The Last, Best Salmon, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (2023)

The Last, Best Salmon

By Ken Marsh

The Last, Best Salmon, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (1)

A charter-caught Chinook salmon on the left and a coho on the right.

By mid-afternoon, 12-year-old Natalie Marsh was clearly exhausted. She had been awake since 4:30 a.m., and fishing hard since 7 a.m. aboard the 25-foot charter boat Strike Zone.

A gale blasting in from the Aleutian Islands had whipped up the seas near the mouth of Resurrection Bay, and sharp winds and needling rains had reddened Natalie’s cheeks.

Yet rest was out of the question. My daughter was only one coho salmon short of her six-fish limit. And as far as she was concerned, long hours spent battling heaving seas and big, hard-running fish — including a 30-pound Chinook salmon that tested her grip and nearly spooled her reel — were simply part of her first Alaska coho angling adventure.

Even so, her eyelids were drooping when that final coho grabbed the bait 85 feet below the boat.

Luckily, charter skipper Greg Mercer was watching Natalie’s rod when the salmon struck.

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“There he is, Natalie!” Mercer shouted. “Go! Go!”

Natalie’s eyes popped open and she lunged to wrench her rod from its holder. As she tucked the butt under one arm and worked the reel with her free hand, the fish shot up and busted through a wall of whitecaps.

She leaned back against the fish, knees bent to absorb the bucking waves. The salmon ran on and I watched as her rod tip dropped lower, then lower still.

Natalie was worn out.

At that moment, I doubted she had the strength to boat her last coho. Her arms — unaccustomed to playing fish larger than 12-inch-long rainbow trout — were beat from wrestling in five previous cohos, nearly a dozen pink salmon, several three-foot-long sharks called dogfish and, of course, the thick-shouldered Chinook.

She wanted that coho. But it appeared she would need some help.


No sport fish thrills and tests Southcentral Alaska anglers like ocean-fresh coho salmon. Regionally called “silvers,” these powerful middleweights average 8-12 pounds apiece (though lunkers frequently exceed 20 pounds) and are savored for their vicious strikes, sizzling runs and spectacular, tumbling leaps. Their broad distribution from the saltwater ports of Valdez, Cordova, Whittier and Seward, to the dream streams of the Kenai Peninsula, Matanuska and Susitna valleys – even downtown Anchorage’s Ship Creek – places these hard-fighting fish among the most ubiquitous and popular of Southcentral’s five Pacific salmon species.

Considered by many the last, best salmon of the region’s bountiful fishing season, cohos generally leave coastal feeding areas in late summer for spawning beds in local rivers and streams. Even so, early fish can be caught among the fiords of Resurrection Bay outside of Seward beginning in late June and July. Elsewhere, in the saltwater out of Valdez and in the rivers and creeks of the Susitna Valley and Kenai Peninsula, coho fishing doesn’t really begin until late July and early August. Most coho runs taper by early September, though exceptions do occur. In the Kenai River, roughly a two- to three-hour drive south of Anchorage, ocean-bright fish are caught through October.

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The Last, Best Salmon, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (2)

Mark Emery photo

Cohos are drawn to flies, lures, and baits of nearly all kinds. They can be pushovers in saltwater for cut-plug herring, trolled or mooched, and are famous in the streams around Anchorage and beyond for aggressive streaks that send them out of their way for cured roe or stripped streamers.

Once, while fishing bait at the mouth of a Susitna River tributary in early August, I witnessed how bold these scrappy game fish can be. Frustrated at snagging the weedy bottom, I clipped a red bobber above my hook. The bobber allowed my bait to float above the weeds unhindered, and I caught a limit of bright cohos almost as quickly as I could reel them in. But I was surprised along the way by something else: For every fish I hooked, another would charge the surface to grab my bobber.

No one seems to know why coho salmon so willingly snap at baits, flies and lures in fresh water while en route to natal spawning beds. Feeding reflexes leftover from saltwater days, or territorial impulses associated with spawning are possibilities. Whatever the case, anglers seeking good fishing in Southcentral Alaska streams can increase their odds of success by remembering a couple of coho quirks.

