Fishing the Copper River Valley of Alaska
The Copper River Valley, in the opinion of this author, contains perhaps the most beautiful terrain that one will encounter on the North American continent. In fact, going out on a limb a bit, it would be difficult to imagine country that rivals this valley in its harsh beauty anywhere in the world.
It should be realized by the fisherman that is contemplating a trip to this area that the land can be rugged, dangerous, and unforgiving to the visitor unfamiliar with its dangers. Bears have taken the lives of fishermen, torrents of glacial silt laden ice cold water have claimed dipnetters that took one step too many, and the fisherman stout enough to try ice fishing one of the area lakes had better be ready for temperatures that can dip to 60 degrees below zero - and that is before the wind chill is considered.
The reward for the fisherman who has the money to hire the expertise of a quality local guide, or who is wise enough to prepare himself or herself with the knowledge and physical tools to take on this region's natural challenges, the rewards are awesone. These rewards come in the terms of the beauty and size of the fish to be caught and the setting from which these fish will be brought to net. It is just an unrivaled setting in all respects! If you are interested in actually visiting after reading these warnings, or would just like to read more about an almost mythical region, the purpose of the remainder of this article will be to explore several rivers (any one of which would be one of the Lower 48's very best) and some of the region's ponds, lakes, and smaller streams.
The Copper River carries as much glacial silt as just about any river you will ever encounter. This glacial silt causes this river, as well as most all area rivers, to have an incredibel glacila green hue to them.
Perhaps of more consequence to the local fisherman, the glacial silt in the Copper River renders the fishing nearly impossible via traditional hook and line methods. So, instead, local fishermen use fishwheels on a subsistence basis. This clever contraption basically spins in the river's current. It has "scoops" which when the salmon are running, are filled, and then as they turn over the salmon are deposited into a holding "cage." It is not unheard of for a wheel to gather hundreds of salmon in a 24 hour period.
In addition to using a fishwheel, fishermen can use "dipnets." What is a dipnet? Well, if you are from the lower 48, envision the biggest bass, muskie, or pike net you can, and then imagine it's on the end of a 20 foot pole. There you have it. If the verbal description does not quite do it, have a look at the image here on the page. These nets are made so that a fisherman can stand in wadeable water and still get the net out in enough current to scoop salmon as they migrate up the Copper River.
For fishermen, the only real opportunities on the Copper River itself are dipnetting. The map shows the access points in the Chitina dipnetting area as of 2011. Regs allow this activity only for Alaska residents. The regs are quite detailed and change often. Therefore, it could be a fruitless effort to spend much time planning prior to making certain that you are eligible to participate in this fishery. There is a brochure you can look at that will help and ADFG has a dedicated page to Chitina Dipnetting. The brochure contains an enlarged version of the map on the right.
As you may be able to tell just by observing the map, access is plentiful, but confusing. There is a myriad of native owned lands as well as other private holdings in the region. Couple this with the dangerous conditions that this river can exhibit, and the option of hiring a guide - at least perhaps the first time or two - becomes quite attractive. There are several that do specialize in guiding this area.
The websites and/or contacts for a few are listed below:
Hem Dipnet Charters @ 823-2200 during business hours
Copper River Salmon Runs Data
Gulkana River Fishing
The most famous sport fishing river in the Copper River Basin is almost certainly the Gulkana River. This has a lot to do with its location, as other rivers in the basin rival the Gulkana in productivity, but the Gulkana is certainly an outstanding rainbow trout, arctic grayling, king salmon, red salmon, and whitefish fishery.
Additionally, and for good reason, the Gulkana River has received designation as a Wild and Scenic River. Its clear mountain water, free of much of the glacial silk that renders the Copper River so difficult to fish, allows sport fishermen to have very good success in the Gulkana River.
The Gulkana River has its beginnings at beautiful Paxson Lake and offers access at several roadside locations. There is also the option of floating the Gulkana from Paxson Lake as far as the angler wishes. The total length of the river from Paxson Lake to the Richardson Highway Bridge is 83 miles.
Roadside accesses can be found at or near the following mile markers on the Richardson Highway:
Between 147 and 148 (Sourdough Campground)
For an excellent map of the river with highway accesses and more, see this BLM Floater's Guide
The section from the Paxson Lake Campground to Canyon Rapids is 23 river miles. The waters here are class III-IV depending on the water levels. Typically, this section of the river is avoided via a short portage. It is also a nice spot for perhaps your second night camping if you began at Paxson Lake Campground.
