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Fishing for Silver Salmon and Pink Salmon
on the Alagnak River
By Paul B Downing
Our guide, Chad, jumped out of the boat and proceeded to walk it down a side channel toward the main river. My friend Rick Covington and I cast large weighted chartreuse and pink streamers toward shore, stripping them back to the boat, tense with anticipation. The silvers were in and had been busting the surface on their way up this side channel to spawn.
Suddenly a flash of silver appeared behind my fly, causing it to stop short in mid strip. Then the water exploded as a huge silver thrashed. An instant later it ripped off line to the backing. One rapid change in direction followed another. Keeping up with this wild thrashing creature was surely a challenge. The silver jumped and ran…a crazed and unpredictable life force. Slowly I began to win but this brute was not yet done. As Chad reached for him, the silver took off again like a shot. Fortunately I got my rod around and pointing at his disappearing tail before he broke the line or rod. Again I got him close and again he took off, splashing water in our faces as he leapt. But time was on our side and he eventually came to hand. Chad held up a fine male sporting a prominent hooked jaw and red sides. This silver was one of many we caught each day of our week at Katmai Lodge.
Katmai Lodge, located on the Alagnak River, is a scenic hour flight out of King Salmon, Alaska. The Alagnak has extraordinary runs of all five salmon found in Alaska. This area of Bristol Bay has a well-deserved reputation for having some of the best salmon and rainbow trout fishing in Alaska…or the world for that matter!
The lodge is located on a low bluff overlooking the Alagnak just a few miles up from the ocean. Facing west, it offers a great view of the setting sun, but that was hours away, as we had arrived about noon. After getting our fishing license and having a filling lunch, we met our guide Chad Crawford. Discussing fishing opportunities we settled on a tentative plan for the week before we were off to chase silvers.
Seasons of the Salmon
Silver salmon, coho to those of us in the lower 48, are only one of the five species of salmon who run up the Alagnak. Before my first trip to Alaska years ago, I talked to several outfitters and lodge owners. I asked what fishing was good and when should I come. The universal response was “What do you want to catch?” At first I was put off by this response but now I understand.
In Alaska the fishing season is broken up into salmon runs. First come the king salmon (chinook). These monsters run up to 70 pounds or more and average about 35 pounds on the Alagnak. They are great fighters. Here you can take kings on a fly but you will need a 10-weight rod and a really good reel. You will also need strong arms. An eight king day will wear you out! The king season starts about mid-June and lasts into July.
Before the king season is the early trout season. Salmon smolt and bugs provide a continuous buffet. Trophy rainbows, char and grayling smash dry flies scattered across the surface and smolt pattern streamers stripped under water. This is reported to be a spectacular fishing experience.
Next come the sockeye (reds), millions of them. On the Alagnak sockeyes run 6 to 10 pounds. Mixed among them are chum salmon. The sockeye are more acrobatic but the chum are some of the toughest fighters I have ever encountered. Chums average 12 to 15 pounds. If you want lots of salmon, this is the time to come to Katmai Lodge. It is possible under the right conditions to catch a sockeye on almost every cast.
As August progresses the kings and sockeye have passed upriver but a second chum run with bigger fish is in. Also on even numbered years the river is full of pink (humpback) salmon. Pinks are little balls of energy that take a fly readily. When the males put their broad side to the current you think you have latched onto something far bigger. Pinks are large on the Alagnak, running 3 to 6 pounds.
Late August into September is the time for silver (coho) salmon. Silvers average 12 to 15 pounds with the occasional 18 to 20 pounder. That is what I came for!
Stripping for Silvers
One of the beauties of Katmai Lodge is that it is right where you find the fishing. No plane rides or long boat rides. Each morning we would meet Chad after breakfast and hop into a flat bottomed aluminum boat. Chad would motor us up or down stream to a location where he expected to find a concentration of silvers. On their trip upriver, silvers pause and concentrate in slow moving side pockets of the main stream. We would usually fish from the boat but occasionally from shore. Rods of 7 or 8 weight with good reels and floating line are best.
In most of the areas we fished numbers of silvers were visible. We would cast bright streamers to a pod of silvers and strip back. Sometimes we could see a fish break off from the pod and follow the fly. Strip…strip…thinking all the time “Take it, take it!” Often they did. Sometimes the take came unexpectedly out of nowhere.
Then all hell would break loose. These fish are crazy. They thrash, run, jump, all with the speed of light and seemingly in several directions at once. I cannot begin to explain their fight. It is something you have to experience yourself. I know it put a big smile on my face and it’s still there as I remember back to those great fights.
One morning we were in for a special treat. The wind was calm and Chad asked if we wanted to try pollywogs. A pollywog is made of pink spun deer hair shaped like a bass popper. Retrieved along the surface it gurgles. Silvers will smash it if they are in the right mood.
We pulled into a side channel where we had caught silvers before. A mist was on the rivers as I got out of the boat. I was taking in the unreal scenery when suddenly out of the mist came a cow moose. She walked calmly out onto the bar 100 yards above us and proceeded to swim to the other side of the river. This is the Alaskan wilderness.
