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Salmon Fishing

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Fishing for Alaska Salmon

Click on an image below to get species-specific information:

King Salmon
King Salmon

Red Salmon
Red Salmon

Silver Salmon
Silver Salmon

Pink Salmon
Pink Salmon

Chum Salmon
Chum Salmon

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King Salmon

King Salmon Ocean Phase

Other Names:  Chinook, Spring, Blackmouth, Tyee, Tule, and Quinnat

Identifying Features:  Blue-gray back with silvery sides.  Small irregular black spots on back, dorsal fin, and usually on both (upper and lower) lobes of the tail. Kings have black gum lines. The meat is orange-red, although some may have a whitish flesh.  Prior to spawning kings turn from silver to a dark red.  Males develop a kype, or hooked jaw, and the spine takes on a ridgeback appearance.  Females retain their body shape and don't change color quite as much.  Near spawning, the flesh turns white to yellowish and is soft textured.

Size:  When entering coastal waters, mature kings can be anywhere from 10 to 15 inches up to 125+ pounds.  The tiny kings are commonly called "jacks."  In most waters, the largest kings are between 45 and 65 pounds.  Average fish will range between 25 and 35 pounds. Some rivers, such as the Kenai, produce kings of larger proportions.  The Alaska record for a sport-caught king salmon is 97 pounds, 4 ounces, caught in the Kenai River in 1985.  Commercially caught kings have weighed up to 135 pounds.  Kings are the largest of the five Alaskan salmon species.

King Salmon Spawning Phase

Techniques For King Salmon

 Kings are big fish.  If you hook one from a boat in open salt water, it's fun to play them out.  When bank fishing, on a river or stream, this can turn to frustration when the king turns downstream and nothing you can do will stop its run.  They are brute force fighters that generally take off on a run when hooked, but will also jump after short runs.  The quicker you can gain control of the fish, the better.  If its headed upstream, that's ideal.  The force of the water will work with you to bring the fish back toward you.  The idea when king salmon fishing is to keep trying to work them closer to you, and to tire them out.  The shorter the length of line you have out, the more control you have on the fish.  You won't be just reeling them in and pulling them up on the bank.  A number of the fish you hook will get off for one reason or another.  Expect to loose some of the kings you hook.  

Make sure your drag is set to its optimum for the rod and line your using.  I've heard different "professionals" stating the amount of maximum drag at anywhere from 60% all the way up to 80% of the line strength.  If you over-tighten the drag, a king can snap you off quickly. If the drag is set too loose, you could be in for either a long fight or a total lack of control, where the fish may just take off with all your line. It's not a bad idea to set the drag a little light, and then either control it with your thumb on a bait casting reel, or just tighten it a little after the fight is on.  

Generally speaking, the areas where you'll find kings within driving range of Anchorage will be crowded during king runs.  Make sure you yell "Fish On!" once you've hooked a salmon.  The other anglers near you should be getting out of the way, reeling in if necessary, but they are there to fish too -- not to watch you.  One of the worst cases of this I remember was a young lady using a thin underpowered rod, with 10 pound test line, and managing to snag a fish in the side every half hour or so.  (Snagged fish cannot be kept.)  She'd walk or run down the shore at regular intervals behind a snagged fish, with everyone scrambling to get out of the way to avoid being tangled.  The other extreme would be the loud-mouth who wants you to either land the fish in 10 seconds or cut your line so he can fish.  Try to avoid either extreme.

In salt water, when trolling for kings from a boat, my preferred setup is either to use fresh herring, or a large rainbow or orange-colored Tee Spoon.  I've had more success with those two setups than any others, but I know other people have their own favorites.

In fresh water, my preferred choice is a Spin-N-Glo on a two-hook leader, with salmon roe.  Use enough weight to hold the rig at the bottom, which is where the fish are.  Throw out in front of you and let the current take it downstream until it rests where you want it to.  The whole idea is to have this ball of salmon eggs suspended or floating downstream right in front of or into oncoming or resting salmon.  Salmon fishing is very much a matter of being in the right place at the right time.  (Refer to the Calendar Page to see when and where to fish.)

