Top 10 Sockeye Rivers in Alaska
By Mike Lunde
Out of the five species of salmon, sockeye return annually to Alaska’s river systems in extraordinary numbers which is accentuated by last year’s return to Bristol Bay in which 56.5 million sockeye returned, the second highest on record. Each year over 300,00 out of state anglers and over 200,000 residents fish in Alaska, and many of them partake in the opportunity to wet a line in some of the most pristine sockeye ecosystems on the planet. A combination of their juicy reddish-orange filets combined with their acrobatic fighting ability are just two reasons why anglers salivate over sockeye. One look at the most recent ADF&G escapement statistics illustrate how prime these fisheries really are. Here specifically, I list the top 10 roadside and remote sockeye fisheries in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
1. Kenai River
This iconic and world-renowned king salmon river harbors one of the largest roadside sockeye salmon fisheries in Alaska. Two runs, an early-run (May, June) and late-run (July, August, September) combine for an average annual escapement of 2.8 million fish with 4 million returning over the past few seasons. A 2 ½-hour drive southbound on the Seward Highway from Anchorage places anglers at the epicenter of nonstop sockeye action. Target Centennial Park (MP 17.4), Swiftwater Park (MP 23), Morgan’s Landing (MP 31), for best results. Effective hotspot in Upper Kenai include outlet of Kenai Lake (MP 82), Russian River campground (MP 75), Sportsman’s Landing MP 73. Drift-boats are available for rent by local outfitters.
2. Klutina River
Considered one of the most dangerous river systems in Alaska due to its 1,300-foot descent and distributions of class IV rapids coupled with 18-knot current, its watercourse contains some of the hardest fighting sockeye found anywhere on the planet. Situated at Richardson Highway (MP 84.3), the Klutina has easy access. Anglers are advised to use heavyweight tackle such as 9 or 10-weight or heavy-powered baitcasters or spinning rods to combat the scenario if a sockeye takes off downstream in the treacherous current. With close to a million turbocharged sockeye fresh in from Prince William Sound, the Klutina tests the fighting skillset of any angler.
3. Gulkana River
From its headwaters at Summit and Paxon lakes, this 112-mile river system eventually dumps into the Copper River drainage. Accessible from the Richardson Highway, much of the bank access is centered around the Sourdough Landing (MP 147.5) and near the mouth of the Copper River. It’s common that anglers participate in a multi-day float trip from the Paxon Lake Campground (MP 175) to the Sourdough Landing, which consists of 50-plus miles of endless mid-channel pools and riffle-to-run habitats where sockeye are aggressive to a swung fly or spinner. Best action is July through August with a last-minute surge of fish pushing upstream through middle of September. Use caution when navigating through the canyon which contains combination of class III and IV whitewater. A shuttle service transports your vehicle to the takeout at Sourdough boat landing for an affordable fee.
4. Russian River
This sisterly tributary situated in the Upper Kenai River receives a very large early-run sockeye return that starts as early as middle of May and builds to its peak by early to mid-June. Parking is focused at the Sterling Highway in Coopers Landing (MP 75). A well-constructed and maintained hiking trail allows anglers to hike 6 miles upstream towards the Russian River falls just downstream from Russian Lake or downstream towards the river’s confluence with the Kenai. Chartreuse or orange yarn flies, or Russian River flies are iconic producers on this system.
5. Susitna River
The river system that parallels the Parks Highway receives a large run of sockeye that return to several river systems in the Chulitna River drainage. Common tributaries—Troublesome (MP 137.2), Byers (MP 144 and MP 147), and Honolulu Creeks (MP 179.5)–are worth an exploration where their mouths concentrate a fair amount of fish. Clear Creek, situated in the Talkeetna (MP 14), is also worth of exploration. Egg-sucking leeches are the magic tickets to catching these fish. No current escapement statistics to provide presently for these fisheries, but a phone call to the ADFG office in Palmer can provide this information if interested.
6. Kvichak River
Situated in the pristine headwaters of Bristol Bay, the Kvichak exits Lake Iliamna where an estimated 16 million sockeye return annually to spawn in Lake Iliamna and nearby tributaries. The multi-braided section of the upper river system downstream from Lake Iliamna provides excellent opportunities to swing a fly or cast/retrieve a lure from one of hundreds of pristine gravel bars. Beginning of the run starts in late June and lasts through early September with July estimated at primetime. An astronomical sockeye salmon run of 18.8 million fish reached their headwater spawning grounds in 2017.
7. Hoodoo River
Located 540 miles southwest of Anchorage in the Alaskan Peninsula, the Hoodoo River (also known as the Sapsuk River) an average annual sockeye run of 200,000 to 300,000 fish provides one of the remotest destinations in the state. Given the soft-mouthed, non-aggressive behavior sockeye are well known for, the opposite applies here in this prolific system. Hoodoo River Lodge guides have guide-society fly patterns that trigger these fish to respond aggressively to the swung fly. Best fishing occurs in late June and lasts up until the second week of August.
