Salmon Fishing in Alaska: the Ultimate Guide
Oct 7, 2019 | 9 minute read
Reading Time: 9 minutes

It’s no exaggeration when we say that Salmon fishing in Alaska is unparalleled. Even though it’s called the Last Frontier, for passionate anglers, this is the land of infinite opportunities. With more coastline than the whole of the US and millions of lakes, Alyeska (The Great Land) offers breathtaking scenery while fighting the biggest fish of your life.

Countless prolific fisheries and five Pacific Salmon species in one place – what more could a traveling angler ask for?

Alaskan Salmon 101

A small fishing boat on a clear river surrounded by cliffs and forest
It all starts with a boat…

The waters of Alaska aren’t just pristine, they’re gin-clear, aqua-blue, and prolific to an extent that’s difficult to imagine. You have to test them out yourself to fully understand just how addictive the fishing action here is. And Salmon fishing is the most exciting adventure of them all.

Some of the best fishing spots are in the wilderness, so hiring an experienced guide is essential. If there’s a particular species of Salmon you’d like to target, expert help is welcome to find that best bite.

Now, a few words about your prey, your nemesis, your prize – the Pacific Salmon. Chinook, Coho, Pink, Sockeye, and Chum Salmon are all regular visitors of Alaska’s waters. Hunting each of them comes with its own set of advantages.

Chinook (King) Salmon

An angler holding a big King Salmon in the water with blue skies in the background

Chinook (aka King) Salmon is the ultimate catch in Alaska – the bigger, the better. Kings are so popular that there’s a place named after them on the west side of Naknek Lake.

These hard-fighting fish average at 20–30 pounds, and you can easily find lunkers that weigh 50 pounds or more. Go after Chinook anytime from June to late July, but know that seasonality will vary from place to place.

Chum Salmon

Chum Salmon are seriously underestimated, but they’ll wow you when you get them on the line. You can hook specimens that weigh 10 pounds on average, as well as finding fish that are over 15 pounds. Coastal fishing for Chum in Alaska is superb, especially from late June to the end of August.

Coho (Silver) Salmon

To experience some fast and furious action, Silver Salmon fishing is the name of your game. These wild guys are relentless and have the rep of the best fighters of the Salmon Five. They’re the strongest acrobats among Salmon, so you’re getting a great fight and a show to go with it. The best time of the year to go after Coho is from July all through September.

Pink (Humpback, Humpy) Salmon

Pinkies are the smallest of all Salmon. They usually average at 5 pounds, though you can easily stumble upon some bigger ones. The most important piece of advice you’ll get is that you should go after Pink Salmon on even-numbered years. This is because their life cycle lasts two years, so you can’t find them every year. When they do come to Alaska, they’re here in huge numbers. You can easily catch 50 or more fish on one trip, if you know where to go. Anytime from late July to the end of August is good for targeting Humpies.

Sockeye Salmon

If you’re coming to Alaska to fill your cooler with delicious fillets, there’s no better target than Sockeye Salmon. Not only are they the tastiest of all Salmon, but they’re also the most abundant ones. They come to the prolific Alaskan waters by the millions. Fly fishing for Sockeye is a big thing, and many passionate fly rodders come here for the ultimate face-off. These peculiar-looking fellas are abundant from mid-June to late July.

The Best Spots for Salmon Fishing in Alaska

Sockeye Salmon swimming in aqua blue waters

Now, this is a topic that deserves an entire book in itself. With millions of watersheds in Alaska, your main task will be finding the right spot for your fishing needs. Your choice will heavily depend on how much time you have and how far you’re willing to go.

Let’s take a look at some of the premier honey holes you can explore in gorgeous Alaska.

Kenai River

The view of beautiful Kenai River
The Kenai River is one of the best fisheries in Alaska.

If we’re talking about Salmon fishing, we must begin with the Kenai River. You’ll hardly find a spot that is more scenic, more productive, and more fun to fish on than the Kenai. With aqua-blue waters and magnificent snow-capped mountains as your backdrop, casting your line on this river will feel like you’re in a fairytale. And when you hook that first big Salmon, you’ll find that fairytales can come true.

The outstanding Chinook and Sockeye runs are what put the Kenai River on the map, though you can find all five Salmon species here. From May to October, you can catch Coho, Chinook, and Pinkies swarming the river in the thousands, and in Sockeye’s case, the numbers reach millions.

This is, hands down, one of the best places to catch a monster King Salmon. The fact that the most IGFA world records in freshwater Salmon fishing were caught here speaks for itself. Each of the species has its own schedule, so you can time your arrival at the Kenai just right.

Brooks River

Located in the heart of the Katmai National Park and Preserve, Brooks River is one of the harder-to-reach destinations, but the pay-off is well worth it. If you want to get to the best spots, chances are you’ll need a floatplane. There are charters who can take you there, but it will take longer, usually a couple of hours.

The crystal clear waters of the Brooks River hide formidable numbers of Salmon, and Coho and Sockeye reign supreme. If you want to be there for the peak of the Sockeye summer run, the beginning of July is your best bet. Depending on the time of the year, you can enjoy strong action for your favorite Salmon fighter. This is also a prime spot for fly fishermen looking for a new adventure.

As in so many cases with Alaska Salmon fishing, angling here is strictly catch-and-release, though there are small parts of the river where you can keep your catch. One of the best things about the Brooks River is that there are many conveniently located fishing lodges to choose from. Pair all that with awe-inspiring nature and it’s a picture-perfect area for getting your fill of Alaska’s beauty.

Kodiak Island

A brown Kodiak bear holding a Salmon in his mouth
Kodiak Brown Bears will be your biggest competition when Salmon fishing on Kodiak Island.