Specifics of Fishing the Gulkana River
General Time-Frames for Salmon Runs and Fishing Options
Generally speaking the king run starts around the beginning of June and lasts through the 3rd week of July. The runs can vary a bit from this so call if you are headed to the Gulkana from elsewhere.
Generally speaking, the sockeye salmon runs begins at about the time the king salmon run comes to an end. The sockeye run comes to an end at or around the end of August. As I mentioned before, check ahead if you are visiting from afar. The runs can and do vary a bit.
The Gulkana has a healthy population of arctic grayling and is being presently managed to preserve this situation. For this to remain the reality fisherman should adhere to the ADFG advice that fishermen "protect the larger gryling for spawning" and perhaps "keep a few of the more numerous smaller grayling for your shoreside lunch."
Look for grayling in large schools during spring and fall migrations. During the summer the fish can be found in feeding locations, which means in the Gulkana that the larger fish will be found in the upper reaches of the river. For specific fishing tactics, see the fishing tactics section below.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, rainbow trout numbers have dwindled in recent years. Consequently, the fishery is being managed in a way to preserve current stocks, and perhaps to add to them. The Gulkana River rainbow trout population is the northernmost native rainbow trout population in North America.
As of the time this article is being written, the Gulkana is being managed as a catch-and-re4lease rainbow trout fishery. Having said this, some very nice rainbows are caught. The most popular section of the river for fishing for rainbows is from Paxson Lake to Mile 147.5 on the Richardson Highway.
Fishing Methods and Tips for the Gulkana River
Fishing Methods and Tips for Kings on the Gulkana River
7 General King Salmon Fishing Tips
Check your gear every time you use it. Especially check the last section of your fishing line and your leader for nicks and abrasions. These can come from the teeth of fish and/or dragging through rocks, brush, etc. Make sure your hook is sharp. Check your drag. Clean the grass off the terminal tackle so the spin and glow and swivels spin and the sliding weight is free to move.
Try to keep your bait from coming into contact with anything. When you move on to the next fishing spot, hold your line so that it is not in contact with anything. Avoid touching the bait with your hands...even consider using plastic gloves. Bait is placed with skin side out.
Know your gear extremely well. Especially know your reel and how to set the drag properly. Many big fish have been lost when anglers had their drags set improperly.
Fish on bottom. Commonly, 8, 10, and 12 oz. weights are used. Use the lightest weight you can get bottom with. Change it as necessary. Start heavy until you get comfortable and make adjustments for current and depth. Keep the rod tip as low as possible to allow for a good hook set.
The object is to bounce the weight (and bait) slowly down river. Keep rods in a constant slow bouncing motion if drifting down river.
Set the hook. Hard!
Keep the line tight when fighting the fish. If the fish goes under the boat, put the rod straight down in the water. Bring it back up as soon as you can so you can keep tension on the line. Many fish are lost when they run right at you, so be ready to reel as fast as you can.
More specifically, the Gulkana is fished for kings in the traditional drift fashion with salmon roe. Fly fishermen will do well when the river is running clear on black flies.
Area Fishing Report
Klutina River Fishing
The Klutina River is a beautiful glacier fed river. The entire length of the river is somewhat accessible via an approximately 15 mile long road to Klutina Lake, the headwaters of the Klutina River.
The river is a class III whitewater river, and should not be navigated by inexperienced whitewater folks alone. There are numersous guides and outfitters who will help you if you wish to run this river.
There are excellent runs of sockeye and king salmon, and this river produces some very large kings. It is not as heavily fished as some of the region's others, such as the Gulkana. This might be the case for a number of reasons. Part of this might be that there are shorter runs of fish (in terms of duration). It might also be simply because there are so many fewer river miles than say the Gulkana River. A final reason the Klutina might be less heavily fished is that it is a harder river to fish. The current is quite strong, making it very difficult to wade-fish in spots. Large kings that make it to the strong part of the current are a tough proposition to land.
There are some guides that serve the Klutina River. A few are listed below.
Klutina Salmon Charters and Campground-907) 822-3991 (May Through Aug)-Winter Phone Numbers (Sept Through Mid-May)-Home/Office: (575) 772-2930
Grove’s Klutina River King Salmon Charters
Most Copper River Charters also serve Klutina [see above]