Unimaginable Silver Salmon Run on the Unalakleet River, Alaska

This year I was finally able to arrange a visit to Unalakleet River Lodge, a client favorite for silver salmon fishing. The small native community of Unalakleet can be reached via commercial air service from Anchorage. It’s the northernmost Lodge location we work with – so far north that rainbow trout cannot survive in this drainage. Dolly varden and grayling are in the river in good numbers too so it’s not exclusively a salmon fishery.

The trip consists of fishing the main stem of the Unalakleet River and North Creek which is a smaller tributary closer to the town of Unalakleet. The Lodge sits about nine miles from tidewater on the Bering Sea, so fresh fish are coming in daily some still with sea lice. The Unalakleet is a larger river with fairly easy wading, and there are plenty of holding areas where the silvers stack in big numbers. Marketing Manager, Anthony Conti and I arrived at the Lodge with the fishing being the best it’s been in years according to repeat guests and prior Frontiers groups that scored big just a couple of weeks prior.

Our flight was uneventful. The Ravn Alaska DeHavilland Dash 8 delivered us safely and almost on time. Patience is a big asset when traveling in remote Alaska. Weather dictates air travel, so delays are not uncommon. The weather has been challenging in the summer with lots of rain and fog.

We walked from the plane toward the small terminal and met Steve Appel, co-owner of the Lodge along with his father, Jeff. After collecting our luggage, we drove a brief way to the boat launch and loaded into the boat which has a protective canvas roof cover and windshield. It was a comfortable and short 15 minute trip to the Lodge.

The Unalakleet is recognized as a National Wild and Scenic River and is home to large runs of king salmon, chum salmon, pink salmon, silver or coho salmon, dolly varden, arctic char, and a native population of arctic grayling. The guide staff prides themselves on their service and versatility in targeting the fish by whatever means are most productive; whether it’s two-handed spey or switch rods, single-handed fly fishing rods, or conventional rod and reel fishing. The river system is accessed via 16-foot aluminum G3 boats with Yamaha jet drive outboard motors. The Unalakleet River has roughly 140 miles of prime Alaska salmon fishing isolated from the pressures of road systems and fly out operations. They are the only lodge on the river.

The Unalakleet River consistently produces one of the last great remaining Pacific Salmon runs on the planet. There are extraordinary runs of king salmon, chum salmon, silver or coho salmon, pink salmon, dolly varden, and a prolific native population of arctic grayling. The main artery of the Unalakleet provides gentle banks with large gravel bars so that wade fishing is easy and allows total concentration on the groups of running salmon. The North River flows clear and cuts tightly through the Nulato Hills making it perfect for anglers who want a more technical fishing experience. Sloughs and oxbows found throughout the Unalakleet and its tributaries are used as gentle resting grounds for the running salmon and add to the possibilities for targeting fish. The Unalakleet River Lodge’s proximity to Norton Sound and the Bering Sea provides guests with fish that are described by the words hot, fresh, bright, and chrome.

The Lodge: The main Lodge is a stunning log building sitting high on a bluff above the river. It includes a large dining area with a unique “V” shaped table. There is a living room area with comfortable couches, chairs that directs your focus to the large wood burning fireplace. A small tackle shop has all the latest, and greatest fishing tackle along with Lodge logo wear with quality fishing shirts, rain jackets, gloves, etc. They also have a small selection of ivory carvings and native crafts from the Alaskan villages of Savoonga and Gambel on St. Lawrence Island. The main attraction is the bar area where anglers swap many fishing tales. I contributed a story or two as well. They carry all types of premium liquors, draft beer selections, and just about anything else you can imagine. They will keep a tab running for you throughout the week payable when you leave the Lodge. One of the unique aspects of the Lodge is the elevator. There is an inclined elevator for guests that aren’t interested in climbing the wooden walkway up to the hill to the Lodge. It’s essentially a motorized car on tracks that takes you up/down the hill with the push of a button. It’s a lifesaver for most and a must for some guests.

