September 08, 2023
This article was originally titled “Road Warriors” in the August-September 2023 issue of Fly Fisherman.
The Last Frontier was bought from Russia in 1867 and achieved statehood in 1959. It is composed of 365 million acres, and contains—among other things—the largest Pacific salmon runs in the world, the highest mountain peak in North America, some of the richest gold mines on the planet, and an infinite capacity to irritate Texans. Yet for all its geographical glory, Alaska has only four major highways.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I would argue it’s one of the things that makes Alaska great, and if that ever changes it will be for the worse. But the very existence of Alaskan roads, along with their scarcity, makes for one heck of a paradox.
On the one hand, you’ve got millions of acres of wild country that would be inaccessible without roads. Sure, you could take a Super Cub or a jet boat out there, but for those of us who are poor or can’t secure a coveted spot at a fly-out lodge (as is common these days), it’s the road system or it’s nothing. On the flip side, such a limited number of thoroughfares can tend to concentrate angling effort at reachable places—the nice way of saying that some road-accessible salmon streams can turn into outdoor Harry Styles concerts during the height of the run.
Saying Alaska only has four major highways is a bit dishonest; in fact, there are over 14,000 miles of road. It’s just that only four of them are constructed to Interstate Highway standards. The rest are narrow, two-lane-only, frost-heaved, gravel, or some varying combination of these. That’s fine, of course, for those who like adventure, but most rental companies prohibit taking their cars on anything but pavement. Alaska 4x4 Rentals and Alaska Overlander (both in Anchorage) are good exceptions to this. Give them a call, explain your plan, and they’ll be able to set you up with everything you might need in the transportation department. That way you can get off the beaten track.
The single biggest consideration for a trip to Alaska—before organizing your rental car, before deciding which new fly rod you’re going to snag—is deciding when you’d like to visit. Are you looking for salmon to clonk and bring home in a cooler, or are you more interested in hunting for a 30-inch rainbow trout? Some fish are available practically all summer and fall, while others come and go, as they are anadromous migrants.
Mid- to late June is a safe overall bet. Trout, Dolly Varden, and Arctic grayling will be moving into their summer haunts with zeal, and the sockeye salmon and king salmon runs will be climbing. July is good if you want to catch the peak of some salmon runs, but it’s also one of the busiest times to be in Alaska because the weather’s most reliable then. If I had to pick a time to visit, I’d choose August or early September. Coho (silver) salmon are just picking up, trout are fat and happy from eating salmon eggs, roadside steelhead are finally available, and most of the tourists have finally left town. It also means a higher chance of rain. Consider your options and preferences carefully.
Okay—let’s assume you’ve got a vehicle now, you know when you’re coming, and you’re ready to make things happen. All that’s left is to drive your heart out and go fishing.
It’s been said that there are no good anglers in Alaska, there is only good fishing. That may have been true once—and it still is true in many roadless areas—but today I don’t really believe it. There’s an abundance of fish, sure, depending on your location and timing, but you really can’t afford to be bad if you want to meet decent success. You need to come prepared with the right gear, and you need to give some thought to what flies you’re presenting and how. Fly shops within the vicinity of your excursions will be able to help in that department. If in doubt, fish a black, weighted Egg-sucking Leech.
My final tip before we launch into location is to grab yourself a copy of Gunnar Pedersen’s The Highway Angler (the latest edition if you can find it). It’s the Bible of angling mercenaries up here. I keep a copy in my truck at all times.
Oh—and beware of bears. Educate yourself on what to do if you come across one, and carry some big iron or a can of bear spray as insurance.
Ah, the Kenai. A place steeped in legends of hopelessly elusive 20-pound rainbow trout, and king salmon the size of donkeys. As you can imagine from such tales, the place is also hammered by fishermen. The entire Kenai Peninsula is a vast area containing myriad fishing options, but the majority of pressure occurs on the Kenai River system itself.
If you’re a first-timer, I’d recommend booking a drift boat and a guide to go with it. There are a number of outfitter services based in the towns of Cooper Landing and Soldotna, and they’re going to put you on fish much faster than you could do it yourself. You could always book a guide for a day and use some of their lessons while you fly solo the rest of the trip. I tend to steer clear of the Kenai altogether because I generally favor a small-stream experience and fewer people. The upper Kenai, though, can deliver a pretty killer experience, and if a yardstick rainbow trout is your goal, the middle Kenai is world-class.
