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A Guide to Saltwater
Sport Fishing in Alaska

by Christopher Batin

Alaska saltwater fishing is adventure unlike any other in the world. It is full of surprises. You can be fishing a wilderness beach in solitude one minute, and sharing it with a salmon-hungry brown bear the next. It is unsurpassed variety. An inlet or bay can hold up to five species of salmon, rockfish and halibut, all ready to do battle at the drop of a lure. It is spectacular wonder, with emerald-green spruce carpeting rugged mountains; calving, tidewater glaciers that drop their cargo in a majestic show of power, and sunsets to awe the most traveled outdoorsman.

A king salmon that DIDN'T get away!Alaska saltwater fishing is all of this...and more. Yet many people have a misconception about this sport. They think catching trophy fish is easy in Alaska's offshore waters. They often require that special something to get them to strike. This "something" is often a combination of factors that include knowledge of fish habits, life history, weather conditions and ocean currents to name a few. But perhaps the most important of these is knowing the proper big fish techniques and where to catch them.

Fishing Alaska saltwater. This king salmon came from a fishing vacation trip provided by Big Blue Charters in Sitka, Alaska

Alaska saltwater fishing is adventure unlike any other in the world. It is full of surprises. You can be fishing a wilderness beach in solitude one minute, and sharing it with a salmon-hungry brown bear the next. It is unsurpassed variety. An inlet or bay can hold up to five species of salmon, rockfish and halibut, all ready to do battle at the drop of a lure. It is spectacular wonder, with emerald-green spruce carpeting rugged mountains; calving, tidewater glaciers that drop their cargo in a majestic show of power, and sunsets to awe the most traveled outdoorsman.

Alaska saltwater fishing is all of this...and more. Yet many people have a misconception about this sport. They think catching trophy fish is easy in Alaska's offshore waters. They often require that special something to get them to strike. This "something" is often a combination of factors that include knowledge of fish habits, life history, weather conditions and ocean currents to name a few. But perhaps the most important of these is knowing the proper big fish techniques and where to catch them.

We'll concentrate on 10 species of Alaska saltwater sportfish: the sleek Dolly Varden, spunky cutthroat trout, and the North's heavyweight champ, the Pacific halibut. There is the ugly but much appreciated ling cod, the always popular and brightly colored rockfish, and five species of Pacific salmon: the acrobatic silver or coho, the challenging sockeye, sporty pink, tenacious chum and the monarch of all, the king or chinook salmon. Each offers a different sportfishing experience, and requires individual introduction.


Dolly Varden

The Dolly Varden is not really a trout at all, but a member of the char family. This anadromous species is the most widely distributed sportfish in the state. It can be found from the Southeast panhandle to the Bering Sea. Size varies from 1 to 6 pounds, but don't let this relatively small size fool you into thinking this fish lacks spunk. The Dolly is a battler par excellence in its saltwater home and has a fighting heart that will slug it out to the end.


How to Catch Alaska's Trophy Sportfish by Christopher BainWhile Dollies can be found in saltwater year 'round, you'll find the largest concentrations of fish entering saltwater after spending the winter in freshwater rivers and lakes. Dollies don't feed during this wintering-over period, and are ravenous upon returning to the sea. Here they'll stay from 30 to 120 days, feeding heavily on shrimp, sand lance, crustaceans, and small baitfish, before migrating back to their freshwater habitat.

How to catch Alaska's Trophy Sportfish by Christopher Batin covers saltwater and freshwater fishing. Copies may be ordered directly from Alaska Angler Publications

Good Dolly fishing can be found almost anywhere along the coastal areas. However, the structures that best attract this fish are sandy spits, gravel bars and islands, jetties, freshwater breaklines, and near old pilings. Salmon canneries and commercial fishing boats also attract large schools of Dollies. The scraps emptied into the sea attract baitfish, which in turn attract hungry Dollies.

Catching Dollies at this time is relatively simple. Spoons and spinners are best. They must be elongate in shape to best match the sand lance Dollies crave. I favor 1/2-ounce Fjord spoons in chrome and blue, or yellow, metallic chrome or blue Rooster Tail spinners in sizes 3, 4, or 5. For the most success and sport, I will fish these lures on ultralight tackle and 6- pound test. Dollies may be small fish, but they can often be extremely wary of large lures and heavy lines.

