For as long as I can remember, fly fishing Alaska was a dream of mine and recently that dream came true. Growing up in Colorado, I had no shortage of fly fishing opportunities, but it was always my goal to experience Alaska.
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I ended up spending f0ur years living and guiding in different parts of Alaska. The experience exceeded my expectations, and there’s no doubt that everyone who’s interested in fly fishing should make a trip to the last frontier.
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Why Fly Fish in Alaska?
Alaska is widely considered one of the best fly fishing destinations not just in the United States, but the entire world. Alaska offers something for everyone, and the opportunity to catch the fish of a lifetime is unmatched for both beginners and experts alike.
This northernmost state is home to a wide range of fish species (many of which can be caught in the same day) that are eager to take a fly. The best fly fishing rivers and lakes in Alaska also happen to be located in some of the most stunning landscapes imaginable.
Best Fly Fishing Spots in Alaska
Alaska is enormous, and that size creates an almost overwhelming amount of choices for fly anglers. There are wide meandering rivers that cut through tundra, alpine lakes that are only open for a few months of the year, and small streams that hold fish bigger than what seems possible.
The best fishing spots in Alaska are unforgettable. Whether you decide to chase wild Alaskan salmon in Bristol Bay or trophy rainbows in south central Alaska, you can’t go wrong.
Fly Fishing Rivers in Alaska
Alaska’s rivers have a little bit of everything. During the summer, they’re full of salmon returning to spawn and huge trout and char waiting to feed on eggs.
The feeding season for trout and char is short, so they’re voracious and aggressive eaters — a fly angler’s dream!
Commonly referred to as “The Nush,” this river has everything a fly angler could possibly want. The diversity of this river, located in Bristol Bay, is tough to beat. The Nush has all five Pacific salmon species, rainbow trout, grayling, Dolly Varden, Arctic char, and northern pike.
This river can be difficult to access, but it’s well worth the effort. Anglers must first fly into Dillingham, where the river flows into the Pacific Ocean, and then take a float plane to one of the many camps located along the river and its tributaries. A typical trip to one of these camps will be at least a couple nights, and can extend up to seven or eight.
The farther upstream you go, the smaller the river becomes. The upper stretches of the river are great for catching rainbows, grayling, char, and Dollies. The lower section is much bigger and is good for catching kings on the swing while they make their run up from the ocean.
While there are other species to catch, the primary target of the Kvichak is trophy rainbow trout. The Kvichak has some of the largest rainbow trout in the world and some of the best trout fishing in Alaska.
To get to the Kvichak, you’ll need to fly into the town of Iliamna. From there, you can charter an air taxi to fly into any part of the river. Hiring a guide and staying at a lodge in the area is highly recommended. When you take a trip like this, you want to reduce the learning curve and get straight to catching.
It contains monster rainbows that come out of Lake Iliamna to spawn and feed on salmon eggs during late summer. These trout are very similar to ocean-run steelhead, and many still have bright chrome-silver coloring.
The Kenai is Alaska’s most popular fishery, primarily because it’s the most accessible. The river contains a variety of fish species and is famous for the largest sport-caught king salmon caught here (over 97 lbs). The river is known for strong salmon runs and a healthy population of large rainbows.
Unlike many other rivers in Alaska, the Kenai is accessible by car. The river begins at the outlet of Kenai Lake near the town of Cooper’s Landing (about an hour south of Anchorage). There are several places to park and fish. Float trips on the river are a favorite way to see a large section of water.
Rainbow trout fishing is excellent throughout the summer. A large sockeye run begins in June, followed by a large coho run in August and September. The Kenai has excellent fishing, but expect to see other people sharing the river with you.
Brooks River (Katmai National Park)
This river makes the list for one exciting reason…bears! Anglers have a strong possibility of encountering bears on any Alaskan river, but here it’s all but guaranteed. The fishing is also great, although you might be a little more distracted than usual.
Just about everyone has seen footage of salmon leaping over a waterfall surrounded by bears waiting to catch them in mid-air. This is where that footage was filmed, the world famous Brooks Falls. What many people don’t realize is that you can fish this same river and will probably be within 100 feet of a massive brown bear.
It’s extremely important to following the rules and attend the mandatory “bear school” provided by the National Park Service. To maintain a safe experience for both humans and the bears, there are strict guidelines to follow. These guidelines allow for an experience that you’ll never forget. PLEASE FOLLOW THE RULES!
To access the river you’ll need to charter a flight from Anchorage. There’s lodging available at Katmai, but day trips are also an option. This will give you a truly unique Alaskan experience, along with some exciting stories and photos!
Southeast Alaska is made up of hundreds of islands containing thousands of little streams, many of which have some sort of salmon or steelhead run. The Situk stands out as having the largest steelhead run in Alaska.
