Southwest Alaska’s Togiak River is an epic angler’s playground. You can do it all here: From casting 4-weights to surface sipping grayling to battling big, fresh-from-the tide kings on conventional gear to stalking leopard rainbows behind spawning sockeye in clear tributaries. There are countless backwaters filled with aggressive northern pike and endless flats teeming with chums, sockeye, silvers and pinks. Throw in some jumbo dollies and the occasional laker and you have one heck of a full meal deal!
And it’s not just the different species that offer variety. The type of trip you do on the Togiak can be customized to fit just about anyone’s adventure-to-comfort matrix. There any number of self guided float trips ranging from a couple days to two weeks you can set up on the main river and some of the tributaries. You may also opt for a fly-in day of fishing on the Togiak with one of the many remote lodges just over the mountains in the Wood-Tickchik State Park area. On the lower river, there is some lodging and guiding available in the Village of Togiak and, if you like luxury in the wilderness, Togiak River Lodge is located approximately 7 miles upstream from the saltwater of Togiak Bay.
The Togiak system is a seemingly endless maze of tributaries, lakes and rivers that probably couldn’t all be explored in a lifetime. That’s exactly what makes it so interesting and unique — there’s always something yet to be checked out and fished. In an attempt to simplify things here, let’s break the system down into to two reaches: The “upper river” — from the mouth of the Pongopukepuk River up to the headwaters and the “lower river,” which we’ll call the section that flows from the Pongopukepuk mouth to the saltwater.
The Lower Togiak
While fresh salmon can be caught up by the Wildlife Refuge boundary near the mouth of the Pongopukepuk River, your best shot at chrome is down low — the 10 or so miles between the mouth of Gechiak Creek and the salt. The kings are the first to arrive and peak in June and July. They can push 50 pounds on occasion and there are lots of fish in the 20- to 30-plus pound class. On a few select gravel bars, fly fishing is an option but the best bet for Chinook is to fish from a boat and troll spinners, back troll plugs and bounce roe.
Downstream trolling size No. 6 to 13 spinners right along the bottom is a popular way to catch kings in the tidally influenced lower 5 or 6 miles. Yakima Bait’s Thumpers, Spinner Dave’s Custom Designs and Good Day Fishing spinners in red/white or chartreuse and silver are good selections. As far as plugs go, Yakima Bait Co.’s Hawg Nose and 5.5 MagLips are good lures on the Togiak, as are K16 Kwikfish. Chartreuse/silver and silver/orange are two of the best patterns. If you have them, a sardine fillet wrapped on the belly of the plug will increase the amount of strikes
Chums start making a showing in late June as well and provide a great bit of fun for anglers looking for something to do after catching bunches of kings. The doggies come in dime bright but develop their signature snaggle teeth and vertical bars pretty quickly. They absolutely flood the lower river and anywhere you find some soft water along an inside edge — or a slow flat — you’re virtually guaranteed to see large numbers of chum.
On the fly rod, chums are a blast and respond well to pink leech patterns. Spin anglers can catch plenty of fish as well on 1/8- and 1/4-ounce pink or purple marabou jigs fished on a dead drift under floats — or on 3/8-ounce hootchie jigs twitched with a hop-hop-hop stye retrieve along the bottom. Plug pullers also catch plenty of chums on metallic pink or silver/chartreuse K15 Kwikfish and Wiggle Warts.
In July, silver bullet sockeye averaging 6 pounds pour into the river in almost incomprehensible numbers. Unlike the kings, they hang very close to shore and are easy to spot along shallow inside edges of gravel bars. Though conventional wisdom says you cant get sockeye to bite, Togiak reds bite really well on small pink marabou jigs fished under a float and tipped with fresh shrimp.
August marks the beginning of the seemingly endless march of silvers into the bottom end of the Togiak. The fish push through in staggering numbers…and just keep on coming into October, with mid September being the peak. Togiak silvers can get really big too, with some bucks pushing the 20-pound mark.
So, they are big and numerous…two traits sure to make anglers excited. But what really makes these coho fun is their willingness to bite with total abandon. Stripping pink or purple leeches with an 8-weight fly rod is a total blast and spin anglers can twitch jigs or cast No. 4 spinners for non-stop action. In the lower few holes, there are also a lot of days when fresh silvers will smack the heck out of surface plugs and Wogs. Heck, you could probably catch a bunch on a hot dog too…its that good!
