Fishing Alaska on the Cheap

Pack a tent, rent a car, take a few friends and hit the road to discover the fishing that lies waiting just outside of Anchorage.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

The road trip is an American tradition. For me, there's one long drive that rides right into heaven itself: a fishing road trip of coastal Alaska. Most hunters and fishermen who've been to the Great Land know only one drill: overnight in Anchorage, then fly out to camp or lodge for a week. Fishing adventures like that start at $3,500. On a roady, though, you'll spend half that amount (and a lot less if you camp), depending on how much comfort you demand and how many people split the major costs for vehicle or camper rentals, motels or guides. The trip would entail 10 days of fishing adventure originating from Anchorage (the main hub) with no lost time for weathered-out flights. Can you find superb, road-accessible fishing without crowds? Yes, as I learned firsthand on a totally cool road trip that you can duplicate yourself.

Last August outdoor life Photo Editor Cherie Cincilla and I joined Tony Weaver, an Alaskan fishing expert, and Florida-flats guide Jake Jordan (on his annual cool-down from tarpon season), for a caravan along Alaska's Route 1. This trip comes in three sections and you can concentrate on one or ride 'em all: Anchorage to Talkeetna, Anchorage to Sterling, Sterling to Homer.

TALKEETNA
Chasing the Rainbow

Mahay's Riverboat service dropped us at the junction of Clear Creek and the big Talkeetna River near the town of Talkeetna. (Drop-offs cost $45 per person and you can camp as long as you like; 800-736-2210.) There were silver salmon and Dolly Vardens at the mouth, and, we hoped, rainbows following the spawning salmon. I hooked into a fresh male chum salmon that was holding near some silvers. The fish broke the surface in leaps that would cause any angler to holler. A little while later Jake took a silver while I landed a nice rainbow just below him. Clear Creek's good fishing extends upstream about a mile to a trapper's cabin, and that's where I headed.

I soon found a huge school of silvers in an outside bend pool on my side of the river. Thinking there must be some big 'bows below looking to scarf up salmon eggs, I eased by, hunting for a good crossing place to find a workable down-angle. Then I saw the brown clump moving maybe 50 yards upstream on my side. I watched the bear lumber like a sumo wrestler to mid- river, and then saw another shape emerge from the brush followed by a third. The three browns stood midstream facing my way, fishing. The wind was toward me, which was dandy, and I cancelled my plans for crossing.

Jake saw me coming and guessed at the reason for my speed. "See a bear?" he yelled. I held up three fingers. He and I moved downstream. The boatman with whom we'd arranged a pickup was on schedule; he was fishing while he waited, a shotgun slung over his shoulder. I found out that my three upriver bears were yearlings that had become a problem by breaking into camps and destroying coolers without caution of humans. Sharing the rivers with wildlife is part of the deal in Alaska, but few problems occur if you exercise a little common sense.

Clear Creek is just one of many Talkeetna tributaries you can fish, and the big river offers great rainbow and Dolly fishing when it clears later in the year. Good fishing lasts into October. There's a tremendous run of king salmon in June and July, but the fishing is shoulder to shoulder as the locals come to fill their freezers. You can avoid the mob by hiring an outfitter like Chad Valentine of Denali Anglers (907-733-1505), who'll run his new jet sleds 65 miles up the Susitna River almost to Devil's Canyon, then work the tributary mouths down. (The Talkeetna empties into the Susitna near town.) In mid-August Valentine can get you on fresh silver salmon.

Farley Dean of Willow Creek Resort (907-495-6343) will take you on the Talkeetna River, but his home water is the main Willow Creek, off the Susitna River about an hour down the highway from Talkeetna. Although you can walk this river in many places, a float will give you more time to reach all the runs and deep pools. Dean also rents rafts and can drop your party off at key spots on the river to fish on your own.

The sinuous river is filled with snags that form wonderful holding waterundercut banks, deep trenches and back eddies. There are chums, silvers and Dolly Vardens here, and a king salmon run in June, but what you come for are the huge rainbows.

Single-hook, catch-and-release regulations that are in effect all year long have let the river's rainbows thrive in a perfect environment. Using two rafts, our gang leapfrogged along and fished prime spots afoot, casting mainly black-leech streamers. The largest of the beautiful 'bows Jake and I beached were in the seven-pound class, beautifully proportioned and conditioned and exquisitely colored. But we had hooked, briefly played and then lost fish that without a doubt would have reached the magic 10-pound mark.

You could burn a lot of time on the Willow and on nearby streams like Little Willow, Caswell and Montana creeks (below Talkeetna). You can walk into all of these streams from the road. The trout fishing goes all through October, and from Anchorage, Willow is just an hour-and-a-half drive to the north.

KENAI
The River of Kings

On the fourth day of the road trip we turned south toward Anchorage. We were tempted to turn east on Route 1 at Palmer, go toward Glennallen and then head north to Paxson, where a series of lakes offers fine lake-trout fishing. But we didn't have time: The Kenai Peninsula and the great river for which it is named lay ahead.

The Kenai River is in and can drop your party off at key spots on the river to fish on your own.

The sinuous river is filled with snags that form wonderful holding waterundercut banks, deep trenches and back eddies. There are chums, silvers and Dolly Vardens here, and a king salmon run in June, but what you come for are the huge rainbows.

Single-hook, catch-and-release regulations that are in effect all year long have let the river's rainbows thrive in a perfect environment. Using two rafts, our gang leapfrogged along and fished prime spots afoot, casting mainly black-leech streamers. The largest of the beautiful 'bows Jake and I beached were in the seven-pound class, beautifully proportioned and conditioned and exquisitely colored. But we had hooked, briefly played and then lost fish that without a doubt would have reached the magic 10-pound mark.

You could burn a lot of time on the Willow and on nearby streams like Little Willow, Caswell and Montana creeks (below Talkeetna). You can walk into all of these streams from the road. The trout fishing goes all through October, and from Anchorage, Willow is just an hour-and-a-half drive to the north.