I  prefer to retrieve the lure at a 45 degree angle to the incoming tide. Variation in retrieve is important. Pause in mid-retrieve or impart an erratic action to the lure, which invariably causes Dollies to strike. It's important to keep your retrieve close to bottom structure, as most large Dollies are hooked there. The only exception to this is in turbid water or during mid-day under a bright sun. Then, I'll fish a two or three feet above bottom. The higher angle of retrieve makes it easier for Dollies to home in on a lure.

Fishing for Dollies is a relaxing way to spend a summer afternoon. You'll know when the fish are in, especially if you're wading in the surf. It's not uncommon for Dollies to bump into your leg as they cruise the shallows for sandlance. After you've had a chance to sample the Dollies cooperative nature in striking lures, and their tail-dancing acrobatics against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, I'm sure you'll be back to sample this "hospitality" again and again.


King Salmon

Alaska king salmon are the largest salmonids in the world. Weights can range from the five-to six-pound "jacks" to a whopping 97 pounds, which is the current world record. The saltwater king fishery extends from Ketchikan, north to Cook Inlet and around to the Bering Sea.

Kings returning to their natal streams on a spawning migration are the largest kings. This inbound migration from the Gulf of Alaska can occur anytime from May through July. Unlike fishing for feeder kings, where schools must first be located, spawning kings are more predictable. They will hug shoreline structure once they near their natal stream, allowing anglers excellent opportunities for hooking into a trophy fish. One of the most popular saltwater fisheries for truly big kings is the Cook Inlet-Deep Creek fishery. Many of the kings in this run are part of the Kenai River strain, considered to be the largest strain of king salmon in existence. Fish from 40 to 80 pounds are caught here annually. Best of all, most are hooked within 100 yards of shoreline on an incoming tide.

For  fishermen used to catching smaller fish in other parts of the world, hooking and boating a fighting king salmon can be an incredible experience. Photo by Chris Batin, Alaska Angler Publications.

One of the best baits to use for Deep Creek kings is a 6 to 9 inch, unmarred herring. While there are many ways to rig a herring bait, many anglers prefer the ease and convenience of using a bait harness such as the Herring Aid. Basically, it is a clear plastic enclosure that slides over the head of the herring and is held in place by a toothpick. A treble hook is inserted into the side of the fish: Where the hook is placed determines the spin and rotation of the herring. Proper rotation speed is vital to entice big kings. They prefer a slow roll, preferably 2 to 3 rolls every 40 inches. This rig is fished with 1 to 3 ounces of lead and longlined from 20 to 100 yards from the boat, and anywhere from 5 to 150 yards from the surfline. Keep the bait near the bottom, and fish into the current on an incoming tide.

For the lure angler, Skagit Specials, Tee-Spoons, Hot Rods, and J-Plugs are excellent choices. Fish these with a 1 to 3 ounce banana or keel sinker. When boat traffic allows it, troll the migration corridor in a zig-zag pattern. This action adds a dropping-rising effect to the lure, and is the key to putting big kings on ice.

A 43 # King salmon Lemire ChartersKing fishing calls for heavyweight tackle. You'll need at least a 6- to 8-foot, medium-action rod with a quality level-wind or matching spinning reel capable of holding at least 200 yards of 17-pound monofilament. Treble or single hooks should be extra strong, and honed to a "sticky sharp." Follow these basic guidelines, and you'll have the makings for a salmon fishing adventure like no other. I remember one particular trip that best describes what an angler can experience at Deep Creek.

Here's 43 pounds of SE Alaska chinook salmon.
Photo courtesy Lemire Charters

Friend Michael Ticconi and I were up and out on the water in his 12-foot boat at 5 a.m. one May morning. The kings had been filtering in for several days, but no substantial runs had yet arrived. We had been fishing for three days, and had hooked 8 fish, but nothing over 40 pounds. Twenty minutes after we started our trolling technique, the kings arrived on the high tide. They were big fish, from 20 to 50 pounds, and they were porpoising everywhere. We spent he entire morning hooking and battling fish. Michael kept a 40 and a 42 pounder, while I released a 28 and a 38 pounder. I was beginning to think my 40-pounder was jinxed when suddenly, my rod tip slammed down and stayed down. My drag screeched in protest as the king felt the sting of the hookset and embarked on a non-stop course to the South Seas. Mike had to crank up the outboard and run the fish down, as I couldn't hold the fish on my heavy-action rod. Several friends in a nearby boat cheered us on as I struggled to hold the rod tip up. Twenty minutes later, Michael slipped the net under a 45-pound, dime- bright male. The fighting king had taken us two miles down the inlet and a good 3/4 mile from shore. It was going to be a long trip back with our 7 1/2 horse motor. But it didn't matter. We were so happy that we sang all the way back to the launching ramp.