Even if the salmon are there, they're not out looking for your bait.  They aren't feeding in fresh water generally.  If your eggs are in front of them they may mouth it, or bite at it.  A matter of a few feet can make all the difference.  Holes or current breaks where the fish will wait and rest can be very productive.  If you're in a spot where the salmon are all hurrying through, you may have to wait a long time for a bite.  See where the bites are happening.  Learn where the best spots are.  People will generally wait until someone leaves to slide into the best spots, so don't try to push your way in.  King salmon runs can mean crowded conditions, but don't just elbow up to someone.

Snagging:  If you hook a salmon anywhere other than the mouth, you cannot keep it.  I see a lot of people snagging fish, and then they wonder why.  Sometimes a fish will bump into their line -- they set the hook, snagging the fish.  Other times they'll be throwing out a heavy lure, either a spoon or spinner, and then reeling it in fairly quickly, running it into the side of a fish swimming upstream.  

I'd recommend using salmon roe.  At certain periods during fishing season, the use of salmon roe is not allowed.  The rules disallow the use of roe before and after certain dates for a reason -- fishing with salmon eggs (roe) works!  Roe is available at all area supermarkets and department stores.  A good number of people use the eggs from caught salmon to make their own bait.  The ingredients and recipes for this are also widely available here.


Red Salmon

Red Salmon Ocean Phase

Other Names:  Sockeye or Blueback

Identifying Features:  Red salmon are a dark steel blue to greenish blue on top of their head and back.  They have very small black freckles or none at all, but they don't have the highly visible spots found on the majority of salmon species.  The sides are silvery, fading to a silvery white on the belly.  Reds have larger scales in proportion to their size than other salmon.  The meat is a ruby red color.  A lot of people consider reds to be the best tasting salmon.  At spawning time, the fish turn to a brilliant red with an olive to parrot-green head and a whitish jaw.  Large males sometimes develop dark crimson stripes down their sides.  Some individuals may turn a dirty brown, pale red, or even purplish to almost black.  Males develop a slight hump on their back and a tooth-filled kype.  Females keep their normal shape and don't become as colorful as the males.

Size:  When returning to coastal waters to spawn, reds range in size from only 2-3 pounds up to 16 pounds or more.  Big reds in most places will be between 10-12 pounds.  Average fish are between 5-8 pounds.  The Alaska record for a sport-caught red salmon is 16 pounds, taken from the Kenai River.

Red Salmon Spawning Phase

Techniques For Red Salmon

Red salmon are great fighters.  They'll run, jump, and thrash wildly when hooked.  They also are the least likely to bite.  Fishing for red salmon in salt water is a waste of time.  Even in fresh water, you often have to hit a red right in the face with your lure several times just to get it to bite.  The good news is that what the reds are "in" they're often there in huge numbers of fish.  Millions of red salmon come into Alaskan waters each year.  As an example, the red salmon run in Bristol Bay for 1980 was estimated at 62.8 million fish.  

By far the most popular spot to fish for reds is the Russian River where is flows into the Kenai.  (The photo on the home page of this site is from a crowded section of the Kenai.)  People line the banks of the Kenai where it meets the Russian.  The area becomes very crowded when the reds are in, and this is where the term "combat fishing" truly applies.  During red season, whenever I go by the Russian River area, I'll check to see if fish have entered the clearwater stream itself. If they're in the stream, they're often packed in shoulder to shoulder.  I've limited out in minutes on some days, hooking a fish on every cast.  The Kenai River is glacier fed and a cloudy green color, but in the stream you can actually see the fish, especially with polarized sun glasses.  This means that you can make your casts to specific fish.  And you can often find small groups of fish resting behind boulders or other obstructions.

When fishing for reds in the Kenai River, with its powerful flow of water, I'd recommend 20 pound line (as a minimum) on a medium to medium-heavy action rod.  In the smaller streams, I normally use an 8.5 foot medium action rod with 12 pound line.  I could go lighter, but if I can see that the fish aren't in the stream, I may have to move to the Kenai River itself, where the fast water would make a lighter setup impractical.