First, determined as cohos are to reach spawning gravel, they are notorious dawdlers, drawn to sluggish creek mouths, stagnant backwaters, and deep pools. Fishing for them in fast, shallow water is rarely as effective as in the slower, deeper stuff.

Second, cohos are twilight creatures, far more apt to strike at dawn and dusk than midday. This is especially true on bright, sunny days. Early-rising anglers and those who arrive late and linger on the river until dark are often rewarded with the best fishing.

In saltwater, cohos are most frequently found in sheltered bays where baitfish congregate. Charter skippers watch their electronic fish finders in such places for “bait balls,” massive schools of needlefish and herring that amass to feed on plankton. Cohos fattening up for their arduous, one-way journeys up local spawning streams feed ravenously on these small fish. Individual salmon can pack on several pounds during the weeks of July and early August.

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It was off the lee of Hive Island where salmon had gathered to feed on baitfish that my daughter, Natalie, encountered her sixth, and final, coho that day out of Seward. That fish wasn’t coming in easy as I approached to offer some fatherly coaching.

The Last, Best Salmon, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (3)

Late summer coho fishing with the boys.

“My arms are too tired,” Natalie said, more to herself than to me.

I saw her grimace, her face florid as the fish peeled off more line.

“Do you want me to take it?” I asked.

Her lower lip popped out — a warning, I’d learned ever since she was an infant, that tears weren’t far away. Then she shook her head and continued reeling.

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It was a long, slow grind, but Natalie was determined.

Several minutes later, as the seas continued to rock and the pewter skies to fret, she expertly led the fish into Mercer’s net, prompting a cheer from all aboard.

I learned more about my daughter that day than I did about fishing coho salmon. I realized that she’s far tougher than I ever imagined, an attribute likely inherited from her mother.

And she’s stubborn, too. Especially when it comes to fishing. But I couldn’t say where she gets that.

Ken Marsh is a public information officer for the Division of Wildlife Conservation. He makes his home in Anchorage.

Planning Your Trip: Timing and Location Are Key

Timing is the critical factor for anglers who fish for coho salmon in Southcentral Alaska. Some top coho venues and the best times to expect good fishing are listed below:

  • Anchorage – As regional hub, Anchorage is more than a Southcentral angler’s departure point or shopping base – especially when it comes to cohos. Urban fishers visiting or passing through Alaska’s largest city will find excellent coho fishing in the shadow of downtown’s high-rise hotels. From mid-July through the third week of August, Anchorage’s Ship Creek hosts a popular and productive coho fishery.

Meanwhile, coho fishing heats up in late-July on Bird Creek, roughly a 20-minute drive south of the city via the scenic Seward Highway. Both fisheries are tidal and fishing is best an hour or so before, during and after high tide. Both are also infamous for great expanses of slippery mud. Felt-bottomed wading soles — popular and effective on rocks and gravel — can seem worthless here. Cleat bottomed or lug-soled boots are better choices.