On my first cast a silver smashed the wog and proceeded to splash over every inch of water in that area. Surly he had put the rest of the fish down. But no, a few casts later a second fish engulfed the wog. Silvers seem to fight more on the surface when caught on a wog. After the third take, however, the fish were wise to the wog. Switching to a streamer we caught several more before they quit altogether.
Each day was spent finding places where silvers were concentrated, catching them until they quit, then finding another spot. Usually the silvers would be near shore in slower water. Often pinks would be found just a few feet further out or downstream where the current began to pick up. The result was that you never knew whether the next fish would be a silver or a pink. However, the instant we set the hook we knew because the silvers would already be in the air. Chad seemed disappointed when we caught pinks but I never was. Those little guys fought their hearts out. Still, silvers were more fun.
I remember several spots fondly. The “fishbowl” contained hundreds of visible silvers and pinks. Watching one break off and take our fly was a treat. Up river near the braids were two holes that produced fish after fish. Again the takes were mostly visible.
Still, the one hole I remember most I called our “going home hole.” This hole was just across the river from the lodge. Chad would take us there on our way back to the lodge for dinner. A small current broke off from the main flow and tumbled over a gravel bar into a deep hole with two beaver lodges. In the middle of the bar was a sunken tree root.
On our first visit Chad told Rick to put a fly just below the snag. Rick dutifully did and immediately hooked into a chrome bright silver who jumped and thrashed with the best of them. I tried downstream where the channel drops off into the pool and was rewarded with a pink.
Rick landed his silver and was immediately into another. I caught another pink. I asked Chad whether there were silvers above the snag. He said he had never caught any up there but I gave it a try anyway. The first cast produced a hit but no hookup. The third cast produced a chrome silver which proceeded to run downstream past a third silver Rick had on. What a great way to finish off the day’s fishing.
The lodge offers day fly-outs to fish for trout and view bears. We arranged to fly-out to Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. This is the place you see pictured where brown bears catch salmon as they jump up the falls. The river is the route of thousands of sockeye on their way to spawn. Bears congregate to fatten on the sockeye and trout follow the salmon feeding on eggs they drop.
We fished a couple of holes below the falls. Chad threaded an orange plastic bead on our line with a hook below it and a weight and indicator above it. Trout take the bead for an egg.
Casting to huge trout visible among the sockeye is fascinating. You try to get the drift just right so the trout will see it among all the salmon. Not easy. This day we saw several rainbows that easily exceeded 30 inches. Seeing a salmon-sized trout makes one realize that a true trophy is just a cast away. Unfortunately we had a couple of takes but could not hook any of these monsters on this trip. Our biggest was an 18-incher.
A second fly-out goes to Moraine Creek. Like Brooks, it is full of salmon and huge trout. Fishers who made this trip reported catching numerous rainbows over 20 inches. Be aware that both trips require a fair bit of hiking. Also, they are popular locations so you will not have the place to yourself. On our visit planes from four lodges landed. Still, seeing the bears at the falls, along with those huge rainbows, and thousands of spawning sockeye made the fly-out special.
Katmai Lodge is in the wilderness an hour’s flight from any road. We saw bear at the lodge and on the river. A porcupine looked down on us from a pine tree in front of the lodge one evening. Sandhill cranes flew overhead with their raucous call or fed in the nearly tundra. Beaver patrolled in front of their lodges. But the best treat was the fledgling bald eagle. Over the days we saw it testing its wings in its nest on the top of a tree. One day it lifted off the nest, flew a few feet, and returned. Like the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, a short but momentous first flight.
Whenever I see salmon returning to their spawning grounds I am amazed at the hazardous life they live. Smolt have to dodge trout and birds as they move downstream to the sea. In the sea they travel thousands of miles over several years; all the time avoiding being eaten or captured. Using celestial navigation they find their way back to their parent stream system. Once there, they must avoid bears and fly fishers as they find their way upstream to their birth bar using their sense of smell. What a fantastic voyage.
Rick and I truly loved our week with the silvers. On more than one occasion we were hooked up at the same time. It was like the Keystone Cops…everybody was going everywhere at the same time! As silvers lunged and changed direction, we would hand rods over one another and race to the other end of the boat, only to have the silvers change their minds and go the other way.
Over the last week of August we had excellent fishing weather…a high overcast. It seems the silvers were much more inclined to bite then. We each averaged about 20 silvers and 30 to 50 pinks per day. The end result was a satisfying glow that will last. Whether this is your first trip to Alaska or your last…I personally have made my “last trip” several times and have now given up and say “when I come back”…Katmai Lodge will be a great experience.
You can contact Katmai Lodge at www.katmai.com.
The Katmai Lodge is famous for its silver salmon. These fish are a great treat. But, for a really special adventure, try to arrange to be there when the pink salmon are also in. You can stand at the edge of the stream and cast upstream for the silvers. Allowing your fly to drift downstream, you WILL pick up a pink salmon. The silvers jump and make a heck of a racket. The pinks pull...and do these big pinks pull! They are much larger than most other drainages.