Alaska hosts an array of different species of fish, which is one of many reasons why Alaska is so popular in fly fishing lore. Anglers can target all five species of Pacific salmon, steelhead, Northern pike, Arctic grayling, rainbow trout, and dolly varden on the fly. Each species has its own challenges that make casting to and hopefully catching them so much fun. In terms of diversity, fly fishing in Alaska has no lack of different fish to target.
Alaska is home to the world’s most prolific salmon populations with 5 different species re-entering its rivers every year to spawn. This bountiful and sensational resource is the foundation of Alaska’s incredible sportfishing industry in which thousands of anglers, wildlife viewers, and outdoor enthusiasts take advantage of every summer.
Chum Salmon (Dog Salmon): The Chum is among the first species to return to Alaska’s coasts and rivers in preparation to spawn. Typically they arrive in late June and are prevalent throughout the month of July. They can average between 10-12 pounds and display a unique combination of colors that many folks refer to as tie-die. While they are fun to target and are fairly willing to eat a fly, they are not considered to be the best eating of the 5 species. Still today, Alaska Natives typically use them as dog food throughout the cold winters which is why the Chum is also known as the Dog salmon.
King Salmon (Chinook): Like the Chum, Kings enter Alaska’s rivers in late June and early July and are certainly considered to be the main attraction for anglers coming to catch big fish as well as fill fish boxes for their freezers at home. Averaging between 20-30lbs with some reaching sizes near 70lbs, the King is Alaska’s poster child for grip and grins.
Sockeye Salmon (Redd): Sockeyes typically arrive in July and can be present through September depending on the region. The main spawning event takes place in August and can be a true spectacle to see. Rivers will be red with salmon and can provide a buffet of food for a variety of species including bears, birds, and mammals, and of course, rainbow trout, char, and grayling. While they are prolific and found in pods of hundreds, Sockeyes are notoriously difficult to catch on the fly as they no longer feed once they re-enter freshwater.
Pink Salmon (Humpy): Returning every even year, the pink salmon arrives in late July and early August to spawn. The smallest of the 5 species they average between 3-5lbs and develop a pronounced hump on their back hence the nickname, Humpy. While they are not feeding once they enter freshwater, they do develop an aggressive protective trait that leads to them being very willing to eat a fly in an attempt to kill potential threats to their eggs. Often times, anglers become irritated simply because they can’t keep them off their line when targeting other species.
Silver Salmon (Coho): The last pacific salmon to enter Alaska’s rivers is the Silver salmon which typically arrives in mid-August and spawns through mid-October depending on the region. Certainly the most aggressive and sporty of the 5 species, the silver averages between 10-12 lbs and is often the most targeted salmon on the fly. They are very willing to grab streamers as well as topwater polly wogs when skipped across the surface. They develop a very pronounced kype jaw and portray deep colors of red and even black on their backs.
Often overlooked as a steelhead fishery, Alaska can boast some of the best steelhead fishing found anywhere in the world. With two seasons, spring and fall, anglers can target wild steelhead that has had very few, if any, encounters with other anglers.
Spring Season: Southeast Alaska and the Tongass National Forest produce an incredible run of wild steelhead throughout April and early May. Rather than standing in rivers for hours swinging flies which is the classic approach on the West Coast and in British Columbia, anglers can expect to fish small streams that require some hiking to get to. Single-hand rods rigged with indicators are the most effective approach and can produce numbers anywhere between 2-8 fish per angler per day depending on conditions.
Fall Season: During the months of September and October, the fall steelhead fishery on Alaska’s Aleutian Peninsula begins. Conditions can be tough with rain, wind and cold weather pushing in from the Bering Sea but anglers can expect to find healthy numbers of wild steelhead. Typically this is more of a classic steelhead fishing approach with two-handed rods and swinging intruder style flies through runs and tail outs.
While there are several places you can find pike in Alaska, there are few places that have the numbers and size of pike like the Yukon River. For those wishing to target large, hungry, and aggressive pike can be targeted throughout most of Alaska’s summer season which ranges from mid-June through September. Average sizes can be anywhere from 25 – 35 inches in size but if you’re hunting for a true trophy, it’s recommended you go later in the season when fish can exceed 45 inches in length.
There are few places left in the United States where anglers can target and catch grayling that are native to the river. Alaska is certainly one of the grayling’s biggest strongholds where they thrive and are a favorite by-catch of anglers throughout the state. Grayling can be caught throughout the entire Alaska season which ranges from June through early October and will eat nearly anything put in front of them.
From top-water dry flies to 3-inch long Dali Lamas, these tenacious little fish are a fun way to break up the day of fishing. You can distinguish between the males and females by the length of their dorsal fins. Male’s dorsal fins will extend to their adipose and will exhibit more vibrant colors whereas the female’s fin will be shorter and less colorful.
The Alaskan Leopard Rainbow trout is without question one of Alaska’s most prized sportfish in which hundreds of anglers come to target every year. The rainbow trout can be found in almost all of Alaska’s rivers and can be caught from June through October. For most anglers, choosing when to target these fish is more dependent on what kind of angler they are and whether they prefer dry flies and streamers, nymphing and large numbers, or wish to catch a fish of a lifetime.
There is no question that these fish are meat eaters that have a small window of time to fatten up before another long, cold winter arrives so they are very willing to eat large flies, rodent patterns on the surface and gorge themselves on the endless supply of salmon eggs that fill the river every summer.
Dolly Varden can be found throughout the western region of Alaska in a majority of rivers. They’re sometimes anadromous, returning to freshwater rivers from the ocean to feed throughout the summer and spawn in the fall, while others live in freshwater their entire lives. In short, they are a tenacious and vibrant member of the char family and are always eager to eat a fly.
Commonly called dollies, Dolly Varden can be caught almost any month of the season which ranges from June through October. When anglers choose to target them is dependent on what they’re looking for. In the early season weeks, dollies are chrome and thin after a long cold winter of little food.
They pod up in schools and will sit in deeper holes waiting for the smolt run-out to begin. Smolt which is baby salmon, begins to make their journey to the ocean in late June and provide the dollies, along with rainbow trout and grayling, a large food source that helps them put on the weight they lost throughout the winter. The feeding frenzy that takes place during this time resembles Tuna busting baitfish in the ocean which can lead to incredible fishing where almost every cast, an angler can expect to be hooked up. While the dollies may not be as colorful this time of year, they are extremely aggressive and are willing to eat almost anything you put in front of them.
As the season progresses into July and August, the dollies begin to regain some of their weight and start to display colors such as pink, orange, and white which are characteristic of the char family. The salmon are spawning during this time so most anglers will find these fish huddled up behind salmon redds as eggs are dropped and fertilized.
Since dollies are such aggressive fish, they often times are the first to eat a fly which can be frustrating for anglers specifically targeting rainbows. Dollies also have a defense strategy where they uncontrollably spin which causes chaos with the line, flies, and landing nets. It’s been fittingly called the “Dolly Death Roll”.
Once September arrives and Alaska begins transitioning from summer to fall, the dollies begin making their way to the headwaters of rivers in preparation to spawn. After a full 3 months of feeding on smolt, salmon eggs, and flesh, these fish have changed exponentially and barely resemble the thin and colorless fish they were back in June. At this time, they are vibrant with pink spots, red bellies, dark backs, and bright white fins which easily make them among the prettiest fish found in Alaska. For anyone looking to target trophy size dolly varden, then September is certainly the time to explore.
Alaska is home to an array of species each species offering a unique set of challenges keeping anglers on their toes.
+ Listen to this WAYPOINTS Podcast: CAMILLE EGDORF – Alaska Trip Planning and How to Do it Right