Alaska is a place of unparalleled beauty. Parts of Alaska extend past the 180 meridian making it the furthest western, eastern and northern state in the USA. There are few roads and travel to most of the state is still accomplished only by small plane or boat and sometimes by dog sled or snowmobile.
The waters of the Gulf of Alaska, including the Aleutian chain and Pribilof islands, are nourished by deep ocean upwelling which provides rich nutrients to plankton that in turn support a rich and complex food chain of sea life including seabirds like the puffin and marine mammals such as whales, sea otters , seals and walrus.
Although Alaska is a huge place, if you like to fish, raft, dig for clams, hike and enjoy spectacular scenery (including snowcapped mountains, fjords, glaciers and exotic wildlife) consider renting a car in Anchorage and spend several summer weeks in the Kenai peninsula only an hour to the south. Traffic is light and the natives are few but friendly. The main Kenai destinations are Whittier, Hope, Seward, Soldatna, Girdwood and Homer . The Kenai peninsula is adjacent to the spectacular Cook inlet, ringed by snow-covered volcanoes. This area was explored by Captain Cook, accompanied by a young William Bligh. Cook was searching for a northwest passage.
Alaska National Maritime Wildlife Refuge
The Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge covers 2,500 islands, four time zones, nearly 47,000 miles (76,000km) of shoreline and a distance east to west of about 3,000 miles (5,000km).
The refuge headquarters and extensive exhibits of living seabirds, seals and other marine mammals are in Homer, Alaska on coast of the Kenai peninsula. Homer is also famous for Halibut fishing. It is not uncommon to land a 300-pound (140kg) Halibut and these may reach a size of 1,000 pounds (450kg) or more. Halibut over 100 pounds (45kg) are usually voluntarily released as a conservation measure and steps are now underway to limit Halibut catches by charter boat captains to the 1999 levels to insure the continued future health of this species.
The refuge provides a vast and rich feeding ground for salmon during their years at sea before they return to spawn.
Overview of Fishing Regulations
Take some time to study the local customs and fishing rules before going fishing. For example, Alaskans believe that when you intend to release a fish, you should take care to avoid handling it or removing it from the water. Handling a fish removes the slimy covering and makes them susceptible to bacteria.
Where and when fishing is allowed, permitted baits and fishing techniques and daily 'emergency orders' are posted online and updated each day. Alaskans believe that tourism and fishing species conservation are closely related. The emergency orders1 may close certain types of fishing, some places to fish or they may double bag limits if there are too many fish entering the rivers or streams. Non-residents that purchase fishing licence are expected to record their catch and return the licence by 30 November. Usually the local tackle shop where licences are sold can provide helpful current information.
The Alaska Fish and Game Department monitors 15,000 streams and rivers and offshore waters on over 47,000 miles (76,000 km) of coastline. Salmon entering rivers from the sea are carefully monitored by sonar. This information is updated daily on their website and decisions to expand or contact fishing limits is delegated to local Fish and Game officers. The Coast Guard also vigilantly patrols the Aleutian chain of islands to prevent fishing by commercial boats of other nations.
Salmon Life Cycles
Salmon begin life as a fertilised egg deposited in gravel in a stream bed. Salmon life cycles are anadromous which means that they are born in fresh water, feed and grow there for a year or two then undergo a morphological change which adapts them to sea water. They roam and feed at sea for a few years and then mysteriously navigate back to their home stream or hatchery to spawn and die. A 40-pound (18kg) female king may contain 5,500 pea sized eggs (roe), weighing up to 5 pounds (about 2kg). Curiously, where and when such bait is permitted, king roe attached to a lure is the bait of choice for king salmon.
Five Types of Salmon
Alaska has five types of salmon. These are the coho or silver, chinook or king, chum, pink, and sockeye or red. Salmon farming in Alaska was prohibited in 1990 to protect the wild salmon population. Farmed salmon tastes fatty and carry diseases to the wild population. They tend to suffocate in their own feces, which is an unappetizing thought.
The king (chinook) salmon is highly prized by sport fishermen for its size, growing to nearly 100 pounds (45kg), but the sockeye or red is most sought after for its taste because of its dark colour, high fat content and firm flesh. Chum is the most available salmon but it does not travel well and most of it ends up in cans. The silver (coho) is the most aggressive and will attack nearly any type of lure.
There are other salmonoid species such as the steelhead trout that have a characteristic salmon taste and colour. Semelparous species, such as salmon, spawn once in a lifetime and immediately and die. Steelheads and other iteroparous species can spawn several times.
Often precocious immature salmon return to spawn while they are very small - 2 to 4 pounds (1kg to 2kg) for a king. These are called jacks or jennies depending on sex. Jacks and jennies may be kept and eaten without counting as part of the daily bag limit.
Fishing for Kings on the Kenai River
The Kenai river is the place to catch kings in Alaska. The largest ten kings ever recorded all came from the Kenai river near Soldotna. The largest so far was over 97 pounds (44kg). The way to catch kings is to hire a local guide and fish from a drift boat. Some guides use outboard engines and others row against the strong current. You should use a guide who has an outboard because the kings enter the river on the rising 30-foot (9-metre) tide and the local guides know where the kings will be on an hourly basis. The rowboats have a problem with mobility in the strong current.
The local guide will provide bait and tackle. Kings average 20 to 40 pounds (9kg to 18kg). After landing one you must immediately record it on your licence and cease fishing for the rest of the day. Kings must be hooked in the mouth. Snagged or 'foul-hooked' kings must be released. You may also land smaller 3-pound (1.4kg) 'jacks' or 3-pound 'rainbow trout'. These will taste very good on the grill the same evening.