SOCKEYES

Alaska is known as the "Sockeye Salmon Capital of the World." And for good reason. Each year, millions of sockeye, ranging from 6 to 12-pounds or more, migrate into the southcentral and southwestern waters of the state. But saltwater angling effort for these fish is virtually non-existent, as sockeye seldom bite a lure when at sea. Sockeye are, however, vulnerable to a properly fished lure once they enter saltwater bays or inlets. It's easy to find sockeye in either area. Just watch for their graceful, porpoising action which helps to pinpoint the location of a school. The fish are compacted in tight schools, and although they have stopped feeding long ago, an angler can induce a strike by triggering an aggravation response. This is best done by casting to the fish and continuously working the lure through the strike zone.

It is important to keep the lure small. A 1/4-to 1/2-ounce fluorescent colored or metallic spoon or spinner works best. Choose a lure that has a good action at slow speeds. It must be fished directly through a school or across the kype of an individual fish several or more times before you'll trigger a strike. I usually start a fan shaped casting pattern at the head of the school and work it back about a foot every 10 casts. With individual fish, it's necessary to work the lure in a line perpendicular with the mouth. Sockeyes won't bother to chase a lure, but will intercept one that ventures too close too many times. I prefer single hooks, as treble hooks foul hook fish.

A slowly worked fly is also an excellent producer at this time. Strip the fly through the school in short twitches. Occasionally allow it to hover in the current before continuing the retrieve. Marabou patterns that undulate in the current work best here. The undulating action of the feathers seem to trigger the strike response in big sockeye. I like to fish a sockeye fly with an 7-weight rod and sinking line, although some anglers do well with a sink-tip.

Even though a thousand or more sockeyes may be holding within 50 feet, a three-fish bag limit may take upwards of 100 casts.

Despite their often difficult nature, sockeye are excellent fighters, often matching the coho in terms of quality and number of aerial acrobatics. And there is a no better time than July to pursue saltwater sockeye. It's a time when over 19 hours of daylight allow you to fish at least three tide changes. But sockeye fishing is more than catching fish. An afternoon lunch of fresh baked sockeye over a driftwood fire on a wilderness beach is a culinary adventure you'll not soon forget. The meat is rich and flavorful, and is considered sans pareil among salmon. In my book, the sockeye is definitely worth the extra casts.


PINK SALMON

The pink is the smallest of Alaska's salmon species. But what this fish lacks in size, it more than compensates for in numbers. It is not shy about striking a lure, and is a superb fighter on light tackle. Best of all, they can easily be caught from shore in a variety of areas.

Pinks can be found along shorelines from southeastern Alaska to the Bering Sea. However, trophy pinks are intertidal spawners, and are found close to gravel shoals, along stretches of sandy beaches, milling around spits and jetties and along breaklines near the outlets of freshwater streams. They are often incidentally caught while trolling for silvers or kings. However, the majority of large pinks are caught from a small skiff or by casting from shore. Because of their non-finicky nature and abundance, the pink is a perfect candidate for that aspiring young salmon angler or that non-fishing spouse.

Light tackle fishing for pinks is what Alaska fishing tales are made of. It's not uncommon to catch 40 or more pinks in an afternoon in some of the more remote areas accessible by boat. There, undisturbed by commercial nets, pinks will school into intertidal areas by the hundreds, where they will stay for hours or days. Females usually ignore lures, but the larger males are the most territorial and provide the best sport.

Any light tackle outfit will work for pinks. Chartreuse or fluorescent green spoons, spinners and flies are favorite lures for trophy pinks. Use sizes from 1/4 ounce to 1 ounce, depending upon tidal flow. A slow, wobbling retrieve will catch saltwater pinks under most conditions.


CHUM SALMON

The size of the chum or dog salmon in Alaska waters can range from 7 to 18 pounds, with an average weight of about 10 pounds. Some commercial fishing boats have reported chums weighing up to 40 pounds, although this is rare. But the despite its size, saltwater chum fishing is still in its infancy. Why? There are two reasons: First, chums rarely strike lures at sea. Fishing for them at this time is often termed as an exercise in futility. secondly, the prime saltwater chum fisheries are restricted to Southeast Alaska and the Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak and Seward Peninsula. Access to these areas is usually via float plane or charter boat, and often costly. But the expense is often worth it. Only when chums school up along shoreline structure and along fresh and saltwater breakline do they strike lures with power.