Fishing on Kodiak Island can quickly turn into a treasure hunt. This is one of the favorite Alaskan fisheries, and for all the right reasons. Kodiak Island is famous for its outstanding fishing, as well as its brown bears, which will be your main competition in the Salmon hunt.

Even though it’s remote, there are frequent commercial flights that connect the island with Anchorage. What’s more, there are very good roads all over the island, making different bodies of water very accessible to anglers. Numerous rivers and streams are the center of attention in the summer months and the reason is, of course, productive runs of four different Salmon species.

It all starts with the King at the beginning of June, when you can catch 20-pounders regularly until mid-July. After that, Sockeye take center stage and are present until the beginning of August, closely followed by Pink Salmon. Silver Salmon are on the menu from mid-August all the way through the end of September.

Some of the best honey holes on Kodiak Island include Ayakkulik (Red) River, Sargent Creek, Buskin River, and Frazer Lake (also known as the Dog Salmon Creek).

Kasilof River

View of clear Kasilof River with a forest and cloudy skies

Beginning at Tustamena Lake, and quite close to the Kenai River, the Kasilof River offers Salmon fishermen a unique experience. This is a drift-only river, meaning that you can’t use motor boats here, and, thanks to the Kasilof’s strong currents, you don’t need to.

Depending on the month you’re here, you can catch Chinook, Sockeye, Coho, and Pink Salmon. King Salmon opens the fishing season with its early run in late spring, and summer run in July and August. During the late run, massive Kings that average 20–40 pounds are the norm.

Sockeye join the fray later in June and stay until mid-July, and Coho, though late bloomers, are well worth the wait and come along in mid-August. Though they’re smaller compared to those in the Kenai, Kasilof Salmon are fun to catch, especially because you can use live bait here, which is not the case in the Kenai. If you’d like to relax on the water, enjoy the stunning surroundings, and still catch impressive fish, the Kasilof is the way to go.

Nushagak River

You can catch Chinook Salmon just about anywhere in Alaska, but if you want to go for the biggest ones out there, Nushagak River is your destination. Some say that this river has the most productive King Salmon run on the planet, with the number of fish often exceeding tens upon tens of thousands. Some of the largest Salmon ever caught were hooked on the Nushagak River, and when anglers hit these waters, you know they’re here to target the catch of their life.

The Best Techniques to Hook a Big One

Big Chinook Salmon in Alaska, held in the water

Because thousands of anglers swarm to Alaska in the summer, many of them have their own idea of how to catch a trophy Salmon. Still, there are some foolproof ways to get your hands on big fish, and local guides are in the know and can make it happen. Both traditional fishing with conventional tackle and fly fishing are equally represented, it all depends on your preferences.

If Chinook is your primary target (as is the case for so many in Alaska), then you’re craving serious action and a challenge. People love to catch these guys, but to get to the best bite, you have to go to the deepest parts of the rivers. If you’re using live bait, salmon roe and herring are your best options. For fly fishermen, bright flies are the safest bet – the bigger, the better. The best time to go after Kings is usually within two hours of a tidal change.

Sockeye runs are very popular in Alaska, which is why Alaskans (and everyone who fishes there) frequently use “flossing” as their go-to technique. The method is simple but very effective. Drop your line close to the river bottom and let it float with the current (the choice of the right weight is crucial here). Sockeye are gentle biters; when you’re “flossing,” they will get the line in their mouths at first, but then it’s your job to feel it and set the hook into the corner of the mouth.

When it comes to Pink, Chum, and Coho Salmon, wherever you fish, look for them in the clearest waters. This allows them to see what’s going on around them better, and gives them the chance to escape before you even see them. Casting your line around rocks and trees is also a good bet, especially if you use big lures in bright colors. After that, it’s only a matter of time before you hear the reel screaming.

Do I need a license?

If you’re going Salmon fishing in Alaska, you will need a fishing license before you head out on your quest. Bear in mind that fishing licenses can vary from area to area, so one size definitely doesn’t fit all. It’s highly recommended to apply for a license before the beginning of the season, since it will take less time to get it. You can buy a license that lasts anywhere from 1–14 days.

You’re welcome to apply online through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website or in certified tackle shops. If you’ve set your sights on Chinook, you’ll need a separate King Salmon tag before you hit the water, so that you can catch these fish legally. As for the other species, you don’t need any specific tag, but a valid license is a must.

Can I keep my catch?

Salmon fillet with the fish drawn around it on a blackboard

In Alaska, practically every body of water has a designated daily limit of the fish you can catch. There are some rivers that are strictly catch-and-release, and guides highly encourage the release of female Salmon, though it’s not enforced. In any case, male Salmon are tastier, so why not do what’s best for the ecosystem while you’re at it?

If you’d like to take the fruits of your hard work home with you, some fishing lodges will provide cleaning, filleting, and vacuum packaging of the catch. They’ll even freeze it for your convenience and you can buy a seafood shipping container to take it with you on the plane. This way, when you come back from Alaska, delicious Salmon dinners are back on the menu.

No Place like Alaska

Anglers who have been to Alaska and came face-to-gills with its incredible Salmon can all confirm one thing – fishing in this gorgeous, wild state is something you simply can’t miss.

If pristine waters and dream-like landscapes are not enough to entice you, monster fish that call these waters home will. Alaska is a combo of unforgettable beauty, adrenaline-infused fishing action, and views you just can’t get enough of. Who could say no to that?

Have you ever been Salmon fishing in Alaska? What are your impressions? Which Salmon species do you think is the most fun to catch? Let us know what you think in the comments, we’re always happy to hear from you.

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