If you’d prefer to seek out more remote options (relatively speaking), there are a number of streams on the Seward and Sterling highways to consider. In the fall, you can seek steelhead at some of the fisheries down toward Ninilchik and Homer. I won’t name-drop these (because I’ll be tarred and feathered if I do), but some quick Google searches will reveal productive starting points. During September, the steelhead crowds can resemble summer salmon mobs, but these river and creek systems are spread out enough to where you can find solitude. That reminds me of a good rule of thumb for the entire state: The quality of your fishing will often be directly proportional to the amount of boot leather you spent getting there. Just make sure you’re not hiking and/or fishing into closed areas. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) keeps pretty detailed regulations that you should study thoroughly.
One final note is that you should have a backup plan in place if you bank your trip on Kenai Peninsula king salmon. This is a temperamental species with sadly diminishing run sizes. ADF&G regularly issues emergency orders closing king fisheries that, just a day before—just hours before in some cases—were open. That happened to me last year. I’d been Spey casting my heart out for days, praying for a Chinook near Soldotna. After several thousand casts, it still hadn’t happened, and as soon as I started planning a return trip, the fishery shut down. It was a bummer, sure, but the health of the king salmon runs is more important than my own ego.
If a fishery is open and you’re lucky enough to shake hands with one of these brutes, treat it with the respect it deserves. Keep it in the water at all times, handle it minimally, and let it go. Don’t kill a fish just for Instagram.
The next most popular sector of Alaska is the Matanuska-Susitna Valley (the Mat-Su in local parlance). In just over an hour’s drive from the international airport in Anchorage, you can be fishing one of a handful of creeks that contain pristine, wonderfully spotted rainbow trout. In fact, some of the best trout fishing in the country, certainly in the state, can be found in this area.
The key to accessing these roadside gems is the George Parks Highway. Constructed in 1971 and named for a former governor back in the territory days, this is arguably the most important road in the state. It connects Anchorage and Fairbanks via 323 miles of paved two-lane, providing access to both population centers, but also to the tourist Mecca of Denali National Park. On clear days, the views of North America’s tallest peak are nothing short of breathtaking, and the views from certain trout streams along that route are even better.
Streamer fishing is the name of the game during the height of summer. Trout overwinter in the Susitna River, trickling back up into such creeks as Willow, Sheep, Goose, and Montana in the spring to spawn. Early June is a reliable time to start casting for them. The infamous Dolly Llama fly (which you can find at practically any fly shop or sporting goods store) was developed here and, though it casts like a dumbbell, it’s effective medicine for these highly predatory trout. A selection of Kelly Galloup streamers are also good choices, as are coneheaded Muddlers, weighted Woolly Buggers, and a variety of sculpin patterns. Mouse flies like the Mr. Hankey or RIO’s Pipsqueak only get better as summer wears on, and this kind of fishing can be the most exciting and explosive you’ll ever experience.
There are a number of walk-in spots along each of the aforementioned creeks. Alaska’s stream laws allow anglers to wade navigable water below the high water line, even if the adjacent ground is private, but still, be aware.
Depending on your timing, the coho salmon action can be nonstop. You can also sling for pinks and chums if you want. Either way, once salmon start moving in heavy numbers, beads become the dominant tactic for rainbows. Fish that way if you’re so inclined, but you can still move a good number of wary fish with properly presented streamers.
Interior Alaska is what fly fishing dreams are made of; that is, if your dreams are of the purist bent and contain soft rods, high-floating dry flies, and Arctic grayling eating voraciously on the surface. The Interior, as it’s commonly known, encompasses the muskeg and boreal country north of the Alaska Range and south of the Brooks Range. During the last Ice Age, this place was an oasis; a lush island of grasslands amidst a sea of glaciers several miles thick. Mammoths and woolly rhinos and steppe lions abounded. Today, it’s still an oasis in many ways, serving as productive habitat and home to an impressive array of wildlife species.
