Fishing North of Anchorage: Advantages of Willow and the Parks Highway River Systems

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Willow, Alaska is one of the many hidden gems in the great state of Alaska. Due to its small size and close proximity to Denali and Talkeetna it is often overlooked by most of the average tourists who visit Alaska with one exception…those who come to fish! It is a relatively short, easy drive from Anchorage, about an hour and fifteen minutes north on the Parks Highway. Willow has a great history from a mining boom in the late 1800's to the King Salmon boom in the mid 1990's. Now it is a quaint little town that offers an abundance of recreation as well as several small shops, restaurants, and lodging options.

On the way to Willow from Anchorage visitors have options for things to see and do along the way. One of the more unique Alaskan attractions is the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer. Here guests can get up close and personal to a truly prehistoric animal! Guests can learn about the history of the musk ox and its close relation to the native people of Alaska as well as actually interact with some of the animals. After the farm visitors to the area have a choice on their route to Willow and beyond. For a more direct route visitors can get back on the Parks Highway and continue north. For a slightly longer but incredibly scenic route visitors can travel over Hatcher Pass and the headwaters of Willow Creek. By continuing on Fishhook Rd. in Palmer this will take visitors to Hatcher Pass. The pass itself starts off paved but then changes to dirt. It is a very easily traveled dirt road. 2-wheel drive passenger cars have no problem traveling on the pass. The pass typically opens by the end of June and signs along the road will let visitors know if it is open or closed. There are plenty of spots to pull off the road and take in the beauty of the many mountains surrounding the pass. The road then continues down the pass eventually becoming paved again and following Willow Creek. There are spots to fish but also but people live here as well, so be sure to respect private property.

Fishing Willow, Alaska & the Parks Highway System

The fishing in the greater Willow area offers many options to anglers visiting the state. There are smaller creeks for the shore bound angler to larger sections of water that are better to be fished from a boat. Driving along the Parks Highway visitors will drive over numerous rivers and creeks that all hold fish. Most of these have parking areas right along the highway where anglers could walk up or down river and pursue fish. These rivers that cross the Parks Highway start with the Little Susitna in the small town of Houston and continue all the way north to Fairbanks. This is a huge distance so the types of fish one can pursue vary as one drives further north. The majority of the info discussed will be concerning the rivers and creeks between the Little Susitna and just a little north of Talkeenta.

Fishing in the greater Willow area is the closest consistent good fishing near Anchorage. Despite its close proximity to Alaska's largest city it boasts many different creeks, rivers, and lakes to fish that receive far less pressure than most systems in Alaska. In the town of Willow itself there are 2 main rivers that are fished. These are Willow Creek and Little Willow Creek. Both of these are very friendly to angling abilities of all levels. Both of these rivers can be floated as well as fished from the bank or waded. Since they are not large rivers one does not need the ability to "double haul" line 40 plus feet to be effective. Basic over hand casts or roll casts of 15-20 feet is all one needs to be effective here. These are crystal clear river systems so being aware of movement or your presence on the water is helpful in stalking and catching these beautiful, completely wild fish.

Best Fish to Target and When To Go

The resident fish species of the area are Rainbow Trout, Arctic Grayling, and Dolly Varden. These fish are present year-round in our river systems but are fished for most commonly during May, June, July, August, and September. Some years the season can start earlier or go later depending on how Mother Nature is feeling. These drainages also boast all 5 species of Pacific Salmon during their respective run timing; however, the Sockeye/Red run is very small and not present in all rivers in the area. Kings can be present from the end of May through the first part of July, Chums and pinks arrive just after the Kings (first part of July), and Silvers arrive at the end of July/first part of August. Of course, run timings can vary slightly each year sometimes earlier and sometimes later.

As a fisherman and a guide, I am truly addicted to the tug and generally my favorite fish is the one on the end of my line or my client's line! Our Rainbows are definitely my favorite fish, particularly a sub-species named the "Leopard" Rainbow. These fish are true predators like the big cat's that share their namesake and have just as many spots if not more! My favorite fly to fish to these incredible fish is a mouse pattern, there is nothing like seeing a 2-foot Rainbow destroy a small mammal on the surface! Fishing for Salmon is a very close second for me, whether that be swinging a Spey or switch rod or striping big bright streamers and seeing the "V" wake in close pursuit. For both swinging and striping one of my personal favorite flies is named the Dali-Lama Fly in either black and white or pink and purple. A super fun and very under-rated salmon are Chum Salmon, AKA the Dog Salmon, AKA the Keta Salmon, AKA the Tiger Salmon. The fish by many names! Historically they have received a bad wrap by anglers due to the fact that they make poor table fare once they hit fresh water, which is very true. But as a sport fish they are incredible! Super big and extremely aggressive, they average 12-20 pounds and eagerly take a fly or lure.

Due to the quality, variety, and lack of pressure in the Willow area it is very easy for the DIY angler. The Parks Highway crosses the majority of the rivers and has parking right along the road. Info is easily gathered from the internet, books, or local fly shops. All these are beneficial to having a great fishing trip, but the best would still be to hire a local guide that has the experience and knowledge of how conditions change.

Fishing the Willow Area with FishHound Expeditions

At FishHound Expeditions we have been taking people fishing on these rivers for almost a decade. We offer guided wade, float, and heli-fishing trips. Whether you are new to the sport or a seasoned angler having a competent guide row you down a crystal-clear river while you pick fish up on the drift is an experience that can't be done by one's self. Or being hiked into secret locations to find spots rarely fished by others we can show you the way in a day! If traveling to Alaska and fishing is the main focus of your visit doing a remote multi-day fly in float trip will provide you with an experience beyond words, or if trying to balance a family vacation and still fish the wilds of Alaska a single day heli-fishing trip will get you remote but back to your family in time for your next adventure.

Contact FishHound Expeditions to Book or Learn More

About the Author: Adam Cuthriell

Part owner of FishHound Expeditions. His wife Kathryn Cuthriell and business partner Dave "Reps" Repta make up the rest of the company as well as their dogs Hatch, Rado, and Pike. They fish, live, and guide in Alaska year-round. When not guiding on the rivers they guide ice fishing on Alaska's numerous lakes. Originally from Colorado, he began guiding at the age of 19 while receiving a degree in Outdoor Recreation Leadership. Adam is also a current state of Alaska EMT.

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