This article was originally published in Alaska magazine and is republished here with permission.
Fish on!” the captain shouts, and you grab the pulsing, bowed-over rod from the holder. Line whirs out against the reel’s drag. As your boat buddies watch open-mouthed, the mate scrambles to clear the other lines and raise the downrigger weights; that move, along with the tone of voice and the runaway force you feel screaming up the line, signals this is no ordinary fish.
Ten minutes later, shoulders knotted, hands stiff, you’re lodged against the transom, rod still bent double. “There!” the captain points toward a flash far below. “Pump and reel!” Trying to remember to breathe, you nod, and manage to hang on through a sudden dive. A last boat-side flurry ends in a deft jab of the net and a grunting hoist over the gunwale. On the deck a huge king salmon quivers, an iridescent behemoth that dwarfs the three kings already in the fish box. The backslapping and grab-and-grin photos merge into a blur. Crazy thing is, you haven’t gone fishing since you were a kid, and that was cane pole and bobber stuff.
Or maybe you’re standing alone, backcasting your fly line over a transparent pool alive with shifting, shimmering shapes: squadrons of deep red sockeye, and drifting at the edges, big rainbow trout and Dolly Varden. You’ve already caught and released so many fish that you’ve lost count, and this is just day one of a weeklong solo raft trip. You pause to watch a female grizzly and cubs do some angling of their own. Before you even think about the bear spray tucked into your wader pocket, they catch your scent and fade into the willows. Thirty river miles lie ahead, hordes of fish and water so clear it’s sometimes hard to make out the boundary between it and the air that fills your lungs. In all your decades of angling and outdoor experience, this is a giant step outward—and you discover you’re up to the challenge.
I drew those scenes from imagination, but little was needed. Alaska is indeed a piscatorial sea of dreams, with angling possibilities as varied and broad as the Great Land itself: from dredging up halibut the size of Mini Coopers to flicking dry flies for sail-finned grayling to chucking spoons for monster pike, to….well, you get it. The trick is figuring what to do with the time you have, and then working out the details.
Sure, you could just roll the dice—step off a cruise ship or plane and onto a charter boat booked on a whim and just slam ‘em, just like in the brochure. Or rent a car, ask around, maybe consult an Alaskan fishing guidebook and do it yourself down a roadside creek or out a coastal sand spit. Spinning rod in hand, casting the ubiquitous Pixee, you might do just fine…or get skunked. Either happens all the time, and that sort of approach is great for folks hoping to have a hoot and check off a box on their Alaskan do-list.
But if sport fishing really matters to you—maybe even as the lens through which you focus your upcoming Alaskan adventure—you’ll of course leave much less to luck. If you’re like I was way back when, you’ll start off months in advance, doing research, jotting down notes, shaping and grounding your dream. Today’s online world makes the search so easy it’s hardly fair. Just Googling “fishing Alaska” brings up 70-some thousand hits in a matter of seconds.
Naturally, all those lodges, flying services, guides, and charter boat operators need to get paid. Prices start off reasonably; a half day of fishing somewhere handy to the grid starts off around 200 bucks; double that for a full day on a saltwater charter or a fly-out trip. When one considers current supermarket prices for salmon or halibut, a good day can easily end up more than paying for itself in boxes of frozen fillets shipped home. Many longtime Alaskans (me included) aren’t shy about enlisting pros with local knowledge and quality gear to stock the freezer; if you’re away from home and without your own equipment, they’re essential to getting out at all. And over the years, I can’t recall one time I came away disappointed.
If you want to truly immerse yourself without fretting details, a lodge makes sense. These can range from basic to luxurious, car-accessible to hyper-remote. For a four-day package at a mid-line lodge, expect to spend between $2,500 and $3,500 per person. The farther you range off grid, and the more exclusive the amenities, service, and fishing access, the higher the cost: seven or eight grand up to 15-plus for a week. Dropping 20 thousand bucks isn’t out of the question. Not within the reach of most of us, but the best outfits do keep busy with satisfied clients. I got invited to one of those joints once, and all, including fishing, was as you’d expect.
Another option: a self-guided float plane drop-off—either to a remote camp or cabin where you’ll stay and fish nearby, or a fish and float camping trip with direction and gear provided. Per-person costs aren’t crazy and the genuine Alaskan immersion value, huge. Cabin outings are totally doable by folks with less experience; most multi-day river trips require solid outdoor and paddling skills but aren’t mountain man stuff. This sort of trip is scalable, from overnight to weeks, family friendly to totally rugged. Bears? Pay attention, carry that bear spray, and remember you’re safer at that river than driving near home. Go for it. Fish on!