The Kings And I: An Angler’s Juneau Experience Targeting Chinook

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

Growing up, Brian Kelly routinely fished for king salmon in the Great Lakes region; he caught this beauty off Harbor Beach, Michigan on Lake Huron (top). This year, Kelly fulfilled a longtime dream of catching Alaska Chinook, which he did on a trip to Juneau. (BRIAN KELLY)


I had the good fortune of growing up around the Great Lakes at a time when the Chinook salmon was truly the “king” there.

Port towns all around Lake Huron and Lake Michigan were busy from spring through fall as anglers from all over the country came to take advantage of the world-class fishery established by former Michigan Department of Natural Resources chief Dr. Howard Tanner.

My first king was caught on a charter out of the Lake Michigan port town of Onekama, Michigan, during the summer of 1987. The captain, whose name escapes my middle-aged brain, set the first line in the downrigger and while setting the second line, boom – the first rod went off. He grabbed the rod, reeled tight to the fish and handed itovertome,asIwasfirstupinthe rotation that day.

Up to that point, I had encountered all the usual warmwater species, such as smallmouth bass, walleye and northern pike, but I had not experienced line evaporating off a spool quite like a king can do!

After several runs, the fish tired and was quickly scooped into the net. I was shaking after that experience and struggled to hold up the mint-chrome king that weighed around 15 pounds. I was hooked.

In the following years, I was on a quest to chase kings from shore and started focusing on the nearby southern Lake Huron fishery that came to life every fall. This unique hatchery fishery was strictly a “put and take” situation, as the smolts were planted in boat harbors along Michigan’s Thumb region. The salmon returned as adults and milled around the harbors before eventually trying to spawn.

With this action taking place within an hour or so drive of my parents’ house, I was there every chance I got. Casting spoons or spinners were popular methods, along with soaking eggs under a bobber. It was a stepping stone into the world of salmon and steelhead, one that took me on journeys across the Great Lakes, British Columbia and, eventually, Alaska.

Conditions in Alaska swing as wildly as the tides. And while bright sun made for tough fishing the whole way around, in the end, working the outgoing tide would prove more productive than the incoming. (BRIAN KELLY)

MY 13TH TRIP TO Alaska, which concluded in September 2022 (Alaska Sporting Journal, December 2022), was also my first solo adventure that actually worked out well. Landing multiple coho on a surface presentation checked a major box on my list. But I’ve also always had a desire to land a chrome-bright Alaska king. It was like a nagging itch that always felt out of reach.

All of my previous Alaskan trips have been focused on coho or sockeye, thanks to my mentor Jim Stepulkoski. He was gracious enough to invite me along on annual journeys to the Kenai Peninsula and Mat-Su Valley, where he shared his knowledge of this vast area. Technically, I had caught a few “fire engine” kings by accident while targeting coho, but catching fresh ocean-run kings was never really a viable option here due to the restrictions put in place to ensure escapement goals were met for the wild fish. So, I started checking into hatchery king runs around Southeast Alaska, and one really stood out: Juneau.
I was no stranger to the capital city, starting with a trolling trip out of Auke Bay in 2007, to an exploratory mission for coho in 2016, which led to consecutive trips from ’19 to ’22 chasing Taku River-strain coho planted by the Douglas Island Pinks and Chums, or DIPAC, hatchery.

Anytime I start trip planning to a new area, or in this case, for a new species, I hit the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website to check fishing reports and emergency orders from past years. The hatchery king program in Juneau saw a strong return in 2022, which led to no harvest restrictions for nonresident anglers.

After seeing this bit of good news, I reached out to the folks at DIPAC to get their forecast for this year’s return, and it seemed to mirror what they had experienced the year before. My mind was made up. It was time to get the wheels in motion for a trip that was long overdue.

The author hoists a Southeast Alaska king fit for royalty. (BRIAN KELLY)

I’D MET HUNTER DROZD in Juneau during the coho run of 2020. Covid had shut down the tourist trade for Southeast Alaska, and Juneau was a ghost town as Labor Day rolled around. After jumping through all the protocol hoops, I was able to make it to Juneau to chase coho once again.

Most of the shore-fishing locals around Juneau tend to be quite friendly and will chat between bites. Hunter was no exception, although he had a bit of a drawl that most Alaskans don’t come equipped with. It turned out that Hunter was a Texan and had spent a great deal of time in Alaska on an internship with BP after college. He had jumped at the chance to work remotely in Juneau during Covid, packed his bags and headed north. Now, when I say working remotely, he would get his work reports done before or after hitting the beaches in Juneau during the peak tide bites!

We hit it off after a few beers and fried halibut during that week in Juneau and ended up meeting up again the following year, with friends and family in tow, chasing coho once again. It turns out he was suffering from the same King Itch Affliction I had developed, and the call went out over the winter to discuss plans for a run to Juneau in 2023 to settle this issue once and for all.