8. Alagnak River
A headwater sisterly tributary to the Kvichak River, the Alagnak is composed of 64 miles of sockeye heaven with a catchment area encompassing 1,400 square miles. An estimated 4 million sockeye return annually. The river system was federally protected and classified into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Productive sockeye fishing occurs in the headwaters of the Aleutian Range downstream to its confluence with the Kvichak. Air transportation from Anchorage into the native Alaskan village of King Salmon places anglers within the confines of the Alagnak. Bring Sockeye Lanterns, small comet flies, shrimp patterns, and small yarn flies to present on a spinning, baitcasting, or fly rod set-up.
9. Goodnews River
The headwaters of the Goodnews River system contain some of the most prolific sockeye salmon runs in Southwest Alaska. An annual projected escapement statistic of 2.4 million sockeye return to this headwater system. Guides take their anglers and focus on the Middle Fork, North Fork, and the Kukaktlik Fork giving them a remote exploratory option to introduce anglers to one of the last untouched sockeye fisheries on Earth. The headwaters flow through sublime tundra scenery. The headwaters are primarily floated in multi-day float trips so that anglers can cover miles of pristine, classic sockeye habitat.
10. Naknek River
With an estimated sockeye salmon escapement goal of 800,000 to 2 million fish, prime time for catching Naknek sockeye occurs from mid-June through the end of July. Some sockeye spawn in distribution in the upper watershed of the river whereas a distinct population spawns in Naknek Lake. In 2017, an estimated 2.7 million fish returned to the Naknek. Access to the Naknek is by remote air transportation from Anchorage southwest into village of King Salmon. From there, a floatplane will fly anglers into the Naknek. A 7- or 8-weight fast-action fly rod or 9-foot medium-light spinning rod will suffice for casting and drifting presentations for Naknek sockeye
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Top Sockeye Fly Patterns
Sockeye are characterized as plankton feeders in the ocean environment, which in theory means a sockeye is less aggressive to a swung fly. Despite their highly non-aggressive migratory behavior, sockeye are still susceptible to specific fly patterns. The development of several theories by fisheries biologists and long tenured Alaska guides have led to the primary generalization that sockeye often strike representations of shrimp, crustaceans, and krill. Therefore, we present four of the most effective flies to use when targeting sockeyes that imitate these resources.
Invented by Charles Smith from Andros Islands, Bahamas, the Crazy Charlie is a famous saltwater shrimp pattern originally designed to target bonefish and permit on the tidewater flats. The construction and profile of the fly is similar to the Clouser Minnow. When it was introduced at the Russian River and iconic rivers of Bristol Bay, guides discovered its effectiveness when swung through deep runs and pools.
Hook: Mustad 34007 (or equivalent) size #4
Thread: Flat A nylon chartreuse
Underbody: Krystal Flash
Over body: Clear V-rib
Eyes: Small Bead Chain Silver
Wing: Bucktail and Krystal Flash
Weed guard: 16-pound Hard Mason mono (optional)
A classic Northern California Chinook and steelhead fly for targeting fish on the Smith and Eel Rivers, the Comet when tied in classic color combinations of chartreuse, pink, orange, or sparse hues of red can trigger the aggressive sockeye to strike. It is one of the simplest fly creations available consisting of a sparse craft fur or calf tail for a tail. Bucktail can also be substituted here. Body consists of flat diamond braid, schlappen collar slightly behind bean chain or small dumbbell eyes and that is it.
Hook: #02-12 Tiemco 7999
Eyes: Large Silver Bead Chain
Thread: Chartreuse UTC 140
Tail: Chartreuse Craft Fur
Body: Silver Flat Diamond Braid
Collar1: Silver Flashabou
Collar2: Chartreuse Schlappen
One of the hottest sockeye patterns produced in recent years is the Sockeye Lantern. Simple construction that features a composition of Krystal flash fibers tied on top and bottom of the hook as well as multiple Krystal flash fibers palmered forward to create the illusion of flash seems to agitate the hell out of sockeye. A highly recommend pattern used in Alaska southbound towards Washington.
Hook: #4 to #8
Body: Floss or multiple strands of Krystal Flash
Hackle: Chartreuse or red strands of Krystal Flash
Eyes: Lead wire underbelly or small bead-chain eyes
Designed by fly fishing legend Jim Teeny in May of 1962, it jumpstarted his angling career coupled by the amazement by how many line class world records were subdued on it. Original concept towards the development of the Teeny Nymph was his belief that nonaggressive, unresponsive fish that would normally strike leeches needed an alternative approach. Consisting of a simple body of thread and fibers from a standard ringneck pheasant, the Teeny Nymph demystified the theory that sockeyes on the Kenai would not strike a swung fly.
Thread: Black, or colored to suit
Hook: Standard wet fly hook, size 6-16
Body: Fibers from a Ringneck Pheasant
Hackle: Fibers from a Ringneck Pheasant