On even-numbered years, the Togiak also gets a big push of pink salmon which can be so numerous at times that they can be a nuisance. When the are fresh from the sea, however, they can be fun for kids and beginning anglers to play with on light spin or fly gear.
It’s not entirely a salmon-only show on the lower Togiak. There are some massive rainbows lurking down there. Fish to 30 inches and 12 or even 14 pounds occasionally show themselves. They are relatively few in number — compared to the upper river spawning zones — but the odd big trout is taken by anglers targeting other species.
In June and July, wave after wave of silver-bright dollies make their way up the river’s edges from the sea, bound for the upper tributaries where they will dine on salmon eggs and flesh.
The fresh char are aggressive and will smack small streamers and plugs or spinners eagerly. By August, most are well into the feeder streams, where they transform from chrome to vividly colored swimming works of art.
Side-sloughs and ponds filled with pike abound along much of the lower river’s length. Some are accessible by boat, while others require sloshy marches through the tundra to reach. The pike are completely un-fished and tend to be very willing biters. Weedless topwater plugs, frogs and flies can yield super exciting fishing, particularly on warm evenings (wear a headnet!).The pike you’ll encounter are mostly on the small side, rarely topping 10 pounds, but they can be a fun diversion when your arms are worn out from catching salmon all day.
The Upper Togiak
This section of the drainage is the best place to chase rainbows as long as your arm and salmon sized char. They myriad of braids on many of the tributaries above Togiak Lake can produce phenomenal fly fishing for char, trout and grayling when the salmon spawn is in full swing. The Izavieknik River, in the section between Upper and Lower Togiak lakes is a good option for shorter float trips. The Ongivinuk River is another one with the potential for very large rainbows. The Pongopukepuk River is another excellent selection.
You can boat up from the village of Togiak to Togiak Lake — or get dropped off by float plane on the lake and use inflatables to explore the area. The best time to visit the upper region is late summer and early fall. That’s when the salmon spawn is at its peak and the trout, grayling and char (and sometimes lake trout) will be gorging themselves on eggs and fish flesh as they gear up for the lean winter ahead. Salmon fishing isn’t much to talk about at the top end of the system — simply because the fish are generally all dark and more interested in spawning than biting.
Up here, eggs patters are often the way to go but matching the hatch with various size and color beads isn’t as important as it is on more heavily fished waters. The finned inhabitants in this general area don’t see a lot of anglers and tend to be, bless their little hearts, pretty uneducated. I’ve seen 5-pound dollies climb all over each other to eat a 14mm hot pink bead fished behind spawning sockeye. That fake egg looked nothing like the real ones which were much smaller and lighter in color, but the fish didn’t care! You can find some occasionally good mousing up in the shallows upriver as well. Dry fly fishing for trout and dollies isn’t often spectacular but you can pound on grayling to 17 or 18 inches on small dries in the evenings.
If you’ve got the itch to swing, black and purple Woolly Buggers and Egg Sucking Leeches will catch anything that swims — just watch out, you can lose a bunch of flies to big, red kings when they are around.
If it’s fresh, shiny salmon you want, head for the lower Togiak, where all 5 species pile up in mind boggling numbers…
Bears & Bugs
When fishing any portion of the Togiak drainage, it’s important to be aware of the fact that there are lots of brown bears around. The concentrations are higher on the smaller spawning streams in the late summer and fall but you can run into a bear just about anywhere along the river’s length. A few moose also wander these parts, so be on the lookout for them as well.
The amount of bugs you encounter can vary greatly from year to year — and where you are. Mosquitos can be a pain early in the season and No-See-Um’s show up later in the fall. Just be come prepared with bug spay and a head covering for those bad days and you’ll be fine.
There are several flying outfits that offer drop-off service to the Togiak basin. You can also book self-guided and fully guided float trips through outfitters or day fly-in trips from lodges like Tik-Chik Narrows, Mission Lodge and Bristol Bay Loge. Togiak River Lodge is the only lodge located on the river.