Our homework told us that the last couple weeks of June appeared to be the peak time of the hatchery king return in Juneau. Most years, this would present a significant problem in my life, as my lovely wife Anne’s birthday is on June 20 and our anniversary is on June

24. She puts up with a great deal of my manic fishing behavior during the year, so it would be a big ask to take off during this time period. But, as fate would have it, Anne and my youngest son Ryan had been planning a summer road trip to visit the national parks in the Western U.S. And they were going to leave for this great adventure around mid-June, so I was granted the wife pass of all time and got her blessing to head to Juneau during the third week of June (thanks, babe; you’re the best). Hunter and I got our flights booked, I knew a great VRBO property on Douglas Island that was available, and booked a car through the Turo car-sharing app, since the big-name car rentals at the airport were gouging rental car prices. We were set for five days of Alaskan king salmon adventures.

Kelly and his pal Hunter Drozd with a Chinook double. (BRIAN KELLY)

AS JUNE ROLLED IN, we watched the website of the Alaska Fly Goods Shop in Juneau. Brad Elfers is the owner; he and his staff post detailed weekly reports that offer insights on what’s going on around town. This was our first stop when we arrived in Juneau, as Hunter was determined to get his Alaskan king on a fly rod – more specifically, the new one he just purchased from the shop!

Brad and Cory were helpful, as usual, in pointing us in the right direction. DIPAC plants the majority of the kings on the north end of Douglas Island, at Fish Creek. Word from the shop was that the fish would pulse in with the high tide, then drop back out during the low tide swing and stage in the adjacent Fritz Cove. And the run was strong, as predicted; getting them to bite consistently was another story.

As we headed out of town, the sun was shining bright and the snow-capped mountains that surrounded Juneau were a welcome sight. We drove along Douglas Highway out past the boat ramp and saw a fair number of locals parked along the road and casting. We decided it was as good a spot as any and dug out our gear to kill a few hours and start putting together the puzzle pieces.

We saw a few fish roll in front of us and I had one nice king chase my Flying C to the end of the rod. Overall, we were not disappointed, as the goal of this trip was to land an Alaskan king while casting flies or lures into the salt; we weren’t expecting a full-on bloodbath of daily limits. Still, the forecast for the coming days was calling for bright sun and warm temperatures, not ideal conditions for a hot Chinook bite.

The next morning started early, as we had a falling tide and small windows to find a biting fish. Our plan was to cover water – jump in, cast for a half hour, then move on to the next spot.

Our first three stops came up empty, so we hit an area I had fished years earlier on a coho trip. The north side of Gastineau Channel is a giant sand flat until it widens out near the DIPAC hatchery, which makes for skittish fish that have just blasted in from a few hundred feet of water in Fritz Cove to just 5 or 6 feet of water in the channel. The water was high but receding, so we had a bit of a challenge to navigate our way out to a little island that had a divot off the main channel; in years past, it has held coho. Once we settled in, my Arctic Spinner was savagely attacked by a blue-backed king within a matter of minutes. It had been a while since I had hooked a king in the Great Lakes, and the way this fish fought was on another level. Massive, angry, headshakes were followed by line-stripping runs; it was an intense encounter.

Once the fish finally settled down, I was able to slide her up on a little beach that was showing at the bottom of the island we were on. Hunter assisted with the landing process, high fives ensued, and I shook with joy. I told Hunter to get back to the top of the island and start casting, as our window of opportunity was going to be small in this spot. As I roped my fish and bled it out,I was overcome with emotion: My lifelong fishing dream had just come to fruition. All I could think of was family members who had passed on before me; I swear I can feel their presence and their shared joy of the moment.
Once I regained my composure and started walking back up towards Hunter, he came tight to his own king! I dropped my gear and was ready to assist, but then I heard the sound that salmon anglers dread the most: “pop.”

On the second run, the power of the fish was too much for what was determined to be a faulty knot from the leader to the sink tip; Hunter was dejected, as anyone would be. We fished several other spots that morning without a bump before we finally had enough, as the bright sun and heat was proving to be a bite-killer.

The next day proved fruitless, as our honey hole from the previous day was empty of fish, as were the other spots south of town along Thane Road, which have been our main stomping grounds during the coho run. We decided to cut the grind of the day short, as the bright sun wasn’t going anywhere either. There are times on a trip when you grind it out because the fish are there but the bite is just off, and then there are other times when it’s best to save your casting arm for another day. So, a trip to Forbidden Peak Brewery in Auke Bay was just the remedy for our situation. After a couple cold brews and killer rockfish tacos, we decided to drive out to the end of the road on the mainland, north of town.

Being able to bring home a bunch of delicious filets is what makes Alaska such a special place. Kelly has been north 14 times now and is planning even more adventures in the Last Frontier. (BRIAN KELLY)

WARM SUMMER DAYS IN Juneau are welcomed by the locals, and on this day most pull-offs along the road were packed with folks heading down to the beach for a campfire and cookout. Even the wildlife was out in force. Eagles were abundant; ravens were out and chattering; we even passed a happy black bear, which was content to sit on his rump in the grass alongside the road, eating greens to its heart’s content. With our batteries charged, it was time to formulate a plan for the remaining days and see if we could get bit again.