When I want to experience the saltwater chum's spectacular fighting abilities, I'll fly via bush plane to an isolated stream on the west coast of the Alaska Peninsula. This area offers one of the most exciting saltwater salmon adventures Alaska has to offer.

A pilot will fly you into one of several bays that are fed by one or more freshwater streams or rivers. A glance into the light blue and white froth of the surfline will reveal a black ribbon of chums from several hundred yards to a mile long. The pilot will land on the beach near the fish. A cast anywhere into this school of fish will invariably draw a hard strike. That's why I like to fish chums in areas with wide open beaches. At the hookset, a chum will turn on its afterburners, and it often takes a bit of running to win back lost line.

You'll immediately notice the chum is a handsome fish. They exhibit the luster of buffed platinum with barely detectable vertical markings running from its belly to the dorsal area. The dorsal surface is a brilliant, emerald green. With it's increasing popularity, I predict more and more anglers will start appreciating the chum as trophy fish in its own right.

Use silver, copper or bronze spinners for chums. A touch of fluorescent color on the lure always seems to draw more strikes, as do spinners that are kept ticking close to bottom. For the fly angler, herring patterns or blue/white bucktail flies work extremely well when fished with a sink tip line and when fished on a dead drift through a school.

If you fly-out for chums, choose an area that also attracts schools of silvers and pinks. There is a variety of inlets and bays along the Alaska Peninsula that offer this sportfish trio. The salmon are generally intermingled in these bays, and the fishing action is often unbelievable.


SILVER SALMON

The silver or coho salmon is the crowned prince of Alaska salmon. It is aggressive, an excellent fighter both above and below the water, and it's a delicious eating sportfish. Cohos can range from 6 to 20 pounds in Alaska waters, with 10 pounds being average.

One of the reasons for the coho's popularity is its accessibility. Unlike chums or sockeyes, silvers are accommodating sportfish: They can be caught from shore as well as by trolling. And unlike king salmon, silvers prefer a lure trolled quickly beneath the surface. This technique produces a savagery in coho unlike that exhibited by any other sportfish. It's common to have baits ripped in half or a plug destroyed by their hard-hitting strikes. It's no wonder why the saltwater coho is one of Alaska's finest sportfish.

As with king salmon, herring is a prime bait to use for hungry coho. Whether you use a commercial herring rig, cut plug, or a sewn bait, its important to rig the bait so it spirals in a tight pattern when trolled at various speeds. Some anglers prefer to drape a hootchie skirt over the herring for added appeal. This modification is extremely effective for big coho, and I've seen this combo outfish other lures and bait by a 3 to 1 margin.

Finding coho is a simple matter of locating them on a graph, or watching for their graceful porpoising, which indicates they are within the top 25 feet of water. A fast spiraling herring or lure will take coho without any special techniques at this time. However, if coho have been hit hard by commercial netters, they often go deep, which calls for deepwater angling techniques. Look for them traveling along a steep drop-off or migrating slowly through the deep waters of a bay or inlet. Once I locate a school on the graph, I'll fish either a herring, flutter spoon or hootchie several feet up from a downrigger weight. I also use a flasher, but instead of attaching it to the fishing line, I attach it via a small wire cable directly to the downrigger weight. The release clip is anchored several feet above the weight, so keep this in mind when coordinating your downrigger counter with the depth of fish indicated on the graph. Anglers favor this modification because the flash draws the cohos in, without imparting unnecessary drag on the main line. Also, by attaching the flasher to the downrigger weight, there is no cumbersome drag when fighting a fish.

Another trick to remember when fishing bait is to add a touch of bait oil to the herring or lure. This simulates the fright hormones secreted by a frightened or wounded baitfish, which triggers a strike response in large coho.

When fishing shoreline structure, a piece of cut herring fished from 6 to 18 inches below a float is a popular method for in-migrating cohos during the Valdez Silver Salmon Derby. Other lures such as the 1-ounce fluorescent red Pixee or HotRod when fished along and in the migration routes near shore. These routes include rocky beaches with sloping drop-offs, sudden drop-offs, along freshwater breaklines, near old pilings, wrecks, and spits.

