten-pound range and had a freezer full of fillets, but I wasn’t yet satisfied. On a mission for big kype, I watched contentedly as silvers cruised by in small groups of three to five fish.
Across the river, downstream at about ten o’clock, was a small backwater with a downed pine tree along the shoreline edge. After what felt like hours perched on my rock (watching salmon doesn’t get old, by the way), a sizeable wake broke over the rocky lip and entered the backwater. My subconscious recognized the unusually large displacement and whispered CAST with quiet urgency.
An overhanging tree limited my motion and the cast was further than I wanted, but I rolled hard, landing the fly just barely on the inside edge of the backwater. The wake turned to challenge the fly.
Stripping hard, I ripped the fly out into the current, the wake trailing with purpose. Trembling hands could barely keep hold of the line, but on the third quick strip I saw the fly enter the far run, followed by a large silver buck with malicious intent. I paused the fly and his stark-white gape engulfed the proportionally tiny, pink streamer.
The fish turned away and I simultaneously buried every millimeter of the hook into the corner of his jaw, activating the “launch” button. For the first time in my fishing career, the term “blistering” accurately described the speed at which line burned through my fingertips. The fish was on the reel and into the drag in the blink of an eye, breaking the top of the downstream riffle within seconds.
Scrambling to keep up, I stumbled, slipped, tripped, and danced across jagged boulders. I was somehow able to pressure the buck into remaining in the next run as I played a delicate game of give and take. His massive head shakes and overall weight were by far the most impressive I had experienced. Ever. He made three more solid runs, each one a little shorter than previous.
Once exhausted, the buck calmly slid in at my feet where I gripped his tail and secured the catch. As he lay streamside among the brilliant green of wet ferns and gray granite, I felt a bit of remorse over my intent to take his fillets. He was magnificently colored a deep rose, nearly purple, with a rich, olive dorsal, neatly flaked with pepper-black spots. Laid out along my fly rod, I later estimated his length between twenty-eight and thirty-two inches, and weighing in around fifteen pounds. And that kype! My trip was complete.
Make it Happen
If Alaska salmon is on your bucket list, it’s never too early to do your homework. Virtual scouting for guides (if you want one), accommodations, species and run timing, and of course fly patterns, all take some time to nail down. You may need to book guides and accommodations a year in advance, which gives you plenty of time to tie flies and plan.
Put together a strategy, but rest assured, no two streams will necessarily fish alike. Some streams may be thick with pinks, while others are teeming with silvers or sockeye. Being flexible and open to exploration will lead you to some great water and a shot at a variety of species. Just remember to relax and take in all that Alaska has to offer. And with a little luck, you just might be plum sick of catching salmon by the time you board your outbound flight!