Please note there is no internet access or phone service at the Lodge. The guests that return each year prefer to disconnect during this trip. They feel it enhances the lodge visit and promotes camaraderie and interaction with other guests rather than burying your head in your phone or mobile device the entire trip.

The Cabins: The guest’s cabins lie between the dock area and pathway to the main Lodge. Everything at the Lodge compound connects with a network of wooden walkways. It’s very convenient and keeps mud and water at bay – they can be slippery when it rains so be cautious in wet conditions! Eight guest cabins in different configurations are located right above the river and below the main Lodge. Every cabin comes equipped with a private bath/shower, and they are comfortable with everything you’ll need to have a nice weeklong stay. Comfy beds, linens, overstuffed chair, warm comforters, adjustable heaters, wall to wall carpeting, nightstand, lamp, alarm clock, coffee accessories, and an ice bucket. Fresh coffee is delivered every morning to your door for a quick start to the day. Ice will be placed in your cabin if requested to enjoy the first cocktail after your fishing day should you be so inclined.

Dining: This was the unexpected “surprise” of the entire week. I knew the meals were great from past comments, but wow, Chef Nathan is a superstar in the kitchen. Not only were the meals some of the best lodge food I’ve experienced, the creativity, presentation, and taste were better than any five-star restaurant I’ve been to lately. They even have a sous chef to add to Nathans creativity. Wine is served with dinner every evening. Our last dinner was a seven-course masterpiece that I’m still dreaming about. No words do the dining justice at the Lodge so I won’t elaborate. Your palate will thank you. Guests do have the option to return to the Lodge for a hot lunch daily and a mid-day break or nap. It’s very relaxed and really up to the guests as to how much fishing they do each day.

The Guides and Staff: Guides – Bobby, Evan, Jensen, Kevin, Mitchell, Taylor, Tyler (and Gregg!)
As with most Alaska lodges these days, younger guides occupy most of the slots with an experienced and grizzled veteran that serves as a mentor and general example of what a guide should be. Jerry Jensen is this guy. “Jensen” as the guests call him, is as good a guide as you’ll find anywhere in the world. His skill set is diverse, and his experience and knowledge are priceless. If you want to know something about the river, fine-tune your fly casting, or just ask general life questions, Jensen has the answer…or he’ll make something up and sell it to you in a convincing manner with a smile. His shore lunch skills are not too bad either! Every lodge should have a Jensen.

The Fishing: Gregg was our guide for our short stay. As with most of my trips, we do a healthy bit of exploring the fishing options so I can accurately describe the options that exist during any given week of the season. I generally don’t get a professional guide, but a Lodge staff willing to escort me around and show me the sights. I’ve had good ones and bad ones. Gregg was an exceptionally good one. He’s worn many hats at the Lodge and is an integral part of making the whole operation work. He can fix just about anything, he knows the rivers better than anyone, and he’s the nearest neighbor to the Lodge – within walking distance. Gregg managed to land himself in Alaska many moons ago and has lived a subsistence lifestyle trapping and hunting for many years. He’s a true outdoorsman and an interesting and funny guy to boot. His lovely wife, Kathy, also helps out with housekeeping and meals at the Lodge. She’s a former teacher in the small native community. It’s always great to meet new people, and Gregg and Kathy are salt of the earth type folks.

The first morning was a chilly one – 38 degrees and foggy. Of course, this was the day we’d do a 45-minute boat ride to the upper reaches of North Creek. We plowed away as far as we could go and finally hit a beaver dam that spanned the river and stopped our progress. Gregg has trapped up here for years and showed us the ins and outs of the river. We spotted plenty of King Salmon and Pinks, and we did stop and catch a few silvers on the way back. This is a smaller river that fishes well with a single hand rod. It’s a bit more technical than the big river but nothing most anglers can’t get the hang of quickly. Our day ended on the Unalakleet River where we found pod after pod of fresh silvers eager to chase and smash just about anything. Anthony and I smacked plenty of fish on surface poppers, weighted streamers, dolly llamas, or anything pink. They aren’t leader shy, so 30-pound leaders are not overkill by any means, and 20-pound sometimes isn’t enough.