  • Seward – Early birds who charter boats out of this port roughly a 2½-hour drive south of Anchorage normally do well in the saltwater bays and fjords of Resurrection Bay beginning the last week in June. Fishing tends to improve in July, remaining good through August. Thousands of anglers board charter boats during these productive weeks to catch limits of up to six silvers per day in Resurrection Bay, whose food-rich waters may draw more than 3 million silvers over the course of a summer.
  • Valdez – Located at the southern end of the Richardson Highway – and the terminus of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline – the City of Valdez huddles at the base of the rugged Chugach Mountains overlooking Port Valdez. Opening into fish-rich Prince William Sound, Port Valdez hosts an excellent coho fishery, with great fishing available from beaches in and out of town. Waves of salmon begin arriving in area waters in mid-July through August.
  • Whittier – In late August and September, just when salmon fishing seems to have gone the way of another Southcentral Alaska summer, Whittier (population 300) offers anglers one final fling. Located an hour’s drive and $12 round-trip tunnel toll (for cars and small trucks) south of Anchorage, this fishery perched at the gateway to Prince William Sound doesn’t get started until mid- to late August. From then through early October, anywhere from 6,000 to 10,500 hatchery silvers storm up Passage Canal to mill around the shores of this small town in places like Smitty’s Cove, Salmon Run and even the small boat harbor.
  • Matanuska and Susitna Valleys - Anglers seeking guided or do-it-yourself opportunities in the rivers and streams of the highway system between Anchorage and Talkeetna should plan fishing trips between the last week in July to late August. Excellent coho fishing is found in the streams crossing the Parks Highway north of Wasilla; the Little Susitna River, Willow Creek, Little Willow Creek, Sheep Creek and Montana Creek are popular choices. Jim Creek and the Eklutna Tailrace, both roughly a 40-minute drive north of Anchorage, also provide good fishing for cohos.
  • Kenai Peninsula – South of Anchorage, good coho fishing is found on the Kenai Peninsula. Cohos begin running in the famous Kenai River in late July or early August, with late-run fish entering the river through October. Upstream, in the Russian River (which merges with the Kenai near the fishing resort community of Cooper Landing), coho fishing is good in late August and early September. Farther south on the Sterling highway, do-it-yourself anglers can do well in August and early September in the Kasilof River, Deep Creek, the Ninilchik and Anchor rivers and in the community of Homer’s Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon.
  • For more information on fishing in Southcentral Alaska, or to purchase a fishing license online, visit the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Web page at
The Last, Best Salmon, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (4)

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What is the best salmon to catch in Alaska? ›

Chinook (King) Salmon

Chinook (aka King) Salmon is the ultimate catch in Alaska – the bigger, the better. Kings are so popular that there's a place named after them on the west side of Naknek Lake. These hard-fighting fish average at 20–30 pounds, and you can easily find lunkers that weigh 50 pounds or more.

How many salmon can you catch a day in Alaska? ›

King salmon: • May 1–August 31: 2 per day, 2 in possession . September 1–April 30: 1 per day, 1 in possession . There is no annual or seasonal king salmon limit in effect, and there is no king salmon harvest recording requirement for the entire year . Salmon (except king salmon): • Open to fishing year-round.

How long does the salmon run last in Alaska? ›

King Salmon, also known as Chinook salmon, run from late May until late July. During mid-July to mid-August, it's the pink and sockeye salmon's turn. July to October rounds out the spawn with silver, also called coho, salmon.

Is there a limit on salmon in Alaska? ›

The Alaska resident bag and possession limit is one king salmon, 28 inches or greater in length. The nonresident bag and possession limit is one king salmon, 28 inches or greater in length. The nonresident annual limit is three king salmon 28 inches or greater in length.

How do you catch king salmon in Alaska? ›

How to catch a king salmon at Ship Creek in downtown Anchorage ...

What's the limit for Silver Salmon in Alaska? ›

Alaska Residents—No size limit: 1 per day, 2 in possession. Nonresidents— 1 per day, 1 in possession; 30–45 inches or 55 inches and longer, annual limit of 2 fish, one of which is 30–45 inches in length, and one that is 55 inches or greater in length, harvest record required (see page 6).

Where is the best Silver Salmon fishing in Alaska? ›

The Togiak River Lodge has arguably the best Silver Salmon fishing in the world. The run of Alaskan Silver Salmon begin in Early August and run well past September after the lodge has been closed for the winter.

How many pounds of fish can you bring back from Alaska? ›

There is no set pound limit on how much fish a person can take home with them. However, the State of Alaska has daily limits and yearly limits. For example, a person is allowed to keep 4 halibut for the year, with the limit being 2 per day.

