Whales breaching, sea lions bellowing, and bald eagles circling are part of everyday fishing in the salt waters of southeast Alaska. Farther north, above the Arctic Circle, grayling rush in ice-free rivers, wolves howl and caribou travel hundreds of miles during migration.
Visiting Alaska is on the bucket list of many die-hard anglers and for good reason: with salmon numbers in the toilet in the lower 48, Alaska remains that last, best place to battle all five species of salmon as well as haul in halibut, grayling, trout, and several species of rockfish.
But a successful Alaska fishing trip entails lots of online investigation and planning well in advance of any trip you might want to take. The best lodges are almost always booked a full year or more in advance, so start planning now for 2021-or 2020 if you happen to luck out and find a lodge or guide with cancellations. Here are some pointers to consider.
Water, water everywhere, but what kind do you prefer?
Do you want to fish salt water, fresh, or both? Many lodges focus on all salt or all fresh water fishing while some are able to offer both, but usually at a higher price. For example, a lodge we like offers protected salt water fishing tucked in around islands as well as options for days of river fishing with a native guide.
River fishing offers fly-fishing opportunities typically not available for salt water anglers, but also means the number of fish you catch will usually be less than those in salt water. But I’ve had awesome days fly fishing on the shores of Alaskan rivers and lakes, catching several species of salmon, huge trout, and plenty of grayling.
On land, there’s also a chance to get up close and personal with brown bears, caribou, wolves and muskox, so if encounters with these critters are not on your list of fun things to experience, stay on board a boat!
Plenty of lodges use boats on rivers and lakes, so shore fishing isn’t always required.
Salt water fishing needs to be narrowed down to protected waters or open ocean. If you are plagued with motion sickness, stick to sheltered waters, which are generally calmer than the open ocean or look at freshwater fishing opportunities.
Once you decide what water you want to fish, it narrows your lodge selection to a more manageable number.
Recommendations are a big help
Lodge websites all extol the phenomenal fishing to be had at their location and brag about their guides. So, separating hyperbole from the truth is critical.
It’s good to talk to folks who have been to different Alaskan lodges or read reviews online and from several sources. Lodges vary wildly in their accommodations, services, and guides, so this part of your search takes some time.
Lodge booths at outdoor shows can give you initial ideas of where you might want to go, but remember these folks want to sell you a trip, so it’s buyer beware. You are not going to get a cheap fishing trip to Alaska, so if a lodge offers a too-good-to-be-true price, check it out carefully.
Remember, most lodges that have to advertise by attending several outdoor shows means they’re often not in the top tier: those lodges are already booked far in advance. Their reputations are firmly established, so they have no need to attend shows.
Time of year matters
If you are only interested in fishing for king (chinook) salmon, then early in the season is best. Lately, chinook seasons have been truncated and even closed at times, so keep that uncertainty in mind. Personally, I like fishing for silvers, because they are more abundant, and I can also try for rockfish and sometimes halibut in the same day.
Despite their bad press, I find the delicate flesh of pinks taken directly from salt water to be excellent. Plus, the fishing season for these species is much longer than the mighty king. But salmon species are fairly site specific, so check with fish and game to find out when the fish you want show up in waters you are considering.
Stay away from crowds
If you want to catch a lot of fish without spending hours in a boat getting to good fishing grounds, opt for a lodge off the beaten track. That means staying at a motel in a city like Juneau or Ketchikan and hiring a daily guide will usually require significant travel to get away from popular, heavily fished areas.
You can still have great fishing, but I’m not interested in being in a boat for two hours to and from good fishing. I want to be battling a salmon within an hour of getting on board. I’ve gone on remote, self-guided trips in Alaska on rivers and lakes with friends and had a great time, but if you want to go home with lots of fish, your best bet is to choose a remote lodge and hire a guide.
Most lodges include the cost of daily guide service in their price, but some also offer self-guided options, so shop carefully. For my money, a good guide on remote waters is worth his or her weight in gold.
Know what you are buying
Be sure to factor in all your costs when deciding which lodge to go to. A lodge I especially like includes a float plane flight from Juneau, a daily guide service, nice cabins, great food, fabulous fishing, plus cleaning, packaging, and freezing fillets for transport on the airlines and transportation back to Juneau.
In looking at other lodges, I’ve noticed some don’t specifically include transportation from a city to their lodge, so be sure to call local flight services to figure in the cost of getting to and from the lodge. In addition, ask how much weight each passenger is allowed and how much extra fish boxes will cost.
Speaking of costs, know how much your commercial airline will charge for extra fish boxes. Prices can get outrageously expensive once you pass a two-luggage or fish-box limit. To save on shipping costs, I only take a backpack of clothes with me to Alaska, so I still get two 50-pound fish boxes on a flight for a reasonable amount of money.
In the “know what you are buying” category, be careful about booking a return flight home on the day you get back to the city from your remote lodge.
Weather dictates flying schedules in Alaska, and I have watched anglers frantically trying to rebook flights when float planes are grounded. One year even the large private catamaran the lodge I was at was unable to operate due to weather, but the full-service lodge got all its clients on an Alaska state ferry that took us on a beautiful, but 8-hour-long, voyage, until we returned to Juneau, way past time for those anglers who booked a commercial flight the same day.
You will be charged and arm and a leg to rebook at short notice, so just don’t do it. Instead, book a motel near the airport that has a freezer to store your fish boxes overnight. Yes, it will cost you, but not as much as rebooking a missed flight.
While you are at it, don’t book connecting flights too close together. Alaska dishes out lots of delayed flights due to weather, so take that into consideration. I never book a connection of less than two hours on my return flight.
Keep these tips in mind, and you’ll be on your way to booking the Alaskan fishing trip of a lifetime! ISI