In the angling world, thanks to digital era, secrets of the best steelhead fishing in Alaska are beginning to surface. Alaska is usually thought of as a salmon fishing destination, and due to this, steelhead have been long overlooked. Depending on the time of year, different rivers across the state can provide excellent steelheading opportunities, especially for anglers willing to explore.
Are wild steelhead hard to catch?
Despite the myth that “steelhead are hard to catch”, they are, in fact, NOT hard to catch for fly anglers. This myth has been gaining momentum in recent decades, however, it is directly correlated to the declining populations of wild steelhead. If you are not catching these beautiful fish it is usually because they are not where/when you are fishing, or because of how few of them are in the river. When you have timed the steelhead run correctly, they are usually very willing to eat a barbless fly or bead.
Remember, steelhead are anadromous, meaning that they spend quite a bit of their lifecycle in the ocean – so they do not get “educated” like resident trout that see lots of anglers day-in and day-out. This fact alone is why steelhead grab flies with reckless abandon and why they have become such a sacred species to fly fisherman.
Nonetheless, some tactics for catching steelhead are more productive than others. “Nymphing” beads for steelhead is the best way to see multiple steelhead a day and can be the best method in smaller creeks and rivers. Given the opportunity, there are other tactics that are more fun, such as spey casting. Spey casting for steelhead is arguably the hardest way to connect with these silvery fish, but it is without a doubt the most rewarding way to catch them, especially on larger rivers.
Fly Fishing for Alaskan Steelhead
Before we talk about the best rivers for targeting steelhead in Alaska, it’s important for anglers to understand how delicate steelhead are, and how the species demands good fishing ethics. Like many anadromous species, worldwide steelhead populations are trending in a decline. So, best catch and release practice for steelhead is highly advised to maximize their opportunity to spawn and hopefully repopulate.
For the most part Alaska has two runs of fish, a Fall Steelhead run and a Spring Steelhead run. Some fisheries get both fall and spring fish.
Essentially, fall fish come back to freshwater sexually immature and over-winter to mature before they can spawn in the spring, whereas spring fish come back sexually mature and can spawn the moment they enter freshwater – we talk more about life cycles of steelhead here.
4 Best Steelhead Rivers to Fish in Alaska
Alaska Department of Fish and Game recognizes 162 rivers that see some return of wild steelhead. While that is a lot of rivers, most of them only see a couple hundred fish return each year and can be very hard to access. We are not in the business of drawing attention to lesser known fisheries – if you are interested in out of the way fisheries, you will need to do your own digging through ADFG’s online resources.
1. Situk River:
This river needs very little introduction as it is very well known in the steelheading community. Due to the large number of anglers the Situk attracts to the Yakutat region, the river is unique to ADFG’s steelhead research as it has the only fish counting weir that is primarily maintained for the steelhead species each spring, and has been since 1988. The steelhead run here averages between 6,000 and 15,000 fish each spring and fishing flies works well. Bring a raincoat, this river is known to blow-out from the heavy springtime rains of Southeast Alaska.
2. Kenai River:
Rainbow trout fishing on the Kenai River it’s something of legend. The Kenai is lesser-known for its run of summer/fall steelhead that show up in early to mid September. These fish are often caught unknowingly by anglers who are targeting the watershed’s massive resident rainbow trout. The best way to differentiate steelhead from rainbows in the Kenai River is by the quality of the individual fish and it’s girth – by this we mean that the beefy resident rainbows are often beat-up from being previously caught compared to the relatively ‘fresh’ and athletic look of the anadromous steelhead. There is great road access here, and it is easy to book a guide!
3. Copper River:
The Copper River, or rather the watershed itself, has long been known as a steelhead stronghold. However, finding fish in this gigantic river can be rather difficult due to poor water clarity. A wise angler would concentrate on the clearwater tributaries. Besides the Copper River watershed’s immense size and poor water clarity, the other hindering aspect is the lack of published research on these particular steelhead. To some anglers this is a turn off, but to an adventurous angler willing to explore, rewards await!
4. Karluk River:
This lazy river sits within the heart of Kodiak Island and is a fly out DIY trip. That’s right, I’m talking about the brown bear infested Kodiak. Fortunately, by steelhead season these bears are usually fat and happy from eating salmon all summer – but be bear aware and get bear educated before going. The Karluk is one of the easiest DIY steelhead trips Alaska has to offer. Boasting large runs of fall steelhead, it is an ideal river for anglers chasing steelhead with beads. Due to its lack of gradient, it’s an easy float trip for first time Alaska DIYers too. You can find rental gear for camping and boating in Kodiak before flying out. Do some research!