What is the best time to catch king salmon in Alaska? ›

Chinook Salmon (King Salmon) – Peak Time – Mid-May to July

Catching King Salmon is hard and they typically weigh around 30 pounds. However, you may even find ones that weigh upwards of 50 pounds. The bigger your catch, the better, and you can find some big ones during peak times from mid-May till the end of July.

How fast do sockeye swim up the Kenai? ›

This means we approximate the sockeye travel one mile per hour as they race upstream. Knowing the main blast of fish typically comes on a high tide, one can calculate where to be and when for the best concentrations of fish.

Are the salmon running in Ship Creek? ›

Know the Rules

King salmon can be caught at Ship Creek from January 1 through July 13, with the run starting in the middle of May and peaking in June.

How many halibut can I catch in Alaska 2022? ›

Unguided halibut sport fishers in Alaska will continue to observe a daily bag limit of 2 fish of any size per person per day. Alaska commercial IFQ halibut season dates are March 6 through December 7, 2022 for all IPHC management areas in Alaska.

Can you keep yellow eye rockfish in Alaska? ›

There are no daily bag or possession limits for bottomfish (excluding sablefish) except in the Sitka and Ketchikan vicinities, where the bag and possession limit for rockfish is three fish, no more than one of which may be yelloweye rockfish (Sebastes ruberrimus).

What is the limit for halibut in Alaska? ›

Annual Management Measures Section 29

(b) The daily bag limit is two Pacific halibut of any size per day per person unless a more restrictive bag limit applies in Commission regulations or Federal regulations at 50 CFR 300.65. (c) No person may possess more than two daily bag limits.

What are the five Alaskan salmon? ›

We love all 5 species of wild Alaskan salmon for their amazing taste, incredible nutrition, and inspiring story. Wild for Salmon sells all five species of wild-caught salmon: king, sockeye, coho, keta, pink.

Are there 5 main types of salmon? ›

There are seven species of Pacific salmon. Five of them occur in North American waters: chinook, coho, chum, sockeye, and pink. Masu and amago salmon occur only in Asia. There is one species of Atlantic salmon.

How can you tell if salmon is Alaskan? ›

Adult sockeye salmon can be identified by a lack of black spots on their body or tail. When in saltwater they are bright silver, but once in fresh water, their bodies turn bright red, with a green head. Males develop a humped back, with hooked jaw (kype) and exposed sharp teeth.

How do you do the Kenai flip? ›

The “Kenai Flip” describes the way the lure is flung into the river upstream at about 2 or 10 O'clock (depending on which side of the river you are on) with a shoulder-wrist motion, followed down river with the rod tip to about 10 or 2 O'clock, and then pulled back out to be repeated again.

How do you troll for king salmon in Alaska? ›

King trollers typically target 50- to 150 feet in the water column and troll about 1½ to 2.5 mph. Kings will often hold closer to the bottom, so start high and if you don't find kings, move your gear closer to the bottom.

What bait do you use for king salmon? ›

Salmon eggs are the top choice for bait, although sand shrimp are very popular for chinook salmon. Some anglers like to fish both at the same time.

What month is best for salmon fishing in Alaska? ›

Simply put, the best time to fish for Salmon in Alaska is during the summers. Peak Salmon fishing season in The Last Frontier starts in May and goes all the way through to the end of September. This period is best for catching the five major Salmon species at different times spread across the entire summer season.

What is the best tasting salmon? ›

Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tschawytscha), also known as King salmon, is considered by many to be the best-tasting of the salmon bunch. They have a high-fat content and corresponding rich flesh that ranges from white to a deep red color.

Is it easy to catch salmon in Alaska? ›

Alaska boasts some of the best salmon fishing in the world, with an abundance of all five types of wild salmon (King, Sockeye, Coho, Pink, and Chum) and scenery that's hard to beat.

How many types of salmon are there in Alaska? ›

There's an easy way to remember the names of each of Alaska's five different species of Pacific salmon. It's a method we often use when educating young kids about the different species and the salmon lifecycle. And it works. We ask kids to hold one hand up and spread their fingers.


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