Saltwater: The Big Picture
With over 45,000 miles of coastline, Alaska certainly presents ample opportunities for the saltwater fly fishing enthusiast. The regions of Southeast, Prince William Sound, Kodiak, and Lower Cook Inlet provide the right combination of accessibility and available fish species to make beach- and inshore-fishing a fun-filled endeavor. Most of the saltwater fly angling in Alaska takes place near stream and river mouths, where schooling salmon and sea-run trout can be intercepted on their migratory journeys. To a lesser extent, some coastal areas provide good access to many of the pelagic rockfish species, as well as the occasional halibut and lingcod. The multitude of small bays and inlets in the state's southern area provide a safe boating experience for the angler armed with a car-topper skiff, and such craft can open up a much larger area to explore with a fly rod.
Tidal ranges vary throughout the state, with the general rule holding that oceanic and outer coastal regions have smaller fluctuations than inner passage and inlet areas. For example, the tidal range of Kodiak, an oceanic island, is approximately 10 feet, while the range for Northern Southeast Alaska's inside passage can get up to 25 feet. Many of the areas explored by saltwater fly anglers have long, shallow-slope beaches, and in some places the tides move in and out at a brisk pace. Tide tables are published for all areas of the state, so make sure you have a current table that covers your area, and make sure you know how to read it.
Many of the sheltered bays throughout the southern region of the state have mudflats that can add unwanted excitement to a saltwater fishing excursion. Glacial silt and mud can be a miring hazard to the inattentive beach walker at low tide, so fish with a partner, stick to the hard portions of beaches, and always have an "escape route" to the high-tide line planned out in advance.
While it is much more common to encounter them in river and stream corridors, bears can and do frequent beaches, often foraging along the high-tide line or digging clams on long mudflats. The United States Forest Service (USFS) has a tremendous amount of information on traveling and camping safely in bear country. We strongly recommend reading this and getting a clear understanding of the essential practices.
Fly Fishing Saltwater: Where and When To Go
Spring: April and May
In the southern portion of the state, pink salmon fry begin their out-migration in early spring. These fry can be found near river mouths in bays and inlets, and where pink fry are found, Dolly Varden and sea-run cutthroat trout are often not far behind. Schools of Dollies often roam the shallows, herding up the fry for an easy meal. At 35-50 millimeters in length, pink fry are at the mercy of the current, and can concentrate on the lee-tide side of points and drop offs. Dolly Varden and cutthroat trout often lie in ambush in these tidal sweeps, so fishing minnow patterns such as the Stinger Clouser and Salmon Fry in these locations can produce hook-ups. In some saltwater locations, steelhead will acclimatize to their natal rivers in the estuaries, and can provide low-tide opportunities to the stealthy angler. Small shrimp and euphausid patterns, such as the Mini-Krystal Shrimp, occasionally produce hookups, as well as minnow patterns such as the Sockeye Fry and the Gray Epoxy Mini-Minnow.
Early Summer: June and July
June represents the best opportunity for the saltwater fly angler to pursue king salmon as these oceanic predators move inshore on their spawning migrations. Many places in the southern half of the state have areas where the beach-bound or inshore fisherman can effectively target king salmon as they begin milling in the upper portion of the water-column. Large, flashy baitfish patterns such as Blue Sea Habits and the Deceiver can prove effective in these areas.
Pink and chum salmon begin their inshore push in late June, putting them well within reach of the inshore saltwater angler. These fish tend to stage off of the mouths of their spawning streams for several weeks before beginning their journey, and are often willing and ready dance partners for the fly angler. Both chums and pinks have a weakness for the color pink, so try Humpy Hookers, Searunner Specials, and Clousers in this color. Other colors often produce, so have a well-stocked fly box with several patterns in different colors and sizes.
The inshore saltwater angler often encounters schooling rockfish in early summer. Pelagic species such as the Black, Dusky, and Yellowtail rockfish are often found in coastal waters, occasionally slashing the surface in frenzied pursuit of small baitfish. In addition, near-shore demersal species such as the China, Copper, and Quillback can be found in and around shallow kelp beds, where they wait in finny ambush for unsuspecting baitfish. Flashy minnow patterns such as the Chubby Gummy Minnow and Flashtail Whistler fished on sinking line will often produce results.
Late Summer: August and September
As summer progresses, the coho salmon begin their inshore migration to their spawning streams. As they move inshore, they begin to feed higher in the water column, and this provides an excellent opportunity to hook one of these silver missiles in the salt. Look for tidal rips and eddies, usually around points and headlands, as these areas concentrate the forage fish that the coho so desire. Baitfish imitations such as the Marabou Madness, Chartreuse Clouser, and Green Sea Habit can be effective when fished in these areas.
In September, dead and dying salmon begin washing downstream into the saltwater, their carcasses coming to rest in the shallow bays just off of river mouths. Pacific Halibut can often be found in these areas as they gorge themselves on this seasonal buffet of flesh. This is the one and only time that the fly angler has a shot at these leviathans from the deep, as they are usually found below the range of standard fly gear. Ranging from 10 to over 300 lbs, these large flatfish have the potential to be the "fish of a lifetime" for the patient and crafty fly angler. Stout rods of 11-13 weight are a must, as is a heavy full-sink line. Large flies such as the Jumbo Bunny fished slowly in 15-35 ft of water, often on slack tide, have the potential to raise one of these "barn doors".
As with early summer, rockfish are often available and schooling in tide rips and kelp beds. Flashy minnow patterns such as the Hot Flash Minnow, Half-N-Half, and Flashtail Whistler fished on sinking line will often produce into September when the fish begin their seasonal migration to deeper water.
The coming of October brings the last of the coho salmon to the mouths of their natal streams. These late fish often begin their stream ascent immediately, offering the inshore angler limited opportunities at the last fish of the season. Incoming tides near river mouths can often be productive as the coho ride the high tide into their spawning streams. Baitfish imitations such as the Chartreuse Epoxy Mini-Minnow, Stinger Clouser, and Clouser Minnow can be effective when fished in these areas.
Dolly Varden can occasionally be found in estuaries in October, as well as sea-run cutthroat trout, but the majority of these fish are already in their overwintering stage in lakes and rivers. Baitfish patterns such as the Olive Epoxy Mini-Minnow and the Thunder Creek as well as small shrimp and euphausid patterns can often elicit strikes from these stragglers and provide a fitting "last cast" to the saltwater season.