Over cold Alaskan White Ales that evening, we made an executive decision to fish early and cover water on the north end of Douglas, as we’d done on Monday. The incoming tide was proving to be a bust, as the fish were just blasting right past us, so we focused on the outgoing tide as the fish settled into a new area as they moved back out to Fritz Cove.

This strategy would pay off, as I connected with another fat, bright king on the same Arctic Spinner that produced on Monday! A few years back, I’d asked my buddy Doug Richardson at

Arctic Spinners to build up a few “two tone” spinners to try out, as the local fly guys often did quite well on two-tone- themed Dali Lama flies. This trip, it was the chartreuse and white Arctic Spinner putting meat in the freezer!

The afternoon bite again proved useless, as the unrelenting sun had shut these fish down by beating its rays on them all day long. But with two more days to go, the weather forecast took a turn for the better: clouds and a slight chance of rain. Woohoo! We stuck to the shotgun plan, and it paid off, as I landed another plump king on the same spinner as the previous two fish! This time, I’d slid further down the channel, as I had noticed the day before that when the fish stop rolling and jumping, someone gets bit.

As fast as the water drops on the outgoing tide, the fish don’t stick around long and a little neck-down area in the channel was just the ticket to another fish for the freezer.

We got into the groove of resting up and cleaning our gear at midday. My fly pal was always fussing over connecting knots in his setup. Then he would proceed to fixing up the finest of fish- camp-worthy turkey sandwiches, topped with jalapeños, and we’d also munch on smoked black cod from Jerry’s Meats.

(Let’s chat about black cod, or sablefish, for a moment. If you have yet to try this tasty member of the Anoplopomatid family, and which is not related to other cods, you have been missing out. Mild, buttery and delicate, smoked or grilled, this fish is in a class of its own.)

That evening, with clouds rolling in and the sun finally beginning to relent, we went back out with high hopes. At least, that’s what it looked like when we hit the road. Once we got down to the spot in the channel we had been focusing on, it was apparent that the fish were there in droves. But so was that damn sun – again!

Fish were rolling everywhere, and my line was bumping bodies on the retrieve. But we needed a break from the sun. It was maddening to see the clouds rolling in at the same pace the sun was going down along the horizon. Just about the time the clouds would catch up, the sun would pull back in the lead.
I dug into my box of tricks from back home and deployed an old favorite – an all- black Arctic Spinner. On the second cast, a nice buck chomped hard on my offering, and once again I was tight to another king with a bad attitude. This fish was spastic, with hard-charging runs followed by shoulder-numbing headshakes. All I could do was stay tight and wear him out, which eventually happened as the low-20s buck hit the sand. He was just starting to show a faint amount of blush on his sides, but otherwise still full of sea lice and aggression from the open ocean.

As I cleaned that fish in a local creek that evening, Hunter was starting to feel the clock tick. We were down to our last morning of the trip; it was now or never.

“On early trips to Alaska I was shown the way by my mentor, and I’ve since grabbed the baton and run with it, forging ahead on my own trips with their own sets of learning curves and challenges,” Kelly writes. “And that’s what makes salmon fishing in Alaska so unique.” (BRIAN KELLY)

AFTER FOUR AND A half days of fishing hard and figuring out this latest salmon puzzle, we were weary and sore but eager to get on the water one last time. My dream had been fulfilled and I had one full 50-pound box of king salmon steaks and filets in the freezer at Jerry’s Meats. Our little spot from earlier in the week had paid off on our final morning. I was into my last fish of the trip not long after we’d set up and began casting.

My go-to chartreuse and white Arctic Spinner that started the trip ended it with an upper-teens Chinook that was chrome with a blue back. This was an absolute specimen of this great species. And then it happened. My fly- chucking pal from Houston, Texas, who had battled knot issues, a cracked rod ferrule and a sore casting arm, came tight to a dandy king of his own.

By the fourth run of line-screaming drag, we both felt pretty good that his knots and suspect rod ferrule would hold up, and they did as he calmly beached his own upper-teens chrome hen. I made sure to get the fish well up the beach, where we promptly dispatched it, with more high fives and hoorahs to cap off Hunter’s dream, on the last day, in the last half-hour window of the last outgoing tide of the trip.

The sense of fulfillment on this trip was like none other. On early trips to Alaska I was shown the way by my mentor, and I’ve since grabbed the baton and run with it, forging ahead on my own trips

with their own sets of learning curves and challenges. And that’s what makes salmon fishing in Alaska so unique. It’s the journey, the weather, the run timing, the bite; all of it brings on such a euphoric feeling when it all comes together, which plants the seed for the next trip.

THE END OF THIS trip was certainly bittersweet, as I had to come home to an MRI, which uncovered a tumor on my prostate, which has since been biopsied and resulted in a cancer diagnosis. Fortunately, the cancer is isolated to the tumor itself, as the test results on the prostate gland itself came back clean.

This is an early stage and very treatable form of cancer, which I am thankful for. We are currently working with my team of doctors to formulate a plan to treat this, cure this and get me back in my waders for the upcoming winter steelhead season.

This experience has only continued to fuel my restless spirit and quest for more trips to my happy place, Alaska. Life throws us curveballs, but never lose sight of your dreams, especially those king salmon dreams. ASJ