Fishing Trip of a Lifetime
In August 2018, I spent 2 weeks in Alaska. This is my story.
The Last Frontier
The 49th State
Alaska is the 49th State of USA. It is huge, as wide as the other 48 states together. It is mainly wilderness, and epitomizes the big outdoors. If fly fishing is a religion, then Alaska is a cathedral, with thousands of miles of unspoiled rivers, five salmon runs; eleven species of gamefish; and fishing with bears, moose and eagles. Alaska is amazing and I was lucky to spend a week fishing there this summer in Katmai National Park
 Chinook (King) Salmon, Sockeye Salmon, Keta (Chum) Salmon, Pink Salmon, Coho Salmon, Rainbow Trout, Lake Trout, Char, Sheefish, Dolly Varden, and Grayling. Pike are also available.
5000 Miles from home
You usually need to hire a bush plane to reach your lodge.
Alaska is 5000 miles from UK - a 48 hour journey and eight plane rides there and back. The easiest route is to fly to Anchorage via Reykjavik, Frankfurt, Vancouver or Seattle, then take an internal flight to King Salmon followed by a tiny bush plane deep into the wilderness. The tiny planes are exciting, weather dependent, and can be a little bumpy! A storm blew up as we arrived in King Salmon and we had to sit it out for 36 hours before we could fly out to our lodge. The pilots are highly experienced and I always felt safe.
Alaska Trophy Adventures Lodge
I stayed at Alaska Trophy Adventures Lodge 50 miles up the Alagnak River. The Alagnak is a single-hook trophy fly water and one of the best rivers in Alaska. It has all five salmon runs, with large numbers of fish and is largely untouched. ATA Lodge is small scale, good quality, moderate in cost, comfortable and friendly, with spectacular views. You sleep in a small twin bedded log cabin. Importantly, the guides are excellent and you access many miles of prime river and different species in fast jet boats.
A typical day starts at 6am with an hour fishing before breakfast. I would usually catch 1-2 salmon from the dock before retiring to the main lodge for a hearty breakfast (bacon, eggs, pancakes, cereal etc) and to pick up a packed lunch from the fully stocked Make-It-Yourself counter. The food is excellent, no mean feat given how remote the Lodge is.
At 9am, each guide takes a jet-boat and two anglers out for the day to a different stretch of river, returning at 5pm for hot showers, three course dinner and poker, reading, fly-tying, more dock fishing and swapping stories with your fellow anglers. The McGee family, who host the lodge, are gracious and multi-talented, and live music – guitar and vocal harmony – was a regular and delightful evening feature. A glass of wine is provided with the evening meal, and you can ‘bring-your-own’.
Simply the Best
Although each fishing day is different, a typical day sees you drop out at a dozen islands or gravel bars to swing the tail-outs for salmon, spending time prospecting and precision casting for big trout, usually under fallen or weeping trees, and having lunch on the shore.
You should fish quietly and close first without wading, the big salmon start only 6 feet out. And there are so many of them, you are often casting into a pod of 20-30 fish, and the challenge is how to extract them from the edges without spooking the pod. You can, with care, take two, three, even four good fish from every spot, progressively wading further and fishing longer. And there are just so many spots and so many fish.
There is an enormous variety of techniques, fish and habitats to hold your interest, the beats vary daily and no two days are alike. The guides will ask for your preferences and will shape each day accordingly.
After fishing enough tailouts, there are many section to float - boat fishing on glides and rapids for grayling, char and trout. Once the salmon begin to spawn then bead fishing becomes highly successful.
The River will accommodate both single handed and double handed fly casters and I switched between methods regularly as the beat demanded.
Real Time Coaching
With one guide for every two anglers, you receive a lot of support and personal attention. No time is wasted and you will catch a lot of fish with guides who know the river intimately – some have more than 15 summers on the river.
If necessary, you guide can provide coaching to the newer or less confident angler and even beginners will catch aplenty.
Finally, you usually keep the same boat and same guide for a week. so you have an opportunity to keep your rods made up which saves a lot of time, you get to know each other, you can develop new skills over the week, and of course, enjoy the outdoors.
Preparing For Alaska
The Right Flies
Preparing is half the fun of any trip. I used Flyfishing Alaska and Flies for Alaska, both by Anthony Route. Although the books are 25 years old, they are still current and serve the majority of your needs, though you may also wish to add the more modern and very popular Dolly Llama fly to your box as well.
Alaska fly names will mostly be strange to the UK Angler and are unlike UK patterns. They are, however, relatively simple to tie and any intermediate tyer will be quite comfortable with the techniques required, albeit that the sheer size (1/0 to Size 2), strange materials, and dominant colours (pink, purple, fuchsia) will all seem most peculiar. The ring-bound book Flies for Alaska contains all the required pictures and instructions to be fully tied up and prepared for a fantastic trip and is highly recommended.
For the most part, the fish you catch are unpressured, need to feed for the year in short summers and will not have seen a fly before. They are aggressive rather than pattern selective and your focus is more on location and presentation. It’s also important to understand just how rich the rivers of Alaska are. The salmon run brings millions of fish and many tons of seaborne protein into the rivers as eggs and flesh of salmon. As a result the resident fish – trout, char, grayling – grow to extra-ordinary size and beauty. They should not be overlooked amongst the salmon runs. You will rarely see such fin-perfect fighting fit fish.
75% of my fish came on the Fuchsia Stinger Popsicle, a fly which I further developed whilst in Alaska. It accounted not only for nearly 40 salmon for me, but also caught for several other anglers who queued up to acquire them as I tied new ones every night to keep up with demand. Best fish caught on my flies was a 30lb King Salmon, caught by a delighted 17 year old lad on his first fishing trip with his dad!
