Editor’s note: The following story appears in the July issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
Story and Photos By Dennis Musgraves
Sportfishing for salmon presents a fresh challenge for me every summer in Alaska. I can thank a longtime friend, Mathew Splechter, who many years ago issued a fishing challenge to me that I try to complete every season.
“The Alaskan Salmon Grand Slam” was the term Matt used, a badge of honor accomplished by catching each one of the state’s five eastern Pacific salmon species. Furthermore, you must use five different lures at five different locations before summer’s end.
Splechter’s unique take on fishing fueled a salmon-crazed obsession in me. It’s been a journey that’s taken me along more than 3,000 miles of roadways – exploring many places never visited – and making thousands of casts with my rod and reel in order to hit the five-fish plateau.
I captured both the entire experience and each fish-catching milestone with photographs. I often enjoy reflecting back on the images and replaying the splendid adventure. Since landing my original slam, I have been fortunate to repeat the five-fish feat virtually every year over the past decade. Basically the task has turned sportfishing for salmon into a science.
Endless options and variables are available for fishermen going after a summer slam. One common aspect with fishing the road system in Alaska is dealing with crowded conditions. Productivity and people go hand in hand, since the better fishing locations are naturally going to attract the masses. If you’re a highway angler like myself, expect to be sharing the water.
Anglers looking to narrow down a formula to complete a grand slam of Pacific salmon in Alaska need to look no further than my proven list of choices.
SHIP CREEK FOR KING SALMON
Anglers will find one of the most productive king salmon fisheries in Alaska very close to the heart of downtown Anchorage. Ship Creek attracts a hatchery run of returning Chinook starting in late May through mid-July. This legendary urban fishery is significantly influenced by tidal changes, especially the extreme lower end near the mouth. Peak fishing is a couple hours before and after a high tide.
It’s affectionately named “the ditch” by some local fishermen, since low tide will bring the water flow down to a trickle and reveals a thick muddy mess of soft sediment, which is not unlike quicksand. The deeply cut banks on both sides of the creek were formed by retreating water and make it appear like a washed-out canyon; this is virtually impossible to navigate without sinking up to one’s hips in the sludge. You’re going to want to make sure you bring rubber boots to fish this iconic mud hole, even at high tide.
Soaking roe under a bobber is by far the most popular technique for king salmon in the creek. I prefer to take a more active approach by casting large, bright-colored inline spinners. Size 5 and 6 seem to work the best. I am able to cover a lot more space horizontally in the creek and at least feel engaged in trying to attract a bite.
Typically, fishermen can expect to catch kings that range from 10 to 25 pounds, though occasionally larger fish are caught. A 2005 Ship Creek King Salmon Derby fish weighed 50.2 pounds.
Fast-action medium-heavyweight fishing rods of 8½ feet or longer is a good choice to use, and help avoid problems when an angler does wrangle up a bigger king.
In 2014, anglers got a banner return for the hatchery kings at Ship Creek. Uncertainties of wild king salmon stocks all over the state make this location a respectable choice for anglers trying to harvest a Chinook. Try going early in the season to avoid the crowds.
I was fortunate enough to catch a respectable king salmon last year onMay 23, which made me a fool for the city! It also gave me an early start on my Alaska salmon slam.
RUSSIAN RIVER FOR SOCKEYE SALMON
The confluence of the Kenai and Russian Rivers is the most visited sportfishing destination for sockeye salmon in Alaska. The fishery draws huge crowds of visitors every season for two simple reasons: relatively close distance to the most populated city in the state, and thousands of tasty red salmon swimming upstream. Expect elbow-to-elbow combat fishing conditions on this sportfishing battlefield.
Fishermen venturing to the Russian River from Anchorage take a two-hour drive south by way of the scenic Seward Highway, and then merge onto the Sterling Highway to Milepost 55. Access the river by either taking a private ferry across the Kenai River or by entering the Russian River Campground. Both require a fee, though paying to drive into the campground for a parking area is my usual choice.
Avoiding the congestion is possible by staying further upstream. Although it won’t offer total seclusion, it will provide an escape from the madness at the river’s mouth. I have found plenty of room and open water for fishing on the river by simply heading upstream, even on the fishery’s insanely crowded opening week.
Some of the best fishing is by “flossing” the fish in the mouth with a hook. The technique is debated heavily, since fish are not actually biting and it is viewed by some as simply a form of legal snagging. Casting is more like flipping, because the fish run very close to the riverbank.
Most fishermen like myself use a recognized standard coho fly tied to a leader about 2 to 3 feet in length. The leader line is attached to a sinker (lead weight), which is heavy enough to get the hook and leader down deep in the water, but light enough to drift with the flow of water.
There are simply so many sockeye that eventually you end up drifting your line or hook right into a fish’s mouth.
The Russian has specific gear restrictions, recognized open and closed areas, and special openings that apply. Familiarizing yourself with current rules and regulations for sportfishing is prudent. The river confluence and surrounding area is also home to a large population of bears. Situational awareness for big bruins and standard practices for bear country should be taken at all times.
MONTANA CREEK FOR CHUM SALMON
Flowing under the George Parks Highway near milepost 96.6 is Montana Creek. The clear-running water welcomes four of the five salmon species each summer. Chum salmon, often called dog salmon since they develop a protruding snout (kype) and large canine-like teeth in freshwater, start showing up mid-July The fish can be also distinguished by dark calico coloring – typically green, red or gray – and uneven striping that appears like camouflage.
