The biggest problem with fishing in Alaska is making decisions-saltwater or fresh, salmon, trout or halibut, guided or unguided, remote lodge or road system, spring or fall, summer or winter, Southeast or Interior, Alaska Peninsula or Aleutians-the list of options is nearly endless. However, whether you’re a die-hard fly fishing purist or a visitor who’d just like to catch a couple salmon to take home for friends and family, you can fulfill your fishing fantasies in Alaska.
Whether you make your vacation plans with fishing foremost in your mind or add it in as a sideline, you can find places to fish and fish to catch any time of year and anyplace in the state where there’s water. The first consideration is where you’ll be spending your time.
SOUTHEAST ALASKA or the “Inside Passage” is famous for saltwater fishing, and the freshwater possibilities are equally impressive. A myriad of full service wilderness lodges and charter boat services are available. Ketchikan, Wrangell, Sitka, Petersburg, Haines, Skagway and Juneau are the key gateway cities to this wild coastal region.
SOUTHCENTRAL ALASKA is the state’s most populous region. This area has an excellent road system for travel by camper or motorhome. The famous Kenai Peninsula is also in this region, home of the world’s largest King salmon plus giant Pacific halibut. Fly-out fishing in the Alaska Range offers a remote wilderness setting and classic freshwater fishing conditions.
ARCTIC AND INTERIOR ALASKA from Fairbanks north to the Brooks Range (including the Gates of the Arctic National Monument) provides a variety of top-flight fishing action. Fishing for salmon on their spawning migrations, superb waters for trophy-size Northern pike, lake trout and Arctic char is of special interest to many freshwater anglers. This region is home to Alaska’s most unique trophy sport with record sheefish, often called the “Tarpon of the North”.
SOUTHWEST ALASKA is a vast remote wilderness region including Kodiak Island and the Aleutians, and the Alaska Peninsula, where you’ll find the renowned Bristol Bay and Lake Iliamna regions. A variety of full service lodges, camps and river float operations host avid anglers in the state’s most “fish-concentrated” waters. This vast wilderness landscape is a perfect setting for the world’s most numerous salmon runs, and the opportunities for seeing wildlife such as moose, brown bears and caribou are unparalleled.
The next consideration is price. If you’re visiting primarily to fish and you’re looking for that once-in-a-lifetime piece of fishing Nirvana, every fishing region has full-service lodges, and most can help with information about local charter boat services, fishing guides, wilderness camps and fly-out fishing to remote areas where only bush planes are able to penetrate. If your fishing budget is more modest, opportunities abound for rewarding fishing experiences closer to population centers and port cities.
Visitors traveling by cruise ship can arrange fishing trips for salmon or halibut on charter boats wherever the ship stops. They’ll tailor the trip length to match your time in port, and take care of processing and shipping your catch for you. Charter boats provide all the tackle and bait you need, and even folks who prefer to fish from shore for the day can usually rent fishing gear. If you’re visiting a port city as an independent traveler, wander the docks and talk to locals and charter captains to get a feel for what’s available and who’s catching what.
Alaska is justifiably famous for its salmon fishing, and many visitors look no farther than salmon when it comes time to choose which fish to pursue. While the famous runs of salmon into freshwater streams are seasonal, King salmon are available year around in the Southeast, Prince William Sound, and Southcentral saltwater fisheries. And while taste is a supremely subjective quality, many knowledgeable gourmands consider King salmon caught in the salt to be the best tasting of all.
Saltwater Kings aside, the fishing season begins with the return of the first runs of salmon in the spring. The largest of the five species and the first to return to the streams where they were born is the mighty King, also referred to as chinooks. (You should know that each salmon species has at least two names, so a bit of confusion is understandable, especially for the newcomer.) Kings begin to show up in mid-April in the Kodiak and Bristol Bay area, and by mid-May they’re available in Southeast and Southcentral. The Kings are followed closely by reds (or sockeyes), pinks (humpies), chums, (dogs) and silvers (cohos). All five species offer exciting fishing experiences whether they’re pursued in fresh water or salt, and spawning salmon are available nearly everywhere in the state during the busy summer season.
Anchorage visitors can take advantage of the King and silver salmon runs in Ship Creek, almost within the shadows of the downtown hotels and office buildings. For most of the summer local fishers take time off from work at lunchtime and stop off after office hours to mingle with visitors who have gotten the word on this excellent urban fishery. Another supremely accessible alternative is the Seward silver salmon fishing from shore in July and August.
To add to the already considerable excitement of fishing Alaska’s productive waters, many coastal communities add a bit of spice to the pot by hosting fishing derbies. The lucky angler can win cash prizes by catching big fish or fish that have been caught, tagged and re-released. Sizeable awards are available, and if you happen to be fishing when a derby is on, don’t forget to enter. The nominal fee for admission, never more than a few bucks, is a small price to pay for the chance to offset some of your vacation expenses. And every year there are tales of “lucky” fishers who have caught an otherwise prize-winning fish but neglected to enter the derby. Don’t let this happen to you!
If your preferences run to stream and lake fishing for trout, there are literally millions of bodies of water to choose from. Southeast Alaska has cutthroat, brook, steelhead and rainbows available year around, while farther north you can find rainbows, lake trout, Arctic grayling and Arctic char, Dolly Varden and northern pike. For a truly unique experience, thrill-seeking fisher folk can head for the Arctic regions and fish for the sheefish. These large, muscular fish live in the rivers of the far north and their willingness to take big streamer flies endears them to fly fishing connoisseurs.
Hard core anglers who need a fishing fix in the middle of winter can try some hard water fishing in Southcentral and Interior Alaska. Fishing on lakes and streams locked in Old Man Winter’s icy grip can be rewarding and productive. Char and Dolly Varden, as well as rainbow trout, pike, landlocked salmon and the tasty burbot provide plenty of opportunities for gathering fresh fish and getting out to experience Alaska’s winter recreational opportunities. Lakes on the Kenai Peninsula, the Mat-Su Valley north of Anchorage, and within the Municipality of Anchorage provide the chance to ice fish without venturing too far from the warmth and comforts of civilization.
Information on fishing licenses and regulations is available from sporting goods stores and most communities have businesses that will process, vacuum pack, smoke or can your fish, and arrange shipping to your home.
Alaska’s cornucopia of fishing adventures is available to visitors of every skill, budget and interest level, no matter where or when you choose to visit. The Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game offers a wealth of information on exactly when and where to fish. And for Alaska Visitor Information, visit the website of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.