Last-Chance Salmon On The Delta Clearwater



The following appears in the October issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:


The two pairs of wool socks under my stocking-foot waders did little to relieve my painfully numb toes as I shuffled along waist-deep in the icy river.

I’d been eager to tread into the water some 20 minutes earlier, but my throbbing feet were desperately trying to convince me I had made a mistake. The brisk morning air wasn’t helping much either, as my fingertips were starting to yap about feeling frosted.

Ignoring all of my aching digits was not easy, but I pressed forward against the current. A favorite section of the waterway was just around the bend, a deep hole where I knew the salmon would be holding. Anticipating the strike of a feisty fish and imagining my rod bending over helped persuade me to continue.

No, my final outing of the year for salmon wasn’t going to be interrupted by temporary discomfort from chilly conditions. Suffering through the elements wasn’t going to be easy, but I knew from past experience that the bitter cold would soon fade with each fish I caught.



WHILE THE SALMON FISHING deep inside Alaska’s Interior doesn’t compare to the iconic fisheries found elsewhere in the state, angling addicts north of the Alaska Range need not despair: there are still opportunities to find your fix. But you’re going to have to wait until summer is gone, and you’re going to need to embrace the cold.

October is the perfect month for Interior fishermen to pick up a rod and reel, as the largest return of coho found anywhere in the Yukon River drainage begins to peak. The annual congregation of salmon happens not far from the end of the Alaskan Highway near the small community of Delta Junction.

Diehard anglers willing to travel the distance and tolerate the precursor to the impending winter freeze will be rewarded with plenty of action from bold-colored coho swimming in this spring-fed waterway.

The Delta Clearwater River is literally the gem of Interior Alaska when it comes to coho fishing. Recent years have seen returns over 50,000, and as you might imagine, that many fish makes it difficult for my friends and I to ignore such a productive location.

The 1,000-mile journey of these salmon begins at the western edge of the state, where the Yukon drains into the Bering Sea. Their swim takes them up the powerful river deep into the heart of the state, and then they turn into the silt-laden currents of the Tanana River before arriving in the Delta Clearwater beginning in September.

The salmon are no longer the dime-bright silver they were in saltwater. Their sides are now colored a vibrant brick red, and males display large pronounced black kypes. Even so, the fish are often harvested by locals. Since the flesh is firm and acceptable for consumption, it’s not uncommon to see limits on stringers near the campground.



FISHING THE CLEARWATER for coho is normally a catch-and-release event for me, although I have harvested fish in the past for a meal on the grill or so I can put them on the smoker. Current fishing regulations allow anglers to retain three coho per day from the river.

Some anglers may thumb their nose at the outward appearance of the bright-red fish, but I am no salmon snob. I find that Clearwater coho taste just fine and actually hold a certain majestic look in their spawning colors.

The fishery provides excellent action for anglers of all skill levels. Fishing is neither technical nor difficult. Catching coho has an almost consistent predictable conclusion, with terrific fishing lasting as late as November.

As you might imagine, locating schools of these red-coated salmon in the clear-running river isn’t too difficult. During peak timing of the run, catching and releasing a dozen fish within an hour is commonplace for most anglers.   

A boat will enable you to find deep holes that hold large groups of salmon, but you don’t need one in order to be successful. Casting from the riverbank or wading in the current near the state campground will also produce hook-ups with passing fish.

Bitterly cold air temperatures on some days make it cold enough to lock up fishing reels and smother rod eyelets with ice. Moisture dripping off the fly or fishing line from repeated casting accumulates quickly and hardens like cement. You’ll need to constantly chip it away if you want to cast. Indeed, cold-weather coho fishing isn’t for everyone.


THE DELTA CLEARWATER IS a special place for me since it’s where I caught my very first Alaskan coho. I also cherish the many great memories of camping on the river’s banks with family and friends and spending time together fishing the late season just before the snow arrives.

The strong numbers of salmon present and terrific access to the river provides Interior anglers like myself one last chance to fish for open-water salmon. Just make sure to double up your clothing if you head to the river and you’re good to go. ASJ

Editor’s note: For more of author Dennis Musgraves’ fishing adventures in the Great Land, go to