Fly Fishing for Salmon in the Bristol Bay Watershed
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The Bristol Bay watershed is the last stronghold of wild Pacific salmon in the world. It has by far the largest runs of salmon that return every year to it's streams than any other region on the planet. The many rivers that flow into Bristol Bay, most notably the Nushagak, Kvichak, Alagnak, and Naknek rivers, are supported by this huge biomass of life giving nutrients every summer. These huge runs of salmon are the basis of the food chain that supports every living thing in the region. These salmon travel far into the mountainous regions to spawn, even further impacting the total area that the salmon nourish. The life cycle of spawn and die of the Pacific salmon is such a critical aspect to how the rivers in such a raw area flourish with life both above and below the water, supporting all kinds of living things.
Fly Fish for all five species of Salmon
Most rivers in the Bristol Bay area have all 5 species of salmon, some more than others, but all have their niche in the area for one reason or another. For example, the Kvichak River (pronounced Kwee-Jack) that flows out of Lake Illiamna is no doubt the best river in the area or the world for that matter for Sockeye Salmon. This river receives the highest total runs of Sockeye Salmon every year. They run the banks of the river like a long dark tube of fish from the lake all the way to the bay, stretching for almost 50 miles! But, you would not go here to target King Salmon, Chum Salmon, or Pink Salmon. The river as a whole is an incredible sockeye, trout, and grayling river, but not noted for its diversity in all 5 species of Pacific salmon.
Nushagak River Kings
The Nushagak River is noted as being the best King Salmon river in the world. It's one of the only places in Alaska that has a commercial fleet targeting just King Salmon with gill nets. The King Salmon in the "Nush" are actually counted by sonar as they enter the river. These kings average on the smaller spectrum but their sheer numbers seem to make up for their lack of size. Either drifting or trolling is the method used while fishing here for King Salmon in the tidewater. At the peak of the run on a strong year, it is possible to catch and release 50 plus kings in a day per 3 rods. Fly fishing here where the fish are bright and full of fight is not ideal at all due to the water depth and clarity.
The Naknek River boasts a descent population of King Salmon, but not anywhere near the number in the Nushagak. And very strong sockeye run, but its saving grace is that the average size is much larger than that of the Nushagak. It has a strong sockeye run too, but weak pink, chum, and silver runs. Like I said earlier, all the rivers receive 5 species of salmon, but not necessarily great numbers per species.
Fly Fishing on the Alagnak River
If you had to pick one river in the Bristol Bay watershed that had a strong population of all 5 species of salmon, it would undoubtedly be the world famous Alagnak River. Starting with the King Salmon, the Alagnak River kings average about 5 to 10 pounds heavier than those of the Nushagak, like 20 to 30 pounds. Kings are not as numerous as the Nushagak, but the river is much smaller and therefore they are more concentrated when they do make their way up the river. In peak times of the run, we have witnessed 50 plus kings per boat, but a more conservative average is 10 to 15 per boat. We also see fish daily that are well over 30 pounds and every season catching a few in the 50-pound classification. This is a great average and is by far one of the top 5 King Salmon rivers in the world. The best fly imitations for King Salmon are Pink and white, and Chartreuse. Later in July I stick to pink and red combinations, earlier in July the Chartreuse seems to work better in Intruder style patterns. Always on the swing, but fish the dangle and the first few strips on the retrieve with a lot of anticiapation!
The Alagank River sockeye run starts strong and heavy every June 29th to the date! These sockeye typically run strong in the tidewater for 2 weeks straight on the tides. After the tidewater dies off, they can be targeted the rest of the month in the famous Alagnak River braids. We prefer targeting the migrating Sockeye Salmon from shore as they make their way up river. Tight bends and corners in the river concentrate the sockeye for a better chance to get your fly to their mouth.
During the second week of July, the first run of chum or calico salmon season begins. This is a run in the millions with Chum Salmon stacking up on all the sandbars in the tidewater as they make their way up river to the spawning gravel in the Alagnak River Braids. These sandbars provide anglers incredibly easy wading with a firm bottom. The chum fishing is just incredible from the second week of July through the second week of August. It has two distinct runs, but they overlap so the fishing for them is readily available almost all season long. The chum will take flies stripped, dead drifted, or even top-water patterns called wogs. These top-water patterns are like pink mouse patterns and they add another dimension while catching 30 plus per day per fly rod! The best advise on Chum Salmon fishing is to find them on sand bars and drop offs. Pink is by far the best pattern. Drift over bars to locate them, then come back as they will settle back in once disturbed. Then, fish them at first on weighted pink marabou and bunny flies. Bubble gum and Cerise pink are our two favorite colors on 1/0 hooks.
Pink Salmon are in abundance every even year on the Alagnak. These smaller salmon are just incredible sport, and flood into the Alagnak River every year by the millions! These airborne aggressors attack flies at will and create great sport for all ages and skill levels of fisherman. Their run starts in late July and ends by the third week of August. The same flies that work for chums will catch pinks, but a great tip here is to cut the material short, as they tend to short strike.
Last, but not least, is the Silver Salmon run. Also called Coho salmon, these are the number one species for fly anglers that visit Alaska. The Alagank River has proven to be one of the best rivers over the past few seasons with daily catches on the fly exceeding 50 per day per angler! This is a number that most rivers dream about ever seeing. The Silver Salmon is toted as being not only the most aggressive salmon, but also the most airborne species of Pacific salmon. These two traits seem to keep it on top as the best single species to catch on the fly while on a trip to Alaska. Look for Silver Salmon in more holding water with very little current or next to cut banks at the top of bends in the river where the current is maybe ¼ of full speed. Fish them deep and aggressively with the strip. You will be rewarded with great fights!
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