The "Alaskan Salmon" Experience

The "Alaskan Salmon" Experience

How to fish for salmon in Alaska... Even THAT'S not a fitting title! So, I'll stick with The "Alaskan Salmon" Experience. As an avid fisherman, I pride myself on "knowing a little about a lot", specifically fishing. However, I quickly learned this was not the case when I recently went to Alaska to hit the infamous salmon run. Basically, I didn't know sugar-honey-iced-tea about "fishing" for salmon. Large-mouth bass? Lookout! Salmon, you're safe.

Here's what I learned about fishing in Alaska that can make your trip MUCH more memorable than mine. At least more "profitable". For some context, during the salmon run the fish don't eat. They're there to die. It's alright, they're supposed to. They swim up-river, spawn, die, and feed everything else around them in the process. That being said, they're not looking to snag your lure based on size, shape, color, action, etc. Fishing the salmon run is literally snagging. Yup, snagging them. Just like in the image above, they swim in pods of lots-of-thousands (that's a prime number, if you're wondering)! In pods of a few hundred at a time they head up river. THAT'S when you get them! But, before you go dipping your rod in a stream, here are some pointers:

1. BUY A LICENSE! Seems like a no-brainer, but us Lower-48 folks need to remember that Alaska doesn't have much in the way of exports. Tourism is it's numero-uno! You can get a license just about anywhere in Alaska or you can buy one online and print it out through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game online. This will run you $25 for a one-day non-resident license up to $105 for a 14-day license. OR, spend the extra $40 ($145) and get the annual non-res license and give yourself a reason to come back next year!

2. CHECK THE RULE BOOK! I'm used to perusing fishing/wildlife regulations when they come out. It gives me something to do while I'm... relaxing. But When I got my hands on the Alaskan fishing info, I was lost. You can check out the regulations for sport fishing here. On the right-hand side you'll see an image of the state. Just click where you're headed and enjoy the read! OR, you can ask a guide when you arrive, or even a local. Don't be shy! You're not the first person to ask a question. To me, Alaska is the "Disneyworld" of the outdoors; Nice place to visit but you'll go broke and get tired quick if you don't plan properly and adequately. This is what the guide for Southwest Alaska looks like. You can find them everywhere! There's really no excuse not to know the rules when they're in more places than sand at the beach!

3. GET THE RIGHT GEAR! You'll definitely need some waders and wading boots. If you were fly fishing Colorado I'd tell you that you're fine in some neoprene and sneakers... NOT in Alaska! That being said, I'm not one to buy something just because it has SIMMS on it. Quite the contrary! I found a fantastic pair of waders at Bass Pro that survived some pretty tough abuse. The $70 Redhead Finley will get you where you need to go without breaking the bank. Don't forget the boots for them either! You can't wear plain ol' sneakers! Alaska's rivers have been formed by eons of glacial flow... cold friggin' water with big rocks left over. IF you want to splurge, do it here. Waders can keep you dry, which equals warm, which means alive.

For fishing gear I stopped at the Fred Meyer in Soldotna on our way out of Homer and picked up a fishing rod-combo that had a few salmon flies in it. PRO TIP: Buy some 15-20lb test line and re-spool your reel! You're going to catch 6-12lb fish with some serious propulsion behind them in a swift current. I snapped line after line of lures (more on that later) because I neglected to pay attention to what I was buying.

Now that you've got the license, the gear, armed yourself with knowledge, and now have the capability and intent... (if this were a crime, you'd be going to jail and bail-money would almost be cheaper) it's time to fish!
By this point in my trip I'd spent the $145 on a license, $30 on the fishing pole, another $20 on extra flies and weights, and at least $150 on waders and boots and I hadn't even stepped in the water yet! So, if salmon costs roughly $14/pound at Walmart, how much do you need to catch to make it worth your trip? I used this rough-estimate from Coal Point Seafood and found it on-par with the processors you'll find all over the Kenai peninsula, where the majority of fishing is done. If I had caught 50lbs of salmon and had it filleted, vacuum packed, and frozen @ $1.50/lb I'd be at $75. Storage runs (I think) 60-90 cents per pound BUT, since I didn't use this service, I won't include it in my estimate. Kenai Cache as well as Gwin's Lodge have fish processing and storage for competitive prices. Anyway, to process, pack, freeze, package for overnight shipping home with FedEx, tax and insurance would run me a total of $358 for 50lbs of fresh-caught Alaskan salmon! That'd be around $7/lb! HALF of market price! BUT REMEMBER that's doesn't include your equipment, license, how much your time is worth, hiking around to find a good spot, etc. If you add all of that into the cost of your fresh-caught salmon, the price-per-pound is actually $14.06/lb. Yup, everything I said above, totaled up and divided by 50 is the market rate of salmon. Don't get "starry-eyed" thinking you're going to head up there and slay fish by the dozens and save a ton of cash by catching it yourself. Quite the opposite. Remember that you're visiting Alaska to bask in the greatest outdoors left on earth and NOT get eaten by a bear. Now, back to the tips...