One important note: The Alagnak River is strictly a single hook river. You cannot use European flies tied on double hooks. To be honest, it doesn't matter to the angler, there are so many fish that even if you lose one, another will be along very shortly! Make sure you check the up to date regulations.
My Fly Selection
Primarily targetting Coho and Pinks
My key fly choices were the Flash Fly, Fuchsia Bunny, Fuchsia Popsicle, Dolly Llama, Articulated Leeches, Sculpin, Pink Clousers, Sparkle Shrimps, Coho Kryptonite, Flesh Flies, Battle Creek Specials, Mice, Egg-sucking leeches, and a variety of Elk Hair Caddis in different colours and sizes. Depending on the time of year, bead fishing is also a principle tactic for resident fish.
My principle flies for Alaska
It's called catching
Every run was late and long this year so my week in mid-August had everything - Kings, Chums, Pinks, Silvers, even a few Sockeye. The one proviso is that King Season closes on 31 July and you cannot deliberately target them thereafter. Even so several people had Grand Slams. I was a sockeye short of a Grand Slam for the week. Resident fish were also in top condition! As runs were late, silvers were scarce ('only' 2-3 per angler per day) and largest silver only about 12lbs....bigger fish tend to run later in the silver run.
My best two fish of the holiday came in completely different ways. The first was a 11lb Coho hen (Oncorhynchus kisutch) who smashed into my Fuchsia Popsicle 30 yards downstream at the end of my swing on a12ft 9wt Spey Rod.
The fish dashed out of the tailwater into the full current, peeling off 50 yards of backing from my Hardy reel before I could get her head out of the current and start to haul her in. She came safely to the net after another 10 minutes of aerial acrobatics and runs for which Coho salmon are so well known and prized.
I like Big Chums
(and I cannot lie)
My second memorable fish came when I was targeting Grayling, using an 8ft 4wt light rod and an egg pattern.
The 12lb Chum Salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) was totally unexpected, in the wrong place, and took the wrong fly.
To be honest, I had no control of the fish and little hope of landing him. I played the fish very lightly allowing it to settle in a lie. We then maneuvered the boat alongside, the guide held the net ready and I gently lifted his head and he neatly popped up in the current and was quickly netted. I’m not sure the fish even knew he was hooked. I expect it is the biggest fish my 4wt will ever catch!
Even more surprising after the Big Chum, the next cast took a 7lb Male Pink Salmon and which was also landed on the 4wt!
Even years, 2018, 2020, 2022 etc, have the extra Pink Salmon Run - and these are great times for kids and beginners as the fishing is easy and the action is nonstop.
Altogether I landed 48 salmon in 5 days, including Coho, a small King, Pink Salmon as well as Rainbows, Char and Grayling.
Gear - Clothing - Bears
When you come to Alaska, you must be prepared for the weather. It is changeable and you can experience fog, heavy rain, wind, sun, cold and heat in the same day. You are out in the elements and there is no shelter.
The right gear is crucial and includes quality breathable waders, boots, wading jacket, waterproof hat, sunglasses, gloves, buff, layers of fleeces and shirts all underlaid with moisture wicking thermal underwear.
Wading is relatively easy and the right folding staff suffices. I recommend the new Snowbee folding stick - it has a wire rather than elastic down the middle and locks firmly - it is much less prone to collapsing than other folding sticks which use elastic, which can collapse when stuck in the ground, and which I cannot recommend.
A waterproof rucksack or large drybag is essential to carry camera, spare clothes, tackle,
bug spray, sun cream, water and your packed lunch.
You must stay aware of your surroundings at all times, even and especially when playing fish. Humans should always give way to bears so keep a sharp lookout. Be especially careful with a Mother Bear and cubs and retreat immediately without coming between them. Obey your guide instantly, the time for questions is later.
Which Rods and Reels
There is a huge variety of fish and techniques in Alaska, and you can use almost any equipment you choose to bring, subject to local license and regulations. My preferred combination was:
Brits choice of Salmon Rod: 12ft-13ft 9wt Double Hander
US Anglers choice of Salmon Rod: 9-10ft 8-9wt Single Hander.
Trout/Streamer Rod: 9-10ft 7-8wt, heavy WF line for streamers.
Grayling/Char/Dry Fly rod: 8-9ft 4-5wt
The heavier rods will each need 2 floating lines (the fish are strong, you can easily lose a whole fly line!) plus optional Spey sink tips or intermediate for the occasional deeper run. The light rod will need a floating line only. Your salmon reel needs 150 yards of backing and a good drag. If you want to target King Salmon you should beef up the Salmon Rod to 15ft 10wt and use a Skagit or Spey line with choice of sinking tips.
Finally a word about baggage. Use soft-sided bags and despite the long list of tackle, remember that space in bush planes and lodges is highly limited. It is better to bring fewer top quality things and to restrict evening clothing.
You can, if you wish, personally import up to 20kg of self-caught filleted prime salmon back to the UK and the lodge will make all the shipping arrangements for you, including smoking the fish if required.
From the UK, an all-in budget starts from around £6500
With 8 flights to catch to and from the UK, an Alaskan fishing trip is not cheap and there is a huge range of costs depending if you fly economy or premium, the route you take, the standard of stopover hotel, any extra days, if you ship fish home, and on which lodge you visit. Some lodges will fly you to a different river every day, but the cost of the trip will more than double.
If you fly economy and make budget choices, price will start around £6,500. Cannon Travel in Ware were able to source air tickets to Anchorage that were £500 less than anyone online, so it is worth checking with them.
If you can, start saving and go to Alaska . It’s the fishing trip of a lifetime!