The Situk is near the town of Yakutat, and once you get there you can hike or drive to the river. The river runs from Situk lake for 18 miles down to the ocean. The river has a large steelhead run in the spring (April/May) and a smaller run in the fall. It also produces a run of all five Pacific salmon species.
While most anglers associate steelhead with large, wide rivers, the Situk is very different. It’s much smaller, and fish are often visible. Common methods such as swinging flies and using a spey rod are not required here.
Fly Fishing Lakes in Alaska
Just like the rivers, many lakes are teeming with fish and can prove to be some of the best fishing spots in Alaska. Salmon often stop to spawn in the lakes, which brings in other sport fish looking for easy meals.
Salmon fry also make their home in these lakes before heading out to the ocean, providing a year-round food source.
Wood-Tikchik State Park
Wood-Tikchik State Park is located in Bristol Bay and has several lakes connected within the park boundaries. To reach these lakes, you’ll need to fly into Dillingham and then charter a float plane into the park itself.
In early summer, salmon fry and smolt make their way to salt water, and the inlets and outlets of these lakes act as funnels, pushing large numbers of these fish together. Larger fish congregate in these locations to feed on the baby salmon.
Later in the summer, adult salmon return to the lakes and begin to spawn. Using an egg pattern in shallower water will prove to be an effective technique once the salmon are around.
Crescent Lake is located within Lake Clark National Park. It’s popular for both its fishing and bear viewing. Visitors will need to fly into the lake on a float plane. The flight is less than an hour from Anchorage.
For this trip, it’s highly recommended to hire an Alaska fishing guide who will provide a boat. While it’s possible to walk the shoreline, there’s dense vegetation and a good chance of having a close encounter with a bear.
The lake sees a strong sockeye run in June and July, and then coho in August and September. There are also resident lake trout and Dolly Varden for anglers to catch.
Unlike many other lakes and rivers in Alaska, Kenai Lake is accessible by vehicle. Cooper Landing is on the west side of the lake, which is about a two-hour drive south of Anchorage. Here you can find a guide or rent a canoe or boat to use on your own.
Kenai Lake is large and is the starting point for the Kenai river. The lake has healthy populations of rainbow trout, lake trout, and Dolly Varden. While a boat will help you cover more water, fishing from the shore is possible here.
Alaska Fly Fishing: Fish Species
You’ll never be bored by the amount of species to fly fish for in Alaska. The salmon provide a food source that creates trophy caliber specimens of many other fish…oh, and they’re pretty fun to catch also.
Salmon and steelhead are anadromous, meaning they live most of their life in salt water and return to fresh water to spawn. Once in fresh water, they go through significant changes that include their coloring and in some cases body shape. Salmon also stop feeding, so strikes are out of aggression instead of hunger.
They have this name for a reason, as they’re the biggest of the five Pacific salmon species. They make a run in most of the larger rivers in Alaska. Typically they are targeted closer to salt water, as they begin to spawn farther upstream and should not be targeted while spawning. Kings usually start showing up in early summer, but this varies depending on the specific river.
Hooking a king salmon is like hooking a freight train. On average, they weigh between 20 and 25 pounds, and they’re STRONG. As they leave salt water, they begin to change color, going from bright silver to a dark red, brown, or even green.
A 10 weight rod is a good choice, and a reel with a strong drag. You can fish for kings on the swing in bigger water, stripping streamers in water too slow to swing or dead drifting nymph patterns in deep pools.
Coho (Silver Salmon)
Coho are maybe the most fun salmon species due to their aggressive nature, fight, and number of fish. They’re also delicious! Coho usually run in the fall, between August and September.
Many anglers make annual trips to Alaska to catch cohos. They’re a lot of fun to catch and can put on a nice aerial display. With an average weight of 8-12 pounds, you’ll be tired after day of hooking coho.
A 7 or 8 weight is ideal for these fish. They can be caught on streamers, and once you catch enough, you can even try to catch them on topwater using a popper. Anything pink will get their attention.
Sockeye are part of some of the most iconic shots of Alaskan rivers. Once they reach their spawning grounds, they become a deep red color with green heads.
Sockeye average between 8-10 pounds and usually can be seen in large numbers. A 7 or 8 weight is ideal for chasing these fish. Although sockeyes will bite out of aggression, it can be difficult to produce strikes.
Smaller bright colored flies do the trick, as do egg patterns.
Alaska’s rainbow trout fishing is second to none. The wild rainbows here are known for both their beauty and their size. Alaska offers the best chance in the United States to land the trout of a lifetime.
While there are some smaller streams and rivers where a lighter rod will work, a 6 or 7 weight is recommended for the larger rivers. These fish pull hard, and expect to see them rocket out of the water like a torpedo when hooked.
During the summer, these fish sit behind spawning salmon, waiting for extra eggs to float down to them. Egg patterns work well, as well as streamers (sculpin patterns and flesh flies). Make sure to have some mouse patterns ready as well, as this can create some of the best fly fishing in Alaska!