For the piscatorially inclined, Arctic grayling are the main quarry here. These lovely fish top many fly anglers’ bucket lists for sheer appearance; there are few spectacles in nature as beautiful as a vivid grayling dorsal fin. I would argue that the grayling is more than just a pretty photo. They are the ideal dry-fly fish. Whereas you’ll hear that trout spend 90% of their time feeding below the surface and a mere 10% rising to drifting insects, grayling flip the script. Anything that floats and looks remotely “buggy” is fair game to them. I especially like size 12 to 16 Humpys, Usuals, Elk-hair Caddis, mosquitoes, and Klinkhamers.
The key with finding good grayling fishing is to seek solitude. It’s not that you can’t find quality fishing close to the road (you can, rest assured), it’s just that the experience gets exponentially better the farther you get from pavement or gravel. Chena Hot Springs Road, along with the Richardson, Steese, and Alaska highways all lead to exceptional starting points for such operations. The upper Chena River is especially accessible, with many secluded nooks and pull-offs where you can tuck away and hike to your heart’s content. While this fishery is catch-and-release only, and you can reasonably hook and land dozens of fish in a day, treat them all carefully. It wasn’t so long ago in the 1980s that Arctic grayling were nearly extirpated from the Chena. Check out other venues like Sourdough Creek, the Gulkana River, the Denali Highway, the Walker Fork of the Fortymile, Nome Creek, or the Delta Clearwater while you’re around.
Better yet—find your own dry-fly paradise on a stream that’s not yet named. They’re out there.
So you really want an adventure, eh? Alaska’s Dalton Highway is among the most rugged roads in the world. There’s a reason that seasoned truckers call the gravel on this road “arrowheads,” just like there’s a reason people say you shouldn’t attempt this road without two full-sized spare tires. My wife and I, unfortunately, confirmed both of these reports on a September trip a few years back.
If you’re serious about the Dalton, and have secured a vehicle to travel it with, good on you. Along with the extra spare tires, I’d implore you to take a portable air compressor, tire plugs, a few jugs of extra gas, a robust first aid kit, flares, extra jackets, a complete camp kit, and any other doomsday-type accoutrements you can think of. It can be an uneventful trip, but it can just as easily turn into a nightmare in which you bust an axle on a Prius-sized pothole or take a boulder to the radiator. Both have happened to people I know. Coldfoot and Deadhorse, two settlements separated by 240 miles, are the only places to get automotive help.
The fishing can make these risks worthwhile. Grayling abound in practically every roadside stream, especially the larger tributaries of the Koyukuk and Sagavanirktok. Pike are available in some of the slower backwaters. Galbraith Lake is a gem of this roadway. It takes eight hours to reach from Fairbanks, and it can be windy as a day in Wyoming, but lake trout and Arctic char are abundant and often reachable from the shore. It also features one of just a handful of campgrounds along the entire, 414-mile route.
The Sagavanirktok, the king of rivers along the Dalton, and one that has the distinction of flowing into the Arctic Ocean, can be a tough but amazing nut to crack. Sea-run Dolly Varden of epic proportions swim up it to spawn every fall, and while I myself have not successfully timed it yet, that’s not to say you can’t. My best, educated guess is that it happens around late August. These colorful brutes are heading for smaller tributaries in the northern Brooks Range, and you can either attempt to intercept them on the Sag, or take a fly-out trip to one of these more remote locations. Either way, if you’re able to cradle one of these 30-inch, tomato-bellied behemoths, you’ll forget all about the puckery trip up the Dalton to reach it.
Trip of a Lifetime
So there it is. A fly-by—drive-by, more like—of Alaska’s road system fisheries. This is the place of once-in-a-lifetimes: fish, views, experiences. You might catch the state fish or see the state bird (or be punctured by the state bird, depending on which trivia you believe). You might see Denali, a sight which cannot be adequately described or even photographed. It must be felt. You might return home with an infinitude of jokes with which to infuriate your Texan friends, you might pan Alaskan gold, raft one of its nameless rivers, encounter one of its huge brown mammals, or be made to feel small by its incomprehensible enormity. You’ll never want to leave.
Joseph Jackson has been in the Last Frontier since 2014 when he came to Fairbanks for college. Between writing for a variety of outdoor publications, Fly Fisherman included, and releasing his first book (It’s Only Fishing, Epicenter Press 2023), he enjoys burning tire rubber on Alaska’s roads in search of king salmon on a Spey rod and grayling on high-floating dry flies. Instagram: @saveaworm_fishafly