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Alaska fishing 'best bets' for May

Jim Lavrakas
A spawner king.
Jim Lavrakas photo
Steelhead are available but not exactly plentiful in May in Southeast Alaska.
Jim Lavrakas photo
Halibut are also an early-season option in Southcentral Alaska.
Jim Lavrakas photo
A winter king.
Jim Lavrakas photo
Vying for shoulder space at Ship Creek.
Jim Lavrakas photo

Here are my picks for the best bet fishing destinations, and fisheries, for the month of May. This "Best Bet" column will explore each month, throughout the summer, the most likely places to “Go fish!” My top choices are certainly not all the opportunities available to early bird anglers, just my favorites and the ones I think you’ll have the most success pursuing.

First disclaimer: no guarantees. My best faith effort for you will be to rely on my own experience in these fisheries, and when I lack that experience, to find the people who do. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find the right source that can provide it.

I haven’t fished everywhere in our state, but in my almost-30 years at the Anchorage Daily News there were many fishing trips. (My boss paid me to fish, how cool is that?) Towards the end of my career there Stephen Nowers, Alaska Dispatch’s staff photographer, and I produced a series of fishing primers, the “ADN Fishing Dude," to help people learn how to fish, mostly at Ship Creek in Anchorage, but there were several fishing trips that we videoed.

So, my credentials are not that of an expert, like Southeast steelhead guru Gary Souza, but I lived a year in Ketchikan, got to know Gary, and can call on him anytime as a source. My best friend is a fisheries biologist, and my wife’s best friend is Debby Burwen, who heads up Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game’s sonar projects. I also have good rapport with many of the folks at ADF&G.

But that’s enough name-dropping. On to the meat (run) of the matter.

In May, there are several really good opportunities to go fishing, both in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska.

Below are the current reports from ADF&G with up-to-date information concerning the run timing and regulations. Below those reports are my thoughts on the best practices for fishing them.

Fishing in Southcentral

Anchorage

Ship Creek is the only stream in the Anchorage area currently open to king salmon fishing. Look for Ship Creek kings to begin arriving in consistent numbers around Memorial Day weekend.

All other waters in the Anchorage Management Area are closed to king salmon fishing.

Campbell Creek, Chester Creek, and portions of Ship Creek are currently closed to all fishing.

Lower Kenai

Salmon/ Fresh Water

The lower portion of the Anchor River, as defined by ADF&G markers, will open to king salmon fishing at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, May 21, through midnight, Monday 23, and then on Wednesday, May 25, at 12:01 a.m. to midnight. The same pattern follows on these dates: May 28–30, June 1, June 4–6, June 8, June 11–13, June 15, June 18–20, and June 22.

2011 Regulation Changes for this Fishery:

Anchor River, Deep Creek, Ninilchik River and Stariski Creek are closed to all fishing from November 1 until spring salmon seasons begin.

Anchor River-Deep Creek Annual King Salmon Limit: No more than two king salmon 20 inches or greater in length may be retained each year from the Anchor River and Deep Creek combined.

Salmon/ Saltwater - Early-Run King Salmon Special Harvest Areas (April 1-June 30):

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Early-run king salmon are available this time of year in the nearshore salt waters of Anchor Point, Whiskey Gulch and Deep Creek.

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Anglers targeting early-run king salmon usually concentrate their fishing efforts in a corridor area one mile from shore between Anchor Point and Deep Creek.

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Popular trolling set-ups for king salmon include herring, hootchies, tube flies, and spoons. Try using dodgers or flashers for extra attraction.

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2011 Regulation Changes for this Fishery:

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The closed areas at the Anchor River mouth have been extended to two miles north and south from the river (four miles) and one mile from shore.

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When Ninilchik River and Deep Creek are opened to king salmon fishing, anglers may fish from shore within the salt-water conservation zone from south of the Ninilchik River to two miles south of Deep Creek at the ADF&G marker. Ninilchik River and Deep Creek are opened to fishing for king salmon for three consecutive three-day weekends starting Memorial Day weekend.

My take

In Southcentral, I’ve had pretty good luck picking up an early king at Ship Creek in the last week of the month. You’ve got to work a little at it, but the pre-run advance guard are starting to nose into the creek and can be had using eggs under a bobber, or bank-fishing for them with eggs sitting on the bottom as you wait for the tide to fill the river. Here’s an Anchorage Daily News “Fishing Dude” episode showing eggs & bobber fishing on Ship Creek.

ADF&G area sportfish biologist Dan Bosch was at Ship Creek this week and didn’t see any fish action (or anglers). He expects the run to start in early June with an “average or below average” return of mature kings this year. “The smolt we released last year were great looking”, he said, and biologists will be watching the return of jack (1-year-olds) kings this season as an indicator of future returns. “Typically, if we see a good return of jacks, the other age classes will be strong too,” he added.

Good places to try for early Ship Creek kings are at the “new” bridge along the small boat harbor road (if you can deal with the thick mud), and at the wooden bridge (where the restaurant used to be). To me, the Ship Creek fishery is an amazing deal for Anchorage residents. It’s a convenient place to go, usually just minutes away from home, where you have a serious chance of catching fish. What’s not to like?

