Fall rewards fishermen who seek salmon, char, trout, halibut
Our summer visitors have made their exits, the kids are settled in at school and the garden has fallen fallow, so the restlessness and ambition that accompany the long days of an Alaska summer have begun to wane.
There is time once again for introspection, to revel in the change of seasons. Whether kicking up freshly fallen leaves along a portage trail or soaking up the last vestiges of warm sunshine, for many of us autumn provides a brief and welcome respite, an important transition from the frenzy of summer before our long retreat into the warmth of our winter lair.
Though it is by far the shortest of our four seasons, for many, especially Alaska fishermen, autumn is certainly our favorite.
Many of our fellow outdoorsmen have been lured afield with shotgun or rifle, but their departure only serves to further relieve pressure on our most likely fishing holes—at a time when the trout and Dolly Varden have become greedy, feeding with abandon, desperate for the sustenance that will see them through the long winter.
Fall also means the annual return of the coho. Though the last of our seasonal salmon quarry, for many an angler the silver is our most anticipated. Their size and propensity to chase large lures and flies make them a darling among both fly and spin casters, and heavily targeted on both fresh and salt water.
As if that weren’t enough, autumn also heralds the return of a fish long celebrated in angling history and lore. Whether due to their small runs or fierce reputation, the steelhead is perhaps the most sought after and coveted of all sport fish.
Our only dilemma, with so little time and so many opportunities, which do we take?
Fishing Stays Hot Until Lakes Freeze
It is not difficult to find a productive lake in Alaska. They dot the entire state, from Southeast to the far reaches of the Interior, and are often overlooked by visiting and resident anglers alike. While fishing will often hit the doldrums in mid-summer, it usually heats back up with a vengeance when the weather cools and leaves begin to fall. And the fishing will stay hot until the lakes freeze up, which in Southcentral Alaska is usually around mid-October.
Fishing Alaska lakes is not much different than anywhere else. If a body of water is new to you, cover as much area as possible with your favorite spinner or weighted fly. A canoe or float tube will not only help in this regard, but will also add proportionally to the fun. Start by prospecting around islands, shoals and drop-offs. Look for weed beds, wet a line at inlets and outlets. There’s often a smorgasbord of food items for fish this time of year, usually in the form of insects in both their larval and adult stages, as well as plenty of small fish on the move. Fly fishers will want to have a variety of Wooly Buggers, lake leeches, and nymphs—from damsel nymphs to the tiny chronomid. They will also want to carry a variety of dry flies, large and small—from the ubiquitous mosquito to the smallest midge pattern.
Along with classic lures such as the Super Duper, Triple Teazer, Kastmaster, and Mepps Syclops, spin casters might also try some of the above-mentioned flies. By simply attaching a bobber or indicator on the line there will be enough weight to cast a light fly. Retrieved slowly, especially above weed beds, an egg-sucking leech or small nymph pattern will often produce large numbers of trout and char.
Some very productive and easily accessible lakes include Matanuska Lakes State Recreation Area (formerly Kepler-Bradley Lakes SRA) and Nancy Lake State Recreation Area in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, as well as the Swan Lake/Swanson River canoe system, part of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, on the Kenai Peninsula. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game also regularly stocks lakes throughout the state and lists them, along with a variety of other information, on its website.
Seek Trout, Salmon in Rivers and Streams
Fall on Alaska’s streams means chrome-bright silver salmon, often with large hungry trout lined up behind them. Trout fishermen wanting to capitalize on the nesting salmon will opt for dead drifting-egg patterns behind spawning silvers. They might also try a variety of flesh flies—flies that resemble the decaying flesh from summer’s previous runs of red and pink salmon. While trout and Dolly Varden will occasionally become selective, homing in on a particular colored-egg pattern, this time of year they are often more opportunistic and likely to take large flies swung with a sinking line into deep pools. Although this method typically produces fewer fish, a large weighted green or black leech will often elicit a response from one of the big boys that tend to hang out in the depths of these sanctuaries carved out by years of river flow.
Silver salmon, as their name implies, are silver in color and can be identified by their black gums and small black spots on their back, dorsal fin and upper lobe of twheir tail. Generally running between 8 and 12 pounds, it is not uncommon to catch fish much larger, the recent state record tipping the scales at more than 26 pounds.
Because of their aggressiveness, anglers employ a variety of methods to catch silvers on the rivers of Alaska—from backtrolling in drift boats and powerboats to simply casting bait suspended below a bobber and allowing it to drift. Because silvers tend to hold in deep pockets and even slack water, casting spinners and spoons is also very popular. The Vibrax spinner may be the most common lure employed on silvers in Alaska. Fly fishers typically use any variety of flash flies and brightly colored bunny leeches. In shallow water, or on bright, clear days, anglers may want to go with a less conspicuous pattern, such as a purple or black Wooly Bugger. Silvers also have been known to strike the surface, occasionally going after a mouse pattern or a Pink Pollywog, a gaudy concoction tied with spun deer hair.
It would not be an exaggeration to say steelhead—our large sea-run rainbow trout— tend to spark the imagination and often infiltrate the very soul of fishers throughout the world. They have been described as wily, elusive and fierce. They can be caught with hardware, but are most often pursued with fly gear. The most common approaches are dead, drifting, large-egg patterns or polar shrimp, or swinging a variety of leech patterns. Steelhead return to many of Alaska’s lower-latitude streams in small numbers in either spring or fall, with runs sprinkled from the Aleutian Islands to a variety of Southeast streams.
Anglers seeking resident trout and Dollies have many more options—from the legendary rivers of Bristol Bay to the mighty Kenai. The best place to start planning is with the ADF&G website and work out from there. Check out the many books available on the subject.
Salmon anglers also have many options. Silvers are widely available in streams as far north as Nome all the way down to the Southeast Panhandle. Silver numbers tend to vary from drainage to drainage and season to season, so a little on-the-spot research—such as checking current run counts—is always in order. Silvers are available throughout a large portion of the state, but some of the most accessible fisheries are rivers such as the Yentna and Susitna to the north of Anchorage, and the Kenai River to the south.
Halibut and Silvers Await in Saltwater
Saltwater silver anglers with boats will typically troll or “mooch” with a whole or plug-cut herring. As the season progresses into September, many seaside anglers also have the opportunity to catch coho from shore, usually casting large Vibrax spinners or Pixee spoons, or by dangling cut herring or freshly cured salmon eggs below a large bobber. Valdez and Seward are two locations very popular with saltwater anglers seeking silver salmon.
Halibut by this time are heading out to deeper water. They are still available, although fishing can be a bit spotty as the season progresses. Many saltwater anglers will also continue to look for rockfish, which can be great sport on light tackle. A midweight spining or baitcasting rod with any variety of small spoon or jig, or a 6- or 7-weight fly rod equipped with a heavy sinking line and any variety of baitfish pattern will likely elicit a response. If heading out on a guided trip, it’s best to check with your skipper before bringing the light gear, as it can interfere with other anglers. Most good skippers— especially if the boat is not shared with another party—will be open to some light-tackle action.
Whatever your fishing pleasure—light or heavy gear, baitcasting or fly rod, freshwater or saltwater—the best bet is not to let autumn slip away. Sure, you might have to add a few layers of clothing and prepare for weather that could be warm and sunny or feature a few early snowflakes, but with all these options there’s absolutely no reason to even consider putting away the fishing gear and heading indoors. Autumn in Alaska truly is a fisherman’s dream.