Our second and final day at the Lodge couldn’t have been better. Our first stop was over a pod of fish that numbered in the 100’s. A short cast had us in the strike zone with plenty of hookups and battles from the boat. Some holding areas fish best from the boat, and this was one of them. We could have stayed here all day if we wanted.

We had a coordinated shore lunch with all the guests that afternoon. Fresh silver salmon, dolly varden, hash browns, and other side items filled the void of an empty stomach. You can’t beat freshly caught salmon for taste and the dolly was as good as the salmon. Jensen cooked the fish to perfection and the whole guide team worked in concert to prepare this wonderful shore lunch.

After lunch, we parted ways with the other guests and headed to our next spot. We fished an area called “the pond” which turns into a large shallow estuary when the water gets high. A small creek drains into the main river here as well. We wade fished here for probably three hours and it did not disappoint. This area set up well for the switch rod and I was swinging weighted flies on type 3 sinking line into the holding area and connecting with fish after fish. So good in fact, I needed to take a break every now and again to rest my back and tie on fresh leaders.

Summary:
As I reflect on some great days fishing for silvers, I can honestly say this was the single best experience I’ve had to date in respect to the sheer number of fish present and the number of hookups. A hardcore angler could have landed 70 fish easily on that final day. It was just incredible to think in numbers like this, but it was surely doable from the Lodge on this day. This was one of the best seasons in recent memory on the Unalakleet so take this with a grain of salt. I can surmise this does not happen every week of every season.

When to go:
King Salmon
 – Called kings for a reason, The Unalakleet hosts a healthy run of these powerful salmon. The fish may get as large as 50 pounds in the Unalakleet drainage but average 18 to 25 pounds. Preferred methods of fishing for these powerful fighters include back trolling with plugs and drifting streamers while Spey fishing. The king salmon fishing season commonly runs middle June to early July.

Chum Salmon – Without a doubt the most overlooked species of all the salmonids. These fish dig deeper and pull harder than any other Pacific salmon, pound for pound. The Unalakleet’s Chum Salmon max out around 20 pounds with 10 to 14-pound examples common. Streamers on a 7 to 9 wt. rod is a productive fly set up while spinners on medium heavy 6-7 foot spinning rods are effective as well. These fish begin running the Unalakleet drainage in late June and continue all the way into late August.

Pink Salmon – The Humpy! An incredibly prolific salmon that when targeted can easily yield an angler the coveted “100 Fish Day.” Five to eight wt .fly rods, medium action spinning outfits, or a commemorative Barbie Issue Zebco in the hands of a young angler are suggested outfits for these small but vitally important salmon. The pink run starts in early July and continues into August.

Silver or Coho Salmon – The Unalakleet River’s unmatched salmon run. Truly, Unmatched. These acrobatic fish average 8 to 12 pounds and top the scales every season at 15 pounds and higher. 7 to 9 wt. fly rods throwing streamers and wogs are successful, as well as medium to heavy action spinning outfits. Silver Salmon begin their run in late July and continue well into September.

Dolly Varden and Arctic Char – Unalakleet River Lodges’ sea run trout. These beautiful examples of the char family are aggressive and punchy fighters that test the skill of anglers looking for a one of a kind trout fishing experience. Dolly Varden can reach ten pounds in the river system but are more common weighing three to five pounds. Suggested Fly outfits are 5 to 7 wt. with beads, streamers, flesh flies, and sculpin patterns while light to medium spinning outfits throwing Mepps, Pixies, or Vibrax spinners are also successful. Dolly Varden run all summer in the Unalakleet River drainage.

Arctic Grayling – Grayling are a classic fly fishing target. A beautiful long dorsal fin with turquoise to jet black coloration makes the arctic grayling a visually stunning fish and their voracious appetite for everything from dry flys to mouse patterns matches their beauty with fishing excitement. These abundant non-running native fish are caught up to and over 20 inches in the Unalakleet all summer long. The Unalakleet River Lodge practices a catch and release only program for the noble arctic grayling.

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