The creek is divided into an upper and lower section by the highway’s bridge. I prefer to fish the lower section of the creek, but since this location is known for fishing, don’t expect to be alone. There is public parking and access alongside the highway just south of the creek and also a private campground adjacent to the water.
I normally approach chum fishing in the mainstem of the creek using a fly rod, but conventional spinning and casting rods work well also. I like to wade the creek using a 7-weight fly rod with sinking line on a matched reel. Try fishing the deeper holes and slack areas where fish have a tendency to rest. Salmon are attracted to bright streamers, leech patterns, and large lures (spinners and spoons). I have found purple Egg-sucking Leeches seem to be a golden ticket when dead-drifting deep in the water’s current. Leech patterns can also be used with casting rods by fixing enough split shot about 18 inches above the hook. Don’t be surprised if you catch pink salmon instead of chum, since the timing of both salmon is the same in most creeks that have both species; humpy salmon typically take the same type of offering used for chum.
Fishing at the mouth of the creek where it flows into the Susitna River is also productive. It’s also easier to cast large hardware here because the water is much deeper at the confluence. Trails on both sides of Montana Creek are easy to navigate, and less than 1 mile from the highway.
SHEEP CREEK FOR PINK SALMON
Sheep Creek is another location in the Susitna Valley that benefits from the return of four different species of salmon. Fishermen have two choices with public access: the creek under the Parks Highway bridge at milepost 88.1, or by turning off the Parks Highway at milepost 85.8, and then taking Resolute Drive to the confluence area (where it drains into the Susitna).
Either location will have pink salmon showing up in mid-July with the chums. I prefer to fish the slough area near the mouth of the creek. A medium-action rod is perfect for targeting the smaller salmon, and the fish will respond to just about anything you swim in front of them. Pinks are not picky. I found casting a bright-colored large spoon or spinner in pink or orange is a safe bet to entice a bite. It also gives anglers lure options in hitting a salmon slam.
Fly fishing is also popular here. Streamers, leeches and yarn flies all work well. Many anglers wade the top portion of the creek and move downstream from where the water passes under the highway. Lots of fish and not a lot of anglers are bright spots for fishing pinks. Your odds at hooking up with chum salmon are also good during the same time frame.
SUNSHINE CREEK FOR COHO SALMON
There are quite a few rivers and creeks in Alaska that host all five eastern Pacific salmon species. Sunshine Creek is one of those places with a royal flush of fish; during the open-water season each different salmon may be present.
When I visit the tiny creek in August I’m after coho salmon. Sunshine coho are the last to show up in the shallow waterway, normally by the first week in August. Public access is at the Parks Highway milepost 102.5 by following a dirt road for a half-mile to a parking area, and then walking a short distance down a trail to reach the confluence.
Casting large spinners, letting them sink deep, and slow-rolling them across the narrow channel is very effective. I have seen fish darting some 20 feet in the clear water and hammering a slow fluttering lure. I suggest a medium-heavy-action rod; the salmon are aggressive and strong. Fishing roe under a bobber is another effective method when the area is open for bait.
I also like using a fly rod with a bright streamer, with pink or chartreuse working nicely. Casting and stripping fly line in sharp, short bursts, keeping the streamer below the surface, will do the trick. Using a 7- to 8-weight stick, sinking line, and a matched reel with a good drag system would be my suggestion for gear.
Upgrading and restoration projects at the creek in the last couple years have made great improvements to the roadside fishery’s environmental concerns. Construction of a toilet facility near the parking area has eliminated human waste issues; installation of a gate protects the trail from motor vehicle traffic to the creek’s shoreline; and elevated fishing platforms along the bank assist in stream erosion problems.
ONE DAY, FIVE SALMON
Over the years I have become creative with setting additional parameters to catching all five salmon. One particular season I caught all the fish on a fly rod, and in another year I used the exact same lure to hook all five on. My ultimate goal is to catch each species in a single outing – a one-day salmon grand slam. I noticed one completed in the saltwater last year while looking up fishing reports online. It was inspiring to see such an accomplishment. I may never get lucky enough to go five for five with the salmon in Alaska on a single day, but I do know I am going to have a fun time trying.
Inline spinners are hard to beat for catching salmon. Going salmon fishing without Kodiak Custom Fishing Tackle spinning lures is simply not possible for me. The G.I series skirted spinner model in size 5 or 6 is my favorite. These feature bright color selections and a big blade that attracts salmon like a magnet in both fresh- and saltwater applications. The spinner-style lure allows you to cover wide spans of water horizontally. KCFT is produced right here in Alaska, featuring quality control and guaranteed performance. Check out their complete line of spinners and bottom jigs (kodiakcustom.com).
FIVE SALMON FAMILY CHALLENGE
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game started a new program last year for families sportfishing for salmon in Alaska. The 5 Salmon Family Challenge encourages salmon fishing as a family and recognizes families that accomplish catching all five different species. The program is inclusive and does not have a time requirement, and it is open to resident and nonresident anglers. Documenting your family member catches with photographs and sending the images with a completed application is all you need to do. Approved applications will be sent a handsome colorful certificate which depict the five Pacific salmon species and showcases your family name in bold print. More information and rules can be found online at ADFG website (adfg.alaska.gov.)