Oh yeah, the crowds, the mud, the “ambiance”. Hey, it’s not “A River Runs Through It,” it’s "Ship." Get over it. If you’re intimidated by the above three negatives, start out slow. Pick a technique to try (flipping, eggs/bobber, spin-casting a lure) and work that technique until you have some success. Most people are very friendly there, so ask questions of the folks standing next to you, and stay positive.

Down near “The End of The Road”, the opening of the Anchor River for stream fishing is more of an event than almost any other fishery in Southcentral. The five consecutive Saturday/Sunday/Monday and Wednesday openings make this highly-managed fishery a bright star to start the season. (A contingent of diehards will be poised to commence fishing at 12:01 a.m. May 21st, whether there’s fish there or not.) Just be careful to check for any Emergency Orders altering the fishery (as happened last year) before you go.

Fishing offshore, along the Anchor River to Deep Creek corridor referenced above, is likely to produce a king salmon if you have a boat or pay for a charter. Returning spawners hit the east side of Cook Inlet just above Bluff Point north of Homer and run the shoreline looking for their natal home and stuffing themselves with sandlance and other bait fish. Just last week, on the 4th, I took a client out fishing and in 5 hours we had 3 solid takedowns, but no hookups (what we call “a swing and a miss” in the charter business), but on the fourth hit we landed a chrome-bright 20 lb. hen Chinook with developing eggs inside her.

There’s always feeder (winter) kings around too, so this time of year can be very productive in the waters near Kachemak Bay where returning kings and feeder kings congregate.

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Fishing in Southeast

Steelhead / Freshwater

Prince of Wales

The freshwater sport fishery on Prince of Wales Island currently is targeting steelhead and trout. Anglers have reported some success fishing for steelhead and fish should be present into early June in most streams. Anglers are reminded of the fact that populations of steelhead are small on most POW streams and successful anglers should use care when releasing these fish (it is recommended not to remove the fish from the water) to ensure the survival of the fish and the sustainability of this valuable resource. Anglers fishing streams can also except to find Dolly Varden as they migrate out of overwintering lakes and head for saltwater. Dollies will often school up in large pools and feed on pink salmon fry that are all also migrating to salt water at this same time. 

Ketchikan

Local streams have produced fair runs and catches of steelhead and other trout this spring. Dolly Varden fishing along the roadside/shoreline should continue to improve as water temperatures warm and Dolly Varden migrate from overwintering lakes.

Situk River

The steelhead run on the Situk remains good. Most successful anglers are fishing the upper portions of the river from the Middle cabins up. New incoming fish movements are beginning to slow and spawning is well underway up river. Anglers are reminded that the upper section, two miles above 9-mile bridge, is closed to all angling until May 16. Throughout the river anglers should avoid areas of heavy steelhead spawning so as not to trample on redds and displace spawning fish.

My Take

In Southeast, the steelhead run is really the happening thing right now. Spring runs peak on the Situk (Yakutat), the Prince of Wales Island streams, and the system I fell in love with when I lived in Ketchikan in 2006, Ward Lake/Creek.

The Ward Lake system is just 12 miles north of Ketchikan. A nicely developed park in the Tongass National Forest, it has great trails that can get you out into the backcountry, and a comfortable campground.

We moved to Ketchikan at the end of May 2009 and I was afraid that I had missed the steelhead run. But for whatever reason, I arrived just as the run was beginning to peak and I can only say that for about the next 2 weeks I was in “steely heaven”. And great dolly and rainbow fishing too, although the rainbow action got better as the summer progressed.

I’m not really familiar with steelhead fishing on Prince of Wales Island (I fished POW one time while in Southeast), but there are solid runs there and you can plan a DIY trip by calling Gooch at his superb little Coffman Cove Adventures bed and breakfast.

To get the most current information on the Situk, Situk River Fly Shop owner Bob Miller in Yakutat has a great daily blog that gives current river conditions and fishing trends. He is the best source for the Situk.

His report from Friday, May 13: “With so few people here fishing right now, reports off the river are few and far between. Early this morning, we had two separate groups come through and both reported tremendous numbers of fresh spring fish just now arriving at the lower landing.  After a slower week for incoming fish, we now have another major push. This year's steelhead run is showing incredible legs!

"They said the first couple miles of the float are packed with fish, although a higher number of them are on redds this week. Above the bridge is even more packed all the way to the lake.  Don't forget that the river is open for two miles above 9-Mile Bridge, then it closes for two miles, then reopens for the remaining mile+ to the lake.  On the float, the "dead zone" from the couple days last week where the fish stopped coming in seems to have blended in with the rest of the river and other schools. No dead zone anymore, but mid-float is not as fishy as both top and bottom ends.”

These fisheries are certainly not the only opportunities for winter-crazed Alaskans and our early tourist friends, looking to break out their fishing gear and get fishing -- just my favorites. There are also Cook Inlet clam tides in the middle and end of the month. (But beware: An Emergency Order from Fish & Game just reduced the number of littleneck and butter clams you can take to a combined 80 clams.) And halibut fishing should be picking up in general as flat fish move closer to shore in search of herring and hooligan runs.

Get out there and just do it! This is my favorite time of year, when the trees are just starting to bud, the days are getting warmer, and summer time in Alaska is all potential. 

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Jim Lavrakas is a retired photojournalist who caught the fishing fever late in life. He lives in Homer with his wife Ruth, and owns Skookum Charters, a saltwater fishing and eco-tourism charter business.