The time to fish for salmon is during the summer when they swarm upriver to spawn and die.
The Seldovia Bay Enhancement Project
The village of Seldovia can be reached by spectacular 20-mile (32km) water taxi ride from Homer. Things to do there include hiking, a great ice cream parlour where you can do laundry and a restaurant that also offers customers a large selection of used books to read. There are interesting bed and breakfasts there and you could consider booking a halibut fishing charter at the docks.
The Seldovia salmon enhancement project involved releasing king and red spawn into a tiny stream that runs though the Seldovia village. The mature salmon have no place to spawn when they return and are easy pickings for bald eagles, bears and native Americans in the shallow stream.
The Salmon begin to run upstream in bunches with the incoming 30-foot (9-metre) tide as the stream changes from a downstream trickle to a raging reversed river twice each day. Although it is considered to be a bit like 'mugging', this is one of the few places where one can simply cast a weighted triple gang hook (after 13 June) and snag and reel in a delicious 10-pound (4.5kg) red after a fierce struggle. The remote village stream is not crowded by fishermen and it is interesting to watch the village children land these even if you choose not to fish. If you will be fishing you will need to pack a rod and a spinning reel with perhaps a 20-pound (9kg) test line. Weighted triple-gang hooks can be purchased on the Homer Spit, but buy several because you will snag the bottom. Bring waders and polarised sunglasses. Begin watching for fish to snag when the children start to congregate at the bridge on the incoming tide.
Another way to catch salmon on the Kenai is combat fishing . In June and July the aggressive silvers run 40 miles (64km) up the murky blue Kenai river and then dart into the clear Russian river at their confluence near the village of Coopers Landing. To catch salmon by fly fishing it is best to see them rather than merely 'flogging the water' with your fly. Polarised glasses and wading boots are necessary. Polarised sunglasses employ a magical trick to bend light waves and permit fishermen to see fish passing underwater by cutting surface glare. Keep your lunch on your back to keep the bears from raiding it so that you do not need to enter the water above the height of your waders to avoid the bears.
The reason this type of salmon fishing is called combat fishing is that the fly fishermen stand almost shoulder-to-shoulder and manage to hook each other an average of 500 times each season. You will notice ambulances standing by to transport freshly hooked fishermen as you pass by this popular fishing spot on the nearby road or raft past from nearby Coopers Landing.
Halibut Fishing from Homer
Lift weights for six months before you go Halibut fishing from Homer or Seldovia and only go on the half-day trips. These only cost half as much and everyone catches their limit (two halibut) before the half day is over anyway. The hard part is deciding what to release and what to keep. The halibut bite as quickly as your bait hits the bottom and anything less than 20 pounds (9kg) or over 100 pounds (45kg) should probably go back in the water. Keep out a chunk to make grilled halibit in the evening.
Alaska has a very short tourism season and accommodations, rental cars, meals and activities tend to be pricey. It is probably wise to book your accommodations long in advance because they are limited and tend to fill up. Many lodging facilities offer use of outdoor gas grills where you can cook part of your fresh catch. Fodors.com has a chat room where you can ask questions and get recommendations from other travellers. Go frequent flyer if you can, but try to book your flight twelve months in advance before all the seats are taken. Buy a cheap styrofoam cooler upon arrival and keep it stocked with ice, sandwich makings, water and breakfast snacks. A 2-for-1 Alaska coupon book is available for about $100 which offers half-price accommodation, horseback riding, raft trips, fishing guides, glacier cruises and charter boat fishing trips. The coupon book is well worth the cost and may help your trip planning and budget. A good Atlas of Alaska with large scale topographic maps can be purchased online and will be useful for locating hiking trails and assessing the difficulty of the terrain.
Bringing it all Back Home
Homer and Soldanta offer a variety of fish processing options for the traveller. It costs an average of a little over a dollar (the local currency) to have a filleted pound (454g) of fish flash-frozen and vacuum packed in one-pound fillets. For a few dollars more per pound a portion of your fresh catch can be smoked. These companies will Fed-Ex your frozen fish back home in a special container on a day of your choice. Another option is to fly your own fish back in a cooler with frozen gel packs. This is considerably less expensive. Consider packing your clothing and a cloth travel bag in your cooler on the way over and fill the cooler with frozen fish and gel packs on the way back. This will save the cost of purchasing a good cooler at Alaska prices. Check with your airline for weight limits and surcharges for checked baggage.
Fish recipes are almost as plentiful as fish. Here are two simple recipes you could try on the outdoor gas grill in your Alaska bed and breakfast.
Grilled Fresh Alaska Salmon
- ½ stick melted butter
- Garlic powder
- 1 pound (454g) salmon fillet
Preheat the grill to high heat. Brush meat side of the salmon with the butter. Place the salmon on the grill, on an piece of aluminum foil and close lid. After about six minutes, baste again and spinkle on garlic powder cook for about 8 more minutes or until fish flakes with fork. Do not overcook.
Alaskan wild berries (in season) or defrosted frozen blueberries from the local market
Small red potatoes wrapped in tinfoil and cooked on the grill with butter - do not begin to cook fish until these begin to soften
Choose your own wine - Washington State semmillion or Oregon riesling
Grilled Fresh Alaska Halibut
- 1 pound (454g) halibut fillet
- lemon, pepper, salt (for seasoning)
Preheat the grill. Place the halibut skin side down on oiled tinfoil, sprinkle with lemon-pepper-salt mix, and close the grill cover and cook only until the flesh flakes with a plastic fork.
Consider sliced red peppers and mushrooms wrapped in tinfoil and steamed on the grill
Wild rice is also nice if there are indoor cooking facilities
Choose your own wine - French white Burgundy or California Chardonnay?