The Susitna River stretches some 313 miles from its source at the Susitna Glacier, just north of Denali National Park, to the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet. Along the way are many opportunities to bask in the beauty that is Alaska, fish, hike, and enjoy the wild world around you.
The Susitna River is broad and swift. It takes water from nine or so other rivers, including the Deshka River, Talkeetna River, Yentna River, Oshetna River, and the Tyone River. Amid all the water are numerous small, clear-water creeks that also add to the massive volume of water shuttled down the channel to Cook Inlet. The primary towns in the area include Willow, Talkeetna, and Susitna. Willow is perhaps the icon of small towns on this list with plenty of places to camp and pick up supplies. Talkeetna is a bit larger, and Susitna is not far out of Anchorage.
The Susitna River is not to be taken lightly. In terms of rafting, kayaking, and canoeing, the river is not for beginners. Even swimming here is deadly. From the Denali Bridge to Talkeetna is rated as an III-V for experienced white water rafters, and the water is fast, so being rescued is not always an option. These are glacial fed waters, and they are turbid, fast, and full of objects. The better recreation occurs in the tributaries of the great river rather than the Susitna itself.
Fishing the Tributaries of the Susitna River
The area makes a beautiful venue for fly fishing. You have access to all five species of Pacific Salmon, Rainbow Trout, Dolly Varden, and Arctic Grayling. Note The farther north you go, the fewer species you encounter...once you get far enougn north in some of the higher tributaries closer to Denali, you will only have Arctic Grayling…although there is incredible Arctic Graying fishing in the Denali area so if you have the time or are in the Denali area definitely take a day to experience that! You can fish on your own but there are a handful of excellent fly-fishing guides in the Denali area…if you've only got a half day or a day definitely recommend you get a guide since they know the area best and can maximize your experience.
You can fish the Susitna River, but it is very turbid. The much-preferred fishing areas are the smaller creeks and tributaries of the mighty river. The streams tend to be clear, small, wadable. Some of the rivers that feed the Susitna are just as turbid and risky. These tributaries are a great way to experience Alaska fishing without the crowds…there is some great fishing away from the crowds on the tributaries of the Susitna River.
The fishing season starts in early May, and the Susitna maybe meeker than it is in the summer when the glacial melt and runoff is more significant. The fishing season runs through mid-October. There are plenty of opportunities here for DIY fishing, but the benefit of hiring a guide is that they know where the fish are and how to access the tributaries. Because Salmon migrate up the rivers, the Rainbow Trout and Dolly Varden often follow them. If you know where the Salmon are on the river system, you can better target them.
Clear Creek is an excellent example of finding a smaller body of water to fish. Clear Creek empties into the Talkeetna River, which empties into the Susitna River. As its name implies, the water here is clear, and the creek is shallow enough for walk and wade fishing and in spots sufficient for drifting. You still have access to Trophy Rainbow Trout and World-class Salmon fishing too. Other options include Willow Creek, Little Willow Creek, Sheep Creek, and Montana Creek. The beautiful thing about these is that most are very accessible from the Alaska Parks Highway. Because the Susitna River is so long, it is a good idea to make a base camp and explore outwards. It is just 44 miles from Willow to Talkeetna so, driving from one spot to another is not exhausting.
The best way to fish the Susitna River System is to plan. The significant dangers are the Susitna River, Bears, and oddly Moose. If you choose to hike in yourself to fish, take a buddy with you. Be prepared for wildlife as the bears follow the Salmon and are very present. Know the area where you want to fish and make sure you have legal access to fish there. Some areas are not fishable due to closure by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Some places just off the highway are not public land. Make sure you have permission to fish in those places. One of the biggest dangers in Alaska is the weather. Come prepared. Many of these warnings are common sense. The fishing in this area can be unparalleled and very rewarding.
The Susitna River sits along a beautifully majestic corridor that includes Denali National Park making the area highly attractive to fishers and tourists. The road in, the Alaskan Parks Highway, is one of the best in the state and well-maintained throughout the year. There is an opportunity for winter activities, including ice fishing.