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Go Fish! Alaska: September's best bets

Jim Lavrakas
Angler Dave Price from Monroe, Washington shows off the 18-pound "Winter King" he caught at The Bluffs in late August 2011.
Jim Lavrakas photo
A long needle is needed to pull the leader end through the troll herring.
Jim Lavrakas photo
The last piece of the troll herring puzzle: clipping a "petite fastener" to lock the jaw closed.
Jim Lavrakas photo
Brad's Super Cut Plug Bait in "Midnight" color.
Jim Lavrakas photo
Trolling with a Shakespeare Ugly Stik Lite rod and Fin Nor OFL16 reel makes a superb combo for salmon.
Jim Lavrakas photo

September and October are possibly my favorite months for fishing in Alaska. Weird, huh? I like fishing for reds, dollies and halibut, but when the waning months of summer come around I know I’m in for a couple of treats.

And so are you. Summer tourist crowds are thinning out, so you have the rivers more to yourself.

There are still great sunny days out on the saltwater. So, what is there to look forward to as our Alaskan summer gives way to blooming fireweed, fall colors, and the true harbinger of winter, “termination dust”?

Two great species: cohos and feeder kings.

Silvers seem generally late throughout Southcentral Alaska this season. In fact ADF&G just released an Emergency Order for coho fishing in the Mat-Su. “By emergency order, effective beginning at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 27, sport fishing for coho (“silver”) salmon is prohibited in all waters of the Knik Arm Management Area, excluding Fish Creek and the Eklutna Tailrace.”

But down here in Homer, I’ve been picking up silvers in the saltwater out past Seldovia and into Cook Inlet, where they feed and hold before whatever it is that spurs them to their spawning grounds makes them move on.

And mixed in with the coho, more and more lately, are feeder kings. In fact, just last week at Point Pogibshi and back across Kachemak Bay at The Bluffs, for every two coho we caught, we also pulled in a feeder king.

Feeder kings are king salmon that are here in North Gulf Coast waters, Cook Inlet, and in particular Kachemak Bay to do just what their names implies: feed! King salmon have the longest lifespan of all the salmon, 4-6 years, so they have plenty of time to feed, fatten up, and grow king-sized.

They come to the bait-rich waters of Kachemak Bay, most of them non-resident fish, to take advantage of the large amount of baitfish that populate these waters year-round. Biologists have found that most of these feeder kings are from outside of Alaska. They have been able to identify these Chinook as coming from British Columbia and the states of Washington and Oregon. They run from a couple of pounds to more than thirty (see the video), with the average running around 15 pounds.

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And truly, this feeder king (aka “Winter King”) fishing occurs all twelve months of the year, but it gets really good between the months of August and May, hence, “Winter King”.

You fish these feeders as you would for coho, trolling. I use the following setup: A Fin-Nor bait caster with 30-lb mono. I attach a white, purple, green, or black 11-inch Pro-Toll flasher to the line, then add my “bait” to a 42-inch leader, and troll that rig using a downrigger. My “bait” can be whole herring (“green label”) that I thread my leader through with a long needle (see photos). I like to use treble hooks because I believe that the treble is more likely to hook a tentative strike than a single hook. I embed one on the hooks in the backbone of the tail of the fish. Finally, I use clips called “petite fasteners” to clip under the jaw of the herring, so the jaw doesn’t get pulled open by water as you troll the bait. All of these pieces can be bought at any good sporting goods store, but especially at B&J’s in Anchorage, or Redden’s Gear Shed in Homer.

Lately I have been fishing one pole with herring and the second pole with a plastic plug called Brad’s Super Bail Cut Plug. They’re very effective. The bottom of the lure opens up and you can spread some herring oil on the little piece of foam inside the body of the plug that gives a solid scent trail. What’s great about this lure is that it imitates a real herring in many ways, and when you get a strike and a miss you can continue to fish it knowing it’s still in one piece. Whole herring is still the best way to go, but even one rod will keep you busy changing shredded bait. And it’s nice to have one lure you can have confidence in while you work on getting the other rod back in the water.

You want to troll your set up with a downrigger so you can target the depth of the water column where you see baitfish balls, or fish marks on your fishfinder. If you don’t know where to start, send one setup down to 45 feet and the other at 35, trying different depths as you progress through the day, keeping your downriggers set at a 10-foot difference. When you find where the fish are set both rigs close to the same depth and hang on!

Silver salmon are not my favorite fish to eat, but they rank right up there with my favorite fish to fight. A 14-pound silver is a beautiful fish to behold. They are not as powerful as a king salmon in a fight, but their endurance, wild acrobatics, and unpredictable movements as you try to bring them in make them the most exciting salmon to catch.

In the month of September many Southcentral streams will see these fish start to show up, but I love to catch them while they’re still in the salt. September and into October, cohos will give you a last great taste of an Alaska fishing season.

Some years, I’ve even continued to catch silvers in Whittier at Salmon Run into the first week of November. I used to show up before dawn with a headlamp and a lighted bobber. What a blast hooking silvers with roe under a bobber and watching that bobber streak through the water like Captain Nemo’s “Nautilus”.

Don’t give up on fishing in the Great State just yet. For diehards, there’s still some good fishing to be had.

This is the last month in which “Go Fish! Alaska” will appear every week. For the next two months it will be twice a month and staring in November through April, once a month. I hope it’s been helpful. If you have comments or ideas for other columns, please email me.

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.