Shore-bound anglers often employ a variety of hardware for coho. Spoons, spinners, and flies all take their share of cohos. A slow retrieve starting at mid-depth--working the lure in even increments to the bottom-- is the best way to fish for migrating cohos. To produce strikes at this time, the lure must falter, speed up, twitch and wobble slowly when worked through the various depths. For added appeal, try attaching a strip of pork rind that has been dipped in herring oil to the treble hook. When fishing this rig, ensure you have a tight hold on your rod, as strikes are always vicious!

HALIBUT

Pacific halibut are Alaska's heavyweight champs. They can attain weights of up to 500 pounds, and stretch to 9 feet in length. Fish two-hundred pounds and over are often referred to as "barn-doors" a name that literally describes the fish's size. Halibut can be caught year-round in Alaska's offshore waters, however, the best time is May and June. At this time, they enter water 10 to 25 fathoms to feed, and will readily take a variety of bait.

In Cook Inlet and other areas with heavy tidal flows, the best rig to use is bait herring on a slip sinker rig. Weights vary from 20 to 40 ounces depending upon the intensity of the flow, and it takes stout tackle to handle these weights: Six-to eight-foot, heavy action deep sea rods matched with sturdy, level-wind reels filled with 80-to 120-pound test Dacron line. A heavy wire or double-strand, 120-pound test mono leader are a must, as halibut have sharp teeth that can chew through a line in an instant.

(Visit the Alaska Angler Publications website for details on purchasing How to Catch Trophy Halibut)

Other baits such as octopus, squid, and salmon heads work extremely well for large halibut, especially in areas where small fish or bait thieves abound. These are fished in the same manner as herring: Directly above bottom, with the bait lifted frequently to attract feeding halibut. Slack tide is undoubtedly the best time to fish Cook Inlet--Kachemak Bay waters.

In the calmer, deeper waters and fjords of Southeastern Alaska and Prince William Sound,, large, saltwater jigs are excellent choices. I prefer the 8-to 16-ounce chrome models with a heavy duty hook. A strip of pork rind, such as an Uncle Josh Big Boy strip, enhances the jig's fluttering action and is durable enough to survive the strikes of several large halibut.

Work halibut jigs in an erratic jigging action from 2 to 10 feet above bottom. Halibut have extremely muscular jaws, so two or even three hooksets are often required to firmly bury the barbs. When the fish nears the boat, be careful not to lift any part of the fish out of the water. Keep the fish a foot or two below the surface until it's ready to be gaffed. Halibut over 50 pounds should be shot between the eyes with a .410 or .22 before bringing them onboard. They are extremely muscular fish, and many a boat has been damaged, fisherman knocked overboard, and legs broken due to careless handling of a supposedly "dispatched" fish.

A halibut charter is the best way to safely catch a large halibut. Not only is all gear provided, but a limit of two fish per day will often pay for the trip in chunky white boneless halibut fillets. With halibut going for over $3 a pound, a charter is probably one of the best investments in sportfishing excitement and for filling the larder.

ROCKFISH

Alaska waters are a rockfisher's paradise. A variety of species exist, including the black, China, yelloweye and scarlet. They are most commonly found near rocky shorelines and kelp beds facing the sea. Large rockfish prefer steep drop-offs from 40 to 150 or more fathoms. Large 8- to 12-ounce metal jigs, and 4- to 12-ounce leadhead jigs with a white rubber twister tail are excellent rockfish producers in Alaska waters. A simple up and down jigging technique is all that's necessary to entice rockfish.

When fishing for shallow water rockfish, standard spinning or salmon gear provides great excitement in catching these scrappy battlers. However, the deepwater species, such as the yelloweye or scarlet rockfish, often require rods with stiffer spines and heavier line--preferably Dacron to minimize line stretch--to hook them consistently.

May through September is an excellent time to catch rockfish in Alaska. Many salmon skippers will make a stopover at a popular rockfish hole after a day of salmon trolling. The fast-paced action of hooking and fighting fish is an ideal way to end a day on the water.


Indeed, Alaska has fishing adventure that can satisfy the novice as well as the most seasoned angler. And with over 19 hours of daylight during the summer months, anglers can indulge in plenty of fishing in a land where fishing dreams turn into reality. Hope to see you on the water this summer, and share this treasury of fishing with you first hand.

Chris Batin is editorial director of Alaska Angler Publications and editor of the bi-monthly journal, The Alaska Angler. He works year-round in keeping anglers up-to-date on new adventures and money-saving ideas that he discovers in Alaska sportfishing and hunting. The Alaska Angler Publications website describes their books, journals and other services for the Alaska angler and hunter.

 

 

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