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Early Season Alaska
Alaska’s always good, but the early season offers several attributes you won’t find during late summer.
By Pat Ford

Most anglers believe that Alaska’s Illiamna/Bristol Bay/Katmai fishing season is strictly summer. But that’s not exactly true. Alaska actually offers two totally different fishing periods and your Alaska experience depends on which one you hit. Perhaps the most distinct difference in the two seasons is the availability of king salmon (also called chinook) and silver salmon (also called coho). If you arrive for the early season, which runs from the first week of June through July, you’ll likely find kings and sockeyes. If you choose the later season, which begins in August and runs through September, you’ll likely find silvers. The early season isn’t as highly regarded as the late season, but it offers some great options that often fly under the radar. I think the early season is fantastic and I have the photo support to prove it. Here’s what to plan for and expect if you choose to hit Alaska during the early weeks. These are my favorite elements.

Kings: Chinook(king) salmon are the first of five Pacific salmon species to arrive in most of Alaska’s rivers. They typically show up by mid-June. They are the largest of all the salmon species that live in Alaska, but there are not a lot of rivers where you can effectively fly fish for them. One of the best is the Sapsuck (Hoodoo) river, which is located on the tip of the Alaska Peninsula outside Nelson Lagoon. The river is perfect for spey casting. Swinging big, colorful flies can entice kings up to 50 pounds and a decent spey cast will drop the fly just off the far bank. There are big kings in the Kenai and other large rivers, but those waters are so expansive that fly fishing isn’t always feasible. When fishing the Hoodoo you can also fly out to North Creek. When fishing North Creek you’ll be within a quarter mile of the Bering Sea. Last year, when I visited, there was a dead whale washed up on shore. There are many other Alaska rives that offer kings, including the Kanektok and Nushagak, and heavy research will reward those who put in the time.

Rainbows: Early season rainbows are mostly river residents as opposed to the ones that live in lakes and only come into the streams when the smolt or salmon eggs appear. The river rainbows will be much more colorful than the lake variety. They have distinct spots and a vivid red stripe. In some areas they are referred to as leopard rainbows. Bead fishing doesn’t work in the early season because the salmon aren’t there, so the most productive flies are leeches, Woolley Buggers and sculpin patterns. A big Dali Lama streamer is very effective too, but casts like a hamster. My favorite early season fishing is with a mouse pattern. I am always pleasantly surprised at the savage strikes that a swinging mouse fly produces.

Grayling: Grayling produce the best dry fly fishing you can imagine. In Alaska they can grow to over 20 inches and they can’t seem to resist a Griffiths Gnat thrown on a 4-weight rod. They reside in shallow clear streams and it’s all sight fishing during the early season. Many anglers overlook graying when focussed on rainbows, but an afternoon or full day throwing dries to grayling is as good as it gets.

Sockeye: The second species of salmon to arrive is the sockeye. They appear in the Katmai area around the Fourth of July as sleek silvery salmon . . . nothing like the green headed red monsters they evolve into as the summer progresses. They are excellent table-fare and average around six pounds but can grow larger in some areas. They are hard fighters and great jumpers . . . tons of fun on a 7-weight with a Teeny 200 line. They hit a variety of flies, but don’t actually feed once they enter fresh water. There are numerous Bristol Bay and Iliamna area rivers that produce massive sockeye runs. You can find sockeye in other areas, too, most noted on the Kenai River. Beware however: sockeye fishing on the Kenai is also known as “combat fishing.” Anglers often stand within a few feet of each other throwing snag hooks on spin rods. Not the best fly fishing experience but quite a scene.

The Gorge: The best sockeye fishing in all of Alaska—at least in my opinion—is on the Newhalen River just below a Class IV rapids know as the Gorge. The sockeyes migrate up the river, take one look at the rapids, and slide over into a cove to rest up before fighting their way through the powerful gorge. This magic cove is the exclusive property of Rainbow King Lodge through a private lease with a native corporation. It is a fishery like I have never seen elsewhere. When conditions are right, rarely can you make three casts without hooking a fish. One year I was at Rainbow King the first week in July and the sockeyes hadn’t arrived. We went to the Gorge on Tuesday and there was nothing but grayling and a few rainbows. We went back on Friday and when we arrived the cove was still empty. Then, about 9 a.m., a school of about a dozen sockeyes arrived. Two hours later there must have been a thousand salmon within casting distance. Nature at its finest.

Bears: In June the bears are just out of hibernation, many with newborn cubs. There are no salmon to feed on so they consume, literally, about 35 pounds of grass a day. Most migrate to the meadows down along the coast and dig up clams in the mud flats when the tide falls. If you want to see bears at this time, you usually have to make a special trip. There are a few around the streams you’ll be fishing, but not a lot. Until the salmon show up, they spend most of their time in the hills and meadows. One of the best places to find bears in the early season is Silver Salmon Creek in Lake Clark National Park.

Pat Ford
Pat Ford honed his sports photography skills at Notre Dame. His first article for Saltwater Sportsman appeared in 1969, and he has shot and written for every major fishing publication since that time. He has held more than two dozen IGFA line class records and now, as a retired Miami trial attorney, spends his time writing books and traveling to exotic locales. See more of his work at patfordphotos.com