4. SET UP YOUR RIG RIGHT! Setting up your rig is always important when you fish. Snagging is no less important! You want to set up your fly so that it floats freely in the current while the weight bounces along the bottom and hopefully runs your fly right in the midst of the resting salmon before you rip it out of the water. The weight you use is partially determined by the current. I didn't have any "bad luck" using 3/4 to 1 oz of weight. You could feel it bounce along the bottom beautifully. When I DID hook some reds, this was how I did it. The distance between your weight (bouncing along the bottom) and the fly (waiting to hook itself in a salmon's face) was at least 24 inches. Craig Walcott explains it best in his video...

5. WATCH SOMEONE ELSE DO IT! This was my most costly lesson and it took several weeks for me to learn that I had no idea what I was doing. The technique is called the "Kenai flip" and is literally a cross between "flipping for bass in thick cover" and "roll casting" your fly rod. The best way I learn is by observation...

Speaking of observation... When many of us think of fishing for salmon in Alaska, I'm willing to bet that the words "combat" never come to mind. For me, combat never has involved a fishing pole and quite the opposite! Fishing is what I do to relax! The peace and quiet of nature, occasional mosquito slap, impending splash of a large-mouth bass gulping my top-water lure from underneath... Not in Alaska! This is combat fishing on the Kenai! In the words of Big John McCarthy, "Let's get it on!"

"Combat fishing on the Kenai" is what it's called. "How can this be sportsman-like?" you may ask. "Why the heck are people doing this and thinking it's any fun?" is a thought that ran through my mind. Well, it's an experience. Here's the REAL kicker... there's a limit per day on how many salmon you can catch so don't expect to hit 50lbs of beautiful salmon in the first week! That'll take at least two weeks to amass if you catch your limit every-day.

6. WATCH SOMEONE ELSE DO IT, AGAIN! Pay attention to where everyone is standing in the water. The salmon that come up stream in pods hold to structure just like other fish. The only structure is the shelf that's about 10-feet in front of you as you venture off into the icy cold water, perhaps completely unaware of. Your "flip" is only about 20-yds in front of you, upstream about your 10 o'clock position (or 1 o'clock depending) and let if float down to the 1 o'clock (or 10) feeling the weight bounce along the bottom as you go. As you approach the 1 o'clock (or 10) apply a firm "rip"
to the pole. This action will cause the fly that's been floating along carelessly among the pod of unaware salmon (approximately 24-inches from the weight) to immediately snatch the fishy-flesh nearby. Congratulations! You've "caught" an Alaskan salmon! Hopefully it's snagged somewhere in the lip or else you won't be able to keep it. You'll see fish that have holes in their fins or along their sides from "foul hooks" from other fisherman that had to toss them back.

7. RE-EVALUATE WHY YOU'RE DOING IT! If you're heading to Alaska anyway and already have the gear, do some fishing! If you're thinking that you'd like to spend a "reasonable" ton-of-money on just a fishing trip, this is for you! But, if you're like me and you're not sure if you'd like to spend that much money just to fish or lose a bunch of lures in the rocks while balancing yourself precariously above the swift, cold current, while being on constant guard for bears, then we should hang out.

Don't get me wrong, it was an awesome time! I spent two-weeks camping in some of the most beautiful back-country I've ever seen with some great friends; truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience! I DID eat fresh-caught trout over a fire and my cousin, who DID limit-out everyday, shared one of his 6lb filets that was delicious. Would I do it again? Absolutely! BUT, if I was armed with THIS info, I would probably have fish to mail home. Good luck to all of you anglers and adventure-seekers out there!

While Alaska IS my ultimate destination, I think I'll enjoy it more as a resident who doesn't have to sell a kidney and a part of their lower-intestine just to try it out for two-weeks. It wasn't "all-bad" though. Don't read that! It was an epic experience filled with bear-encounters, hikes into forest-service cabins that people wait for years to get into, late-night hang-outs with "just the guys", and sitting up until 1 am discussing bush-flying. The fishing would've been better if I caught something but, I'll take my memories "fresh", not "frozen".


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