Because of the fishing regulations, the "Russian River Fly" (also called streamer fly or a coho fly) has become the standard for red fishing at the Russian River.  These flies are available in all the local department and grocery stores.  I'll use an 18-20 inch leader of brown 20-25 pound test Maxima line with a swivel on the top end, where my main line will attach, and a snap swivel on the bottom end, where the fly will be attached.  A 1/2 oz. to 1 oz. rubber-core sinker is twisted onto the leader at the top end.  (The regulations require the weight to be no closer than 18 inches to the fly.)  Why use a leader at all?  (1) I don't have to tie anything when I'm fishing, I just attach the leader to my line, and hook on a fly -- I can change flies, or leaders, in seconds, (2) I'll often handle the fish by grabbing this heavier line, (3) it's the part of the line that takes the most abuse, and (4) the fish don't seem to mind the extra hardware.  Whether using a leader or not, attach the fly and put the rubber-core sinker at least 18 inches above it.

"Flippin":  This is a useful method of fishing for reds.  If you've spotted a fish, or group of fish, position yourself slightly upstream from them, ideally so that the fish are at about your rod tip's distance out into the water away from you.  Strip out 6 to 9 feet of line from the reel.  Hold the rod in one hand and the line in the other.  Lob the fly out upstream allowing the cast to take out as much of the line as possible.  As the fly hits the water, your rod tip is pointing at it.  The fly will sink and be moved downstream in front of you.  As the fly moves downstream, follow it with your rod tip, and pull on the line with your free hand to control the fly's movement and to keep the line tight enough to feel a strike.  As the fly moves downstream past you, let out more line with your free hand. Then you can pick up on the fly by raising your rod tip and pulling on the line, to flip the fly upstream for another cast.  (If this description is confusing, I'm sure you'll see other people doing this, and it's not a hard technique to pick up.)

As the fly is pushed downstream, you should feel your weight tap on the bottom.  If you don't feel the occasional tap, add more weight.  If the fly snags on the bottom, you can move your rod tip a little faster, or remove a little weight if it's dragging on the bottom.  By practicing you can aim your fly's drift.  You can control the fly's movement, both across and down current, by how you pull on the line and move your rod tip.  The fly needs to be down just above the bottom.  If it's even up at a red salmon's dorsal fin height, it won't bite.  Some reds don't bite no matter how many times you put the fly in their face.  

By drifting the fly downstream, and not pulling it quickly across the stream, you'll avoid snagging fish.  I prefer using a long 8.5 foot rod so that I can reach out with the fly and not have to cast out and pull the fly across the path of the fish.  I can float it down parallel to their path right into their faces.  I've experimented in cases where I've found single fish resting in pools of slower moving water.  It can take as many as 15-20 casts where the fly goes right by their mouth or right into their face before a red will finally bite.  

Reds come in large numbers.  When your fly drifts down into a large group, the fish you're aiming at might not bite, but his neighbor, or the fish behind him might.  If reds are moving upstream quickly, they won't bite.  When they're moving at a slower pace, in a group, or resting, they may bite a fly that comes into their strike zone. It's not as frustrating as it sounds because of the number of fish involved.  If a single fish will only strike one out of fifteen times, a single cast that presents the fly to a number of fish may produce a strike; and some fish will bite at the first fly that comes by.


Silver Salmon

Silver Salmon Ocean Phase

Other Names:  Coho, or Silverside

Identifying Features:  Fresh from the sea, silvers are greenish to metallic blue on the top of their head and back, with silvery sides and white bellies.  They have white gum lines.  Small black spots appear on their neck and back, with some spots on the dorsal fin, and across the upper tail lobe.  The meat is an orange red in color.  Prior to spawning silvers turn from dime bright silver to a brilliant red on their head, sides and belly.  Some fish may appear darker, as a bronze, greenish brown, or even black.  The males develop a hooked snout, prolonged teeth, and a slight humped back.  The females retain their normal shape and are generally not as colorful.

