Experience: Fishing the Alaska Crashes
This early-season run-and-gun style of Alaska fishing may be the most exciting way to catch big rainbows and dollies, along with equally aggressive lake trout.
By Dave Karczynski

The first time I fished an Alaska crash I didn’t exactly understand the assignment.

Being a Bristol Bay noob, I thought my guide was referring to a spot on the water, some riverbend where a sled had met a moose, or a pilot had suffered a terminal sneeze. I clambered into the boat with my nymph rod in hand and took my seat—slowly. I was filled to the brim with reindeer sausage biscuits and gravy and had the feeling that one sharp move might be disastrous.

The lake was calm as we zipped across the water to where the river spilled out over a deep basin. Must be a very deep wreck, I thought, looking around the boat for the jigging rod. Gulls were massed in the hundreds, calmly preening themselves and appearing without a care in the world.

My guide handed me a streamer rod. “Be ready,” he said.

I twitched the streamer boatside, trying to get a sense of what the program might be without having to ask too green a question. The streamer had a dark top and silver bottom and was about three inches long. I was testing the hook point when, all of a sudden, every gull for hundreds of yards lifted off the water.

The jetsled screamed to life and I was suddenly holding tight to the gunwales and even tighter to my breakfast, trying to see where we were going as my sunglasses bounced around my face. The gulls had all amassed in one spot and were ramming the water below, which seemed to be at a boil. My guide killed the motor and I jumped onto the casting deck then cast into a fracas of fins, tails, and snouts. A char crushed my first cast and raged into the deep. Just as we were landing it, another crash erupted a few hundred yards away and we were immediately on our way—no time for photos.

Indigestion aside, what followed was one of the most magical days of my fishing life. It was 30 seconds of madness followed by such an empty calm you wondered if it hadn't been a hallucination. Sometimes the action happened right in front of you, other times you’d have to chase it at full throttle. You’d get there in time or you wouldn’t, but no matter what the next eruption wouldn’t be far in the offing. After 15 or so fish I demanded that my guide get in on the action, if only so I could have a break, and we spent the afternoon handing the rod back and forth like a bent baton in some as-yet unspecified sporting event. Grinning dumbly as we motored back to the lodge at days end, my mind drifted back to the when I was a kid, throwing bread to seething carp in a pond at the local nature preserve, which seemed to hold more fish than water but tragically did not allow fishing. I had always gone home in tears, my hands trembling at the injustice. Here, decades later in Bristol Bay, I finally had my revenge.

Most anglers think of the fundamental lifeline between Alaska salmon, char, grayling and trout to be the egg, and that the serious fishing starts when the adult sockeye return to the rivers en masse. But anglers fishing late spring and early summer in Alaska are blessed with something more ferocious than egging below an indicator—stripping and swinging streamers through a storm of open mouths.

Alaska crashes come in two flavors—fry and smolt. Both are juvenile salmon, differing only in age and the nature of their coming and going. Fry are big eyed, small-bodied young of the year on the move from their natal river habitat to freshwater lakes where they’ll pack on the ounces, or at least grams. They are extremely vulnerable to predation at this stage, and char, dolly varden, rainbows and grayling all get in on the action. Fry imitations are small and easily cast with light tackle. Think 5- and 6-weights. Depending on the situation and target species you might strip them or fish them still under a Chubby Chernobyl—“dry fry fishing.”

Then there are the smolt, which have grown another inch or two and are thinking about their first big migration from the lakes to the sea. To get there they have to cover quite a bit of territory and survive countless attacks. Significantly larger than fry, smolt entice larger predators, so heavier tackle is required—this is 7- and 8-weight country. Fish smolt patterns close to the surface on the strip or swing. If you’re a two-handed angler, you may experience stretches where you are tugged with every well-timed cast.

While all rivers with salmon runs have crashes, each crash angling situation is unique, informed by the lay of the land—and water—as well as the species of predator dropping the mayhem. You may have fry trapped in a narrows between two lakes, where char and grayling press in from either end like a vise. Or packs of big river rainbows herding smolt like wolves working bison, pressing and testing and waiting for the right time to attack. To the angler this might look like a small continent of nervous water either swinging left or right out of casting range or—is it finally happening?—coming right at you.

Whatever the spot or species, in the end there’s nothing like an Alaska crash. It’s why you came to fish the Final Frontier in the first place, to see the mechanisms of life and death play out as they have for millennia, oblivious to human machinations and interventions. It’s a world as perfectly balanced as it is perfectly brutal, where the only way to get to the life’s next level is to risk it all.

Take your breakfast appropriately.

Want To Experience The Alaska Crash?

Dave Karczynski

Dave Karczynski is a Michigan-based writer and photographer with a strong bent for difficult fish in impossible places. His by-line appears frequently in magazines across the industry, and he is also the author of two books—From Lure to Fly: Fly Fishing for Spinning and Baitcast Anglers and Smallmouth: Modern Fly-Fishing Methods, Tactics and Techniques. Check out more of Dave’s images on Instagram @davekarczynski.