Steelhead are the ocean-going cousins of the rainbow trout. They enter fresh water during the spring and fall to spawn, but unlike salmon they return to the ocean afterwards.
Steelhead are notoriously difficult to catch, but in Alaska steelhead fishing can be very different. Southeast Alaska is filled with thousands of streams, and many of them have steelhead runs, although many are small numbers. A 9 foot 8 weight rod is recommended, as many of the streams are too tight for a spey rod.
Steelhead still feed as they enter fresh water, so many traditional trout nymph patterns work, but plan on using larger sizes than on a Western trout stream. Streamers like egg sucking leeches and egg patterns are also effective.
Arctic Char/Dolly Varden
These two species of fish are commonly confused for one another because of how similar they look. Typically, Dolly Varden are sea-run, while Arctic char remain in lakes. Both species transform to have beautiful bright spawning colors in the fall.
During early summer, these fish sit at river outlets and feast on the salmon smolt and fry making their way out to the ocean. It can become quite a feeding frenzy and a lot of fun to watch. The surface of the water looks like it’s boiling. In the fall they feed on salmon eggs and other smaller fish.
Clouser minnows work well during early summer near the outlet of streams. Egg patterns and smaller streamers like sculpins work well later in summer.
Grayling are another iconic Alaskan fish. They’re known for their enormous dorsal fin. Graylings are beautiful fish, and their unique look makes for some great photos.
Graylings don’t grow to the same size as many other fish in Alaska. They’re typically between 12-18 inches, with a large fish being over 20 inches. A 4 weight rod is perfect for these fish.
Grayling are perfect for anglers of any skill level as they aren’t picky eaters. Grayling will go after just about anything. Grayling devour dry flies, and you can spend a day getting strike after strike on almost anything that floats.
Alaska Fishing Season
The Alaska fishing season generally stretches from June to September, but April and May have some great opportunities as well.
Fishing is available year round, but outside of spring and summer the weather becomes a large obstacle.
Alaska Fly Fishing in April-May
This is prime steelhead time. The rivers and lakes farther north are still frozen and inaccessible, but southeast Alaska comes alive. The chance to catch a steelhead is best during these months.
Alaska Fly Fishing in June
June is when many lodges in Bristol Bay begin to open because the fishing is turning on. Salmon smolts make their way to the ocean and char, Dollies, rainbows, grayling and northern pike are all doing their best to eat as many as possible. King salmon also start to make their way into the rivers.
Alaska Fly Fishing in July
July is when the sockeye are begin to show up in many of the rivers. They are still fresh and bright from the ocean and haven’t started spawning yet. Trout fishing in Alaska can be excellent this time of year as well.
Alaska Fly Fishing in August
August can be one of the best months for fishing. The salmon have started to spawn, which means the trout, Dollies, and rainbows are feasting on eggs. This is also when the coho begin to appear, which can be electric!
Alaska Fly Fishing in September
Fishing Alaska in September can be an adventure. The weather is more unpredictable and storms are more likely, but it can also produce the best fishing of the year. The salmon spawn is in full swing, and many species are still gorging themselves on eggs and also decaying salmon carcasses.
The fish have also put on a significant amount of size over the course of the summer. A trout caught in September will be much fatter than one caught earlier in the season.
Best Fly Shops in Alaska
Local knowledge is helpful whenever you plan a fishing trip, but this is even more true in Alaska. Because of the difficulty in getting to Alaska, and some of the fishing, it’s well worth spending some time talking to or hiring an Alaska fishing guide to get the most out of your time.
Alaska Fly Fishing Goods
This shop is located in Juneau, Alaska and can provide great information on fishing in southeast Alaska. They have a great selection of local flies, along with any other gear you may need.
Mossy’s Fly Shop
Chances are, if you’re going fishing in Alaska, you’ll make a stop in Anchorage. Mossy’s Fly Shop can help you find whatever flies you need for any of Alaska’s many different fish species. If you forgot or need any equipment for your trip, they can help you out.
Located in Cooper’s Landing, this shop has great information about the Kenai River and any of the other great rivers in the area. You can hire a guide here or just pick up some flies and tips for a successful DIY trip.
Fly Fishing in Alaska should be at the top of any angler’s list. It’s a world class fishery and has a wild feeling that’s hard to find almost anywhere else. Alaska is a place where you can almost guarantee that you’ll be worn out from catching, not just fishing.
Alaska’s abundance of fish is staggering, and seeing a river in the middle of a salmon run is something you’ll never forget. The only thing as impressive as the fishing is the landscape. You’ll find yourself torn between taking in the beautiful views and paying attention to your line as you cast.
If your idea of a perfect trip is to catch a lot of fish, Alaska is for you. If your idea of a perfect trip is to catch big fish…Alaska is also for you. The only downside is that you might become spoiled!