Fishing opportunities abound around Southcentral Alaska this Memorial Day weekend, but anglers hoping to fill their freezers by wetting a line might want to dampen expectations.
"This is a typical start to the Alaska king salmon season," said Dustin Slinker, owner of the Bait Shack on the banks of Ship Creek in downtown Anchorage. "It's not fast, it's not slow."
The first king was caught out of Ship Creek on May 17, Slinker said.
Fish have been elusive throughout Southcentral so far this spring, but with the first big holiday of the summer finally here, it's a sure bet people will be out looking to find them. Whether you have a few hours or a few days, here are the best places to find sportfishing opportunities over the Memorial Day weekend.
Short on time?
Ship Creek is an ideal spot to slip away for a quick cast. Located within easy walking distance of downtown Anchorage, the fishery is famous both for its proximity to the bustle of the city and its steady production of king salmon. Slinker said the first fish was caught on a Vibrax spinner with a blue body — the weapon of choice for those in the know alongside the muddy creek.
"All lures will catch fish, but for some reason this one catches more," he said. To make his point, Slinker pointed to a wall filled with the spinners — with two slots for the blue bodied ones already sold out. "I don't say that because I sell them, I sell them because it's true."
Anglers can also try fishing cured salmon eggs beneath a bobber, which is Slinker's preferred method. He said the best fishing is from three hours before high tide to three hours after.
The Ship Creek king run won't peak for a few weeks (the annual Slam'n Salm'n Derby is June 9-16), but Slinker thinks more fish should start moving in soon.
"I expect to see a few more fish this weekend," he said of the creek, which is open from its mouth up to a cable crossing about 100 feet below the dam from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. between May 15 and July 13.
Anchorage-area lakes can also be a good way to get away for a quick fishing trip, especially for kids. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game stocks more than 30 lakes in the area with a variety of fish, ranging from landlocked salmon to rainbow trout, with many lakes already stocked this spring.
Popular Anchorage-area lakes with easy shoreside access include Sand Lake, Cheney Lake, DeLong Lake, Jewel Lake, Mirror Lake, Taku Campbell Lake and Little Campbell Lake. Fish and Game recommends looking for schools of fish and moving around to different locations. The department posts regular fishing reports on its website, as well as an up-to-date listing of when area lakes have been stocked with fish.
The Eklutna Tailrace along the Old Glenn Highway is less than an hour's drive from Anchorage, less than a half-hour from Wasilla and offers one of the first early season king salmon fisheries in Southcentral. However, like most places, it's still a bit early.
"In a week to 10 days, this place is going to be smokin' hot," angler Glen Rouse said Thursday while getting his 200 casts in at the hatchery-enhanced fishery.
Fish and Game assistant area biologist Samantha Oslund said Memorial Day weekend is typically when the first kings get picked up at the tailrace, which empties into the Knik River.
"They should start trickling in," she said.
King catches elsewhere in the Valley have been almost nonexistent; as of Thursday, Oslund said only six fish had been counted past the Little Susitna River weir. The Little Su is the only Valley stream where wild kings can be kept — and only on Fridays through Mondays. Anglers can also try the Deshka River, but kings must be released before taking them from the water.
Like Anchorage, Oslund said the Valley is full of catchable numbers of trout.
"The stocking truck has been going wild," she said.
Lakes like Kepler-Bradley, Matanuska, Bradley, Finger and Lucille have both parking and places to fish from shore, she said. And some have pretty big fish, too.
"Some of our lakes produce 28-inch rainbows," she said.
With water temperatures still low, Oslund said fish are hanging out near shore, meaning spinners or sinking leech patterns can be productive. Only one rainbow over 20 inches long can be kept per day, but anglers can catch up to 10 per day below that length.
"We encourage you to harvest from the stocked lakes," she said.
Oslund said anglers might also try trout fishing in some of the streams that cross the Parks Highway as it heads north out of Wasilla. Those streams are catch-and-release only and closed to king salmon fishing.
Looking for a weekend getaway?
The first openings of the season on the Ninilchik River and Deep Creek are expected to fill campgrounds on the Southern Kenai Peninsula this weekend.
"Come down early," was the advice given by Alaska State Parks Kenai area supervisor Jack Blackwell on Thursday.
Blackwell said campsites along the Sterling Highway were already about half full, with lots more people expected to arrive Friday for the first king opening May 26-28. The Anchor River will also be open Saturday through Monday — as it was Wednesday, when anglers reported little success.
"Right now it's fairly slow," Fish and Game area management biologist Carol Kerkvliet said Thursday.
Kerkvliet said she expects lots of fishermen for the holiday weekend.
"There will be plenty of folks checking out all three of those streams," she said.
She said anglers using bait or casting are likely to find the best success early in the morning.
Fishing is also starting to pick up on the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon on the Homer Spit, where anglers can cast for kings either in the lagoon itself or off the spit itself.
Campgrounds on the Southern Kenai tend to fill up fast, and can't be reserved ahead of time, Blackwell said. However, for folks who aren't as interested in catching fish, he said the central Kenai Peninsula provides plenty of opportunities for a quiet weekend getaway. Most of the Kenai River campgrounds, in particular, he said are lightly used in the spring.
"Those are a great place to escape," Blackwell said.
Campgrounds on the Kenai Peninsula and in Mat-Su are expected to fill up, but parks managers said folks who poke around should be able to find room. On the Peninsula, Blackwell said some of the smaller campsites don't always fill up as quickly.
"They should be able to find something," he said.
Up north, it's the same.
"We are expecting banner crowds this year," said Mat-Su parks superintendent Wayne Biessel.
Biessel said the Finger Lake Campground was almost full Thursday. Other popular campgrounds in the Valley include places like Nancy Lake, South Rolly and Willow Creek. There's also the new Kesugi Ken Campground at Mile 135.4 of the Parks Highway, which has tent camping and room for RVs.
The new campground was already filling up Thursday.
"We expect that to be at capacity today," he said.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game provides online fishing reports for all areas of Alaska. The weekly reports can be found at adfg.alaska.gov.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story implied Willow Creek is open to catch-and-release king salmon fishing; the creek is closed to king salmon fishing.
Anchorage Daily News photographer Bill Roth contributed reporting.
Contact Matt Tunseth at email@example.com or call 907-257-4274.