Size:  Average silvers range from 5 to 10 pounds, with big fish at 15 pounds in most places.  This includes the Susitna River and the areas listed on this site north of Anchorage.  Some drainages, such as the Kenai River and the areas listed here south of Anchorage, produce larger fish averaging 12 to18 pounds, with big fish at 22 pounds or more.  The Alaska record for sport-caught silver salmon is 26 pounds, from Icy Straight in 1976.  Silvers over 30 pounds have been caught commercially.

Silver Salmon Spawning Phase

Techniques For Silver Salmon

If king salmon fought the way that silvers do, it may be that no one would ever catch a king.  Silvers are very active fighters.  They're acrobatic jumpers, and can take off on sizzling runs.  Herring is the preferred bait for salt water silvers.  My preferred method for freshwater silvers is the same as that for kings listed above, namely a Spin-N-Glo with salmon egg roe on a two-hook leader.  Since I've already covered that, I won't take up any more room here now.  

Salmon generally show up in the same order every year, and the best fishing for each species follows a definite pattern:  Kings first at the end of May and through June.  Reds in the latter half of June, and then again in the last half of July and first half of August.  Chums in the second half of July and first half of August.  Pinks in the second half of July through the majority of August.  And then silvers, which are at their best for most of August.  To see more detail on the best fishing times, see the Calendar Page.


Pink Salmon

Pink Salmon Ocean Phase

Other Names:  Humpy, or Humpback.

Identifying Features:  Returning adult fish are bright, steel blue on top surfaces with silvery sides and large black spots on the back and tail fin.  The scales are small.  The flesh is orange, and changes to pink in color during the canning process.  Approaching the spawning stream, the males turn brown or black on their backs with a white belly.  Females become olive green with a light-colored belly.  By the time they enter spawning streams, adult males develop a pronounced hump on their back and hooked jaws.  Pinks are the most numerous of the Pacific salmon.

Size:  The smallest of the Pacific salmon species, pinks weigh an average of 4 pounds and are 20-25 inches in length.  The state record is 12 pounds, 9 ounces.

Pink Salmon Spawning Phase

Techniques For Pink Salmon

Pinks are excellent fighters on light tackle.  Most pink salmon spawn within a few miles of the ocean, but are common in many of the fresh water streams listed on this site.  If I'm after pinks specifically, I use small to ultra-light sized lures.  Since pinks are often mixed in with silvers, chums, and reds, I often hook them when going after one of the other salmon species.  Bird Creek, just south of Anchorage, comes to mind as a spot to fish specifically for pink salmon.


Chum Salmon

Chum Salmon Ocean Phase

Other Names:  Dog, or Calico

Identifying Features:  Ocean fresh chums are metallic greenish-blue on their backs with medium sized black speckles.  They're often difficult to distinguish from silver salmon at this time.  Sometimes they will have faint gray vertical markings on their sides.  The iris of the eye is large, and the base of the tail is thin compared to a silver or king salmon of the same size.  Chums have fewer (19-26)  but larger gill rakers than other salmon.  Upon entering fresh water, male chums develop red, pink or purplish vertical markings on greenish sides.  These markings may remind you of tiger stripes on their sides.  Females are similar in appearance, but less vivid in color.  Once entering fresh water, chums are considered the least palatable of Alaska's salmon, and are used for dog food by some native Alaskans.  If you want to try some, make sure it's smoked.

Size:  The second largest Pacific salmon species.  Chums normally range from 7 to 18 pounds.  The state record chum weighed 32 pounds.

Chum Salmon Spawning Phase

Techniques for Chum Salmon

I don't normally go after chums specifically.  They are often mixed in with silver salmon.  As mentioned above, it can often be difficult to distinguish between a chum and a silver.  I'm told that chums are less likely to bite than silver salmon, but I've hooked quite a few when fishing for silvers.  Chums are, pound for pound, as good a fighter as any other salmon species.  

Further Reading on Alaska Fishing

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